From Korea to DePaul: Teaching Language ’till I Die

I am a new Graduate Assistant at the DePaul University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL) as well as a new member on the Collaborative for Multilingual Writing and Research (CMWR) team. When I traveled abroad, I discovered my passion for teaching languages. Languages allow us to communicate with people from all over the world and challenge us to see in new ways. My two years in Korea highlighted the loneliness that anyone feels when moving to a new country and dealing with a new culture. My life-long mission is to teach English and learn fluent Korean so I can help mentor and teach others. I want my life to reflect my mission and to remind me to keep moving forward during the hard times as I continue my language journey.

Korea and Cultural Differences

After I graduated from Purdue, I desperately wanted to teach abroad. The travel bug had bitten me. I was not sure what to expect as I applied to three different countries: Japan, Korea, and China. For a few months, I waited and thought I was never going to live out my dream traveling the world, but I discovered in late July 2015 that I would be teaching English in South Korea. When I first landed and got off the plane, my heart was pounding. I was over 2000 miles away from home. Back then, I could not speak Korean fluently so I felt like a fish out of water. I had international friends who struggled with adjusting to American culture and I never knew how they truly felt until then. Even growing up in a Korean household could not prepare me for the cultural differences I experienced in South Korea. Korea did not have much diversity, as observed in the way Korean men and women dress.  Furthermore, the academic culture in South Korea is much stricter. Many Koreans kids attend academies for study which, called hagwons, and spend hours studying and get home late every night. It took some time to adjust to these cultural differences when I first started teaching at Bongsan and Gahoe Elementary Schools in Hapcheon, South Korea.

 

Teaching Experience in Korea

When I first walked into Gahoe Elementary School, I was stunned to learn that there were only 50 kids in all my classes combined. It was a struggle to teach students who were 6 to 12 years old during my two years in South Korea. I had never taught classes before, developed my own lesson plans, or had to deal with screaming kids. In addition, I had Korean co-teachers who I taught alongside with. I was originally told that the teacher and I would split the work evenly. However, this was not the case. Some teachers would leave me to teach the class alone and would even leave the room. Other teachers would do all the teaching and I would stand in the front frozen like a statue. Many of my friends had the same experience. It was interesting to co-teach because collaboration can be effective, but perhaps only in the right circumstances.

After my kids starting misbehaving, I realized that I needed to create a rewards system so that they would listen more in class. I put my face on a $1 bill and kids who got $10 dollars received candy. My younger kids received stickers. Once they received 10 stickers, they would also receive candy. I also created a variety of games that could teach students different English terms. One of my most popular activities in class was the marshmallow tower. My students would get into 3 to 4 different groups and attempt to build the largest tower. Each group would receive 20 marshmallows and lots of spaghetti straw. The group who would build the tallest tower would win. The tower also had to stand on its own for one minute. My students and I also played Cookie Face, a game where they were put one cookie on their face and had to move the cookie to their mouth. Many teachers on the staff did not speak English; thus, it was hard to communicate with teachers at the time. However, many teachers did do their best to make me feel included. At times, I was distant and anti-social because I would feel embarrassed trying to interact with individuals who only spoke Korean. However, I realized that this was a “two-way street” and that I needed to leave my comfort zone to meet new people.

Reflection

Overall, my two years teaching English in Korea has prepared me to be a language teacher. I will use my experiences in Korea to better myself as a writing tutor. Currently, The UCWbL has many international students who are far away from home and learning English. After living abroad for two years, I empathize with these students and will use my experiences abroad to make them feel comfortable during tutoring sessions. I will also help international students enjoy themselves at DePaul through my role on the CMWR team. I highly encourage others to travel abroad and see the world when you get the chance.