I can honestly say, that when I traveled to teach in South Korea in 2009, I thought I knew what to expect from Korean schools, but when I arrived there I was horrified by some of the things I learned, and pleasantly surprised by other things that I learned  in my year teaching in Busan, South Korea.

Busan: Teaching in Korean schools
Here’s a little background information.  I had been teaching at a high school in the USA. The economy was in dreadful shape, but I really wanted to change schools. I wanted to try teaching elementary school, and I wanted a change in scenery. I’d heard a lot about teaching in Korean schools, and at the time, there was a big push to recruit native English speakers to teach in South Korea.

1. Private Schools in Korea Can Be Very Good or they can Make You Want to Cry

korean schools
Korean schools: Choryang Elementary School

Okay, I’ll admit that I knew some of differences between private schools, called hagwons, and public schools. One important point is that the public school pay is generally more reliable. That’s why I only applied to work at a public school.

So, teachers who work at public schools in Korea don’t have a hassle to get paid. Private schools are ran by private owners, so …. there might be some issues getting paid or getting time off. The terms of your contract might mean nothing to the private school owners.

Unlike in America, where students attend either a private school or a public school, in Korea, students attend both a private school and a public school. See, the students go to the public school in the morning, and then after lunch, they would go to a hagwon. They are in school all day and evening. When I taught English in South Korea, I’d see students leaving school at 10 p.m. at night. I got off work at my public school at 4 pm.

2. Medical Tests Are Not Private

Korean hospital
Teaching in Korean Schools: Photo by John Linton

You might expect to have a medical test when you arrive in South Korea. That’s how they did it when I taught there. During our orientation at Jeonju University, all of the teachers were ushered into a room. One by one, we had blood drawn and we had x-rays.  They were checking for certain “health problems”. If you failed the medical test,  you were sent home.

The medical tests were required yearly for government workers. This means that public school teachers were required to have these physical exams. My school alerted me that it was time to have my next medical test at the end of my contract. I decided to return to the US after my first contract.

3. Sick Visits

As  a teacher in America, if I felt sick, I could call my assistant principal and she’d arrange to get a substitute teacher for me. In South Korea, I called my English-speaking co-teacher and told her that I had a terrible stomachache and  that I was too sick to teach.

That was okay. On the second day that I was sick, I called my co-teacher  again, and she told me that it was okay, but later that day I had two visitors. I was informed that the principals sent my two colleagues to my apartment to “check on me.” This would have been nice gesture, seeing that I was a foreigner there and all.

One of my co-teachers, however, told me that she was confirming that I was sick really sick. The principal wanted to know if I was faking it, apparently.

I was even told that it was common for colleages from your school to check up on you when you are sick.

4. Field Trips… for Teachers

Korean Schools

Yes. That’s right. On a vacation day, we all boarded a bus and went on a trip to a museum, an area mountain, to dinner and then to a singing room (Karaoke).  We were all day and most of the night.

Schools in Korea are similar, and I was actually told in my orientation that I should expect to attend various gatherings with my co-workers. Every month all of the teachers at my school had dinner together. We did not arrange the dinners ourselves. The school arranged it in attempt for us to become closer (like a family).

We were pretty much required to attend. One of the teachers who could speak a little English told me that she didn’t want to go. She wanted to go home to her family after work.  Oh, yeah, we had to to pay our own money (maybe $20?) every month for these outings.

 

Sometimes Korean schools have fun and creative team-building ideas. For example I’ve made fans, and I tried to make an origami thing, but the person leading this teachers’ team-building exercise at our school didn’t speak English.

5. It’s a Drinking Culture

Korean Schools
Korean Schools: Photo of Korea co-teachers

I learned early on that drinking alcohol is a big part of the South Korean culture. It’s impolite to turn down a drink, but I did…. at school! Yes.

One of our teacher team-building activities entailed playing volleyball. No one told me that there was a mandatory volleyball game.  Of course, I was wearing a dress, and I can’t hit a volleyball to save my life.  Anyway, after the most embarrassing volleyball game in my life, the teachers, the principal and assistant principal gathered together in the gym during working hours and had some hard liquor in the form of shots of soju.

 

6. So, You Are Here to Help Me?

For the most part, my Korean co-teachers were okay. Don’t let me be standing alone in the bathroom, though. If a Korean teacher were to come into the lady’s room while was washing my hands, she’d jump right out of skin as though I were Freddy Krueger. The same thing would happen if I walked down the halls alone. I always startled them, by just be being there.

7. Classroom Observations

Korean Schools
Korean Schools: Photo by Claudine Williams

A classroom observation is when the assistant principal and/or the principal of the school comes by to make sure that the teacher is teaching the students appropriately and the children are engaged in learning.

In America, an assistant principal comes by your classroom (usually unannounced) and watches while you teach. There usually isn’t much time to prepare (unless word gets around early).

In my Korean school, the teachers knew exactly when the observation was going to take place. We actually practiced the lesson with the students, over and over again. It was like practicing for a play.

The children had “roles” to play. Certain students were chosen to speak. We actually prepared choreographed routines with singing and dancing with the young children.

When it came time for the observation, I was just as nervous as if I was going to perform for a Broadway show.

 

8. Welcome to the Clean-Up Crew

Janitors take care of the outside of the school and they’d clean the bathrooms. The students and teachers were responsible for cleaning the classrooms. Every day, a couple of young elementary school students would come and sweep the floor in the classroom, they’d clean the board, and wipe down the desks. Occasionally, either the students or the teacher would mop the floors and clean the other furniture.

Before school holidays or before a classroom observation, the teachers would mop all of the hallway floors and clean the windows, inside and out. My colleague would be perched on the window sill hanging halfway out of the window, trying to clean the outside of the second floor windows. One of my Korean teacher friends complained about having to do housework at home and at school.

9. Baby, It’s Cold In Here!

Public Korean schools are not always all warm and toasty in the winter, and cool in the summer. To save money, my principal insisted that the heat not be turned on until the students arrived in school.

The classroom was ice cold on winter mornings and it never did really warm up. Everyone wore their heavy coats, hats, and everything. It was cold inside those classrooms. The school office was always nice and warm, though.

10.  No Exceptions (most of the time)

Quite naturally, I thought that I wouldn’t need to attend the weekly staff meetings since they were held in the Korean language. I didn’t speak the language, so I sat in the teachers’ meetings and looked at the speaker as though I understood what he/she was saying every week.

I asked if I could be excused from the meeting. My answer was “No. Everyone must attend the meetings. No exceptions.”

Claudine Williams

Claudine Williams

Editor-in-Chief at Somewhere Luxurious
Claudine Williams has been published in the New York Times, the Miami Herald, Hotel Chatter, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, the Huffington Post, and various other publications. Claudine has a master's degree in Information Design and Communications. She believes that everyone deserves a trip to Somewhere Luxurious.
Claudine Williams

Latest posts by Claudine Williams (see all)