It was only during my EPIK orientation—a mere week before I was supposed to start teaching—that I found out I had been offered a position at an elementary school. Not only that, but I would be teaching 600 students in grades three to six, 23 classes a week. I was excited to meet my students, but at the same time, I was worried. I didn't have the teaching credentials or experience to manage a classroom. I felt that my online TESOL course and prior ESL tutoring experience wasn't enough to prepare me for what I was about to experience as a TEFL teacher.
Fortunately, orientation was very informative for us newcomers; we had a practical component to evaluate and provide one another feedback before we were thrown into the classroom. It was comforting to know that we would have a support system and meet other foreign teachers placed in the same city, many of whom were also first-time teachers.
As I entered my first sixth-grade classroom, I was faced with 25 wide-eyed students, who all looked quite similar to me. I'm Asian like the rest of them, but I’m Chinese-Canadian, and I could only say a few sentences in Korean. I started off by introducing myself and Canada through a PowerPoint presentation, then playing a quick four corners game where they had to guess my favourite things and run to the corners of the room. I also gave them time after to ask me any questions that they had and was surprised to come across some very interesting, yet personal questions.
Here are some of the most common questions I heard:
"How old are you?"
It is perfectly normal to be asked your age when you meet someone for the first time. This is so the other person knows whether to speak to you in a formal or informal manner. It is in their culture to have a hierarchy system where greater respect is given to those older than you, as well as the elderly. This is shown in many forms of expressions and gestures.
One of the most interesting discoveries I've learned is that I'm older in Korea. They use a different age system, where everyone is born as one-years-old. You are another year older on New Year's day, so you will be one to two years older than your Western age.
"Do you have a boyfriend?”
It seems that everyone wants to know your relationship status. Korea is known to be a country of romanticism, but it is simply a conversation starter to get to know you better.
"What is your blood type?"
They will give you strange looks if you're unable to answer what your blood type is. It's of importance to know for emergency situations.
Fortunately, my first class and week went better than I anticipated. I was surprised to know a number of the higher-level students in each class as well as how disciplined and well behaved most of my students were. The level of class participation is astonishing, especially for the younger grades. They are also taught to stand up from their seats and answer in a loud, clear voices.
My initial impression is that the South Korean education system is very different to Canada's—but in a good way. Teachers are highly respected in their culture. The Korean education system is extremely strict, yet highly valued and reputable. Grades are placed in high importance, and students are expected to earn perfect scores. I later discovered a good majority of my students as young as grade three attend hagwons (private academies or institutions) or private tutoring, along with other extracurricular activities several days a week after school. They would finish in the late evening hours with very little time to do their schoolwork.
As the months go by, I learn so much about teaching, being a teacher and co-teaching.
I've gained a deep appreciation for teachers and educators all around the world—past, present and in the making. Teaching is not an easy job.
Originally published on Verge Magazine (August 24, 2016)