Monday, November 4, 2013

What I've Learned in the ESL Classroom

 Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at, and he will let you know how you can start participating! 

When I finished EPIK orientation about two and a half months ago, I felt like I had been through the most overwhelming whirlwind of my life. Everything in my life was suddenly different, and then BAM! On top of it all,it was time to start a new job.

Adapting to life in Korea became so all-consuming that the whole teaching thing (you know the reason we're all here in the first place) almost became a second thought.  During orientation we didn't know where we were living, never mind the grade we would be teaching.  Needless to say, despite the hours of training we endured, we didn't exactly feel like we had any idea what to expect from our jobs.

This is not my first teaching job.  In fact, I have a Master's degree in Secondary Education and I taught for two years in America before coming to Korea.  I can't tell you how many times during orientation people looked at me and said "oh, you have teaching experience, you'll be fine."

The truth is, I knew teaching in an ESL room would be a completely different experience, and in large part, it has been.  At home I taught Civics/Economics/Law and a few other social studies classes.  I had ZERO experience teaching English, never mind teaching English as a foreign language in the midst of a school system that functions quite differently from the system in the US.

One of the reasons I wasn't sure of whether or not I should come to Korea was because of how much I loved teaching in America.  I never stopped doing work when I was teaching at home, but I also couldn't imagine myself doing anything else.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to leave something I loved to do something that I didn't know if I would even like.

I'm two and a half months into teaching here, and while I really do miss teaching in the US,  I've learned a number of things in my short time here.  Here's a snippet of what I've taken away from my time as an ESL teacher.

1)  Teenagers are teenagers, no matter what country you're in.  
Sure, there are differences in culture that affect the way some of my Korean students act, but the similarities between my students in Korea and the US far outweigh the differences.  There is most definitely a social hierarchy in Korea, just as there is in America.  There are the "athletic" students, the "outgoing students", the "shy students", the "studious students" and the "socially awkward" students.  I've been surprised by how many times my students have said or done things that have reminded me of my students in America.  These students love the same things as American teenagers--they like music, sleeping, thinking about members of the opposite sex, and playing video games. They are self-conscious and place great importance in their looks.  They have their emotional mood swings, and some days you don't know whether to expect them to be bouncing off the walls or completely asleep for the duration of the class. Even if I can't communicate with them that well, I love them and their crazy/wonderful teenager ways just as much as I loved my American students.

2) Students need to be built up, not torn down. 
My students are under a tremendous amount of stress.  Korean education is ALL about testing.  In fact, their entire education essentially comes down to the SAT test they take in their third year of high school.  These kids have been going to hagwons since they were children, which means their school days basically consists of two parts--the regular day and then night classes.  They hardly ever get real days off from school, not even on weekends or holidays breaks.  If they're not smart (or really just bad at testing), they will be reminded of it.  If they don't fit into the narrow idea of acceptable beauty, they will be told by virtually everyone around them (as if they didn't already know it themselves).

I've found that compliments can go a long way in the ESL classroom.  Many students lack confidence in their ability to speak English, and they need encouragement to feel like it is ok to make mistakes.  I try to build the students up as much as I can (not that I lie to them), but from what I can tell, they don't hear many positive things about themselves very often.

Recently my students participated in a competition in our provinece where they had to put on a play in English.  During lunch I would go and watch and try to help them with their plays. The first time I saw them I told them it was really good (and it was--they ended up winning 1st place), but they looked at me with complete disbelief.  "Really?!"  Apparently the other teachers hadn't been telling them the same.  After they won, one of the students excitedly came up to me at school the next Monday and thanked me for my help. I didn't think I did that much, but it was truly appreciated by the students.

Students need to hear corrections, but they also need to hear positivity as well. And trust me, it means A LOT for them to hear it from the western, native teacher.  Students are really shy and self-conscious, especially about speaking English, and especially about speaking English to the native speaker (I mean, who wouldn't be?)  It's really important to give corrections in a gentle way and to give positive feedback whenever possible.  It does wonders for these kids' confidence.

3)  Good lessons only come with a lot of time and effort. 
Teaching is hard work. You don't just get to show up and do you're job--there's planning, making materials, implementing the lesson, and revising.....and then revising again.  I sometimes teach the same lesson six times in one week.  Some weeks, I change the lesson almost every single time.  By Friday, I usually finally have the lessons to a point where I am satisfied with them.

I've always known that teaching is a process, but this is the first time I've really been able to revise lessons.  I didn't teach long enough in America to really get to revise any lessons, so this has actually been a good experience for me.  I've been able to truly going through the evolution of the teaching process.  And if anything, teaching the same lessons so many times has really shown me just how much of a process it is.

4) It's hard to be patient, especially when you're insecurities are brought to the forefront. 
Teaching requires a whole lot of patience.  This is again something I already knew, but teaching in Korea has made me more aware of this.  Teaching in Korea has additionally made me aware of the fact that I am not confident in my teaching ability.  One of the major changes I've had to adjust to is the fact that I have to teach with a co-teacher.  Last year I could do whatever I wanted in my classroom, and if I had a lesson go badly, I didn't have my colleagues there to witness it.

This year I have another teacher in the room with me 80% of the time.  I like my co-teachers a lot, but it is still uncomfortable for me at times, especially when I think something isn't going well.  Of course, feeling this way has unleashed a number of personal questions (why do I care as long as I am putting in my best effort?), but at times it can be frustrating.  It can be difficult to keep your patience when your students can't always understand you, you have a communication barrier with your co-teacher, and you don't feel confident about what you're doing.  Everything is amplified in the classroom--whether it's your strengths, insecurities, or ability to be patient, teaching is the culmination of so many things that you can't help but learn a lot about your ability to deal with all different types of circumstances.

5) One of the best ways to learn about Korea is to get to know the students

It sounds cliche, but my favorite part of teaching is hands down getting to know my students.  By this point there are certain students I look forward to seeing on a daily basis--the students who always stop by at the same time, or who I always see on my walk home from school.  Talking with them in those informal situations is absolutely the best part of my job, and I love hearing more about their lives.  I have learned a lot about life in Korea just by talking to my students, and I hope that they are learning just as much about America by talking to me.  You can learn a lot by reading books or articles online, but you learn myriads more by talking to people and hearing about their own experiences.  I can read about Korea and my students can read about America, but to talk to someone is to get the real deal, the real insight on how a culture affects a person's life.

I always tell my students that someday when they come to America they can find me and we can meet up and I will buy them pizza (or hamburgers or whatever western thing we happen to be talking about)....but I honestly mean it, and I hope that one day they really will get to experience my culture, just as I am getting to experience theirs.

Teaching in the ESL classroom is still teaching me new things every day and I'm sure it will continue to teach me more with every day I spend with my students. At least I hope it will, because I came to Korea to learn as much as I can, and I have no doubts that I will go back to America someday as a much stronger, well-rounded person and  teacher for my future students.

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