So you’re going to teach middle school in South Korea

They don’t make greeting cards for this type of situation but if they did, they would undoubtedly be sympathy cards. Middle school is renowned for being the toughest kind of EPIK job, so if you have just found out you’ll be teaching middle school, you might be feeling like you drew the short straw. But don’t decide you’re going to have a terrible time before it’s even begun – yes, it’s tough, but there are a lot of great things about teaching middle school too. Some people are much better suited to it than elementary school, and you might find that you’re one of those people.

When I first came to Korea, I was all bright eyed and excited to teach adorable Korean kids. On the final day of EPIK orientation, I was handed an envelope informing me that I would be teaching at a girls’ middle school. The orientation had been dedicated almost exclusively to elementary school teaching, and we were informed that almost everyone was to be placed in elementary school, since the funding for middle school was so low. To say I was confused is an understatement.

I’m still figuring it all out; I’m no expert and I definitely don’t have all the answers. But there are many things I wish I had known when I first started that would have made things a lot easier, and that’s why I decided to write this post.

A little bit about middle school

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Teacher, watch a movie?

When I first arrived in Korea I had very little concept of middle school, because in Ireland we just have secondary school from age 13-18. Korean students begin middle school at 12 or 13 and finish at 15 or 16, in western years. There are three types of middle school; boys, girls and co-ed. Boys’ schools are definitely the toughest and require a huge amount of energy. Girls’ schools are easier, though they have their own set of challenges. Some co-ed schools have both sexes in the same class, while others separate the classes by sex.

Think about what you and your classmates were like at that age. You were probably full of hormones and pissed off about everything. Maybe you were a good student, but you can probably remember how much grief your teachers g0t from other kids in your age group – especially anyone not perceived to be a ‘real’ teacher, like substitutes.

I’m not trying to scare you, but I think it’s important to have a realistic idea of the challenges you will face. I certainly didn’t, and it made the adjustment very difficult. Here’s one thing I wish I knew when I started:

You will probably be a terrible teacher in the beginning

I look back on my first few months in Korea and shudder to think I sucked so much. And you, too, will suck. Everyone does in the beginning. It’s just a fact, and it’s not worth getting upset over because it passes.

In the beginning most of my students refused to listen or participate in class, my co-teachers had no interest in co-teaching and my lessons were diabolical. But with time and a lot of perseverance I eventually managed to really enjoy my job. So even when it seems hopeless, just hang in there, don’t give up hope and don’t beat yourself up when things go badly. If your class goes terribly, it’s not your fault. You are in a really tough situation, and you should be proud of every day you manage to get through. Take it one day at a time and be sure to stand back and notice all your little improvements.

And in those tough moments, be sure to take care of yourself and take time to do things that will make you feel better – venting to your friends, a glass of wine, your favourite food or TV show.

Here is some advice that should help you get off to a good start:

Ask ALL the questions

If you are very lucky, the outgoing teacher might make contact with you before you arrive. If this happens, ask them a whole load of questions, such as:

  • How many students are in the school and what are the class sizes like?
  • How many co-teachers will you have?
  • How many classes will you be teaching each week? Will you have any after school classes?
  • Will the co-teachers have rules in place, or should you make your own?
  • What is the co-teaching situation like? Will you be expected to plan and deliver lessons alone, or is there a lot of co-teacher involvement?
  • Do the co-teachers generally handle discipline problems, or will you have to do that? What is the procedure for when individual students or most of the class behaves badly?
  • Is there any reward system for classes or individual students?
  • Will you have your own classroom, will you visit the students in their homeroom classroom or will you share an English classroom with other teachers?
  • What is the seating arrangement, how often do the students change seats and whose responsibility is it?
  • What textbook will you be using?
  • Is it possible for them to leave you some lesson plans and materials? (Ask nicely!)

If you haven’t had any contact from the outgoing teacher, ask your co-teacher a lot of questions.  I did’t have any contact with the outgoing teacher and I thought I would seem like a nuisance if I asked my co-teacher too many questions. I assumed she would just tell me all the important things I needed to know in order for me to do my job properly. I was very wrong. So ask all the above questions, as well as when you will be teaching your first class, and what you should prepare for it.

Handler co-teachers run the gamut from those who are delighted to answer all your questions and help you any way they can, to those who see your presence as unnecessary and do the bare minimum to help you. If you don’t get answers to your questions, don’t panic – you’ll meet all your other co-teachers on your first day of work and you might find some of them more helpful than your handler co-teacher. It’s anyway best to spread your questions around a bit, so you don’t burden your handler teacher too much.

Before you start teaching

There are a lot of things you can do before you start work , that will make your life a lot easier once you begin.

  1. Make a tracking chart

If you teach middle school you will probably see each of your classes only once a week (or even less) so it can be hard to keep tabs on things like cancelled classes, class rewards, non-textbook lessons and games you covered, any behaviour problems and so on. I keep a clipboard with one page for every class,  so at the start of each lesson I can easily see all the relevant information about that class. It only takes a minute to write but it saves a lot of confusion. At the top of each sheet I write the class, number of students, English captain and co-teacher. Your columns will depend on your reward system and other factors, but these are the columns I use:

  • Date
  • Lesson
  • Points
  • Reward
  • Comment
  • Incidents

2. Make your rules 

When I began teaching, I thought having a few broad rules would be easier. But I quickly discovered that specific, tangible rules are better. For example, the rule ‘Bring your book and pen’ is much easier for students to understand (and therefore easier to enforce) than ‘Come prepared for class’.

It took a lot of trial and error, but these are the rules I find most useful for my middle school girls:

  1. Be on time
  2. Bring your book and pen
  3. Be kind
  4. Listen
  5. Try to speak English
  6. Clean up

You might need different rules, depending on the types of problems you encounter at your school. But whatever rules you implement, try to keep them positive as you don’t want to put ideas into their heads. I would also strongly advise against having ‘Don’t speak Korean’ as a rule. This just alienates the students who are already struggling, and makes them hate English.

3. Make a self-introduction presentation 

At my EPIK orientation one speaker said you should only do a self-introduction presentation if you come from a very unusual place. I disagree completely, I think everyone should do one. Your students will be fascinated by pictures of your family and home country, no matter where you come from.

If you just stand there talking about yourself (or any topic for that matter), most of your students won’t understand you and they will get bored. You will spark their interest a lot more if you use a lot of pictures, talk about them and get them to guess things. For example, you can show them a picture of you with your siblings when you were little, and get them to guess which one is you. Or ask them ‘Which food is my favourite?’ and show them a picture of three foods like pizza, burgers and ice-cream. Make sure to include an animation so you can reveal the right answer when you click the mouse. You can also ask your students questions about themselves, so you’re relating it back to them and not just talking about yourself (Do you have siblings too? How many? Is it better to have brothers or sisters?).

Also make sure to include ‘Question time’ at the end. You’ll probably get questions like ‘Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend’, ‘Is that your real hair color?’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘How tall are you?’ and ‘Why did you come to Korea?’ Make sure to mentally prepare answers in simple English for these kinds of questions.

4. Think of a way to get your students’ attention 

Ask your co-teachers if they have some way of getting the students’ attention, such as a clap or chant. If they don’t, I would highly recommend implementing  your  own method because ‘Sssshhhh’ doesn’t usually work. You will need this to get your students to pay attention at the beginning of class, when there is too much talking, and when they are engaged in an activity but you need to address them. Initially I used a clap, where I would clap in a particular rhythm and the students would clap back at me. But it didn’t work very well and my hands got sore from clapping several times before all of the students would respond. I have had much more success with verbal methods. Below are some examples that you could use, or you could make your own. Just practice it a few times in your first class until the students know the drill.

  1. Teacher says: Eyes on me. Students respond: Eyes on you
  2.  Teacher says: 3-2-1. Students respond: Zip!
  3. Teacher says: Listen. Students respond: Carefully. (This is the one I’ve used most and it has worked best for me)

5. Make a reward and punishment system

While it’s generally agreed that students need deterrents for breaking rules, rewards are a lot more controversial. Some people believe reward systems create lazy, entitled students who only do things for the promise of a reward. Learning should be the reward in itself, shouldn’t it? I’m sure that’s true in most western countries but you will be working in Korea, and it’s not that simple here.

Korea’s education system doesn’t foster a lot of creativity or a love of learning. Students are pushed way too hard, they’re exhausted and they’re trained to memorise and regurgitate.

Another problem is that you are a foreigner. This won’t create too much of an issue if your co-teachers are really good at managing behavior. But if you’re left to your own devices, as I was, you might find yourself standing at the top of the classroom at the start of class, trying to get 35 running, shrieking teenagers to sit down and listen to you. Yelling won’t help – some students won’t understand you, and others will just think you sound funny.

You aren’t a magician; you can’t transform tired and pissed-off students into self-motivated and enthusiastic ones. Unless you give them a good reason to obey the rules and participate, they will use your class to chat to their friends or put their head down and have a snooze. Of course a lot of discipline problems can be avoided by making interesting, fun lessons. But that won’t always be enough.

Individual rewards and punishment

a) Individual Rewards

When I taught my first classes, I would ask ‘Who wants to demonstrate?’ and in each class there would be precisely zero hands in the air. Then I began using a little Hello Kitty stamp which the students could later use to get rewards like sweets, chocopies and k-pop stickers. Participation increased massively. I used some plastic pockets from Daiso to hang the prizes in the classroom, so the students could easily see what was on offer.

The next semester I used pretend dollars with various k-pop stars and cartoon characters. I actually prefer this, firstly because the students love the surprise element (who will be on the dollar?), and secondly because the students can pool their money together to buy things together. I made the dollars on the website Festisite.

Some teachers like to do a lottery, where they give out tickets and hold a lottery for prizes every month or half-semester. I know people who have had great success with this, but I have heard of students feeling aggrieved when they earned lots of tickets but didn’t win anything in the lottery. With stamps and dollars, a students’ rewards are directly connected with how much they participate.

It’s also important that you aren’t spending half your pay-check on Chocopies, so make your rewards a bit ‘expensive’ for students to buy. I have Chocopies, stickers and keyrings for $10, fun size bars for $5 and one small candy or chocolate coin for $2. If a student participates well, they will take about 4 classes to earn a a fun size bar or 2 candies, and about 8 classes to earn a Chocopie. That doesn’t break my bank at all. Also make use of shops like Costco and Emart Traders so you can buy in bulk and you won’t have to go candy shopping every weekend!

Just one other note about individual rewards. You will probably be teaching classes with very mixed abilities, so it’s best if individual rewards aren’t always connected with how well the student performs. Of course you’ll have games where the higher level students are most likely to win, but you should also include activities where students get rewarded just for speaking, no matter how mangled and incomprehensible their English is. You want to foster the idea that trying is the most important thing.

b) Individual punishments

As for individual punishments, it’s best to talk to your co-teachers and decide what you’ll do with misbehaving students.

For things like talking too much, throwing paper, passing notes etc, you can get students to stand up at the back of the room for 5 or 10 minutes. For more serious things, you could have an arrangement where your co-teacher takes the student outside of class to talk to them about their behavior. And if a student is causing persistent problems, you might need to get your co-teacher’s help to discuss the matter with their homeroom teacher.

You should also ask your KET if it’s possible for you to take part in the school-wide punishment system. It is likely that the Korean teachers give students points for bad behaviour, which are logged onto the computer, and their parents are called when they reach a certain amount. Learn the Korean word for these points, and use it to threaten those students who test you the most. If they persist, follow through and write their name on the board, and ask your KET to help you log the points later. I think this method can be really helpful when students think they are not subject to the same standards of behaviour in your class. But I’ve known second grade boys who have amassed over 150 points, so it can only do so much!

Another weird tip that actually works is to suck up to the naughty students. Take time to talk to them outside class and, give them an extra bit of candy here and there. If you show them you like them and you’re interested in them, they will be much less likely to act out in your class.

c) Whole class rewards and punishments 

For your whole class reward system, think of a fun theme that your students will like. One semester I had a space race, where each class had a little rocket and used their points to move through the solar system, picking up rewards when they arrived at different planets. I have also done a movie race, where the students got stars on a movie clapperboard every week. Rewards were things like watching a music video, playing a game unrelated to the lesson, or eating candy.

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My space race reward system

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My movie themed system

The type of reward system you use will depend largely on your situation.

If your students are generally well behaved and your co-teacher is on top of discipline, you won’t need to do much, if anything. You could have a simple system where 1 point=bad, 2=okay, 3=great. You can reward the points at the end of class and then ask the students questions like ‘Why did you only get 1 point?’ (‘We talked too much’) and ‘What should you do next class?’ (‘We should listen carefully’). You can then put the points on some kind of themed chart, giving them prizes when they reach certain milestones. Of course a physical chart will only work if you have your own classroom – if you don’t, you can keep a chart on a PPT and show your students their score on the projector every week. You could also use Class Dojo, but instead of tracking all of your individual students, just assign a whole class for each ‘student’. I know that sounds confusing but it will make sense if you start using the website.

If your students are quite unruly, it’s best to connect your reward system directly with the rules. For my movie race, I laminated the rules and stuck them to the board using magnetic tape. Then I cut out some yellow stars (+ points) and black stars (- points) and glued them into magnets. When the students were obeying a rule, I stuck a yellow star on that rule. When they weren’t, I gave them a black one. For example, if the students were chatting among themselves and not listening to me, I would put a black star on the rule ‘Listen’. If you use pictures on your rules, every student will understand what rule has been obeyed or broken, even if they can’t understand a word you’re saying. I would usually ask ‘Why did you get a black star?’ just to make sure. Often the action of slowly picking up a black star and moving it towards the rules would make the classroom fall into silence. At the end of class we would minus the black stars from the yellow stars. That was their score for the lesson, and that’s how many stars they got in their clapperboard.

In my second school I used a system called a ‘European Adventure’ where each class had a train and would pick up rewards when they arrived at different countries. I didn’t have my own classroom so I made the race on a PPT slide. I printed and laminated a long train track with numbers from +5 to -5. I also printed and laminated a little train. The class started on 0 and moved up to 2 if everyone was on time and had their books and pens. Throughout the class they moved up or down, depending on how it was going. Again, I often only had to move my hand towards the train and the noise would die down.

Before I had a class system, I had huge problems. Whole gangs of students would come in 10 minutes after the bell, with no books. They would proceed to chat away, throw paper around and ignore me completely. Most of my co-teachers didn’t care and let them away with anything. With this system I had far fewer problems because students (especially at middle school level) care a lot about what their peers think. Nobody wants to be the one who costs the whole class a rewards.

But you will still have times when the best reward system in the world won’t help you. There will be classes where everyone is wound up, unruly and unable to concentrate, and nobody seems to care about points.

For situations like this, I really recommend downloading some nice, relaxing classical music from YouTube and putting the file on your computer’s desktop. Get your students to sit up straight with their hands on their laps, and to breath in and out slowly, while the music plays softly in the background. Do this for a few minutes, until the atmosphere is calmer. This should calm your students down a bit and it also allows you to have a little break, rather than just ploughing through when it’s just not working. I only started doing this in my third year of teaching, but i really wish I thought of it sooner.

You an also use time. There is a 10 minute break between classes, and you can keep them back if they are really bad. I wrote ‘break’ on the board, or ‘lunch’, if it was the period before lunch. Every time the noise level got too high, I crossed off a letter. If all the letters were crossed of, they had to stay back for 1 minute, and I wrote ‘1 minute’ on the board. Then I did the same thing again for 2 minutes, 3 minutes and so on. At the end of class I waited for everyone to be completely silent, then start a countdown timer on online stopwatch. If anyone talked, I paused the timer and stared at that person. Once the room was silent again, I continued the timer. It sounds kind of awful, like training animals or something, but it works!

6. Prepare some icebreakers. 

Since the first grade will all be coming from different elementary schools and won’t know each other, I would do getting-to-know-you icebreaker with them and a different one for the second and third grade.

Whatever ice-breaker you do, make it really simple and make participation optional. You don’t know what your students’ level is like yet so it’s not good to push them too much or make anybody uncomfortable.

First grade icebreaker  

I like to play a mingling game called ‘Find your friends‘ (that’s what I call it, anyway). Show a simple question on a slide, for example ‘Which season were you born in?’ Use pictures to illustrate all the possible answers. In this case I used a graphic showing which months belong to each season, in case any students were unclear. Also show an open-ended bonus question related to the first question, like ‘Which season is your favourite, and why?’ Show an example answer like ‘Summer is my favourite season because I can go swimming in the sea’. Ask the students to also name some good things about spring/autumn/winter. Then the students walk around asking each other ‘What season were you born in?’, then make a group with all the other students who have the same answer. Give them a few minutes to mingle and then check the groups by asking ‘Where are the spring people?’ etc. Then ask the bonus question and give a reward to the students who raise their hand and answer.

Other questions could be ‘What English speaking country would you like to visit?’ ‘How many siblings do you have?’ and so on. Just make sure to give only around 4 possible answers. I tried to do this activity with more answers (What is your birth month?) and it was just too messy and confusing.

Second and third grade ice-breaker 

I like to use a variation of two truths and one lie, which I simplified for lower level students. I made a handout with four sentences to complete, relating to their winter vacation:

  • I spent winter vacation with… (Ex: my parents / my siblings / my cousins)
  • I went to… (Ex: Seoul / Japan / Jeju Island)
  • I played… (Ex: Smartphone games / Jenga / Tennis)
  • I ate… (Ex: Chicken / pizza / bibimbap)

Under each sentence, there are ‘True’ and ‘False’ boxes.

First I go through a PPT with pictures to elicit possible answers to each question. For example, one slide will show the question ‘I went to…’ and a picture each of Seoul, Japan and Jeju island. I ask the students to tell me some more possible answers to each question and I write their suggestions on the board. Then I give them the paper, and they write their questions, and tick either ‘true’ or false’. Then the students volunteer to read a sentence, and then we do a show of hands to see who thinks they are lying and who thinks they are telling the truth. If they manage to fool most of the class, they get a reward (dollar/stamp).

The first day of the semester

Korean schools are really fond of ceremonies, and there will probably be one on the first day of the semester. The bad news is that you might have to go on stage and bow in front of the entire school, but the good news is that you are unlikely to have class on the first day.

You should also be given your computer, textbooks and timetable on this day, so make sure to inquire if you don’t get any of those things. When you get your timetable, find out when your first class will be and which classes are with which co-teachers. It’s really important to meet your co-teachers and have a chat with them before you teach with them. Ask them what will be expected of you, but know that you probably won’t get a straight answer. Korea is a high-context culture so communication is mostly indirect. This is one of those situations where you’ll need to read between the lines. Your co-teacher will never say outright ‘I intend to use your class to catch up on my paperwork and let you get on with it.’ Interpret their language carefully and you should get a good idea of how it’s going to be.

Your first class

Your students will probably be quite well behaved on the first day, but don’t let that make you complacent. Once they get used to you they will test the boundaries.

This is the format I like to follow for a first class:

  1. Self-introduction presentation. Remember to leave time for questions at the end.
  2. Rules. Get the students to read each rule, and ask comprehension check questions. (What should you bring to class? What kind of things are kind? What kind of things are unkind? Where should you put your rubbish?).
  3. Reward systems. Introduce your individual and class reward systems. Its really important to outline everything that will happen when students are good, and when they are bad. Ask comprehension check questions like ‘What can you get if you demonstrate?’ and ‘What will happen if you talk too much?’
  4. Ask for a volunteer English captain/s. Especially if your classes are very big, it’s good to have one or two students to help you with things like cleaning the boards, passing out handouts and whiteboards, drawing up seating charts, updating the reward chart, maintaining behaviour and so on. You can give them rewards, like stamps or dollars, and appoint a new one every few weeks or once a month.
  5. Ice-breaker.

After you have taught a class with every co-teacher

Once you have taught a class with each of your new co-teachers, you should have some good idea of how things are going to be with each of them.

The absolute best case scenario is that your co-teachers are all confident English speakers who are happy to plan and teach lessons with you. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality for a lot of people.

The beginning is the time to tackle any problems – once the situation becomes the status-quo, it will be so much  harder to fix things. This is the most common problem at middle school level:

My co-teacher doesn’t want to co-teach

Your co-teacher strolls in 10 minutes into class and then sits at the back reading a book or going on their laptop. On one hand it’s wonderful to have the freedom to do whatever you like in class. But when co-teachers use the class to do other stuff, they send a message to the students that the class isn’t important. Student’s behaviour and participation deteriorates as a result. In addition, low level students can’t keep up because they aren’t getting the help they need in Korean.

There are many reasons a Korean teacher might not want to teach with you. They might be genuinely busy, or they might be embarrassed to speak English, or they might think you’ve got it covered and don’t need them. When I had this problem I thought ‘I’m a young and inexperienced teacher. I can’t tell these professionals how to do their jobs’. But there are ways to tackle the situation without insulting anybody.

The first thing to remember is that many KETs are used to teaching English entirely through Korean, and they might not be comfortable speaking English in front of a native speaker. Don’t take it personally if they look like they want to run away whenever you talk to them. Just be friendly and approachable, and don’t correct their English unless they ask you too – and for the love of God, never correct their English in front of the students. You’ll learn quickly that saving face is so important in Korean culture.

Approach your co-teachers and ask them what think about your lesson ideas, or if they have anything to add. You might just get brushed off with ‘It’s your class, do whatever you like’. If this happens, flatter them – tell them they’re so much more experienced than you and they know the students better than you, so you’d be so grateful for their help. If they’re unwilling to plan with you, write lessons plans and outline in them which parts the Korean teacher needs to do. Give them the lesson plans, but also go through them, saying things like ‘Could you please translate the key expressions?’ or ‘I think the students will understand this activity much better if we model it together’. If you are using any extra materials or handouts not in the textbook, give them to your co-teacher in advance so they can familiarise themselves with it, in case any translation is needed. They will really hate you if you ask them to translate something they’ve never seen before in front of 30 students.

If your co-teacher still refuses to teach with you, you’ll just have to do the very best you can without them. Use a lot of pictures, provide Korean translations on your slides, and offer rewards to students who can explain the material in Korean for the rest of the class. But if you find that you can’t cope and the situation is really detrimental for your students, it might be time to go through the EPIK chain of command to find a solution.

Your first textbook lesson

This is where you set the tone for all the textbook lessons so try and make it a fun one. Let go of the idea that you’re going to make these kids into fluent English speakers, because it’s not going to happen. Just concentrate on helping them to enjoy speaking English. Be relaxed and flexible – if the lesson isn’t going to plan but your students are enjoying themselves and speaking English, just go with it. Also, make sure to reflect on every textbook lesson and make changes as needed. You will probably have to teach each lesson several times, so your Monday morning classes will be the guinea pigs.

For every textbook lesson you will have some language function, and your job is to get the students to use that function in a natural way. The functions can be things like ‘Saying thank you’, ‘Talking about favourites’, ‘Ordering food at a restaurant’ and so on. You might have access to the previous teacher’s lessons, and you can also search for your textbook on Waygook you’ll see what others have done for each lesson. Exercise caution though – there is lots of great stuff on Waygook, but a few dodgy things too. I mainly just use it as a source of inspiration.

You’ll find plenty of information in your orientation handbook about how to structure a lesson, so I won’t say too much about that. But basically, this is the format I follow.

  1. First I greet the students and ask questions (What did you do at the weekend? What will you do this weekend What did you have for lunch?). I give them points if everyone is on time and has their book and pen
  2. Then I go through the schedule. I show a schedule slide, and I also ask the English captain to write the schedule on the board so I can tick things off as I go along, and the students can always see what’s next. It really helps to prevent a lot of behavioral problems if the students know the plan.
  3. Then I review the previous lesson. A review might also be as simple as showing a picture and asking a few questions about it. For example, when I reviewed prepositions, I showed the students a picture of Van Gogh’s bedroom and asked them questions like ‘Where is the table?’ (it’s between the chair and the bed) ‘Where are the clothes?’ (They’re behind the bed) and so on. I also often show a slide with about 3 pictures that we can use to review some of the sentences they practiced the previous week. For example, to review a lesson about health problems, I showed the question ‘What’s wrong?’ along with a picture of a person with a tooth ache, another person with a fever, and a third person with a broken leg. Then I just got the students to say what’s wrong with each person, and then what other health problems they remember from last week. It’s so simple but it works!
  4. Then I move on to my introduction. This could be a song, a picture, a video, basically anything to elicit some of the target language and see what the students know. If the lesson is about ordering food, you might show a picture of some people eating at a restaurant. Then you’d have a chat with the students about it (Where are these people? Yes, they are at a restaurant. What can you say when you order food at a restaurant?). If the lesson is about transport, you could show a slide with some pictures of different types of transport, and have a chat about those (What is this? Yes, it’s a an airplane. Have you been on an airplane? Where did you go?). You can also throw in a few unusual ones like hot air balloon, Soyuz etc. I also like to make little comics where one character says something and the students have to predict how the other person will respond. For example in a lesson about asking and responding to ‘How are you?’ I used a picture of Bart Simpson with his leg in a cast, and Lisa Simpson asking ‘How are you doing?’ The students had to predict Bart’s response (I’m not doing so well).
  5. Then we go through the key expressions. Usually the key expressions are just language structures that you can plug different vocabulary into. For example in a lesson on chores, the expressions might be ‘What do you do for ~ [your mom / your neighbours etc]? and the response ‘I ~ [wash the dishes / pick up trash etc]. So I usually show the basic structure, and then get the students to plug vocabulary into the expressions, using a picture or two to prompt them. For example I might show a picture of a teacher, and a picture of a student cleaning the board. This should elicit ‘What do you do for your teacher?’ And the response ‘I clean the board’.
  6. Then, depending on the language function, I do a pair and share or maybesome practice slides. For a pair and share, I get the students to talk in pairs about a particular topic with their partner, and then share with the class. It helps a lot if you make it into a competition. For example if you are teaching the expression ‘I go by ~ [bus / train / plane etc]’, you can have the students write down as many types of transport as they can think of, within 3 minutes. The pair with the most words wins a reward. You can write down all their words on the board, and then ask the other pairs if they thought of any more  words, and write those down too. For practice slides, I usually show part of a sentence, with a picture to help the students to complete it. If you are doing this, remember to include an animation to reveal the complete sentence. For some language functions it’s also good to have students raise their hands and give some suggestions. For example, if you are teaching the expression ‘You should’, you could show a picture of a person holding their stomach, to elicit ‘I have a stomach ache’. Then you could ask the students to give advice (You should take a rest / You should take some medicine etc).
  7. Next, I do the text-book. I don’t like to dwell on this too much because most of the students don’t like the text-book very much. But we just talk about the pictures first, then listen a few times, they answer, and then I ask some comprehension check questions. Make sure to always reveal the correct answer on the screen and leave it there for a minute so anybody who didn’t get the answer can write it down afterwards. For the  longer dialogues, I show the script and we practice reading it as a class – one half of the room plays one person, the other half plays the other person, and then they swap.
  8. After the text-book, there will hopefully be about 15 or 20 minutes left to play a game or do some kind of activity to help cement the target expressions. I will write more about that a bit later.
  9. After that, we count the class points and see if there is any area they need to improve on for the next lesson, or praise them if they were really good. I make sure the classroom is tidy enough and then say goodbye. Done and dusted.

Sometimes you’ll have a language function that makes you wonder what on earth you could do to practice it. But there is always something. For example, I once had to practice ‘Someone left me a ~’. For ages I couldn’t think of what to do for that lesson. In the end I got three students to come to the front, and everyone else to close their eyes and put their heads on their desks. I gave a candy to one of the students and told her to put it on another student’s desk. Then everyone opened their eyes. The student with a candy on her desk had to say ‘Someone left me a candy!’ and then guess who it was. The students loved it, for two reasons – the surprise element, and the candy.

It’s very helpful to repeat the same activities and games with different content, as your students will know the drill. There are so many resources online where you can find ideas for activities, so I won’t go into a lot of depth here. But here’s just a few that I like to use again and again:

1. Sleeping Elephants

This is a game played in teams of 4 and it’s a great way to get everybody participating. Each student on each team will have a number from 1-4. First, all students put their heads down on the table. You individually call each number, and all the students with that number will look up and memorise the word or statement on the screen. When all four numbers have been called, give the students some time to discuss, and then write their answer on their whiteboards. The link above is a really simple and excellent little template. This game is great for a lot of different language functions.

For example:

Giving directions: Each team has a copy of the same town map, with a designated starting point. Each time you call a number, show a part of the directions. You can make the directions simple (‘Turn left’) or complicated (‘Walk straight ahead for two blocks’) depending on your students’ level and the key expressions in the textbook. Ask the students to write the destination they arrived at on their whiteboards, then reveal the right answer and give points to the teams who got it.

Asking for and giving reasons: If you have to teach ‘Why’ and ‘Because’, Sleeping Sherlock works great. Think of some ‘Why’ questions and then think of four reasons for each question. One reason should make sense and the other three shouldn’t. Call the numbers and show a different reason for each number. When all of the students have seen a reason, show the question and allow the students some time to choose the correct one. For example:

  1. Because it’s his birthday tomorrow.
  2. Because it’s raining today.
  3. Because it’s her birthday on Saturday.
  4. Because I’m late for school.

Question: Why do you need to buy a present for your mom?

As you can see, the first reason is meant to confuse the students a little, while 2 and 4 should be quite easy to rule out. The type of reasons you give will depend on your students’ level, and you can always edit them after the first class if they are too easy or difficult.

2. Going backwards

I’m not sure where I first heard this idea, but I really love it because the students have to listen to each other in order to do well. Each team has an answer or solution, and they have to give hints so the other teams can guess what they have. To make it a little easier, it helps to leave a slide up with all of the possible answers. Again, it’s a versatile one. Here are some ways I’ve used it:

Practicing ‘You shouldn’t’: Show your students a series of pictures of places (school, a library, a plane, the park, the zoo etc), and ask the students what you shouldn’t do there. Give each team a card showing one of the places, and get them to write three sentences using ‘You shouldn’t’. Tell them not to let the other teams see their card. Ask each team to read their sentences, and then ask the other teams to guess the place on their whiteboards.

Giving job advice: Show your students a series of jobs, and ask them to give advice for each job. For example, ‘astronaut’ might elicit sentences like ‘It’s important to be brave’ and ‘You should study science’. Give each group a job card and ask them to write three pieces of advice for that job. Ask them to read the sentences, and then ask the other teams to guess the job.

3. Bring your home country into the classroom 

For lots of language functions, it’s good to use leaflets and other materials from your home country. When I had to practice ‘Let’s ~’ and ‘Why don’t we ~?’, I used a theme park leaflet from my country. When teaching ‘Would you like ~?’ and ‘Please try ~’, I used a menu from home. Always try to think of ways you can bring elements of your own country into the lesson, as this will really grab your students’ interest.

 4. Mingling activities 

Fair warning: Only do mingling activities if your students can be trusted not to run around and go crazy. In principle it’s great to get your students out of their seats but it can sometimes be chaotic, especially if your classes are really big. I like to do things where every student has a card and they have to ask questions to find their match. Again, this is a good one for problems and advice – you can give half of the class a problem card, and half of the class an advice card. The students mingle to find who has the advice to match their problem. If they think they’ve found their match, they can ask one of the teachers if they got the right answer.

5. Board games

Board games can be a tough one because you have to trust your students to actually play, rather than use it as an excuse to chat among themselves. Your text-book might have board games but if not, it should be easy enough to make your own, according to the language function you have to teach. Include surprise elements like ‘swap places with another player’.

6. Bomb games

You can find loads of bomb game templates on Waygook. They make my students go a bit crazy so I try to use them sparingly, usually just twice a semester for revision.

7.Videos 

There are loads of ways to use videos. I really love to use the Just for Laughs pranks. Some aren’t suitable for kids, but there are plenty of good clean ones like the cellphone prank and ice-cream prank. I just show some stills to elicit vocabulary, write the vocabulary on the board, then ask the students to predict what they think will happen, based on the still pictures. Then we watch, and they write and perform the the role-play. Really simple and a lot of fun.

8. Hidden pictures

There are few instances when you will have every eye glued to the screen in concentration. Hidden pictures is one of them. You can find hidden picture games on Waygook, and just replace the pictures with your own. You can do these for pretty much any language function. For example, you might have to teach the expression ‘What do you want to do?’ And ‘I want to ~ (go hiking / go swimming / watch a movie etc). You could make a hidden pictures game featuring pictures of various activities. When a student thinks they know what activity is on the picture, they raise their hand and give their answer in the form of a full sentence, for example ‘I want to go swimming’.

9. Bingo 

If there’s one shared love among Korean kids and old people in western countries, it’s bingo.

There are two basic ways to play. The first is to print some blank bingo pages and have your students fill in the squares. You could do a pair and share (see point 6 under the heading ‘Your first textbook lesson’), where you give the students a set time to list as many words as they know relating to the theme, and then share with the class. You could also brainstorm as a class, having the students suggest words for you to write on the board. For example if your key expression is ‘Please try some ~ [cake / hamburgers / pizza etc] you could have the students name different foods. Whatever method you choose, once you have a selection of words on the board, hand out blank bingo cards and get the students to choose any 9 (3×3 bingo) or 16 (4×4 bingo) words from the board, and write them in their squares. Make sure the students are clear about what constitutes a ‘bingo’ – horizontal, vertical, diagonal etc.

The second way is to print your own bingo cards. Print-Bingo is a really handy site for this – it’s free, you can input your own words, and you can print up to 4 cards per page.

The best way to cross off the words is to have the students ask each other questions. For example, in a lesson about favourites, I went through a series of 9 slides, each with a different category (What is your favorite book? What is your favorite subject? etc). I told the students to write down their favorite in each category, in any square. Then I got a volunteer to pick another student and ask a question. For example, if the student says ‘Sumin, what is your favorite subject’ and Sumin says ‘My favorite subject is art’, then all the students who have ‘art’ on their bingo page cross off that box.

In another lesson about hobbies, I used Print Bingo to make 5X5 bingo cards, with a hobby in each square. The students took turns asking each other ‘What’s your hobby?’ and answering ‘I like [watching movies / playing computer games / shopping etc].’ If they found that hobby in their bingo card, they could cross it off.

When you play bingo, always leave a slide on the screen with 3 things – the basic question and answer structure, an example sentence and answer, and a picture to show what constitutes a bingo.

Surprise lessons and games

Occasionally you might have an extra class with a particular group, when you have already covered the text-book with them so you’re not sure what to do. You might also want to play non-textbook games with your students once in a while as a time-filler or a reward. Here’s a few ideas for both of those situations:

1. Pictionary 

Write down a list of words that are relatively easy to understand, but fairly difficult to draw and guess (it’s no fun if the word is ‘apple’ and the student’s turn takes 5 seconds). These could be things like ‘principal’, ‘K-Pop’, ‘university’, ‘summer’, ‘angry’ and so on. Print out the words, cut them out and put them into a cup. Ask a volunteer to randomly pick a word from the cup and then draw it. The student who guesses the right answer gets a reward and becomes the next player. The Game Gal has some good ideas for words.

2. Pantomime / charades 

I like to play this game just with actions. But rather than ‘running’, ‘swimming’ etc, make it a bit more difficult to guess. Use simple words but funny and convoluted actions, for example ‘Washing an elephant’, ‘Riding a roller coaster,’ ‘Finding a spider in your sandwich’ or ‘Feeding a baby’. Again, Print out the sentences, cut them out and put them into a cup. Ask a volunteer to randomly pick a word from the cup and then act it out. The student who guesses the right answer gets a reward and becomes the next player. Again, check out The Game Gal for some ideas.

3. What am I thinking about? 

I love this one because it requires absolutely zero prep and it’s a lot of fun. Ask a student to come to the front and tell you a word. It could be anything – a person, a food, a place etc. Once they have told you, they stand at the front and take questions from the class, for example ‘Is it a person?’ Remind the students to use full sentences, not just ‘Person?’ Remind them what has been established, for example ‘It’s a thing, it’s in this classroom, but it’s not a desk or chair’. Again, the person who guesses the right answer gets a reward and can have the next turn.

4. Music video judging 

This lesson involves watching three music videos and judging them on criteria like costumes, vocals and so on. It’s a really nice, relaxed one to do after exams.

5. Last one standing 

This music game is one I like to play as a warmer at the beginning of class, but you could play it for longer too. It’s incredibly simple and even the very low level students have a chance of winning.

6. Guess the idioms 

You might have to teach a text-book lesson on idioms but even if you don’t, it’s a fun extra lesson to do. Tell your students an idiom (using a picture if possible) and give them two or three options to guess what that it means. For example, you might use idiom ‘couch potato’ and ask them if it means a) hungry person, b) lazy person, or c) tired person. Give a point to each team that gets the right answer.

7. Compound words

Compound words are really good for a little warmer at the beginning of class, but you could do a whole quiz too. the simplest example is ‘foot’ and ‘ball’ (football), but you can make more complicated ones, such as a fire and a picture of someone working (firework). Give a point to each team that gets the right answer.

8. Apples to apples.

Even if you don’t know apples to apples, you probably know Cards Against Humanity. This is the same idea, but suitable for kids. This version on Wayook is great because it has pictures too. There’s a lot of printing and cutting of cards involved but it pays off. There are a couple of words that I would consider inappropriate, so just use your own judgement and leave out any cards you think aren’t suitable.

A few final tips

Model, model, model

When I first began teaching, I would explain an activity as clearly as I could, and then I would walk around to assist and monitor. Then I would realize that the students had the wrong idea altogether, and were doing something different to what I asked.

Rather than explaining, it makes so much more sense  to show them how to do it, usually by demonstrating with your co-teacher.

If you say ‘Do you understand?’ Your students will say ‘yes’, even if they actually have no idea what you’re on about. So ask comprehension check questions like ‘What question will you ask your partner?’ ‘What should you do when you’re finished?’ and so on.

Always ask questions

It might seem counterintuitive, since you’re a teacher and all, but you should be asking your students questions for the majority of the time. Standing there saying stuff will make you as useful as a white crayon. Your students will be so much more interested and engaged if you are constantly asking things (Where is she? What is she eating? What kind of cake is it?). Try to relate things back to them (What kind of cake do you like the most?). Always be on the lookout for opportunities to talk to your students about their own interests.

Write on the board a lot 

Your students will pick up a lot more if you write things down, rather than just telling them. I like to do a lot of spider plans (AKA mind maps). For example, one of the times when I taught ‘What’s your favorite ~?’, I made a spider plan with lots of categories like TV show, movie, hobby, book etc. I got the students to raise their hand and give their suggestions, and they used the ideas to make role-plays later on. I like doing this for two reasons. Firstly, when you write down what a student says on the board, that lets them know that what they said is important. It also makes life easier for lower level students – if they don’t have the vocabulary, they can just choose one of the options on the board.

Be flexible 

It happens to all of us. We make a lesson we think is the best thing ever, only for it to fall flat on its face. But you will most likely teach the same lesson several times, so if it sucks you’ll have to figure out what went wrong and fix it in time for the next class. All you can do is keep trying out new things, and trying to do a little bit better every time.

Get to know and love your students 

They might seem like horrible, scary monsters in the beginning, but each of your students is a unique person with his or her own interests and talents. Talk to them outside of class, learn about what they like and use those things in your lessons. Try really hard to learn their names and to remember little pieces of information about them. They will love you for it. Middle school students wear name tags so if you can read Korean it shouldn’t be too hard to learn at least a few of their names. Having fun with your students and getting to know them well will make your job so much better, and the they will behave much better in class.

And if you can’t see the light, just remember this…

You can do almost anything for a year

Most people end up really enjoying work, even if it’s tough at the beginning. But if your situation is truly awful, try to make the best of it and stick it out for the year. Do everything you can to make your work situation bearable and see some of the great things to be seen in Korea. Tell your friends and family how you’re feeling and get as much support as you can. Leave when your contract is finished, feeling like a proud and stronger person.

If you absolutely can’t stay, the right thing to do is give your notice and say goodbye. A midnight run is never the answer and your students don’t deserve it.

Any questions?

I hope this post will help some people out a little bit. Middle school is a lot of fun, you just have to learn to harness the madness. Have fun, don’t take things too seriously and don’t let work take over.

As I said before, I am definitely not an expert. But if there’s anything you think I might be able to help you with, don’t be afraid to get in touch :). Also if there are any other middle school teachers reading this, feel free to comment with your own tips!

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About Clare Hartwieg

My name is Clare Hartwieg. I come from Ireland and I'm a GET (Guest English Teacher) at a middle school in South Korea. So far I love Korea. I love the fast pace of life, the food, the bright lights, the warm and generous people – I even love my job! Please follow my blog and share my posts if you are interested in hearing about my adventures in South Korea!
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7 Responses to So you’re going to teach middle school in South Korea

  1. BunnyLoaf says:

    Love this! Lots of good stuff here. My main school ended up being middle so I was really surprised. Perhaps even more surprising is that I really enjoy it! It’s funny, because I thought I would like teaching elementary level more but I think I’m a better fit for late elementary or middle. Sometimes things don’t turn out as you expect! Anyway, I’m still a new teacher and have a lot to learn so I will gladly steal some of these great ideas! >:D

  2. jenncette says:

    One might say I’m a dramatic person, but when I got a co-ed middle school I nearly died. I taught in a public elementary school in Korea back in 2008 (through the Jeollanamdo Language Program) and I was so excited to get back in the classroom with those little cuties. I dreamed about it for 6 months. Instead my students are 6ft tall boy-men with mustaches who constantly tell me how cute/sexy/beautiful I am! It’s intimidating as all get-out. Every time I feel panic wash over me, I re-read this post. It’s been super helpful! I’m only 2 weeks into teaching middle school and it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. It’s challenging to be sure, but it’s ok. I NEED to be more strict, but classroom management is always an ongoing process.

    There are pros to teaching middle school as opposed to elementary as well. I have a huge 2 week break at the beginning of May. The first week they have mid-terms M-W, then it’s a holiday T-F, then I teach M/T, then they go on a field trip W-F. To be sure I’ll be desk-warming for 6 days, but at this point I welcome the opportunity to lesson plan. Another pro is that the students’ English level is generally higher than elementary school students, which allows for more complex/varied activities. AND while having 6 different co-teachers is annoying in terms of being on my own for lesson planning, there are SIX people in the school who are fluent in English! That’s huge! In my elementary school, it was only my one co-teacher so it was kind of isolating. Anyway, that’s my 2 cents. Thanks again!

  3. Hannah Carson says:

    I loved this! You basically summed up my life right now. I’m stealing all of your games, BTW.

  4. Emily Balamut says:

    Bless. This. Post. I started teaching in a co-ed middle school 2 months ago. I have never taught before and it felt like I was thrown to the wolves!! All of your advice is spot on and I wish, oh I wish I had found this in my fourth week of teaching when I felt like I was drowning in middle school hormones and my own lack of self-confidence. I love your rewards system and will be using something similar next year. Unfortunately, I started with the 5 stamps earns a candy and it is just not great – I’m burning through a lot of won on cheap chocolate at this point.
    Your games are also super great.
    Anyway, excellent post and I’m so glad I found your blog!

  5. Pingback: Expectations Vs. Reality of Teaching English in South Korea | Greenheart Travel

  6. Fantastic post, cheers!

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