Teacher’s Day – South Korea

Teacher’s Day is one of my favorite Korean holidays.  Its not just the cute notes, buckets of flowers, snacks and other assorted gifts.  Sure those help but what really makes me love Teacher’s Day is the realization of how much value Koreans have for teachers.temp_1431679395167.-504624130

There is a separate holiday where the entire country devotes itself to their teachers.  You could argue that its a Hallmark holiday (and i’m sure stationary stores love it) but there’s also a Teacher’s Day song that everyone knows and the day encourages students to visit their old teachers.

Teacher's Day Assembly.

Teacher’s Day Assembly.

This year was the first year I had actual visitors in the 2 hour block our school devoted for students to reunite with their old teachers.  Our students were dismissed after lunch while we had prep time and still got out 2 hours early.  Last year’s 4th graders came by in force dropping off the cutest hand written notes you’ve ever seen. Continue reading

Starting a new school year – Korea

The 2015-16 school year started at the beginning of March and its been a whirlwind of excitement.  I still can’t believe I’m almost finished with 2 full years living in Seoul.  Time certainly files by and I miss each and everyone of you reading this back home!

I am the new 4th grade team leader and inherited a number of responsibilities with said promotion.  Sure I’ve had lengthy meetings and spent time helping our new teachers adjust but I love it!  Its given me a chance to help pick the direction of our classes and school while honing my leadership skills and satisfying that primal urge to be the boss.4-3 classroom

Every school year presents new challenges but Korean ESL classes are uniquely different from those I taught in America.  My new crop of Korean 4th graders are as cute as ever and I have a huge range of English abilities.  Some kids already come up to me everyday and chat away about their family and home life while others are still working at a Kindergarten reading level and developing beginner speaking skills.

To help cope with this spectrum of abilities and adapt to a new schedule we are incorporating centers every week.  I’m working closely with my Korean coteacher (Mr. Kim) who thankfully has the best English I’ve seen in a coteacher.  We’ve got a wonderful relationship and have bonded over his time studying in Texas among other things.  He is the 4th grade Korean team leader and surprised me the other day by offering to share some of the burden when we are slotted to teach 36 students at once!

Speaking of that schedule a few of you heard about the new Korean laws that forced our hand.  The government is apparently trying to shrink the English education in South Korea and has limited the hours that we can teach English.  As a result we adapted the schedule and hired a few more teachers.  So far its working well in my grade but we’re bound to hit some rocky patches eventually.

I started a chess club this year and its already going strong in its 3rd week.  They capped me at 16 members even though I had 31 sign ups.  Normally I wouldn’t mind the smaller class but I get a stipend based on numbers so am still trying to weasel a few more spots.  The kids love it; we start each week with a quick chess lesson about tactics or how to mate with certain pieces before spending about an hour playing against each other.

There’s a lot of last year’s 4th grade to look forward to as well.  We are still planning a number of field trips (including the overnight to Gongju!).  My administration is the same as the end of last year and fight for better English programs but they unfortunately are sitting backseat to the Koreans.  Its to be expected but we are hoping for more equality in scheduling, planning and the rest.  We’ll see how the give and take goes but whatever happens I know I’ve got a great job!

1 year anniversary, wait what?

_DSC7640365 days ago I landed at Incheon International Airport and immediately began one of the biggest changes in my life.  In spite of some difficult times I’ve had an incredible experience full of adventures. So I guess its no surprise that this year living in South Korea has flown by!   Sitting down to start writing this I was getting ready for the biggest adventure of my life when suddenly my 2nd (awesome) job in Korea begins to ask about renewing contracts 6 months down the road.   It gave me something to ponder in my month of backpacking around Vietnam and I am leaning towards signing a 2 years contract at my current school.  But before making that decision I’d rather reminisce about some of the great experiences I’ve had in my first year here!

132-_DSC1207aBefore coming to Seoul I heard that hiking was a big past time in Korea but I had no idea how much I would get involved.  Sure I loved hiking and camping in America; I even did an awesome backpacking trip in my final weeks but I never would have guessed that I’d have the opportunity to climb so many mountains and hike through different national parks every weekend!  I started out with some solo exploration and small group trips into Bukhansan National Park.  I quickly realized that this was a habit I wanted to continue as I fell in love with the landscapes and ease at which I could escape the bustle of the megalopolis.


March brought about two pivotal moments in my enjoyment of South Korea.  I started an amazing new job and found Seoul Hiking Group!

_DSC9883 Over the next few months I would travel all around South Korea 2 or 3 times a month with SHG to cities, temples, beaches and mountains around the country and I am looking forward to being a trip helper in the fall.  With Warren Kim’s help  (the leader of SHG) I have visited dozens of UNESCO world heritage sites and can’t wait to keep exploring the culture in between the mountain air.  I have a new favorite hike in Seoraksan National Park, getting to Dinosaur Ridge is a grueling journey that began early in the morning but I can’t wait to go back!

_DSC3077I’ve visited dozens of temples, & a handful of palaces; Ben helped me tour Seoul and I later explored lantern festivals and all the sights and tastes of this new wonderland.  In large part, I’ve fallen in love with the culture of South Korea especially trying crazy new foods.  Everything from silk worm larvae on my first weekend to raw octopus and raw beef salad has made its way to my plate.  There have been intestines, pigs ear and all kinds of crazy delicacies but my favorites are the many types of Korean Barbeque, a lengthy list of soups and most definitely 오징순대(ojingo soondae) or squid sausage!


Teaching, the good the bad and the ugly

I came here to teach and starting in Korea at a Hogwon immediately was unsure of that decision.  My “school” was poorly run by an administration of businessmen and marketing professionals who had zero understanding of English or teaching pedagogy.  These telltale signs quickly revealed how scandalous the school was as I was greeted with repeated late paychecks, a stolen pension and we discovered that rent & health insurance had ceased to be paid!   The story grew deeper with sit-ins, lawyers and regular yelling matches with the boss while all 11 foreigners sought new jobs.  In spite of it all I still loved my students and we had a blast learning English through songs, dances and games as the little munchkins taught me about Korea.


Luckily I got out and went to a fabulous new school where things couldn’t be better!  Sure every class has its bumps along the way and summer in Korea can be so hot that sweat just pours down your back forming an awkward “butt-river.”  Yeah its gross.  I wish I could wear shorts!  But that being said my new job is still freaking amazing.  I teach in a Western style school on a team with amazing coworkers and (see paragraph#1) am already considering another year or two.  My 4th grade has an amazing co-teacher and 36 wonderful students; we take regular field trips and deal with highly appreciative parents and professional administration.  A highlight of working here is definitely the vacation time (roughly 4 or 5 times as much as my former hogwon) which let me backpack for a month in Vietnam and will allow me to come back to America for 3 weeks in the winter!


20140628_215520Seeing people go:

This is probably the toughest part of living abroad.  Sure I’ve dealt with a shitty job, the occasional rotten apple in the classroom and parents who don’t get it but when a friend you’ve been bonding with and hanging out with for the last year reminds you they leave the country in 2 weeks its certainly cause for a crazy night out. Well how else would you gonna handle it?

Its easy to make friends with fellow expats here; you have more in common than the average person back home and can certainly commiserate over culture shock.  So when you meet someone that you actually become friends with the connection instantly grows deeper.  That being said we all seem to find ourselves flittering over the surface of friendship for fear of being hurt when they leave.

Most people teach abroad for a year or two.  I’m looking at doing about 3 and a half years but that still means I’ve got an end date.  Every 6 months a new influx of foreigners arrives which means there’s a large exodus too.  Saying goodbye to new friends has been rough but I will always cherish the memories that we made together and will look on the bright side.  Now I have even more couches to crash on and locals to show me around as my buddies return to their respective hometowns and move on to bigger and better things in Europe and around the world!

Noraebong (the first story of many amazing stories)

The story begins one Saturday night in early September; I’d been living in Korea for just a matter of weeks.  It was only my 3rd or 4th weekend and I was hoping to meet some European friends I’d made hiking the week before; they said jump on the subway to Hongdae and meet them at the park.  Easy enough, I’d been there once before and would just finish a blog post and be off.

At roughly 11:30 I left my apartment rearing for a night out only to enter the subway and find it abandoned with no trains in sight.  Oh well I thought, must be on the late night schedule.  I realized something was wrong after a few moments in the eerie quiet and not seeing a train approaching on the monitors.  I didn’t have a working Korean phone yet which meant no internet access and I’d have to ask for help the old fashion way.  As luck would have it the lone attendant spoke exactly zero English.  Even so that was enough for him to wave his hands and point to the clock making me remember that someone had uttered these dreadful words “subways in Seoul actually shut down at night” (unlike NYC). As the passing comment resurfaced in my memory I knew I just find an alternate route.

Distraught but not at a complete loss I decided to hail a cab.  As a stroke of luck there were 3 waiting on the curb and I gave my best Korean “Hongdae” pointing to a map of where I wanted to go.  It felt like a story straight out of a sitcom where each cab stared blankly before shouting a definitive “NO!” and driving off.  Well, now what?

No internet at home yet, no idea where to go I opted to pop in 7-11 and grab a beer while sitting on the curb in front of a pizza joint that I knew had open wifi.  Might as well regroup and enjoy a brew before I give in to an early evening.   Suddenly my coworker Susan walked up; she too was hoping to have a 7-11 beer and joined me on the curb.  I told her my sad sob story about not making it to Hongdae and we both laughed.  Then we laughed again at how I had asked her a few weeks earlier if her apartment also didn’t have hot water since I couldn’t find the right button.  Oh the things I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

One beer led to another as we people watched from the curb when a Korean man stumbled over (he had clearly had a few beers by now).  He introduced himself and brought an offering of shrimp CAM01321chips.  Being courteous Susan accepted and the gentleman was off,  I had never tried them so we dove right in (they taste slightly better than they sound).  A few moments later he returned carrying 2 beers and insisted that we take them too!

As we were enjoying our new free beer another coworker walks by with the same 7-11 idea for his evening.  We fill Brian in and give him one of our extra beers as the mysterious Korean returns with more beer, more chips and 2 other drunk businessmen.  After we exchange drunken introductions he invites us all to noraebang (karaoke room).  Brian and I had never been so we exchange glances and ask how much it costs.  Once again he insists that he’ll pay so we follow him down the road for what was to be one of the most memorable evenings in Korea.

We cautiously entered the private room to find a massive horse shoe couch on one end and table already laden with soju, beer and snacks in one corner.  On the opposite end were two fans and a massive television playing a scene that could have been from the mountains in a Sound of Music.  Our Korean friends grabbed the remote, plugged in their favorite Korean song and began belting out some tunes.  It took us a moment to figure out which buttons to push but eventually we queued up some Bon Jovi, Oasis, and some other English classics.

After a Build me up Buttercup duet our Korean friends decided they were either too drunk to sing or just wanted to hear our heavenly voices echoing throughout the chamber.  Moments into my glorious rendition of Bon Jovi’s Its My Life I was presented with a standing fan; I’m not sure if it was supposed to cool me off, provide a cool reverberation or act as a mic stand but I went with it.  By the end of the song our drunk Korean buddies were attempting to belt out the tunes while everyone jumped between the couches.

Moments later Wonderwall began and once again all the foreigners grabbed the mics and started serenading our new friends.  Turning towards the fan I sang my heart out when suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder.  Spinning around I found our Korean businessman holding a fire extinguisher on his shoulder and pretending it was a video camera!  Behind him one of the other Korean men was trying to show his affection for Brian’s wonderful singing by hugging him dearly (and possibly licking his cheek in an awkward scene that belongs on a train in Eurotrip) while the rest of us continued to sing.

This absurd evening became a basis for my noraebang expectations but in spite of many attempts to recreate the chaotic splendor nothing has since compared.  Especially when you consider how we darted out of there giggling like school girls and afraid that the gentlemen would decide to re-neg on their offer to pay for the evening.  We ended up finding a new hangout in Mokdong as reverberations of our escapades echoed down the alleyway culminating a story that I have now retold countless times.

Watergun fight at school!

Summer teaching in Korea: hot sun, lots of pollution, hummidity, sweat everywhere & screaming kids.  So when your Korean coteacher asks if “its okay if we have a watergun fight instead of class on Friday” how else can your respond except “hell yeah!” Oh wait.  I’m at work.  “Yes, Mr. Shin, I think the students would like that.”

I immediately went to Mr. Bender’s room to get the details.  Apparently our Korean coteachers organized a class vs class watergun fight.  I could participate as much or as little as I wanted.  Well, you can guess how into it I was after soliciting my students for an extra water gun I could borrow.

Watergun Fight with my class!  Not sure who's more excited...

Watergun Fight with my class! Not sure who’s more excited…


Watergun Fight!  Me vs. Mr. Bender!


Watergun Fight!

Open Class – 4th grade Korean debates

Korean schools have a tradition of hosting an “open class” where parents are invited to watch a lesson.  That day was today!  Luckily my team leaders prepared a great lesson to keep things flowing smoothly across the grade.  We spent two blocks over the last few days teaching our students all about debates.

Before getting into the meat and potatoes of it we taught key terms like affirmative team, negative team, rebuttal, etc.  Since its an ESL class we gave them easy to understand definitions and easy to use phrases.  4th grade appropriate resolutions (topics) like “students should where school uniforms,” “Television is better than books,” and “schools should give everyone candy” were used to practice and gave everyone a few laughs.

Teaching key phrases was great because it was practical and easy to implement.  We taught them how to start a rebuttal, give more support for an example and use the right words to state opinions.

Open class debate 1

On the morning of the open class I reminded the students that the parents were there to watch them.  Its actually true and not just some teacher ploy to keep my students in line!  Each parent was given a checklist of items like “my son/daughter pays attention to the teacher,” “my son/daughter speaks English at all times,” or “my son/daughter keeps their hands to themselves.”

Open class debate 2

As the parents arrived there were some quiet jitters from my students but they quickly got into the zone.  I reviewed our terms and the format before starting the debates which went off without a hitch!  They argued for and against “school should be 2 hours shorter,” “homework is illegal,” and “sports & games are more important than studies.”  I was even able to snap a few pictures/videos with my school sponsored Galaxy tablet in between moderating and a few prompts.

It was a little strange to have the parents filming/taking pictures in class but they were a great audience and had nothing but praise (even if it needed to be translated) at the end.  Now back to planning the next module… and my next trip!