My Experience Teaching in South Korea

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I felt it’s finally time to share my teaching experiences. Since about month three I’ve constantly been comparing, analyzing, and somewhat dreading the many differences (and few similarities) of teaching in South Korea to my previous year in Utah.

I’ve started this post many times. I’ve wanted to rant, compare, contrast, and share with you the experiences I am having daily. But it’s difficult to construct such a post without sounding biased, unfair, or negative. I mean, I did come here on my own, it was my decision. No one made me quit my job to come teach English in a foreign land. 

Regardless, it’s something I’ve been wanting to write about.

I’ll start by saying this is my experience. Others teaching in Korea won’t have the same experience. It isn’t the same for every school, class, and student in Korea. I teach in a hagwon, which is a private kindergarten, and also in an English academy for elementary aged students.

I don’t have the slightest idea what it’s like to teach in other hagwons or in public schools. I am writing about the differences from my own viewpoint, background, and experiences. 

So here it is, the truth of my experience as I know it. My opinion, maybe a few complaints, and maybe even a few more rants about the comparison between being a first year teacher in Utah and a first year ESL teacher in South Korea. 


When a baby is born in Korea they are one year old. Every Lunar New Year, they are one year older.  Confused? Well let’s say you are born January 8, 2016, yahoo, you are one year old! Lunar New Year was February 8 this year. Congratulations! You are now two years old but have only been alive for one month! 

I am adding this fun trivia because I have noticed how age is a huge factor in the school system. The youngest kindergarten students at my school are five years old , really three (and some two) years old.

Big deal!, you say, I sent my kids to preschool when they were three! Well, sure. However, this isn’t any ordinary school. This is a Korean hagwon … if only those words had the same meaning to you as it does for me!

Let’s just say I can see the exhaustion in the children’s eyes by the sixth hour they’ve been at the school. Three o’ clock rolls around and they aren’t too excited to be sitting cross-legged on the carpet listening to a strange white foreigner trying to teach the alphabet. 


March is the beginning of the new school year. No, we didn’t have summer vacation before all the students moved up a grade (1 point: U.S.). The new year brought many changes, my schedule completely changed, I teach different students and was moved into a different classroom. 

KDLP hospital room (1)

 The curriculum for my classes now are all workbooks. Which means I spend my planning hour … not. really. planning. The books have to be completed on a certain date so it’s a matter of looking at the pages for the day and creating an intro for the topic.  

Why am I sharing this not-so-exciting information? Workbooks basically run this hagwon. Well, that’s not true. It’s the Korean teachers working 50+ hours a week. BUT the workbooks are up there. Because the majority of parents speak very limited English, if any, the neatly completed pages show parents that their children are busily studying and finishing these costly English, hardly-level appropriate, workbooks. Thanks McGraw-Hill.   

KDLP hospital room (4)

Most of my students read English flawlessly. However, pause to ask for someone to summarize what they read or answer a question about the text and you’ll receive deer-in-the-headlight looks. 

This is why I’m mentioning the curriculum. It’s either too easy and the students already know it all, “Teeeaaaccheerr we knoow!!!!” (This is not an exaggeration of dialogue) or it’s not on their comprehension level and you get the look.

With the short class periods, pressing schedules, and piles of workbooks there isn’t a lot of time to really lecture the students on new vocabulary, but they have certainly learned how to appear as if they are fluent.

Classroom Management:

The never ending question for every teacher… How to handle those difficult students? Has anyone found the magic potion yet?

Luckily most kindergarten students are easily bribed into being good by receiving a sticker or good point and hate having “bad point” associated with their name or passed on to their home room teacher.


Easter special day , decorating eggs

My most difficult classes are elementary. In the afternoon, when they arrive, they are coming after completing a full day at public school. I understand they are either tired or hyper and that they just want to go home. I don’t blame them for not wanting to do the work or sit in their chair or speak English.

It’s the daily battle of noise. I’m not sure if it’s the small classrooms or that I’m exhausted after lunch or if the students really are just loud. There’s this pitch that’s whiny, emotional, it causes my heart to race and my head to spin, and a ringing in my ears. It makes teaching, very, very difficult.  

What do you think? :

This is my favorite question to ask children. It guides students to a solution, encourages them to give a response, and develops creativity. I used it frequently in Utah and loved hearing the students’ responses.

Teaching ESL is completely different. This question just doesn’t … really … translate to most students. It’s not only this one specific question that makes me feel, well, defeated in a lot of ways, it’s also the dynamics and atmosphere in the classroom. 

I was all about those classroom meetings before. One issue and one serious discussion later would typically end any problems. I had procedures for everything!

Now, there isn’t enough time or enough vocabulary or quite frankly enough respect to discuss an issue or explain classroom matters.  

Only knowing the students on a very surface level really puts a spin on classroom atmosphere. I don’t really know their personalities or home lives or friendships, and they don’t really understand mine.

It’s more of I’m the “teacher”, they’re the “student” and I am here to say how many pages need to be completed in the workbook and if there is a game when they finish. 

Teaching in Utah made me feel like I was a role model, making a difference. I left feeling I had taught my students, built student rapport, and left a positive impression.

Here I feel like another foreign face, forcing students to listen, patrolling for only English, and then watching as they write neatly in their books.  

However, at the end of  the day, once I’ve left the school, ranted to James, gotten some fresh air, and taken some deep breaths, I am able to remember the reasons I am here.


I came here to get out of my comfort zone, which I very much accomplished (and still occurs daily). I left Utah to see a new corner of  the world and live in a different culture. 

I didn’t expect to learn so much from this experience as I have or become so appreciative for family and friends, the area I grew up in, the importance of communication, and not to mention all the little things that are so easily taken for granted … umm, two words — cheddar cheese, to name one.

Also, I’ve realized anywhere in the world kids are kids. Kids are cute. Kids are silly. Kids really do love to learn. This is why I am an educator. It does not matter the zip code I am teaching in. I teach because children are the most joyful people to be around. They always put a special smile on my face.  I  teach hoping that I am making a difference in at least one child’s life. After all, each day brings on a new adventure. 



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2 Replies to “My Experience Teaching in South Korea”

  1. christy merrill says: Reply

    Kudos to you Crystal! I love your honesty and dedication to teaching and enthusiasum for children. It is good to know that your bravery in leaving your comfort zone has given you enlightened knowledge of global differences and an appreciation of “home” as well. We all miss you guys and know that your journey is ongoing. Be well and keep smiling:)

    1. Thanks Christy! I think both James and I have a new perspective on a lot of things! We miss you all! Hope everything is going well for you! Pass on a hello to everyone back home!

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