You don’t need to be teaching English in Korea to know that making a good first impression is important. Nor do you need to know that a little bit of effort goes a long way.
For anybody currently in Korea, or prospective teachers who are thinking of coming, these tips below will be of value if you want to impress your school.
Making a good first impression is just the beginning. There’s no reason to slack off after that and if you want to curry some favor with the Principal, Vice-Principal or senior staff, then this article will put you on the right track.
As an EPIK teacher, you will almost certainly be the only foreigner in the school. Shed that outsider tag and forge your way into the inner circle by making the following part of your work ethic.
1 – Learn Korean
Anybody who goes abroad anywhere at all will know the answer to this. What are the two most common words someone uses in a new country?
You should have guessed hello and thank you. Congratulations, there’s a gold medal in the mail.
Say these to your fellow staff members – an-yeong-ha-sae-yo (안녕하세요) and gam-sa-hab-nee-da (감사합니다). You will be lauded on your efforts as a Korean speaker. They’re being polite.
If you really want to impress your school staff, from young teachers all the way up to the Principal, then make an effort to learn the language.
It’s not an easy one but apps like Memrise are great for increasing your vocab in an array of languages including Korean. The TalkToMeInKorean website is an excellent resource for podcast lessons and HelloTalk is an international language exchange app hone your skills.
Learning how to speak a little Korean has made my life in rural Korea much easier and it is great to have even small conversations with fellow staff. After a few months of hello and thank you, the novelty wears off. Make an effort and they’ll respect you all the more for it.
2 – Make coffee
In Korea, the culture of communal eating is commonplace. This extends to the workplace and rarely a day goes by without some snacks or treats being shared in the teachers room.
In all three of my side-schools, many of the students are from a farming background and so they will often arrive at school with a box of fruit or vegetables for the staff.
There have been many days when I was flat out on the computer and received a wave from one of the teachers to come join them as they sat around the table and munched on boiled sweet potato or freshly-picked tomatoes.
Do your bit by getting the kettle going. This is also a good tact for buddying up to the VP or Principal. Just approach them and say, koe-pee deu-sil lae-yo? (커피 드실 래요?). It’s a good idea to practice it beforehand so you don’t make a mistake!
3 – Dress well
In Korea, appearances are important and many of the older generation do pride themselves on looking good. This has spread to the younger generation and Korea is now the cosmetic plastic surgery capital of the world.
Many people teaching in Korea will start out with a professional approach and taper out to casual wear as time goes on. Taking the lead from your fellow staff members, it’s always good to err on the side of caution.
Personally, I’ve stuck to smart-casual for the majority of my time and it’s done me no harm. The compliments rain in from teachers and parents alike and the odd soju hangover or badly-planned lesson can be masked behind a spiffy get-up. Fake it til you make it.
4 – Be kind to the students
This seems obvious but no doubt eludes many. Just to clarify, I don’t mean put that wooden cane down and tell that kid to stop doing push-ups. If you’re on that road already then it may be too late.
Push-ups are actually a common punishment here in Korea. I’m yet to try it for I feel it would become more of a spectacle competition between the boys rather than a punishment.
Anyhow, what I mean is to do the little things you don’t have to brighten some kids day.
During winter vacation, my good friend Ji Su came to visit me in my empty classroom. Lunch time rolled round and I grabbed my jacket to head out.
Ji Su pleaded to come with me. Unsure of how to ditch him, I relented and went to see the VP. Rolling out my Korean, I explained the situation and asked for permission to take Ji Su for lunch.
He smiled on seeing Ji Su’s excited face and gave me the green light.
For the following week, Ji Su was running around telling everyone that would listen about his great lunch eating bulgogi with Chris Teacher. Several teachers have came to express thanks since.
I wouldn’t make any ones like this that cost you money a habit. Not unless you are going to pull a big shot move and flash the cash for the entire school. However, these little moments are a surefire way to impress your school.
5 – Bring gifts
As aforementioned, teachers will invite you to join their little circle of snacks on a frequent basis. If it isn’t local fare from the students then another teacher will have provided something. Rice cakes – tteok (떡) – are common. Personally, I hate them but I chow down at least one before washing it away with sweet, sugary coffee.
Every once in a while, it’s good to reciprocate. Paris Baguette bakeries are ubiquitous in Korea and you can’t go wrong with a good swiss roll-style cake.
Most foreign teachers in Korea will bring something for their co-teacher or all the staff after their first paycheque. EPIK advise this as a token of appreciation to your school for the help in getting set up.
It doesn’t hurt to surprise your school now and then, especially during a special occasion or just before you jet off on vacation.
Better yet, bring them back something from your vacation. They’ll love you for those Belgian chocolates or American candies.
6 – Take it seriously (but still have fun!)
I’ve talked before about how I get a lot of freedom with my job. Perhaps the talk of movies and games makes it sound like I’m a free ride.
Make no mistake, I’ve put a LOT of effort into this job, particularly in the first six months.
It took me a long time to find my rhythm and discover what works and what doesn’t.
Many people would be happy to blunder through one lesson after another, struggling to get activities off the ground or make any real headway with the students.
Without a co-teacher, I could easily have laid back and followed the cringe-worthy CD-ROM and textbook syllabus.
But, I didn’t. I developed a format and slaved over Microsoft PowerPoint for way too long. The result is an absolute treasure trove of pre-made lessons, activities, games and craft instructions, all tailored per lesson and grade. My successor at Bonghwa Elementary School won’t know just how lucky they are.
I’m not saying everyone should do this. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend anybody do this. I really struggled at times in that opening period. But what everyone can do is take a few steps in the right direction by making rules and posting them around the classroom. Ensuring the floors are swept clean and trying to learn the kids names aren’t major missions either.
Having an organized seating schedule and some kind of rewards system are not always easy to run, but the students love collecting stamps or stickers. Students learn to work within the boundaries of these elements and fellow teachers will take notice too.
Once you have that foundation of respect, there’s rarely an eyebrow raised when you want to pull a movie day!
7 – Get involved
Throughout the school year, there are certain events that may or may not require your attendance. Schools will have speech contests and singing contests – both in English.
More often than not, you will be approached for some assistance on these. Sometimes, a teacher will ask you to look over a student’s written speech. You can check for errors and hand it back. Job done.
Going the extra mile will be appreciated. Some teachers end up as judges at the speech contest and many like myself end up rewriting speeches for the students. I also ran an after-school class once a week so the contestants could practice their speeches and get tips on pronunciation and body language. I know of one teacher who was the star singer in his student’s K-Pop music performance.
Another great opportunity to get in the thick of it is during the volleyball competitions. As summer approaches, many schools will meet and play each other in a tournament that stretches from lunch until twilight. Many foreigners will join their school team.
I must admit, I am yet to partake. The one opportunity I had was when I was at my most rural school – Seobyeok Elementary. I rode back to Bonghwa to the venue and prepared to watch a little of them in action.
I had my reservations about joining in as I wasn’t dressed for a volleyball game in 30 degree heat. As a teacher tried to wear me down, I considered it. Then suddenly, among the spectators, I realized that my main school – Bonghwa Elementary School – were the opposing team.
Being the sweaty foreigner playing volleyball in dress shoes is one thing. Being a treasonous turncoat is another.
That being said, I am quite tempted to be the secret weapon that carries my underdog super-rural school to the championship. Perhaps this summer I will.
Just joking. I suck at volleyball.