Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Countdown is Over: What to Do Your First Week on the Job

So you've just spent months gathering documents, weeks figuring out what to pack, days stressing about leaving. and now you're on your first day on the job in Korea. What do you do? My number one piece of advice is act and prepare as you would for any normal job (be professional, on time, organized, etc).  Some of the advice below may seem obvious, but it is also Korea specific (I know it's long, but this advice has been compiled from the responses of many teachers and recruiters).

Before arriving:

1) What clothes to bring- people tend to stress about what to wear their first week or two on the job as a foreign teacher. The general rule of thumb is to dress like you would for an interview for at least the first week or two, especially at a public school. First impressions in Korea are very important. After that you can adjust according to what the other teachers are wearing. Hagwons might have less formal dress codes since they are technically "after school" academies.

For women I'd suggest knee length (though a tiny bit shorter is okay) skirts or dresses, and a few good cardigans (the cheap ones they sell here tend to be awkwardly see-through). For men, no jeans or shorts. At public schools most male teachers wear button down shirts (short sleeve in the summer), but no jacket. Again though, hagwons may be less formal. Also, I was told by a male teacher that if you have facial hair, people might be confused and make motions for you to shave it off...what you do after that is up to your discretion, but keep it groomed.

PLEASE NOTE: For women in general, no matter where you are in Korea, at school or not, you'll find that Korean women do not show their shoulders (i.e. no tank tops) or wear low cut shirts. This isn't to say you can't wear these things ever, there's no law against it, but people tend to stare (though if you're a foreigner outside of Seoul they are probably going to stare a bit anyway). I would stay away from low cut shirts and the like, but mini skirts are a go here! Feel free to show all the leg you want while not at school.

2) Brush up on your grammar- this isn't a must if you're teaching younger kids, but it will definitely make you a better teacher if you know how to clearly explain grammar rules to your students when such questions arise! (You might find that the answer "I don't know, it's just how you say it..." won't cut it). I'd recommend the "The Grammar Bible" by Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas. It gives great, clear explanations of both basic and advanced grammar concepts, and has a humorous edge. Not as dry as most  grammar textbooks, and has fantastic Q & A sections with real life examples.

While in some schools you will find that previous teaching experience really isn't necessary, that isn't always the case. Some schools provide more explicit training than others, I myself had very little. Potential teachers should also note that all public schools now require TEFL certification. If you have the time, even the "120 hour" TEFL courses don't actually take very long. I don't know where they get those hours from, but I finished my certification in only a couple of weeks (certainly no where near 120 hours of actual work). It also might help you move up the pay scale in a hagwon, though I think that depends on the school.

3) READ YOUR ENTIRE CONTRACT- This goes for public and private schools. I'm not saying to pull it out every time there is a tiny problem (as my recruiter said, "it won't help the long term relationship even if you win that battle"), but if something major happens and you need to stand your ground, it will be helpful to actually know what you can expect from your school and what your school expects from you. That being said, you will also need to be able to compromise and make things work.


1) Be on time!- this goes for any job, but in Korea they are not going to accept any excuses (note: teachers and students come to school even when they are sick with fevers). I don't mean to scare anyone, I'm sure some schools let it slide from time to time, but as an example, I arrived five minutes late to my first class the other day because I drove my motorbike to school for the first time and got a little lost (my school is out in the sticks). My co-teacher was somewhat understanding, but still gave me a stern lecture about being on time.

General rule: for the first week or two, arrive 10-15 minutes earlier than you need to (as they used to say at my summer camp, "if you're on time, you're late"). After that, arrive when your school tells you to and make sure you do what you need to do to make that happen (3 different alarms, a jug of coffee, k-pop, whatever). If you really want to earn brownie points, stay later than you need to even if it's just for show.

Have trouble getting up in the morning? Get one of these guys. It's an alarm clock that can jump off the table and hide. No reaching over and smashing the snooze button with this one.

2) Prepare to smile, even when you feel awkward- Koreans expect foreign teachers to be outgoing. If you smile and show genuine enthusiasm about teaching and being in Korea, it will make it easier for native teachers and students to open up to you.

It doesn't mean you'll get along with everyone immediately, truthfully not all teachers want to hang out with foreigners, but most people I know always find at least one co-worker/teacher they can depend on. This is even easier in hagwons where there will be several foreign teachers.

I wrote about this in another post on my blog but I'll repeat it here: Korean teachers and students are going to ask you personal questions, particularly about your age and marital status. Though you might feel a little judgment if you're a single woman in your 20s ("why no boyfriend?"), try to ignore it and realize that these questions are an important part of establishing a relationship with a Korean. These questions determine your status and how others will interact with you.

It's an unfamiliar concept to westerners, and you may not agree with it, but consider that in the Korean language, you cannot even determine how to address or speak to a person without this information. In Korean you use different verb forms depending on the age and status of the person you are speaking too.  In Korean you also call close friends and acquaintances different forms of "brother" and "sister" depending on their age and gender. For example, if I have a friend who is a girl and older than me I would call her 언니 (eon-ni). However, if a boy has a friend who is a girl and older than him he would call her 누나 (nu-na). 

3) Learn basic Korean phrases- when you first arrive at your school you will be introduced to many people and it will help to know basic formal greetings.
An'nyeong haseyo- "hello"
Kamsamnida- "thank you"
Mannaseo pangapsumnida- "It's nice to meet you" --> just sound it out, because this one is really important when you are meeting other teachers and your principle/director. It is a very polite phrase (there are less formal ways to say "nice to meet you" outside of school, with friends, etc).
an'nyeonghi gahseyo- "goodbye"- this gets a little tricky because this is what you say to a superior/older person when he/she is the one leaving, if you are the one doing the leaving, you say an'nyeonghi gyeseyo  (the pronunciation is "gah" vs. "gye" or "gay"). 

Always say hello and goodbye when entering an office or room full of teachers!!! It is a Korean custom. And while people may initiate handshakes, it is customary to bow when greeting someone. At first it feels awkward, but after two weeks I found myself doing it instinctively (probably even at times when it isn't necessary). 

I'd recommend learning hangul, the Korean alphabet. It's an easy to learn, very logical alphabet made up of 40 characters. Even if you don't understand spoken Korean, you can sound out things phonetically, and you'll often find that signs at restaurants and in touristy areas are actually English words written in hangul. Also, learn basic numbers! This will help you when shopping and in taxis. 

Not as scary as it looks I swear! (And way easier than Chinese).
4) Gifts- many people recommend bringing small gifts, something unique for your home country, to give to your principle and co-teacher. However this can be difficult if you don't know how many co-teachers you'll be working with (sometime you'll have more than one) before arriving. While a gift for the principle or director will always be appreciated, initial gifts are not as important as partaking in the culture of sharing. Instead of worrying about individual gifts, bring cookies or fruit for your co-workers one morning. No teacher in my office will ever eat something without offering a bit to everyone else. This one will definitely help win over your co-teachers! 

However, if you're invited to a teacher's home (or any Korean's home for a meal, party, etc), definitely bring fruit or a bottle of wine. No thank you note is required but it is customary to bring a small gift. 

NOTE: When you give someone a gift always give it to them with two hands, don't just hand it over casually. Also accept gifts with both hands. Same goes for pouring a drink (Soju or otherwise) for an older person/ superior/stranger. You may get taken out to dinner with your co-workers the first week; make sure to pour all drinks with one hand on the base of the bottle and one hand on the top. Koreans always pour drinks for one another, do not let the person's cup next to you get empty!

Do this! Though hopefully your gifts won't be as tiny...

5) On that notes, let's talk about sharing- if you don't like it (especially when it comes to food), get used to it!! Koreans share everything, I've even seen teachers taking food from other teachers' and students' trays during lunch (they give it away sometimes too). Most restaurants serve dishes meant for two or more customers.

Typical Korean restaurant meal. They love side dishes!
6)  The Classroom- rumor has it that Korean students are very well behaved. While it's been mostly true in my case, that isn't everyone's experience, so you will have to be ready to lay down some rules. If you don't use a firm hand in the beginning it will be very difficult to get back control later! If your students are in high school, perhaps try making a list of rules with them (it will help them to practice their English, allow them to demonstrate maturity, and establish guidelines). 

They won't hate you for it, rules and restrictions are a regular part of Korean society, I'd say more so than in the States. In general, there are a lot of major differences between Korean and American schools in terms of the student-teacher relationship and the way Korean students are taught. I am currently working on another post about this subjects because it is very important and probably one of the hardest adjustments for new teachers.  

7) Co-teachers- This applies to public schools only. Your co-teacher may be anything from your best friend at school, to your translator in the classroom, or to a silent figure who sits in the back of the room while you teach. There don't appear to be many guidelines for co-teachers and their role, so it's kind of the luck of the draw. 

You also may work with more than one co-teacher, some more helpful than others. No matter how you feel about your co-teacher(s), always try to compromise and make things work if a problem arises. In most cases, your co-teacher is just there to help translate if students don't understand something and to help manage the classroom. 

How co-teaching might feel sometimes.
Be aware that anything you tell your co-teacher will most likely become common knowledge among all teachers. There is a tendency to gossip. Don't want everyone knowing about your wild night in Hongdae? Then keep it to yourself. 

For public and private schools, understand that most Koreans don't live on their own until they are married. Other teachers and your principle/director may not grasp the idea that you are comfortable being independent. Their concern for you might be great if you need help buying a cellphone or want someone to show you around, but if you want to keep your school and private life separate it may take some more effort. For example, if you're sick and need to stay home, expect teachers to call and check up on you, or even try to stop by. In general, this shouldn't be a huge problem, but be aware that you may have to set certain boundaries. 

In general:

1) You're an example of western culture- You'll find out very quickly that as much as you are here to teach English, if you work outside of Seoul, you are also here to be an example of western culture for students, whose only other references may be TV and movies. Your students, fellow teachers, and people you meet on the street, may ask questions or say things that seem offensive or xenophobic. It's best to understand that for the most part, these questions (or comments) are not coming from a malicious place. In terms of having a modern economy, South Korea is a young country that is still adapting to an increasingly globalized world.

To some Koreans, you probably look like this. 
On the bright side, as a foreigner, especially if you have blonde hair or blue eyes, you will find yourself the recipient of many wonderful (and strange) complements. They will say you are beautiful, and I guarantee at least one person will complement you on your small face (they seem to think they have large faces and prefer Western facial structures).

Flipping back again, if you have blonde hair and someone asks if you're Russian or of Russian descent, SAY NO! Apparently there is a sizable community of Russian prostitutes in Korea...asking if you're Russian is more of a proposition than a question.

2) BE PREPARED FOR DISORGANIZATION- this is a big one, teachers at public and private schools will always say that no matter what happens (cancelled classes, last minute dinners, etc) just go with it and try not to let your frustration show (Koreans don't generally show a lot of emotion). I have to say, if you are a control freak who wants a consistent schedule, needs to know what is going on at all times, and likes everything to go according to a set plan, this might not be the job for you.

There is a lot of bureaucracy in Korean schools and they may do things that seem illogical or unnecessary (for example, I had to get permission from the principle to get rides to school from another foreign teacher who lives in my building...permission was granted, but it seemed like something that should have been purely my decision). It can be frustrating at first but it gets better as you settle into a routine (a flexible one that is).

2) There is tons of stuff to see, do, and learn in Korea. Be proactive in getting out there, but don't overwhelm yourself by trying to do it all at once. It might be hard to resist the urge since living in a new country can be very exciting, but it's better to experience new things once you have a better grasp of the culture and what's out there.

So this is all the "First Week" advice I have to give. There is lots more out there, especially since everyone's experience is different!! For more reading I'd suggest looking at http://kimchi-icecream.blogspot.kr/ which has great posts about cultural differences and teaching in Korea, as well as http://www.eatyourkimchi.com/ for Korean how-to's (gestures, games, phrases, how to use your washing machine!). However, at some point, turn off the computer, stop reading, and get excited for a great year! No matter how much you try to prepare, the best part about Korea is that you will always be surprised! 

1 comment:

  1. this is a beautiful post and a very useful one! I am researching about teaching ESL in Korea and reading yo helps a lot!!!



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