During orientation, many new teachers in the EPIK program are fooled into believing that their classes will be a two-man show. They expect to partner with a bilingual Korean co-teacher who helps steady the ship as the foreigner gets to grips with teaching.
The unfortunate reality is that not every EPIK teacher, or teacher in other language centres, hagwon or other public school will have a co-teacher. Outside of the major cities and bigger towns, it seems the likelihood of a double-act is relatively scarce.
On a case-by-case basis. there are varying degrees of involvement of Korean teachers in your class, and there is a chance you will be flying solo in there.
What? Teach a bunch of Korean kids alone? Without help or assistance from any Korean teacher or Korean adult at all who can help control the little monsters in their native tongue? Nobody, not even the janitor?!
In rural areas, such as my own city of Yeongju and neighboring villages in Bonghwa country, this is quite possible. In my own personal experience, it’s almost universal across every class in all four of my schools.
Sure, I have some homeroom teachers who in the beginning of term show up to class. They flash a nervous smile and offer some meek attempts at settling unruly students. However, as the weeks pass, these teachers phase themselves out. Initially they leave mentally, hanging at the back of the room, like a ghost, silent, with their eyes glued to their phone except for when they look up to check the clock.
Soon after, they disappear completely, occasionally reappearing for random cameos in the middle of my lessons before vanishing just as quickly. Before long, the inevitable happens and I’m holding the fort alone. I’ve grown used to it, in fact I don’t like when any of the “co-teachers” show up as it only serves to frustrate. They can often be more of a hindrance than a help. There are a couple of notable exceptions it must be said, a few who genuinely try to co-teach with me and for their help I’m always grateful.
However, for the most part I am alone and many teachers will also be.
There were times when I felt so out of my depth as classes threatened mutiny and acted as if my class was little more than free time for them to goof around.
I had no sidekick, no help, no way of communicating effectively with the students. If they didn’t understand me, I had to resort to Google translate or charades, which was only moderately successful and often failed. Kids have a short attention span and you have to act fast to keep 20 or 30 of them engaged.
There were times I felt like screaming or swearing. Sometimes I did. But they couldn’t understand. All it served to do was hurt my throat and stress me out.
From speaking to peers who have a co-teacher with almost every class, I’ve heard them bemoan the one day that the co-teacher didn’t appear for some reason. They regaled the horror that they had to endure teaching solo.
Welcome to my world, I thought.
My Fridays are spent at Jaesan Elementary School. For the first six months I hated it and grew to dread it as the mixed 5th/6th grade class ran rings around me. There were ten boys and two girls.
They had zero respect and cared little to learn or do anything but wrestle, scream and shout. I lost the rag on several occasions but with no Korean co-teacher in the room, they never behaved for long.
In March 2016, half-way through my contract, I reached the beginning of the next Korean school year.
The 6th graders had graduated and left to middle school. The new 5th/6th grade was comprised of 7 boys and they had a new homeroom teacher – Mr. Lee.
Mr. Lee is a man in his mid-50s with vast experience teaching in large schools. He speaks English very well and enjoys conversing with me about all things foreign.
On day one of the new term, something amazing happened; the 5th/6th grade were accompanied to my English class by Mr. Lee. He took a seat with the rest of the students and there he sat for the entire double period.
He translated where necessary, he helped explain activities, he got up to write things on the board and he helped distribute materials.
I had a legit, bona-fide, bilingual, useful, friendly co-teacher. Miraculously, Jaesan went from my least favorite school to my favorite.
Mr. Lee is also quite funny. He added balance to the odd numbers in the class and got quite competitive during games. In fact, he began to dominate and shout answers to my questions before the students had a moment to think. I felt guilty but continued to award his team points. He then corrected this bias by deliberately giving the opposing team answers, much to the chagrin of his young comrades.
But after some weeks passed and the inevitable happened. Mr. Lee began to phase himself out, slowly but surely. He makes the cameo appearances now and then, for that I’m usually grateful.
However, I’ve adapted now. I no longer fear teaching alone. Quite the opposite in fact. I prefer it.
While I found this a struggle at first, swimming in the deep end alone motivated me to learn some Korean for the classroom and develop a structured format when it came to lesson planning.
No longer would I have charades when I had enticing PowerPoint presentations. I wouldn’t need to act out instructions when I could display images and simple Korean on slides.
I wouldn’t have to roar for calm when I could simply speak their native tongue.
It has been tough, sometimes felt downright impossible but ultimately, it has made me a better teacher.
Occasionally, a homeroom teacher will show up to my class and offer varying degrees of assistance. Their translation skills are always great but I’ve learnt that even the most helpful ones can prove to be a fly in the ointment.
If the students don’t respect their homeroom teacher, they transfer this attitude towards you. After all if the Korean teacher can’t control his class, what chance does the foreigner who can’t speak Korean have?
In these cases, I prefer if the Korean “co-teacher” isn’t there to witness me opening a can of whoop-ass. Purely verbal of course, though some kids have been given so much free reign I do wonder when their downtrodden homeroom teachers will eventually snap.
For a short time, my main school – Bonghwa Elementary – introduced a specialized co-teacher that would accompany me in every class. She also shared the lesson planning and delivery. This complicated matters and made more work for me as I had to fine-tune my prep to tie in with her half of the lesson, rather than simply do everything my way.
She was also a novice teacher, fresh out of college, and lacked authority. The kids sensed this and as she had more classes with them, soon they began to run over her.
When I showed up for English class, I noticed their attitudes towards me had changed. My co-teacher was losing control and by association, by own authority was diminishing.
Luckily, I wrested control back and as my co-teacher departed for pastures new, I resumed center stage in the classroom.
Teaching English in rural Korea means that resources are limited, including teaching staff.
In my most rural school, there is a Grade 4 student who has great English because her family lived in Saipan for a few years. I regularly employ her skills in the classroom when I need a translator for the others.
The truth is, if EPIK place you somewhere rural, then you probably will be teaching alone. While that’s daunting at first, you will soon discover and develop your own style, free of restriction.
You will grow in a working environment that gives you much more freedom to plan, perform and manage your classes than a city teacher who is harnessed in the 50-50 role.
Furthermore, without the pressure of a Korean co-teacher constantly watching over your shoulder, you can often use more games, movies and fun activities than some teachers who are strictly bound to the textbook material. As a result, your students will love you more and the chance of a bond and mutual respect grows as they see you can make school fun for them.
If you are new to Korea and discover that you will be teaching alone, without the assistance of a co-teacher, fear not. It might just be the best Korean surprise you ever get.