Teach English in Korea - The Students

Teach English in Korea 

Even for those English Teachers who have taught in their home country, the experience of teaching Korean students is going to be something of a surprise. Obviously, experiences are going to vary, but here are a few things that a new teacher should expect from their Korean students.

Busy Korean Students

The first thing to know is that Korean students are incredibly over-scheduled. Most students go from school to private academies and continue to study for an additional four or more hours. Many high school students will not get home until after midnight and will be at school by seven or eight in the morning. All of this is in preparation for the college entrance exam, which is insanely competitive. The closer students get to having to take this test the more they study and the less time they have for fun. 
Amazingly, they still manage to be, on the whole, really sweet, respectful kids, although they may try to sleep during your class if they do not find it particularly useful.

Being Intimate and Personal

The most immediate surprise will probably be the complete lack of personal space boundaries, particularly between the boys. When a teacher first walks into a classroom and sees their 15 year old male students sitting on one another’s laps, holding hands, or sleeping on one another, a moment of pause is the mildest reaction that tends to occur. 
Western cultures do not allow this kind of violation of what we refer to as our ‘personal bubble’ and seeing it among our students can be a shock if we are not prepared for it. Less shocking, and somewhat less pronounced, is the contact between the female students, which takes a similar tack although not as rowdy.
This lack of personal space extends to teachers. Male teachers will often find their students coming up to them and touching their arm hair, beards, or staring into their blue eyes. These are all features that Korean men don’t tend to have, or at least are not as pronounced. On my second day of classes in middle school, a grade one boy whom I had never met walked up to me and started rubbing my beard with both hands while saying, “Teacher, why?”
Interestingly, this close personal contact does not happen between male and female students. Even those middle and high school students who are dating will, at the most hold hands, and that is extremely rare and will not be seen within school boundaries. 
Basically, public displays of affection are seriously frowned upon. Relationships in Korea are in some ways more gender biased than most western countries and this lack of contact can extend to male and female students being reluctant to work together. 
When selecting pairs it is best to keep the boys and girls separate if possible. If you don’t, some students will accept this and work with an assigned partner, but many will simply not work together. They will sit together if the teachers force the issue, but no communication will occur.

Teacher and Students Interaction

Most western cultures frown upon any kind of close contact between teachers and students and draw clear lines between the roles of parents and teachers. In Korea this is less defined.  Teachers are still partially responsible for student behavior outside of school hours. Students who cause trouble after school are subject to discipline at school as well as whatever measures their parents take. Homeroom teachers are responsible for the behavior and well being of the students in their homeroom and they are usually incredibly committed to seeing them succeed. 
This means that teachers often work very long hours helping struggling students or counseling those with behavior problems. Students will often link arms with their teachers as they walk the halls and playful petulant students chatting or complaining to their homeroom teachers are a staple in the offices. In fact, many students become very attached and treat their teachers as a sort of pseudo parent.

Noisy Classrooms

Classrooms tend to be a bit noisier in Korea than in North America, but this is just the accepted state of things and the kids will be quiet when it is really important.  I was teaching middle school when I lost my voice for four days. Inevitably the same thing happened at the start of the every class. After the bell, I would raise my hand and try to say ‘be quiet’ and a student in the front of class would go wide eyed, say ‘oh’ and point at their throat, I would nod and the student would turn and shout down their classmates. For the remainder of the class, any student that made noise forcing me to raise my voice above a whisper would be glared at and shushed by their classmates. Pretty sweet kids!
Korean students’ behavior and relationships with their teachers are very, very different from what is usually seen in western schools. Foreign English teachers have the opportunity to choose how involved in their students’ lives they wish to become.
 Korean students are for the most part super sweet and foreign teachers are lucky to have the opportunity to teach them, but foreign teachers are going to have to check their expectations from home at the door.

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