Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A Day in the Life of an ESL Public School Teacher in Rural Korea

I was originally writing this in order to submit it to several professional travel blogs in a vein attempt to get it published in an e-zine somewhere. However, I decided that it didn't have the zest that I wanted. So, I decided I'd just post it here instead and work on a more exciting piece to submit somewhere at some point in the future. So, enjoy...

The alarm sounds at 6:45am. I wake up with a taut stretch and press the snooze button on my iPhone. I don’t have to leave my apartment until 7:45am so I can allow myself another fifteen minutes of lethargy before I set out into the world. I toss and turn and can’t get back to sleep so I lay awake and think about the day ahead. Time goes by quickly and before I realise it I’ve drifted back to sleep. The snooze alarm echoes through my eardrums and I reluctantly roll out of bed. It’s 7:40am. I rush into the bathroom, scrub my teeth, run a brush through my hair and have a quick wash. I throw yesterdays clothes back on, double check I have my USB drive full of all my lesson plans and I’m out the door on time and on schedule.

On a daily basis I’m reminded that it’s still winter as I step outside and feel the chill attack my nostril hairs. My hands find warmth in my pockets as I scurry down to the bus terminal to catch my 8’o clock bus to school. I live in a small rural farming town two hours north east of Seoul in Gangwon-do. At 7:45am there isn’t much going on. The smell of fish wafts up from the vents outside the fish restaurant. Dogs are chained to posts and cling to the walls of their kennels for a little extra warmth. Korean soldiers clasping designer bags are running to catch the 7:50am bus to Seoul. I walk steadily through the ice and past the myriad of convenience stores to the bus terminal.

I’m greeted every morning by an elderly man sitting cross legged behind the counter of a haggard plush white bus terminal. The man is rarely smiling, always has a cigarette drooping out the side of his mouth and speaks in a raspy voice. “Anneyeong Haseyo,” I say politely to try and get his attention, which is often elsewhere. He looks up at me from below his cotton winter hat. He realises it’s me and proceeds to issue me with my ticket. I hand over my money, say goodbye and stride onto my bus. The inter-city buses across the whole of Korea are quite comfortable. I nestle into my leather seat and use the bus stations wi-fi to catch up with my friends from home before the bus leaves.

The bus journey is a pleasant one and takes roughly ten minutes. The bus driver will occasionally swerve out into the opposite lane to overtake army convoys, slow drivers or tractors that might be blocking his way. He’ll speed around corners; run traffic lights and barley miss any cyclists that might be caught by the side of the road. The bus is never late.

I get dropped off in the small town that my school is in at 8:15am. I take a casual stroll down the hill to my school, breathing in the cold mountain air. I work at a preferably small school, (we have roughly 45 students total). It sits beneath the peak of a small mountain and as it is the height of winter the school is covered in a sprinkling of fresh white snow. I open the glass door and slide my outdoor shoes off and replace them with my indoor shoes kindly provided by my school. I’m usually the second or third person to arrive so I walk through the quiet corridor to my office; I throw my jacket over my chair and turn my computer on.

At 8:30am the third grade teacher arrives and offers me a coffee. I sip it down as I check my emails and go over the day’s schedule. It’s a Wednesday; I have four classes on Wednesday’s. 3 are what I call textbook classes. These are classes that get taught out of government supported text books and therefore require minimal planning. On Wednesdays I have Grade 4, Grade 3 and Grade 5 for textbook classes. Then I have my favourite Grade 4 after school class.

My co-teacher strolls in with a lot of the other teachers at around 8:45am. They all car pool together as they live in Chuncheon (a city roughly an hour from my school).Today is my lucky day as my co-teacher informs me that my Grade 4 text book class is cancelled. It’s not my lucky day because it’s cancelled. It’s my lucky day because I’ve been told in advance. Sometimes, it will be fifteen minutes into class before my co-teacher wanders in to let me know my class is cancelled, other days I won’t get told at all. I graciously thank her for letting me know and proceed to read the daily news from my favourite news sites before knuckling down and going over my other lesson plans for the day.

I’m ignored by most of the other teachers in the school this morning. Not in a bitter way. They just seem busy getting on with other things, or shouting across the room to one another, as I don’t speak Korean I tend to stay out of it and just sit at my desk and keep myself busy. 10am rolls around and I pick up my books, pull out my USB stick and head to my first class.

The kids are especially excitable this morning; they are running around the classroom chasing each other. My co-teacher for this class is nowhere to be seen so I settle myself down at the front of the classroom and set up the computer. My English classroom has a smart board linked up to the computer and textbook classes are taught interactively with a CD-ROM played through the smart board. (This is common practice across most of the public school system.) My kids are still running riot so I decide to join them. I play rock, paper, scissors and lose, I call a few of my students crazy much to the delight of the other students in the class, and I make silly faces and noises with them. Once I’ve let them have a little fun they are usually quite quick to settle down once I shout “ready”?

I ask them all individually “how are you this morning?”

The same old responses:





Everyone laughs at the student who says he is angry.

“Angry Bird” the next student replies. Koreans love Angry Birds!

“Angry Bird, Angry Bird!” and so it goes for every student there after.

“So, everyone feels like an angry bird today?”

“Yes,” they reply.

Crazy indeed.

I kick off the lesson and review the things that they learnt last class. I then introduce the new words and sentences, run a listen and repeat session and play the CD-ROM videos. The kids go crazy when I repeatedly click the play button causing the characters in the video to stutter, “I, I, I can swim.”

I walk around the class asking the students the key questions from today’s videos.

“Can you swim?”


“Can you run?”


“Can you fly?”


“WOW!” I say. “Soo Kim can fly!” The class all laugh. They’re so easy to entertain its silly.

We then wrap up the ‘learning’ part of the lesson and proceed to play a game. The co-teacher arrives in the nick of time and explains the game in Korean for the kids, we play the game until the lesson is over, do a quick review and I’m left in a silent classroom once more.

I have a huge break between now and my next class. I plan a lesson for the next day and waste some time reading travel articles online. My principle strolls into the teacher’s office at 11:30am and we all stand up and sit back down again. He talks to the vice principle for a while, makes himself a tea and leaves. Lunch time rolls around at 12:30am and I walk down the corridor to meet my fourth grade kids. Since my first day at school I’ve always had my lunch with the fourth grade. This is mainly due to the fact that my main co-teacher is the fourth grade homeroom teacher. We head for the lunch room. Today we have, kimchi (what a surprise), a tofu and kimchi soup (not bad), rice (obviously), the main dish looks like it’s some kind of grilled fish with seaweed and sesame seeds, then we have a spring onion, cucumber and sesame seed concoction, with some banana for dessert. An average school lunch. I swear since day one, no school lunch has been the same.

My next class is fifth grade, they’re much better at English than third grade, but today we are just having a writing test and reviewing some things they’ve already learnt. They do pretty well on my writing test so I reward them by playing the angry birds game with them (it’s essentially an English bomb game in which students must answer questions to get prizes). The class goes swimmingly and I return to my desk for an hour before my after school class. I check my emails once more and make sure I have enough tricks up my sleeve for my after school class.

After school with fourth grade is always a lot of fun, they have a pretty good level of English and respond well to most activities I do with them. Today we learn about jobs, I teach them the words and then we play a hot seat game in which students sit in front of a picture while the other students use English to try and describe the picture so that the student in the hot seat can guess what the picture is. A simple, fun game that lasts until the bell rings. There’s not really a bell.

I have an hour left before I go home so I do some writing. I usually use this time to wind down at the end of my day. I’ll talk to friends from home, watch youtube videos or like today try and write something. During National Novel Writing Month I frantically bashed away at the keyboard during the last hour of my day.

At 5pm I pack my things up and say “Anneyeong Gaseyo” to whoever is left in the office. I head for the bus terminal and buy my ticket from a man with a less raspy voice than the man in the town I live. I sit in the bus stop and watch the world go by until my bus arrives at 5:20pm. This bus ride always goes much slower than the morning ride and today we get stuck behind a giant army convoy. I get back into town at 5:35pm, a little later than usual.

I haven’t got any groceries in so I head straight for Kim’s Mart, a local market. I decide I don’t want to cook tonight so pop next door to a tiny take away kitchen where I order two rolls of Tuna Kimbop (Korean sushi without the raw fish). Kim's Mart has always appeared a little dirty to me but really it's the best the town has to offer, and I can't complain. I know of some English teachers who don't have markets in their towns at all and have to head out on weekends to stock up. I pick up a few bits in Kim’s Mart whilst my kimbop is being made and finally head home. The town is much more alive at this time of day. There are high school students walking past the convenience store. They wave at me and say hello and I respond accordingly. I stroll up the hill and past the church to my apartment. I enter my door code, throw my bag down and collapse onto my bed for five minutes.

Once I've regained composure I get up and eat my dinner whilst catching up on some American TV. I go and see if one of the other teachers is home and we talk for an hour about teaching and travel and other trivialities. I head back to my room at around 8pm and decide to catch up on some more writing. I settle in for an early night at around 10:30pm and get ready to do it all again tomorrow.

Tomorrow will be very different. Tomorrow will be very much the same.

1 comment:

  1. I am heafing out in a few weeks to teach in a rural village. What a rural village is differs between countries. My home rural village has 300 people. In Korea my new village has 23,000 plus!!!