What Korea Taught Me About TESOL

When I went to South Korea to teach in 2008, I found myself in a situation I’d never been in before.  I didn’t know what to do with my life.  (Not that I have much of a clearer idea now.  I’m only slightly less lost than I was 4 1/2 years ago.)

I was soon to be a college grad, and I failed to get into grad school, so I had to face the cold hard reality of finding a job.  Not to mention starting to pay off my mountain of student debt.  I had had some previous teaching experience, so I thought I’d try my hand at teaching English in Korea.  I could kill a few birds with one stone: get a great travel opportunity, gain some professional experience, and try figuring out what I want to do.

In the course of four years of teaching in Seoul, I found I enjoyed it very much, and that I had a knack for it. I got promoted, became heavily involved in my job, put in many hours of preparation and essay grading, the whole lot. I plunged myself in, and found teaching English to be fulfilling and fun, especially with my adult students.  Plus, I got to indulge my interests in language and culture at the same time.

I was quite confident in my teaching skills by the time I came back to the US in 2012. I mean, I had gathered 4 years of experience, I was a high-rated teacher at both my jobs, and I had gone through a lot of trial and error to find methods that worked for me.  So I went into my CELTA course in December with a reasonable amount of confidence. I felt I would do well with the foundation I had, and was excited to work on the holes in my game. I figured I could bring a lot of what worked in Korea with me into the CELTA.

I was only half-right.

In retrospect, I am SO happy that I chose to do my CELTA in New York, and not Seoul. I quickly found that my tried-and-true teaching methods with Korean students DO NOT work with Europeans, people from Central and South America, Russians, and other people not from East Asia.  I realized I had a lot of work to do after my first teaching session evaluation…  I found my method was quite teacher-centered, and I wanted to explain every little thing to them before they practiced.  Intro, warm-up, teacher lesson, students practice as I monitor, group feedback, end of class.  This tried-and-true method that worked for most of my students in Korea, I found to be completely out-of-place and inappropriate for my new batch of students.  I needed an adjustment.

A Korean-American colleague of mine and I discussed a lot about the traditional Korean foreign language education system.  In Korea, the Teacher must be an all-knowing figure at the head of the classroom.  The Teacher must stand at the front, disseminate the information while Students (theoretically) absorb.  The Teacher’s job is to push the Students to memorize, and there is no room for creative speech production or errors.  Precision is emphasized because standardized exam scores are the indication of the Student’s success.  Reading and Listening are usually emphasized over output skills like Speaking and Writing.  Therefore, most of my students enrolled with an intense desire to improve their speaking.

In trying to meet my students’ needs and expectations, I had trained myself into a corner.  I didn’t realize how formulaic and structured my lesson-planning style had become.  I grew used to preparing thoroughly enough so that I could answer those tough grammar questions.  I didn’t include activities that involved writing, or quiet head-down individual working time.  I was terrified of silence in the classroom–either I should be talking, or the students should be discussing.  Silence meant class was boring, or no one was getting conversation practice.  I was determined to give my students a place where they could get as much speaking time as possible!  KEEP TALKING!

But I realized during my CELTA course that I was just the Western equivalent to what they were used to.  I gave them the brief teacher-centered lectures they wanted, the conversation practice they needed, and a lesson structure that NEVER varied… nice and predictable.

I was forced to re-examine those habits (among others) and learn that it was okay to break the structure.

One thing I learned to embrace on my CELTA was silence–in Korea what I felt was an absolute no-no transformed into a positive tool.  Silence gives time for them to think and digest.  Above all, silence can be a time for me to take a deep breath, without feeling pressured into rushing on prematurely.

Another point of curiosity I found was that there was little room for “real” discussion in my “discussion” classes with adults in Korea.  Discussions on current events, controversial topics, and culture always fell short of reaching any level of dynamism.  Few of my students ever volunteered to talk about an opinion that was anything less than politically correct and generally agreeable.  I learned early on that students of differing ages, or even positions at their respective companies, felt uncomfortable discussing their opinions with one another.  A woman in her 20’s is highly unlikely to talk about her real opinions with a man in his 50’s.  Even if they work at different companies, age is something Koreans are highly conscious of.  Social stratification based on age is commonplace–people of different ages do not commonly socialize in South Korea.  Traditionally, older people are respected and people stick within their age group when they want to let their hair down and speak frankly.  That’s not something easily circumvented in a class discussion atmosphere, and in my opinion, it’s not something I want to challenge, unless my students are willing to.  It’s just one of those executive decisions we have to make as the Teacher.

Of course, it goes without saying that we must adapt to the needs of our students.  Be it adapting lessons to suit their learning styles, tailoring lessons that help them reach their individual English goals, or above all, choosing material and procedure that maintains respect for their cultural background, we as teachers need to be on our toes.  There is no cookie-cutter system of lesson planning that will work for ALL students.  Sometimes, as I learned with my very active European students, the teacher needs to step back, prepare enough to give the students the tools they need, and let them figure things out on their own.  For other students, the hands-off method might be negatively misunderstood as lack of teacher presence.  Just as we expect our students to come prepared to work, we must come to the classroom prepared to listen.  If that means tossing some of that teaching methodology aside, so be it.  I learned how important it is to dust off those old teaching habits for every new batch of people.

I think it’s absolutely vital to be aware of our students’ cultural context.  We respect it during our daily lives outside the classroom, but we need to do it especially inside the classroom.  When in Rome, do as the Romans.  When in Seoul, DON’T do as the Romans.  It’s as simple as that.


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