The great divide between teacher and student is difficult to cross. Add different languages, cultures, and inefficient administrators and the divide appears infinite. This is the journey of an EFL teacher in Korea. I should know; I taught EFL in Korea for four years. I constantly racked my brain wondering what was going on inside my students’ heads while reenacting my best Cartman impersonation from South Park asking, “How do I reach these keeeeedz?”
In my fourth year, I began to work on my master’s degree in education. My program presented me with a unique opportunity to step inside of an international school and instruct high school students. The ability to communicate with Korean students in real English was both liberating and enlightening.
I assigned my students a daunting task — to write a personal narrative and share their stories publicly on individualized blogs. My goal was simple; I wanted to share my love of writing with my students. I wanted to remove academic distractions like citations, research, and extensive (often boring) essay structure to let them focus on real writing: the art of finding, arranging, and emphasizing words to adequately express themselves and connect with others. They exceeded my expectations and corrected my misconceptions about students in Korea.
Below, you will find twelve brief excerpts and links to my students’ blogs. Their stories are full of humor, compassion, tragedy, and the idiosyncrasies that make each person unique. You will find stories about surviving terrorist attacks, love affairs with iPods, overcoming materialism, bullying, dogs, gaming, expat life and encountering English for the first time. If these essays serve any function, it is to remind teachers that students in Korea are not so different from themselves. While teachers who come to Korea inherently know this, the idea becomes muddled through the drudgery of the EFL/ESL industry and daily struggles of teaching.
How to Leave Comments on Student Blogs
I encourage readers to comment on student blogs, but not to criticize or leave demeaning comments. Some narratives are nearly perfect, while others are full of errors. I chose these essays based on a transcendent quality in the writing, not on technical perfection — I assure you the narratives were graded accordingly.
Some students have written in English for many years, while others are relatively new to the language. Additionally, writing is difficult enough for native speakers. All classrooms represent a broad range of abilities and teachers work to improve the ability of every student. The purpose of leaving comments is to engage students about their ideas and encourage them to continue writing.
There is no better feeling as a writer than to connect with another human being. By encouraging students to write, they will begin to resolve their errors through continued practice, the observation of other writers, and the desire to connect with even more people in the future.
I hope these essays bring you as much warmth and reassurance as they brought me during these cold winter months.
Student Excerpts and Blog Links
A Korean Student’s Love Affair and Heartbreak with his IPOD
(And the most creative Louisiana Purchase analogy ever written)
“I was in 7th grade during that time, still living in America, not tainted by the various scourges of Korean education that I will face the next few years.”
“I adored my iPod like the One Ring. How precious…”
Understanding Expat Life More than Most EFL Teachers in Korea.
“Increasing the scope of the world without a doubt changed me in both good and bad ways. It is true that I learned new cultures and learned to empathize with those that were different; however, another truth is that I became a stranger to both worlds. This truth taught me a type of loneliness that I never felt before, and I thought that although I could exist in both worlds, I could never be a part in either of them.”
Read “The Two Worlds”
English Looks and Sounds like an Alien Language
“When I entered the unknown building, my parents told me that it was an international school. The information was puzzling because I didn’t know what it meant. From the entrance, the writing looked like a code written by aliens because I wasn’t familiar with English. I felt like I was examining a long equation of math on the blackboard. I followed my parents like a newborn animal that just entered the world. As we approached the office, I heard the office workers talking in alien language from afar.”
Why One Korean is Afraid of Dogs
“And the next moment, I was leaning toward the source of fear. Immediately, a scream of my own escaped from my throat and mouth. My pupils dilated and my body, like a lifeless doll, fell to the ground. It was not a fly or their shadow. It was the . . .”
Why One Korean is a Dog Lover for Life
“There was a black leather couch sitting in the living room and a big furry pillow on the couch – and that’s when I noticed the big furry pillow was very much alive. With a bark and a leap, the mass of fur launched itself off of the couch and barreled into me. With me lying on my back – laughing – while this fluffy mass of a dog licked my face, that was the beginning of our friendship.”
Read “Friend for Life”
Playing Computer Games (League of Legends) in Korea is Indeed the Best Weekend Ever.
Although an entire day was wasted on sleeping, it helped me to enjoy living my life in the present. Living life like this made me consider the movie “Dead Poets Society” and its idea of “carpe diem.” As Mr. John Keating said,
“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.”
Live life to the fullest because this is your only chance.
It’s because of events like this that help my life become more interesting and exciting. As another day approached, I pushed “Continue.”
Korean Kids Sneak Out To Party, Too… And Use Rice Similes
“The clock struck twelve and there was a knock on my window. A huge figure was in front of me. I opened my window and the figure turned out to be my best friend. She was an owl in disguise. She was my drug. Out of the blue, my best friend wanted to sneak out and have fun. I would be an empty canvas if I said no to her plans. As quick as minute rice, I was on board ready to sail on an adventure.”
A Bully in Korea has a Change of Heart
“It was the most devastating scene I’ve seen in my entire life. I had been living my life hating my family, hating my actions, and hating school. Troy should have been hating everything, including God for letting this unexplainable event to happen, but he didn’t.”
There is More to Life than Materialism.
It was the only bed in the house that family shared. I laid on it, observed the moth that was banging at the dirty and naked lightbulb as if trying to reach the warmth beyond the glass. Reflecting on the day’s happenings, somewhere in the middle of the train of thoughts, I fell asleep. I was so young and tired that I didn’t even think where the family would be sleeping.
A Passion For Music, An Act of Bravery, and a Perfect Personal Narrative
“This was my moment to shine. This was the fruit of my efforts. This was my 15 seconds of fame. I stood alone onstage, the spotlight heating up the glowing circle that surrounded me. As I came back into focus with reality, the deafening sounds of applause died down into silence as the oboe’s single A rang throughout the hall.”
A Student Flees Isis and Korea becomes a Refuge
“After two weeks, we came out because they didn’t come to where we lived. At first, people thought Isis were good humanitarians. After that night, as the sun rose in the sky, everyone could see who they really were. They were savages. They killed soldiers and ordinary people. They didn’t care about children, old men or women. They destroyed the church and the Mosque. They destroyed our heritage.”
Surviving a Terrorist Attack
“The next few moments of my life were unimaginable. There were a few seconds of eerie silence and I did the mistake of looking back. A warm rush of air hit my face and enveloped the rest of my body. I felt a sudden tug on my shirt sleeve and it was my mom, desperately trying to get us into the nearest store. A fraction of a second before everything went wrong, we tumbled into the store.”
Read “An Unfamiliar Home”
Final Thoughts and Advice on Teaching in Korea
Foreign teachers in Korea face numerous challenges reaching students. The divide is great, but we often forget that on each side of the divide are people who share similar pain, needs and desires. Focusing on differences in culture, administration, and language merely widen the divide. Remembering and treating students for the symptoms of humanity, on the other hand, transcends all space and barriers.
At a teacher’s disposal are two powerful tools: conviction and love. Conviction is the sincerity of action in both instruction and interaction with students. As Harry Wong put it,
“Students are reached more by the depth of your conviction than the height of your intelligence. The goal is changing students, not to your way of thinking, but to your way of feeling.”
Students in Korea may never fully understand a foreign teacher’s words, logic, or lesson plans, but they understand smiles, energy, and compassion. Teachers who warmly acknowledge students as they enter class every day instead of busily working at their computers will move mountains.
The second tool, love, is not a love for students, teaching, or English, but a love for life. The best teachers incorporate their loves —interests— into their instruction. Like being infatuated and sharing the excitement of a new crush with others, students can’t help but feel compelled by a teacher’s passion. Donald Miller described it best,
“I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.
After that I liked jazz music.
Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.”
Of conviction and love, the latter is the most important. For when you show students your love for life, they begin to fall in love themselves. Then, the most amazing thing happens. In return, they share their love and passions with you. This exchange of love is where true learning occurs. The teacher teaches the student. The students teach the teacher. And the students teach each other. This is education the way it should be, even when teaching English in South Korea.
(Editor’s note — I understand that some teaching positions in Korea are extremely stressful and advising teachers to “care” and “love” do not remotely help some teachers deal with horrible administrators or over-anxious tiger moms. I also believe teachers must learn classroom management and that it is important to understand concepts like teaching classroom procedures, providing formal assessments with effective and direct feedback, raising student expectations, and implementing a system of tiered instructuction through learning targets and learning tasks. However, this is not a how-to article on teaching. Teachers who genuinely care for their students tend to learn and work the other details out. The advice given here is to help encourage teachers from burning out and let new teachers know that the initial impressions they receive from their students are far from the reality of their actual situation. The majority of students can be taught in the majority of situations and research shows the biggest factor for student improvement is always the teacher.)