Tips for Foreign English Teachers in Korea

Steven Schuit Steven Schuit

The questions were unfailingly predictable: What's your name? Where are you from? What university did you graduate from? What was your major? They came in rapid succession. It was the start of my very first semester here in Korea and almost every student was asking me the same questions.

I gave my name, mentioned that I went to school in Boston and said that my hometown was New York. My major? American history. Many students reacted in a similar manner: "American history? How could that be a major? American history is only 200 years old. Korean history is 5,000 years old. That's a major!"

The observation was not lost on me. It did not take long for a self-induced wave of humility to cascade through my body. My country was not the center of the universe? I began to unravel some 22 years of misguided self-importance.

Tip No. 1: Be humble.

Apart from their long history, Koreans have produced one of the most impressive stories of nation building in the 20th century, according to Daniel Tudor, author of "Korea: The Impossible Country." And besides, humility goes a long way here.

Tip No. 2: Learn the language.

You hop in a cab, patch together a few words of the native language, telling the driver where you want to go. The only thing is, you said you wanted to go to the train station. That's where he took you. You meant to say, the local subway station. He's confused. You're frustrated. Take the time to study the language -- even if you are exhausted from all the teaching you are doing. Learning the language helps provide part of the necessary tool kit for navigating life in your adopted country. Learning Korean opens the window to a better understanding of this incredible culture.

Tip No. 3: Cultivate friendships with both Koreans and other expats.

Studying Korean, especially in traditional classroom fashion, is a great way to meet others. In my recent Korean language classes I was both the only American and the only professor. Befriending the owner of a local coffee shop or dry cleaner's may lead to a weekend hike in the woods. Joining an area club or organization (running, paintball, softball, or traveling) is a great way to make friends and enrich your expat experience.

Tip No. 4: Avoid thinking you can change the system.

By now you have heard all about the crazy drivers, the antiquated customs, the lousy weather, the seemingly ridiculous approaches to managing people. Guess what? It ain't gonna change. And, more importantly, it's not your culture.

Tip No. 5: Avoid Korea bashers.

Yes indeed, misery loves company. Finding flaws and faults can easily become contagious. "As soon as you notice this dynamic, take two steps back. Find colleagues and friends who have a more balanced view of their experience here. Korea is not a perfect place, but it does offer a world of mostly pleasant surprises. For most people, even those who experience a few early "speed bumps," Korea provides more than its share of spectacular memories.

Tip No. 6: Keep developing professionally.

My current employer requires each faculty member to have an ongoing plan for professional development. You can do research, observe other teachers, attend conferences and write reaction papers, or give presentations to colleagues at regularly scheduled staff meetings. There is a good message here: standing still professionally is not OK. There are many ways to become a better teacher -- be it through becoming part of an acting troupe, taking traditional Korean art classes, or doing yoga.

Tip No. 7: Be an ambassador.

You did not join the Foreign Service when you decided to become an ESL educator. True, but for better or worse, you are an ambassador. You represent your country in the eyes of your students, your Korean bosses and colleagues, and to Koreans at-large. Many people do not welcome the responsibility. Totally understandable, but it comes with the turf. In fact, how you behave is not only a reflection on you and your country, it is also a reflection on all foreigners who are guests here.

Recently, a fellow former Korean Peace Corps volunteer mentioned that he thought there was much evidence to suggest that a stint as an ESL teacher can be invaluable preparation for the adventure that is life. For others, an extended tenure as an ESL teacher can, as in any profession, lead to burnout. Tips for success aside, inertia can be an intoxicating trap. Staying fresh, on top of your game, motivated, and most importantly, in service to your students, are timeless and worthwhile challenges. Losing one's humility may be like the canary in the coal mine -- an indication that it may be time to check out.

By Steven Schuit, a professor of English at Yeungnam University

(He blogs about his expat experience at / Dec. 17, 2013 13:04 KST