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Meet the teacher: ESL Instructor, Mark, in Gwangju, South Korea

We caught up with Mark, an ESL teacher from Illinois, who has been teaching abroad on a Teach Away placement for three months at a school in Gwangju, South Korea. We asked him some questions about his experience so far, so he could share an insight and his perspective with others interested in teaching in Korea.

What initially interested you in teaching abroad?

Well, firstly, I’ve always been really interested in travel, and when I decided to head out for my TEFL placement, I was well-positioned to try something new because I wasn’t tied down by anything in particular. I had a lot of freedom to explore the idea of a new adventure. I also have a couple of friends who have either taught ESL previously or are currently abroad teaching, and they’ve had nothing but good things to say about their experience.

Also, whenever I’ve travelled I’ve found it to be such an educational experience. I’ve learned a lot about the world, but also about myself and about others. So not only do I get to go abroad and teach others, but I get to learn something new as well.

Why did you decide on South Korea?

I was pretty indiscriminate—in my application, I picked 8 countries that generally interested me. I then decided on South Korea because I had friends teaching there already who all had positive things to say about their experience, and I had also taught several international students from South Korea in the United States as part of an exchange program. Those students made a great impression on me.

Did you have any concerns before you left?

I actually didn’t have many concerns, I’m pretty laid-back and like to go with the flow. I think it’s important to be as easygoing as possible when making such a drastic move, otherwise anything could bother you. Although I’ve heard some people say that their actual situation differed slightly from their contract, my experience here in South Korea has proved to be a very pleasant surprise.

Describe the school that you teach at and what a typical workday looks like for you.

Something that I like about my placement is that no two days are the same. I arrive at the school I teach at for 11 am, although I don’t start teaching until 12 pm, and on Thursdays not until 1:20 pm. This gives me a good amount of prep time. Having a later start time also allows me to reserve my mornings for myself and activities that interest me personally.

The school is a combination of three Kindergarten-type schools and two hagwons—or private Korean institutes. I have one class that I see everyday, but the other classes are all once or twice a week. All of the materials are provided, which makes lesson-planning very easy. At most, I need 30 minutes to prepare for a whole day of lessons. After teaching in the United States and seeing how much time and effort I needed to put into planning, this process seems like a piece of cake. I don’t have to worry about take-home work because all necessary grading can be done within the hours I’m at the school.

What have you learned about life in South Korea from your teaching experience?

I’ve learned a lot about South Korean culture through my placement, which I’ve really enjoyed. It has often been a challenge when communicating, but despite that fact, my experience has been one to remember thus far. Everyday is a new opportunity to learn a little bit more, not just about South Korea, but about myself as well.

I’ve also learned a lot about different educational styles and educational systems, and have made adaptations to my teaching style based on this system.

What is your favorite meal that you’ve had?

A Korean friend of mine made me a traditional Korean brunch of duck and pumpkin, which was my favorite meal here thus far. Other foods I’ve also really enjoyed are bibimbap, gimbap, samgyupsal, to name a few. I’ve pretty much enjoyed it all here, I love how spicy things can get. It feels a lot healthier, tastier, and fresher than the food I was used to back home.

What’s your neighborhood like?

My neighborhood is nice and quiet. There is a park in the heart of the neighborhood, and a lot of my coworkers and friends live in nearby buildings. It creates a real sense of community here. My apartment is small, but that’s to be expected in Korea, and I’m able to get out and do interesting things nearby anyway—I enjoy the local restaurants, and the mountains for hiking are literally a six-minute walk from my place. I’ve found the people here to be super nice and welcoming.

Where would you like to go next?

I haven’t really thought that far ahead because I’m enjoying my experience here, but I think one day I’d like to do a placement in Bolivia, if it presents itself.

What resources did you find helpful as you planned to go abroad?

I think trying to connect with teachers that are either currently placed at the same school, or teachers who have taught there in the past is really helpful.

Do you have any tips for teachers who are looking to apply to teach abroad?

Do your homework beforehand to understand as much as you can, but also realize that at some point you will just have to roll with it. Don’t look at this as something you will do for a short time—embrace it as your new life and new home, even if you’ll only do it for the one year.

Think about culture and food. They are very important, and it’s important to embrace new things and not just carry your old habits and traditions with you. Your good attitude will enhance your experience.

Finally, if you can, try and email or talk to teachers that are currently at the school and get their impressions and their advice before you begin.

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