Teaching in South Korea

[Claudine Williams wrote this guest post on behalf of MNUI, a travel insurance company. I invited Claudine to share her experiences on my blog, since she spent a year teaching in Busan, South Korea. You might also want to check out her blog, "Korea-Diva".]

In 2009, I decided that I wanted to make a drastic change to my life. I had been living in a small town in the United States, teaching literature at a local high school. I had an interest in travel and had visited Europe and the Caribbean, but I knew that I wanted to see and experience a great deal more. Therefore, I decided to use my skills as a teacher to land a job overseas.

For years, I'd read job postings for teachers to teach overseas. I'd heard about the Fulbright scholarship, which is offered in the U.S. for teachers who wish to teach abroad, but I was a fairly new teacher with only three years under my belt. I thought the scholarship catered to more experienced teachers. So, I decided to simply find some job opportunities and apply.

By March 2009, I'd applied to teach overseas through a recruiter. I chose South Korea, because the country had a tremendous need for native English speaking teachers, and the country had a good infrastructure for supporting its teachers financially. I also had a desire to visit and learn about Asia. By the beginning of summer, I had landed a position in a public school in South Korea through the English Program in South Korea.

I didn't quite know what to expect, but I'd heard that the students were a joy to teach. I assumed that since South Korea recruited native speaking English teachers, that the teachers were welcomed by most Koreans. What I learned from the experience is that people have different views related to accepting visitors from foreign countries. In South Korea, I was not viewed simply as a visitor or a tourist, but as a foreigner. The word has a totally different connotation than the more friendly tourist or visitor.

Although the students welcomed me, sometimes they were a bit frightened by my appearance (dark skin and long wooly hair). My co-workers either ignored me altogether or simply gave me brief nods, tentative hellos, and carried on with their lives. My co-teacher who was charged with working with me on a day-to-day basis and helping to make sure that my stay in South Korea went smoothly, merely tolerated the position.

We had a problem with interpretation. I interpreted her role as that of a friendly ambassador. She thought that she should was my controller, and I should be her hapless assistant. Sometimes she couldn't be bothered with translating my desires to the school administration. In the classroom, she made it clear that the class was hers, and I was there to assist her, which sometimes boiled down to me teaching only about 10 minutes in a class period. Sometimes I didn't teach at all. Not being able to speak the language was problematic, because when I did manage to discuss my grievances with administrators or the central office, I never knew what my co-worker said in her defense. I was also not sure if administrators agreed with me, and told my co-teacher to improve the situation, and my co-teacher simply didn't tell me what was being said or changed what was said in her translation.

In brief, I soon realized that I had no or very little power in my particular situation, and the best thing that I could do was do my very best, develop a thick skin, and stick with it until the bitter end. Fortunately, my co-teacher did end up increasing my teaching time.