Books Open, Pencils Poised: Teaching English in South Korea


Published originally in the Spring 2009 issue of the Berea College Magazine

by Chris Backe, ’04

Graduating with a business degree didn’t prepare me for this. My first day on the job, I came face to face with a group of seven-year-olds, all speaking a foreign language and seemingly making as much noise as they could. After a few moments the other adult in the room spoke a few works to them, and the children sat up straight in their chairs, books open, pencils poised, reading to learn English. This is it, I thought; it’s really happening. I’m really reaching English in South Korea. It had not yet sunk in.

Teaching English at a hagwon (a private English school) in South Korea is one part adventure, one part patience and at all times different. The classes are small, the kids usually listen and you’ll hear first-hand how much they’ve really learned.

Becoming an English teacher abroad is simpler than you might think. You need a valid passport, a bachelor’s degree in any subject, a native command of the English language, some teaching experience, and a genuine desire to help kids learn the English language. After multiple telephone interviews, I began submitting all the paperwork needed to get a one-year visa. From there, the hagwon made travel arrangements and I packed my bags for the adventure of a lifetime.

Within a week of arriving, I was on my own, teaching English to classes of students between the ages of 5 and 13 in a land 8,000 miles away from home. Many of the Korean teachers have a rhythm of knowing which class is next, where they are and what books or materials they would need. Eventually, I got in the same rhythm. In a span of five minutes, I put away the old book and found the next book I needed, al the while maneuvering around the kids jumping about in the faculty room.

Although the specific amount varies, the salary you receive is comparable to a public school teacher in America. You’ll also receive a free, furnished apartment (or sometimes a stipend in addition to your salary) and a plane ticket from America to South Korea. In exchange, you sign a one-year contract with the school that promises severance bonus pay and a plane ticket back home when you complete your contract. Even without knowing Korean, you’ll quickly settle in after being here for a few days. Some things are markedly different, but it’s amazing how quickly Seoul felt like home.

Not knowing any Korean made it a bit harder to teach English, especially when the kids needed settling down and didn’t know the English words I was using. Eventually, however, they learned several important English phrases, such as “be quiet,” and “put your pencils down.”

There are plenty of tools at hand for teaching English, but there is usually a chosen workbook for each class, based on age group or level. One class of six-year-olds uses a grammar workbook or a basic listening and writing workbook. there is often a listening element that goes with the book as well. My students will hear English, read English, and (in my classes) have some chances to act it out. Why teach a seven-year-old to say “vacuum the carpet” when they can stand up and do it? Games are also excitedly played. Students don’t realize that they’re strengthening their vocabulary or problem-solving skills by playing “Hangman.”

In a class of five-year-olds, I’ll read a book and the students will repeat some of the words or point to colors, excited at getting a high five from the teacher. Later on, to release some of the pent-up energy, they’ll run around the classroom or hide under the tables. I’ll reach for them under the table, as they escape to scatter across the classroom.

As anyone in the education field knows, teaching is more than a job,. It’s more than simply knowing the material you’re teaching. It’s caring about your students to help them learn as much as they can in the brief time you have with them. You also know you’re setting a foundation of a lifetime of English learning. You’ll see some results, and you know even more results will come in the future.

A class of seven 12 year-olds open their books and view a picture of a firefighter. Several of them excitedly respond to my question “What does this person do?” They know that responding well gives them a point to play a game they love that I invented.

Teaching English as a second language requires a lot of patience-a lot more than I originally thought. You often have to repeat yourself when students are sounding out words or using Korean pronunciation. As an example, one Korean consonant has the sound of ‘r’ or ‘l’ depending on where it falls in a syllable grouping. You have to teach the kids that these are two different letters and two different sounds. In their native language the pronunciation rules are completely different.

Another difficulty with the students is fatigue. Nearly half of the students at my hagwon arrive after their public school day ends, and the hagown is open until 8:15 p.m.

Most kids will have been in one classroom or another for longer than most adults sit at their desks at work. It’s part of the pressure-cooker environment that makes up an education in South Korea. For better or worse, I’m part of that pressure-cooker, but I try to make learning English fun or interesting. There are days, however, when nothing seems to get done, and one has to accept that.

On the positive side, one big benefit of being an English teacher in South Korea is the adventure outside the classroom. It’s wonderful having the opportunity to explore palaces that are hundreds of years old, experience a Buddhist temple or relax at an authentic Korean restaurant with bibimbap (Korean barbecue you cook at your table). I’ve made it a point to see one new place a week somewhere in Korea-and the longer I’m here the more places I want to go.

Categories: News, People
Tags: education, Education Studies Department

Berea College, the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, focuses on learning, labor and service. The College only admits academically promising students with limited financial resources—primarily from Kentucky and Appalachia—but welcomes students from 40 states and 70 countries. Every Berea student receives a Tuition Promise Scholarship, which means no Berea student pays for tuition. Berea is one of nine federally recognized Work Colleges, so students work 10 hours or more weekly to earn money for books, housing and meals. The College’s motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” speaks to its inclusive Christian character.