Teaching Tales from Daegu: Embracing Life as an English Teacher

This article is part 2 of a series. To read part 1, My Journey From Canada to South Korea, click here

My first two years in Korea were spent working at a hagwon in Daegu. The school’s six-hour morning classes ranged from the ages of five to eight, which were followed by two-hour afternoon classes where the students ranged from the ages of nine to fourteen. From March 1st to February 28th (the Korean school calendar year), each teacher kept the same homeroom class every day in the morning, and I really enjoyed getting to spend that much time with the same class, because I got to bond with them and see them grow. The afternoon classes varied between each teacher; some had beginner level classes while others had advanced academic classes. The hagwon I worked at was much more geared towards English immersion and discussion rather than book work and intense writing. My hours were Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm (though I often ended up arriving earlier or staying a bit later), and my apartment was a mere seven-minute walk from the school.

photo of a korean house or temple overlooking the mountains

Morning Routine: Building Bonds with Kindergarten Students

In the first few months of my first year, I arrived at 8:30am and stayed until 6:30pm almost every day in order to catch up and finish prep for the following week. Since I was working as a kindergarten teacher in an immersion school, there was a lot of craft and activity prepping that had to be done alongside the lesson plans. However, in my second year, I hardly ever had to stay late to do that. I understand the workload can feel overwhelming at first, but once you get into your own rhythm, you’re set! (Pro tip that worked really well for me: lesson plan for two weeks ahead, even if it’s not required by your head teacher or boss; you can always edit or add things to it later, but the hard part will be done!)

Both years, my morning homeroom classes consisted of 14 four year olds. They were all in school for the first time, which came with its own challenges! Every morning, they would start to arrive around 9:10, and class officially started at 10:00am. Class began with circle time, where we sat on the carpet and went through our daily routine of good morning songs and discussion time. This was followed by milk or snack time, before we started our first lesson of the day. As the year progressed, these lessons shifted from me teaching them, to having the students write on our whiteboard themselves and helping to present the lessons with me.

teacher and kid playing with plastic bowling pins

(Gym Time!)

After lesson time, we headed to our allotted hour of “special activities” for the day. This rotated every day between gym, library, and media time. After this came lunch (which I ate in the classroom with the kids, which I’ve heard can be common at schools in Korea), and after lunch came our center time, where the students split into groups to participate in lesson-themed interactive activities, simple worksheets, writing practice, math, and more. And when we finished center time, it was already time to go home!

Different Teaching Styles and Challenges

As I mentioned, the school I worked at was very focused on immersion and getting the kids to learn not just proper grammar and writing, but to pick up on colloquial English as well, so my day could vary from other hagwons. While I understand the value of hitting the books, I really loved this style of immersion, and I found that my students learned incredibly quickly from it. Within the first few weeks, they were already starting to speak back to me in English. It was incredible!

My schedule after morning class is where things differed between my first year and my second year. In my first year, I had an hour-long prep time between my morning class and my afternoon programs that began at 3:30. In my second year, I worked straight from 9-5:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and had from 3:30-6:00 as prep time on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Obviously, the first schedule was preferable! Another tip: don’t be afraid to ask about your schedule and how much prep time you’ll get before you arrive. Often, they won’t be able to tell you your exact schedule until a few weeks before you arrive, since they won’t know which teachers you will be replacing until a certain date. However, they should be willing to let you know when they can. Never be afraid to ask questions!

In both my first and second years, I had afternoon classes that I enjoyed, and others that were much harder. I had a lower-level class of all ages that had students with both physical and mental disabilities; an out-of-control class of six-year olds who stayed after their morning class and just wanted to leave by the time they got to me; and two more advanced English classes with two different groups of the funniest, most clever nine and ten year olds. Honestly, it’s the same as teaching in any country (including back home in Canada) – you never know what cards you’ll be dealt. You just have to do your best!

teacher sitting on the ground teaching about the calendar

(Leslie Teacher preparing for an elementary-level class lesson on why Jimin is her favourite member of BTS)

Conclusion: Thriving in Korean Work Culture

In summary, I loved my first time teaching in Korea. While it’s true that in Korean society, they say it looks good if you work extra hard, my philosophy is that as long as you know you worked hard, that’s all that matters! Just make sure to practice time management in a way that works for you, and know your boundaries, even if it feels weird to do so in a country that prioritizes work culture. Once I learned this, I thrived, and I didn’t find that work in Korea was any harder than teaching anywhere else. I’m even going back for a second round!

photo of kids looking at the penguins at a zoo

Your First Day as an English Teacher in South Korea: What to Expect

Hey there, future English teachers gearing up for your big move to South Korea! So, you’ve landed the job, packed your bags, and now you’re ready to take on your first day in the classroom. But what exactly can you expect? Let me walk you through it.

  1. Preparing for Day One:

Before diving into your first day, you’ll likely already be in touch with an English teacher from your school. If not, I highly recommend reaching out and asking for some contact information. You might even be living in the same building, so why not suggest grabbing a coffee or walking to work together? It’s a great way to get some insider tips and tricks from someone who’s been there, done that.

  1. Getting Acclimated:

Once you arrive at your school, you’ll be introduced to the staff and shown to your classroom. Don’t be surprised if you spend the first few days shadowing another teacher and making trips out with the staff for administrative tasks. You’ll be setting up your life in Korea, from getting your ARC card at immigration to setting up a Korean phone plan and bank account.

  1. Ready, Set, Teach:

After all the admin and shadowing, you’ll finally be ready for your first day as a teacher. You’ll put all that training to use, but trust me, nothing beats the real thing. That’s why I recommend asking a coworker for a daily checklist of tasks to keep you on track. From taking attendance to grading assignments, having a routine will be a lifesaver.

  1. Classroom Management 101:

One key to a successful classroom is establishing clear rules and expectations from day one. Print out a set of rules and hang them on the wall for easy reference. Make it a habit to have students recite the rules daily before starting the lesson. This will help you maintain order and address any misbehaviour quickly and effectively.

  1. The Name Game:

On your first day, make sure to introduce yourself multiple times and ask your students for their English names (and make sure you’re saying them correctly!). Trust me, you don’t want to be like me and accidentally call a student “Hyena” for an entire term before realizing her name is actually “Hannah.” Lesson learned!

  1. Establishing Relationships:

Finally, don’t stress too much on the first day. Focus on building a good relationship with your Korean coworkers—they can be invaluable resources and mentors. I was lucky to have a coworker who understood the challenges of being new to a country and was always there to lend a hand.

So, there you have it—your guide to surviving your first day as an English teacher in South Korea. Remember to breathe, take it one step at a time, and most importantly, enjoy the adventure! Cheers to new beginnings and unforgettable experiences. You’ve got this!

“Don’t stress too much on the first day. Focus on building a good relationship with your Korean coworkers—they can be invaluable resources and mentors” Victoria White


My Journey From Canada to South Korea

This article is part 1 of a series. To read part 2, Teaching Tales from Daegu: Embracing Life as an English Teacher, click here

In December of 2019, after graduating from university, I moved out of my family home and settled in Ottawa (the capital city of Canada) – six hours from where I had grown up. I was working at a bilingual French cafe as a manager while I prepared to start a Masters Program at the University of Ottawa, when Covid-19 hit in March of 2020. 

When my workplace (and most other businesses) inevitably closed for a month, I began to take socially-distanced walks with my Korean friend, Changa, who I had met at work. Through chatting, I learned more about where she came from, what her life was like back home, and became super intrigued with Korean culture and history. These walks and her friendship became a lifeline for me during the pandemic, and when she had to cut her work visa short and return home, I missed her dearly. 

Another lifeline for me during these times was, yes, K-Pop. BTS’ Life Goes On was one of my most-played songs of 2020. K-Pop was simple fun, and made me so incredibly happy. When work opened back up, BTS’ Dynamite was the first song I played every Saturday morning before our busiest shift to hype up my workers. I began to study the history of K-Pop alongside the history of Korea itself. As an undergraduate history major, the history of South Korea was new and incredibly fascinating

woman wearing traditional dress, next to a gate in korea

I became more and more curious. I had previously taught in France and Italy, so the concept of teaching overseas wasn’t new to me, but I had never so much as visited anywhere in Asia. I had heard of people teaching in places like South Korea, Japan, and China, but had never looked into it before. I messaged Changa, who was now living back home in Korea, and asked her tons of questions. What was life like in Korea? What was it like to teach there? What was different for her in Canada when she was here? I discovered soon after that an old classmate of mine from university was living and teaching in Korea too, and I didn’t hesitate to reach out and ask him about it. He raved, on and on, about how much he enjoyed it there, and I was getting more and more convinced. 

woman next to royal guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Korea

First visit to Gyeongbukgung Palace with Changa! (During the pandemic)

The pandemic had changed a lot for me in terms of realizing what I wanted, the direction I wanted my life to go in, and the things I cared about. I had decided to rescind my Masters Program acceptance to study History, and while trying to figure out what my next steps were, I couldn’t stop thinking about Korea. My roommates at the time were so supportive; I distinctly remember one of them simply saying, “Why wouldn’t you go?” and I realized that they were right. What was stopping me? Why not try? I decided to start looking, browsing through countless online forums, applying to multiple recruitment agencies, and setting up some interviews. When I got offered a job at a school in Daegu that fit all of my requirements, I snatched up the opportunity and didn’t look back. 

Don’t get me wrong – I was terrified. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know much about actually living in Korea, and I only had a couple of friends there. I would also be leaving my family and friends in Canada, many of whom I hadn’t seen in over a year because of the pandemic. That was another big factor: the pandemic was still ongoing at the time, and travel was only just beginning to be normalized again. But I knew what I really wanted to do despite all of that, and had everyone’s support to go for it. 

I began to take Korean lessons a few months before I went to learn the basics, joined all the expat communities I could find on Facebook, and did as much research as I could. It appeared that the coronavirus situation was being handled well in Korea, and I felt reassured by all of the country’s immigration protocols. However, I also knew that the only way to truly understand what Korea was like was to just do it: to pack up and go. So I did. 

On my way!

In conclusion, there wasn’t one single reason why I decided to move to Korea. It all kind of happened randomly for me, and I’m so grateful that it did. I left Ottawa after preparing for months, packing and repacking my suitcases about 20 times, until the day of my flight came. I said goodbye to my brother at the airport, and off I went. 17 hours of travel later, I landed at Incheon Airport with no idea what waited for me in the next two years.


Choosing the Right Age Group to Teach ESL in Korea

Welcome future ESL teachers to this guide on choosing the ideal age group to teach English in Korea! Deciding which age group to work with can significantly impact your teaching experience and overall satisfaction during your time in Korea. Let’s explore the different options available and help you make an informed decision.

  1. Kindergarten:

Teaching English to kindergarten-aged children can be a delightful and rewarding experience. Young learners are enthusiastic and eager to absorb new knowledge, making each day full of energy and excitement. However, it requires a lot of patience, creativity, and energy to keep them engaged. If you have a passion for early childhood education and enjoy using interactive activities and songs to teach, kindergarten might be the perfect fit for you.

  1. Elementary School:

Elementary school students in Korea are typically between the ages of 7 and 12 years old. Teaching English at this level offers a balance between the energy of younger children and the ability to have meaningful conversations and activities. You’ll have the opportunity to help students develop their language skills and foster a love for learning. If you enjoy working with children and want to make a lasting impact on their education, elementary school could be a great choice.

  1. Middle School and High School:

Teaching English to middle and high school students provides a different set of challenges and rewards. These students are more independent and capable of engaging in deeper discussions and academic tasks. You’ll have the chance to explore complex topics and help students prepare for exams and future academic pursuits. If you have a passion for language and literature and enjoy working with older students, middle and high school could be a fulfilling option.

  1. Adult Learners:

Teaching English to adult learners offers a unique experience and allows you to work with individuals from diverse backgrounds and professions. Adult students are often highly motivated and committed to improving their language skills for personal or professional reasons. You’ll have the opportunity to tailor your lessons to their specific needs and interests, whether it’s conversational English, business English, or exam preparation. If you enjoy building relationships with learners and facilitating their language development, teaching adults could be a rewarding choice.

Ultimately, the best age group to teach depends on your interests, personality, and teaching style. Consider your strengths, preferences, and goals when making your decision. Remember that each age group offers its own set of challenges and rewards, so take the time to explore your options and choose the path that aligns with your passion for teaching English in Korea.

We hope this guide has been helpful in navigating the decision-making process. Good luck on your teaching journey in Korea!