Monday, December 12, 2011

Ten Tips for Newbies to the Korean University Teaching Experience

Teaching ESL Korea
Teaching in a Korean University
Semester 9 of my time teaching ESL at a Korean University is coming to a close, with only 5 more classes of speaking tests to administer and some spreadsheet grading magic to make happen.  And when I compare my first shaky semester as a naive newbie to now, it's almost astounding the differences in my teaching and management style.  Anyway, here are my tips for Newbies to Teaching in a Korean University.  I hope they're helpful to you.  I wish someone had told them to me when I first started.

1. Your students will not be as high of level as you think.  While they may have an impressive range of vocabulary, they're often extremely weak in actually using it.  And basic grammar points will need to be reviewed.  I have plenty of other posts about handling low level students in Korean Universities.

2. University is a party-time for Korean students, between Sooneung Hell and selling their souls to Samsung or Hyundai or Kia.  Adjust your classes accordingly.  If you make them too hard with too much homework, the students will be unhappy.  Give a little bit or homework and a few tests so you can have some self-respect but don't stress too much about making it like a university class is "back home."

3. Don't trust the students to "check" the box for their own attendance.  They will lie and cheat for their friends.  You need to personally do it.  And carefully.  It's the only fair way.

4. Don't accept Kyeol-gung-wons (absence excuse papers) for minor things like colds.  Reserve it for the serious such as a car accident/brain trauma/close family member's death. 

5. Chill out.  Korea is a Bali-Bali (fast-fast) last minute kind of culture.  Lots of decisions will happen just in time with regard to classes and schedules and housing.  Don't worry about it and just go with the flow.  If you stress out about it, something terrible might happen to you by the end of your year, like all your hair falling out.  I guarantee it.

6. Cheating (cunning) is not such a serious offense in Korea as it is in the Western World.  Most students think nothing of plagiarizing something off the Internet for a written assignment.  Or copying off their friend in the few minutes before class starts.  Or bringing a cheating paper to the test.  So give assignments and tests that minimize this and you won't have to deal with it.  I do exclusively speaking tests, with groups of 2-4 students in my office.  There is no possible way for them to cheat.  And I simply don't assign the "workbook" as homework.  Check out Culture Shock Korea for some more insight into Korean Culture.

7. Class sizes really do matter.  Before accepting a job, perhaps the most important question to ask would be, "What are the class sizes?"  I'm not sure I would ever take a job with very large, multi-level classes.  This was the reality in my first semester and it was extremely difficult.  Now, some of my classes are down to 10 students and the difference is astounding.  I can actually get to know my students as individuals and see them actually improve their English skills.  It's far more rewarding.

8. Simple is better.  Syllabi, tests, activities, grammar points.  Everything really.

9. Keep on top of the paperwork.  Input attendance into the computer each week.  Enter grades into your spreadsheets as you get them.  Have at least a couple of weeks lessons planned ahead of time.

10. Your teaching impact does not equal your self-worth.  You'll have some bad classes and students that don't like you.  It doesn't mean that you're a bad person, or a terrible teacher.  Get some hobbies and friends and learn to leave your teaching behind you at the end of the day.

For the best tips on how to get one of these prime university jobs in South Korea, check out this fabulous book (by me!): How to Get a University Job in South Korea: The English Teaching Job of Your Dreams.


Matthew Love said...

Thanks Jackie, this is really useful. I'll bear it mind when I start university teaching next semester.
Cheers! And congratulations on completing your first semester...I'm just wondering how I'll be feeling this time next year after my first.

All the best and good luck!

Unknown said...

I wrote up a response to all of these wonderful tips, but they turned out to be longer than expected.
Longer than your original post.
In fact, longer than what is allowed in a comment.
Instead, I've taken your ten tips and my responses and put them into their very own post on my blog.

I am not trying to advertise or anything--I hate that sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

These are really good tips. I'd add: You _will_ have students who will come to your class and promptly put their heads down and go to sleep. At first I tried to engage them, sometimes with a "carrot" and sometimes with a "stick."

I'd suggest not bothering. It's a battle you can't win. Do make sure you explain to them the consequences of having a low participation grade on the first day of class, however (it's worth 20 % of my final mark).

Also, American college profs do grade based on attendance, sometimes. I'd say about half of my college courses did, depending on the professor's preference. Some didn't care. But yeah, in Korea it's universal. When I take attendance I always mention how many "ob-so-yo's" a student has, and remind them that if they get four they get an "F" (that's my university's policy).

Also, and in any teaching situation, if you play "bad cop" early in the semester it's easier to become "nice teacher" later in the semester. Giving too much leeway early on is a recipe for disaster.

Jackie Bolen said...

Definitely agree with the bad cop early and then becoming nicer as the semester wears on. A big mistake I made in the first year was trying to be "friends" with the students and they totally took advantage of that and it was very hard to enforce any kind of rule. Now, on the first day I show that I mean business, but in a friendly kind of way and it's much easier to keep control of the class and have an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.

Turner said...

#2 is insightful, but why do you feel you have to worry about making your students happy? I agree, it might make you a more popular teacher, but is it the best way to teach?

Marc Hogi said...

Great post Jackie...I just finished my ninth semester as a university lecturer as well. I also do speaking tests with students in groups of 2-4...time consuming and tiring, but definitely worth it. :)

Thanks again.

Mike said...

Students are wizards at using their cellphones undetected. At the end of this term, I supervised an exam for 33 of my students. When I scored the tests, I found (by means of a "keonning"-detector question) that 19 of them had cheated by using their cellphone dictionaries. I'd been as vigilant as I could in the test room, but I hadn't spotted a thing.

Jackie Bolen said...

Yeah, the cell-phone thing is quite impressive. I wonder how Korean professors who are teaching "content" courses deal with it?