So What Exactly Do We Do?

I’m sure for our family out there, if we come up in conversation you say “they’re teaching in South Korea.” And the conversation probably stops there. But what exactly do we do?

We wrote a little about what daily life is like for us but I don’t think we’ve ever profiled how exactly the teaching works or what we even teach.

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What do we teach?

English, obviously. But we’re both classified as “Conversation” Teachers – we teach Conversational English. This means we do not teach grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, or spelling –  just conversation.

To teach conversation is essentially to just teach phrases. “This is my friend ____! My favorite hobby is ____”

“What was she like before? She used to have long hair.” Or one student: “he used to be a woman”

We chant phrases over and over so that students can master that particular phrase and its possible responses.

Some phrases are a little strange  things we would never say or don’t usually say .”You’d better lose some weight” was one, as was “Let me think…” The phrases are tied into the grammatical points that the rest of the chapter teaches, but since we aren’t involved in that part of the chapter, the phrases can seem a little arbitrary.

Phrases are difficult to make interesting. How can I take 45 minutes to teach You’d better with the chapter’s health theme? How can I make that interesting and/or not embarrassing? It’s often a battle against boring, chanting lessons.


We are not encouraged to teach very much outside of the book. The tests are strictly on the book, so any time we deviate, some students bring out homework, sleep or generally don’t pay attention.

We’re assigned about 5 pages from the chapter that is our conversation domain. Given the structure of the semester, we usually have about 2 weeks to teach these 5 pages.

An example from the 2nd Grade Book

We have to use the textbook’s own computer program. It has unusual recordings and videos with strange looking child actors saying the target phrases. Unfortunately the voices don’t really sound natural. It’s like William Shatner in Star Trek – awkward pauses and unnatural emphasis. “Look. Over. There. PETER!! It’s A pet STORRREE!” “Yes! Let’s GO and SEE it!!!” “OH! this puPPEE is SOOOOOO cute!”

It’s not just me who thinks they are weird. The kids laugh and think it’s terrible as well. But it emphasizes the pauses and the stresses and at least it holds their interest by being ridiculous. I’m glad we don’t have

Our Roll in the Classroom

We are “guest English teachers” “wonamin” (foreign teacher), “native English teachers” and/or “assistant teachers.” Those are all the terms that are applied to us in our contracts. In theory, we were hired as assistants. Which is why we always have a Korean co-teacher in the classroom with us.

Some people share teaching: one teacher teaches for 15 minutes, then they switch. Other co-teachers split the class in half, with higher level students getting attention from the native teacher and the lower level getting help from the Korean teacher (honestly, this would probably be ideal).

In reality most co-teaching situations are like Chris’s and mine. We teach completely alone with the Korean co-teacher standing in the back disciplining. And sometimes they don’t even do this. They bring computers, extra work, grading, etc. Some will plop down in a desk in the back and completely ignore the class. Others – the worst case scenario  – will chat with kids while we’re running our classes. Like “this seems like an excellent time to build rapport.”

View of my classroom

Our Roll in the Student’s Eyes

Some students can take advantage of us. We’re not saying this in a negative or taking-it-personally-way. That’s how things have come to be. We were built up as the novel, fun, foreign teacher. They don’t get a grade in our class. They don’t have to follow a routine in our class. Chris was initially instructed not to yell at them so that he didn’t scare them or make them too nervous to speak English. (Chris’s note: These instructions fell through within the first few weeks.)

For me, this is one of the few times they leave their home room – to come to my English classroom. To them, normal rules don’t apply outside of their home room. They don’t wear uniforms, they’re late, and they don’t bow like they would to a Korean teacher. These are all things that have also contributed to discipline problems – no one enforces things in the classroom so they get away with it. The more they get away with it, the more they see the class as a do-what-you-want time. (Needless to say, notes are being made for next year).

The students’ levels can make discipline problems worse. Higher level students understand what a joke the phrases are and sometimes don’t pay attention. Lower level students don’t understand the words that make up the phrase so they’re defeated and don’t pay attention. Middle level students are probably asleep. Not always, but when it hits the fan, it hits the fan with the whole class going nuts.

Because the Korean teacher is in charge of discipline, we can look really weak and/or too fun. This was a terrible choice to have one person in charge of discipline and one person just standing around. What happens when the Korean teacher has to step out for a few seconds or is late to class? You guessed it: absolute chaos. So we have to yell at them or do something if we ever want to get the class going/keep going.

Having limited authority and students who don’t take your classes seriously isn’t all bad. Because they don’t get a grade in our class, we don’t have to grade anything. Ever. I’ve never graded anything for my class. Although we do grade all the speaking and writing tests (those are a national requirement, not related to my class).

And more importantly – we have no obligations like staff meetings. Sure, we don’t have respect in the classroom but we don’t have responsibility in the school.  It doesn’t make it even, but I’m always happy to not have to go to a 3 hour staff meeting or monitor fire drills.

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Planning Time

We aren’t supposed to teach more than 22 hours per week. So that gives us 18 hours of planning time.

We both plan on a weekly basis. We look at the textbook – what are the target phrases? How can we teach these? Are there any games we could play using these? We both make power points and teach primarily with those. I like the students to be able to read a lot of what I’m saying.

Midterms and finals are taken very seriously here. Students can’t come into the staff room in case they see the test questions. Teachers who don’t have a home room have to act as proctors and hall monitors (but not us, though!). It’s really serious. I’ve spent a lot of planning time lately proofreading the English tests and writing a whopping 1 question for each grade.

We both do our planning time in our office. Since the teachers move and the students stay in the home room, the teachers need an office to go to while someone else teaches in their classroom.

Chris’s office. He works on the 1st grade floor (top story). There are 12 total teachers in the office

View from Chris’s office. The soccer field is a little wet from rain. The big apartment buildings are where the majority of his students live.

Co Workers

Planning time means sitting in the staff room with up to 8 other teachers. They’re all really nice to both of us. We share gifts and usually eat lunch with them. Even if most of them don’t speak English.

My handler (who is in charge of my hours, vacations, and all administrative tasks) keeps to himself for the most part. He’s really nice but I don’t see him as much as I see the limited-English-speaking science or math teacher. So while most won’t speak English with me, we go to lunch together and enjoy each other’s quiet presence. Chris and I agree we both really like this.  It’s a chance to recharge quietly before dealing with 40 13-year-olds again.


Top left: Kimchi, meat and rice cake in a red sauce, hard boiled quails eggs in soy sauce. Rice with green kimchi, soup.

So there you have it. We are teachers with not-so-much-authority but lesser responsibility. It’s a strange thing but it oddly works out. To anyone reading who wants to get into EPIK, keep in mind that every school is different. You may be in charge of grammar and teach alone. You may sit on the side while your co-teacher completely leads your class.


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