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This is part of a new series on teaching English as a foreign language in East Asia. Now that I have almost three months under my belt in Shanghai, it’s appropriate that I start to compare my new experiences with those of my 2012-2013 stint in South Korea. This is part one. For the other parts, once they are published, click here.


When I lived in Korea, I wrote for BridgeTEFL about the differences between teaching English in Korea and teaching English in Chile. I had lived there for more than six months at that point, and felt I had a grasp on the situation.

I started writing this piece on June 4, 44 days into my new adventure in China. I haven’t had time to eat lunch or pee regular since then due to a preponderance of trainings, a holiday that turned my week into a six-dayer, and the onset of summer intensives. This piece fell by the wayside until now, but I had felt the need to write about the differences between this experience and the one in Korea almost right away. Why? The difference in time is more or less equivalent to the apparent-ness (an English word? maybe?) of the differences between the two.

Yes, Korea and China are both in East Asia. Yes, I am working in a private academy. Yes, there’s a set cirriculum. Yes, I am a foreign teacher. The biggest differences in terms of myself are that I’m now a married woman and my hair is no longer an ever-evolving shade of bright red.

The differences are apparent. They are big. They are glaring. Bizarrely, the differences seem even larger than those I wrote about between Korea and Chile. Some of that may be the immediacy of the contrast for the former; I was in Korea a mere six months after I left Patagonia behind. It’s been more than two years since I left Korea.

In Korea, the students were alone and haggard from a very tender age. I taught TOEFL preparation to a grey-haired ten year old, and drilled grammar-filled sentence dissections in every class. My students came to our school six hours per week, in two three-hour blocks. The youngest ones, aged maybe six or seven, often had class until 9pm. I was in the office from strictly 2-10PM, Monday through Friday. Taking a sick day was so difficult that the only (precious) three I ever got in a yearlong contract required not one strain of influenza, but two.

My oldest students were fifteen, at the age where they still had time before they got truly serious about high school exams and had no more time for such leisures as TOEFL cram school.

In China, my hours are more flexible. I teach three week days and the weekend. My students are between the ages of 3-17. I teach preschool, elementary, middle, and high school English. They come to the school for two hours per week, and my latest class (a punishing, sweaty, two-hour kindergarten bruiser) ends at 20:45. I have more classes; they rotate every other week. I teach about 13-18 contact hours per week. In Korea, I taught 15 in my least busy semester and about 22 in my busiest.

Those are fine differences, and could simply be the result of working for a different company in each country. But the biggest, the most glaring difference? The parents. Rather, the grandparents.

In Korea, I very rarely met the parents of my students, busy working their required OCED-topping 2,190 hours per year. Even if I did see them, they couldn’t normally speak English well enough to ask about their students.

In China, I have parent-teacher meetings every few weeks. Many of the parents in my area speak very good English. The grandparents speak less, but they are omnipresent. There are so many parents and grandparents waiting for their students that we have to have a waiting area. They sit in unused classrooms in groups. They bypass the gates we put up and ignore the posted signs imploring them to let the teachers teach without distractions, peering intently for long minutes through the tiny bit of unfrosted glass on the doors. I’ve taken to putting an A4-sized sticker board over the door, but they find the one-inch space on the side and stick a single judging eye on it.

It’s intense to have a grandmother judging your classes, but we also invite the parents in to observe and give feedback on the teacher during an open door lesson. I only taught one of these in my year in Korea, for a high-level elementary class. My coworkers insisted that we make a scripted ‘debate’ and I had to wear professional suiting and heels.

In China, I have open door lessons about four times a month. The parents all come and sit in on a somewhat normal lesson; last week I had to navigate the difficulty of teaching the kids that lobsters have claws (very hard phonetics for Chinese learners), prepare a speech, make sure that they didn’t kill each other during Musical Chairs, and get them to play a game about sea animals in English. Only one student bled in my two open door classes last week. I count that as victory.

The parents and grandparents are remarkably invested in their offspring’s English success. I weave my way through the crowd of them in between classes, and I reflect on whether one could ever see such investment in my ‘own’ country or the various others in which I have left my international trail of homes. In Chile, the only things that could have counted as an ‘open door’ would have been the many assemblies we put on throughout the year. In Korea, my kids were hugely independent from a very young age. In China, they appear to be watched like hawks and carefully shuttled to and fro by parents and grandparents with enough time, energy, and commitment to spend four hours hanging out in an English school on a Saturday.

It’s a big difference!

Next time: The second biggest difference between TEFL in Korea and TEFL in China, or ‘Revenge of the TAs’….

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