By Jason Gaskell
A group of pre-teen girls giggled and went red as I exited the toilet.
“That is girls room. Boy up-stair,” said Mr. Ahn, one of the Korean ESL grammar teachers. I guess my guidebook was wrong; not all restrooms in Korea are unisex.
I put the communal toilet roll that I was holding back on the front desk and suddenly became self-conscious at the amount of paper I’d used. I started to go a little red myself; even the simple things seem complicated here.
“Okay, training finished,” said my new employer.
I had just sat in on another teacher’s class and had spent most of it trying to stay awake. The nine-hour time difference was beginning to get the better of me.
“This your book, but free talking okay first class,” said the director.
My choice of school, like many first timers, was a blind and rather naïve one. This revelation became clear as I began to be ushered into a classroom with my jacket on, a textbook under my arm, unprepared, untrained, and with fifteen equally well wrapped children peering from behind woolly scarves and hoods. The director closed the door and a brief silence ensued.
“Teacher – cold!” said a skinny teenage girl with round glasses and a colourful home knitted scarf. It was a bit chilly.
I was the only foreign teacher at a school that was evidently struggling to make a decent profit. When I arrived in winter, the school’s heating system was only used when deemed absolutely necessary and during this particular time, there was apparently an insufficient quota of sickly staff and students to warrant a blast from the atrophied old boiler. I began to wonder if my decision to sign a contract before arriving; might prove to have been hasty
Start as you mean to go on
Suddenly came a barrage of questions as students competed to get my attention. They were shouting out and I struggled to focus and answer one.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“How many is your family?”
“Why eye blue?”
“Do you like Singer?”
It was at this time that I made it clear that the students must raise a hand if they wished to ask a question. I pointed my hand upward to demonstrate what I wanted and after looking at the ceiling several times, they finally seemed to get it. However, it took a further five months before this system was completely automated.
Don’t always do as the Roman do!
In the summer, the air conditioner was used just as sparingly as the heating was, and I used my battered textbook as a reasonably effective fan. By this time, I had managed to get some sort of control of all my classes except the 13-year-old middle school students. This class was still running rings around me (sometimes quite literally) and my patience was beginning to wear thin.
“Aha, teacher is monkey,” replied one of the boys pointing at my excessively hairy arms. I let this one go and continued my instructions.
Then I noticed another boy putting his hands together and closing all his fingers except for his index digits, which were pointing outwards to form a skewer. His face lit with a malevolent grin; the boy next to him was bending over as he struggled to get something out of his bag. I knew what was going to happen; I had seen this bizarre ritualistic child’s prank before. The unaware victim was about to get a ‘dong-chim’, a painful poke where you would rather not.
“Don’t!” I shouted. But it was already too late—
“Arrgh” cried the victim as he clutched his behind. The perpetrator writhed around in his chair, laughing uncontrollably. They simply don’t teach you this stuff at ESL training schools.
Being a first time ESL teacher in a foreign country is all about flexibility. The training is ongoing, a daily workshop that will stretch your organisation and improvisation skills to the limits. The first few months are the hardest but day by day, it does get easier. Eventually you will inevitably begin to settle into some kind of rhythm and personal pedagogic system.
During my early days in Korea I was given very little assistance by my director other than a textbook and a series of local disciplinary techniques, such as misbehaving students having to hold a chair over their heads for several minutes. But I never used these, what I considered to be rather outdated directions (in Korea too!). Instead, I tried to control my class with humour and a good rapport.
Do Your Research
That first job in Korea made me around 1.5 million won (around $1500) per month, plus a free apartment, for working 120 hours. I must stress that this first school was by no means typical of language institutes in Korea.
I now make 2.3 million Won ($2300) plus a $400 housing allowance for the same hours at a very comfortable school that has an established curriculum and a great training scheme. I found this cushy position with only some insider knowledge and a little patience. Korea is a beautiful place to teach, if you can find a good school. My first experience was not one of the better ones, but persistence can reap great rewards.
It takes either a seasoned ESL teacher or someone with a great deal of luck to secure a position at one of these more reputable schools. Many, like myself, make the mistake of signing a contract before actually touching down in their destination.
Someone with a frugal nature can save anything up to 80% of their earnings while in Korea and what’s more, any native English speaker with a university degree is qualified to teach. So what are you waiting for? Just make sure you do your homework first.
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