Ciara’s South Korea Experience! – TEFL Teacher Story
Hi Ciara, tell us about you, what drew you to teaching abroad?
Hi everyone! My name is Ciara and I was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland! I went to university in the United Kingdom to study dance. After graduating from university, I decided to take a risk and travel to Australia for a year of work experience. During this period, I was infected with the ‘travel bug,’ and I knew I wanted to see everything the globe had to offer. I was seated in a Sydney bar, telling a stranger about my upcoming vacation plans. This stranger had no idea that his remarks would have such an impact on my life. He informed me about his two years of teaching in Japan and urged me to enrol in a TEFL programme.
Have you worked at the same school your entire time as an English teacher in South Korea?
I have stayed in South Korea for almost 4 years. During this time, I have worked at two schools, both of which are located in Seoul. Seoul is the capital of South Korea and I can never get bored of this vast, ever-changing city. Seoul has so much to offer, with a constant stream of new restaurants opening, popular neighbourhoods changing with hip bars and art exhibitions. The city is a bold contrast of traditional and new-age, beautifully entangled and intertwined. Seoul is a great city to begin your South Korea journey as there are a large group of expats and facilities to cater to the foreign community. However, the rest of the country is equally as beautiful and offers mountains, beaches, cities and villages, all around. (Hot tip: If you are not afraid of the language barrier, Jeju Island is a beautiful and remote area where you can save more money compared to living in the city. Busan is a great seaside location which offers the amenities of a large city but with the coastal vibe.)
Tell us about your career path in South Korea, has it changed overtime?
During my first year, I worked with a kindergarten class who were the youngest age group at my school. This school was a large chain with many foreign teachers. This was a great way to make friends. I worked closely with my co-teacher for the majority of the day. After kindergarten hours, I would teach multiple elementary school classes which ranged from complete beginners to advanced students. I was lucky during my second year to graduate with my students and remain their teacher for a second year at the request of the parents. I was glad to continue forging a strong relationship with my students and it meant there wasn’t a difficult adjustment period for me. After this, I decided to look for new jobs in small private schools that were only offering kindergarten classes. During this period of my career, I had the opportunity to work on curriculum development and exploring play-based learning with my students. I am excited to explore other schools and experience their methods of teaching. Each year, I have gained new experiences and expanded my portfolio which has made me a more valuable asset in South Korea.
What is your favourite age group to work with and why? Would you consider teaching other age groups?
Every age group has their own strengths and weaknesses. I personally love working with kindergarten students as there is a lot of learning through play, crafting, song and dance. However, kindergarten students sometimes need assistance with day to day tasks as they learn to be more independent. Older students can usually manage their own belongings and complete simple tasks, this means there can be more time for teaching instead of managing. I like older students though, because they are oftentimes able to communicate and share their ideas a thoughts. I have thought about teaching adults as they are self motivated and ready to learn. However, adult classes usually take place in the early morning hours and late evening hours due to their other commitments. Thinking about your personality and was is most important to you when applying for jobs will help narrow down the search.
What were three thing about your experience in South korea that you did not anticipate?
1. To be called a monster! No, it’s not what you might be thinking. I was a very nice, friendly teacher. However, a lot of students especially in kindergarten have never seen a foreigner before. Students’ reactions varied greatly, with some students amazed by my blue eyes so much that they poked it. To others, being afraid and nervous. Don’t worry though, these students will warm up to you and hopefully create amazing experiences to start their English journey.
2. How fast the taxis drive. Transport in South Korea is amazing! There are subway stations all around the main cities, buses and fast trains connecting everywhere in between, and affordable taxis to ride when the rest of the city has gone to sleep. I love how convenient the taxis in Seoul are, however I was not prepared for my first journey where the driver sped through the city changing lanes constantly. On the bright side, I got to my destination in half the expected time.
3. To cry on my last day of school. During my first weeks in South Korea as a teacher, I had the opportunity to observe classes and watched as teachers said goodbye to their students who were graduating. I looked on with a slight air of confusion as to why they were so upset. Little did I know, that the connections you make as a teacher especially with students you spend hours with everyday is a unique and strong bond. You will remember and cherish memories for the longest time and the students will speak fondly of you for years after.
What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher abroad?
It’s hard to narrow down my experiences to only one moment. Teaching kindergarten students, there is an amazing moment when you realise that these students walked into your classroom with no knowledge of the alphabet but through your coaching and with your help they are now reading and writing simple words. The moment when it really clicks for a student and you take a step back and know that all of those moments leading up to this were worth it.
What advice do you have for someone on the fence about whether to teach abroad or not?
JUST DO IT! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The experiences, opportunities and people you wil meet during your time here is incomparable. Allow yourself the chance to experience it for yourself. The adjustment can be difficult for some people so I recommend that you give yourself at least six months to settle in before you make any decisions. Make the most out of every moment.
Have you gotten much free time to sightsee?
South Korea is a very accessible country. Every weekend is an opportunity to sightsee, whether it is in the city or by visiting other towns by bus and train. Most schools offer a week of vacation at winter and summer. Twice a year, there are public holidays (Chuseok & Seollal) which run onto the weekend giving 4-5 days for travelling. I recommend to make a list before you come to Korea and plan a trip each month. The time easily slips away especially as there are so many things to do locally as well.
Did you travel solo? Was it easy to meet other people and make friendships?
I made the move to South Korea solo, but since living here I have made life-long friends and was able to make friends through my workplace, social clubs, gyms, language exchange, travel tours and online. Then I became close friends with two girls who I now live with. The hardest part is not making friends but having to say goodbye when someone decides to leave.
What is the biggest difference between Ireland and South Korea? Did you experience culture shock?
South Korea is densely populated compared to Ireland. With almost 52 million people living in South Korea, I was amazed at how many tall apartment buildings were in the city. There were little things difference that I noted such as removing shoes before entering homes/schools, showers sometimes attached to a sink instead of seperate, shared meals with friends, bowing and holding items with two hands when giving or taking. Overall, there wasn’t a complete sense of culture shock. The majority of colleagues were also foreign and the welcome from the South Koreans was very warm.