A few days ago I had a moment to catch a glimpse of what life is like as an EPIK teacher in South Korea. The oh-so-kind Mallory Cordeiro shared some of her experiences and wisdom with me, which I can now share with you – all the future English teachers yearning to head over to culturally diverse and beautiful South Korea.
Where are you teaching in South Korea at the moment?
Hwasun, Jeollanam-do South Korea
What is the school like where you teach?
It’s a large, fairly nice school with two main buildings. My desk is in the teacher’s office in the main building with the other 3rd grade teachers and administration staff. My building is also home to the nurse’s office and all the 3rd-grade classes. There is another building for the 1st and 2nd-grade staff and classes, and a third building for the cafeteria. I meet with each class once a week, which means I teach 19 classes and about 500 students a week.
If you had to sum up your experience teaching in South Korea in one word, what would it be?
What was it like traveling to South Korea during COVID?
Traveling during covid wasn’t great but it wasn’t awful. The first stressful thing was trying to coordinate getting my negative covid test results within 3 days of departing home. Many people got the correct results and the airport staff still gave them a hard time. Luckily, I got 2 different sets of results to be safe and didn’t have any issues. Having to wear a mask for about 24 hours was a bit of a bummer and I also missed sitting in the airport and having a beer at the bar while waiting for my plane, but they were ok tradeoffs for getting to go anywhere.
Once I arrived in Korea, the process was pretty long and tiresome after 24 hours of travel. They took our temperatures and made us answer a bunch of questions before putting us in COVID-safe cabs en route to our quarantine facility. A lot of travelers recorded slightly elevated temperatures in the airport and had to quarantine in the airport for hours until their rapid test results came back negative. Luckily I didn’t have to endure that and got to head straight to my 2-week quarantine accommodation.
What was the quarantine period upon arrival like?
Quarantine started ok, the ability to just relax and do nothing for 14 whole days almost sounded like a vacation in itself. Unfortunately, the facilities were pretty lacklustre, the bed and single pillow were tiny and uncomfortable, there was no TV or microwave, and the food was always room temperature and got worse by the day. They did provide us with some essentials, like toilet paper, body wash, face masks, large hand towels, and a few snacks- but the snacks were quite limited.
What would you advise future teachers to bring with them to South Korea when they head over?
Definitely snacks for quarantine. I brought a silk pillowcase which made my nights in quarantine and my new room so much more comfortable. Standard foreign necessities are power adapters (luckily I had 2 since 1 broke!), chargers, a toothbrush, any medicine you might need- and absolutely bring sleeping pills if it’s more than a 4hr time difference. The water quality is much harsher than back home, so I wish I had brought a filtered shower head. As soon as I got to my new apartment, I got one, and it was SO much better.
For my new apartment, I was glad to have brought my Roku stick, so I can easily stream things to my TV without needing to hook up my laptop. Lastly, women’s fashion is a lot more conservative than back home. I wish I knew to bring more high neck tops, crew neck, at least short sleeves, and loose-fitting pants.
Do you have a favorite go-to dish in South Korea yet?
When I’m looking for a quick snack the convenience store tuna gimbap triangles are a perfect option. When dining out I love bibimbap or kimchi fried rice with a tall bottle of Cass or Jinro Soju.
Have you had a funny experience or strange moment during your time in South Korea yet?
In high school and at university I studied Spanish as a second language. I still know a decent amount of Spanish, but have been trying to learn Hangul since I applied to work in Korea. Since coming here, whenever I’m trying to think of the Korean word, my brain automatically jumps to Spanish. Once I got in a taxi and the driver asked me if I was going to the school and I answered “Si.. yes.. ne…” I’ve also caught myself wanting to say “gracias” and “ lo siento” on a regular basis.
Luckily the longer I’ve been here, the more I hear the Korean words, the more I get used to actually using them. Before coming here, I read that English is very limited in Korea, but it’s less than I even prepared for. The lack of English makes everyday things really difficult. That has probably been the hardest adjustment to moving here so far; even more than the fact that it’s near impossible to find tortilla chips.
What is the most challenging aspect of teaching life?
For me, I teach 3 different grades with 4 different co-teachers. It’s been challenging as a first-year teacher to understand what the level of English my students already have, how to best manage my time in the classroom, and how to meet the expectations of each individual co-teacher. The final challenge has been learning my students’ names. With 19 classes and over 500 unusual (by American standards) names, it has been really hard to learn or use their names on a regular basis.
What is the best part of your teaching day?
The students are the best part. They are all so sweet and welcoming and interested in me as a teacher and a foreigner. Many of my youngest students finish class by yelling “we love you teacher Mal!” In the halls, they giggle and get excited to say “hi” instead of “annyonghaseyo” to me.
They tell me how young I look, how pretty I am, and how much they love me. If I tell them things about me in class, like my favorite hobbies or food, they get excited, and some even clap. I’m treated like a bit of a celebrity, what’s not to love about that?
Do you have a favourite restaurant/shop/go-to place yet?
Hwasun is pretty limited with shopping, so my go-to is taking the bus (that I finally figured out!) to Gwangju. The 228 bus goes right from the end of my street, all the way to the main shopping area. There’s lots of shops and restaurants and even a bit more English spoken. It’s definitely not common, but the odds of finding an ex-pat or foreign restaurant are much better than in my hometown.
Has there been any particular app you’ve been using frequently whilst you’ve been in South Korea?
Coupang is like Korean Amazon, but you need to have your ARC card and local bank account set up to be able to order, so GMarket is a good alternative that you can order from with your American credit card until everything is in order. It tends to run a bit more expensive, but it’s a good option for having heavy things delivered (like water) instead of hauling it all back to your apartment by hand.
Kakao talk is the number one chatting app that literally everyone uses. I also use their add on apps KakaoMap (like Google Maps) and KakaoT (for requesting taxis).
Market Kurly is a good app for ordering groceries delivered to your house.
Hwasun Bus app (화순버스 스마트) is a must-have if you’re living in the Hwasun area and trying to get around. It’s the only app I’ve found that shows all the bus stop names, when the bus will arrive, and the stops that the bus will make.
If you had to give someone preparing to teach English in South Korea advice, what would it be?
Use lots of resources to help you get started. I joined Facebook groups, Kakao chat groups for middle school teachers and my textbook specifically, there are lesson plans in Korshare and Waygook.org, and great sites for free games like Tay’s Teaching Toolkit.
This may be your first year teaching, but MANY have done this before. It can be a lot of work digging through all the resources at first, but it will definitely help your current lessons and give a lot of ideas for the future.
That’s a whole lot of advice from one teacher which I think a lot of soon-to-be teachers are going to be very grateful for. Thanks, Mallory, you’re the best!
If you’re ready to get your Teach Abroad adventure started, click here to learn more about the Teach English in South Korea program!