South Korea / Teacher Diaries

How Teaching English in South Korea Changed My Life

Megan Paige

Megan Paige

December 12, 2019

After returning from my time teaching English in South Korea, I took some time to reflect on the ways this experience had changed me as a person. They say that diamonds are formed under pressure. I wouldn’t exactly say I am a shiny new diamond after working abroad but I am definitely far more polished than I was before. Living and teaching English in South Korea has given me a platter of life lessons that I will carry in all my future endeavours throughout the rest of life.

  1. Shifting my work ethic
  2. Improvising, adapting, and overcoming
  3. Giving 100% in every task
  4. Building up my social life as an expat
  5. Integrating into a new culture
  6. Gaining a new perspective
  7. Making the most out of every opportunity
  8. Combating the fear of failure

Shifting my work ethic

Before teaching English in South Korea, I was always proud of my work ethic.  I have always been a diligent student and worked hard for what I accomplished. But in Korea, this type of ethic is the expected norm.

You are expected to stay late or come in early on very short notice.

You are expected to have your schedule completely changed and you will have to go with the flow.

This is a cultural difference with which many foreign teachers battle at the beginning of their teaching placement. You won’t receive the recognition that you would expect when working hard but that’s okay. It pushes your boundaries and challenges you, which forces you onto a road of growth and development.

woman holds South African flag in flower field

When deciding to Teach English in South Korea, I didn’t realize just how much it would help me grow as a person.

Improvising, adapting, and overcoming

Your classes will swap and change and there will be new faces in your classroom all the time.

This may seem like a nightmare for some (especially for the serial planners!) but it really kept me on my toes. It made me live a life like one of my favourite Bear Grylls’ quotes, “Improvise, adapt, overcome.”

Since working in Korea, I have been able to adapt to any new work environment like a breeze. When my schedule unexpectedly changes, I know how to prepare and think quickly on my feet.

woman overlooking water

While teaching English abroad, you’ll become more patient, flexible, and culturally sensitive.

Giving 100% in every task

I also learnt a valuable lesson about how students are expected to give 100% of their effort at all times.

These students are under a tremendous amount of pressure – from their parents, teachers and general society. It is only therefore fair that each and every lesson I presented was worth their valuable time. 

Students will often arrive to class tired and unmotivated as this is probably their third extra class after an entire day of school. Yes, you are in Korea to explore and have a great adventure; but remember that primarily you are there to be the best teacher you can be.

I am used to this attitude today in my work. I remind myself to always put all my effort into my work and make sure that I can perform to the best of my abilities not only for myself but for my coworkers, employer and especially those I’m servicing – in this case, my students. 

student in classroom making peace sign

While such a big life change can be overwhelming, students always remind you to take a second for fun!

Building up my social life as an expat 

Balance is key in life and because we are social animals, it’s vital that we don’t neglect our innate nature to connect and socialise with others.

South Korea is a great place to make friends and has a vibrant expat community. The school that I taught at was near the country’s capital, Seoul.

Seoul is buzzing with all kinds of social events but I found it quite difficult to make friends on my own. My co-teachers were all lovely Korean ladies, but being co-teachers is where our friendship started and ended.

This is when I reached out and started making friends with other foreign teachers that lived in my area. I now try to find people who are in similar situations to me as it is easier to connect, especially when you both speak the same language in a foreign country.

About halfway through my teaching year I discovered tons of groups on Facebook. Book clubs, hiking clubs, and coffee meet-ups saved my social life. I wish I had joined these groups when I first arrived in South Korea because it helped me make friends that shared the same interests in me.

After South Korea, I made the decision to immigrate to the United States. When I arrived the first thing I did was to check all the meet-up groups on social media. Never underestimate how useful social media can be, it is literally how I make new friends in a new place.

Integrating into a new culture 

South Korean culture is one of the most interesting cultures to learn about and experience first-hand. Many Koreans love foreigners, but there is a small minority who do not.

Just remember that foreigners may seem like an alien to many of the Koreans and they may stare or point and just be generally excited or inquisitive about your presence.

Remember to be respectful of their (sometimes) outdated opinions. Even when I disagree with something, I still aim to be respectful in any given situation. This is something that I have carried with me, particularly when moving to other countries when people’s views may differ from my own. 

Gaining a new perspective

This is also one of the most important lessons you learn from teaching English abroad.

Disagreements and different views are inevitable in our globalised world but they also underly the beauty of diversity and human connection across cultures.

This is true too across sub-cultures within the same country – be it the UK, US, Australia, or any other country. Life would be very boring if we all held the same views on everything.

By respecting and embracing our differences, the world can be a much more compassionate, open-minded, and respectful place.

I have my experience of teaching English in South Korea to thank for this new perspective I’ve been fortunate to develop and I hope as many others around the world are able to discover it too.

women in a classroom

Co-teachers are often a teacher’s first local friends.

Making the most out of every opportunity

In ordinary day-to-day life, it is easy to fall into a mundane routine. I would often cancel plans just to relax and recuperate. Although rest days are important, I find that I regret missing out on a lot of opportunities. The excitement of living abroad soon wore off and I sometimes took for granted how lucky I was to be in such an awesome foreign country.

We live in an unpredictable world where challenges and opportunities present themselves at every corner and things frequently chop and change. With a lot of reflection, I now try and make the most out of any situation and try and push myself out of my comfort zone when new challenges and opportunities come my way. 

two friends on street in south korea

With the help of social media, I was able to make friends with other foreign teachers living in the area.

Combating the fear of failure

The fear of failing has robbed me of many opportunities. I have always been more scared of failing at something new than trying something new.

I tried new things in the classroom and failed, I misread words and students cackled, I would attempt to draw animals on the board which would lead to the mayhem of miscommunication and in the end, it was all part of my journey of personal growth and discovery. 

When I realized that the classroom was still standing at the end of it, it was not a big deal and tomorrow the kids would not even remember the silly cow that looked like a donkey. This opened a whole new different kind of teaching where I could try new and creative ways for the kids to learn.

Sometimes it worked amazingly and the kids loved it and sometimes it didn’t and that was okay. I learnt how important it is to not let fear stand in the way of trying out something new and creative creative. Because at the end of the day, failing is not nearly as scary as not trying anything new at all. 

I would whole-heartedly recommend teaching English abroad to anyone looking to take a break from their lives back home and embark on a journey of personal growth and discovery. You will not regret it.

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