Chile versus Korea: The TEFL Showdown

Unfortunately, this is what happens when I give my students a creative task. It's a blood zombie.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when I give my students a creative task. It’s a blood zombie.

An hour before the flight, I asked a South Korean how to open the triangle kimbap I had just purchased. In Spanish. My last act in the Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena, where I’d lived for six months teaching English in a public school, was to eat a Korean staple food. I didn’t know it as we drove a red pickup truck along the Strait of Magellan to the airport, but that kimbap had sealed my fate.

At this point in my life, I’ve taught English in three different ways and on three different continents. The experience of being a volunteer English tutor for a Saudi Arabian student in my final year of university was the precursor to two years spent chasing TEFL around the world. My walks through Chile and Korea were coupled together from their very beginnings. The visas for Chile and South Korea face one another in my passport, their validity overlapping by three months. Remarkably, given the 18,000 km distance between Puerto Natales and Suwon-si, similarities between the two wildly different experiences exist. The differences are far more apparent.

Don't be fooled, this was taken after school let out for winter break. These halls know true chaos.

Don’t be fooled, this was taken after school let out for winter break. These halls know true chaos.

My current school is literally a world away from the high-risk public school in which I worked in Chile, volunteering as a full-time English teacher through the English Opens Doors program. We were fighting every day to keep my students in school. The dropout rate was high, despite laws to the contrary. Students (and occasionally teachers) did not seem to see the point of being in school. After about two weeks, I abandoned the textbooks issued by the MINEDUC because they were far beyond the grasp of my students. I taught 27 contact hours and also managed an after school English Club.

They really do deserve those stickers!

They really do deserve those stickers!

Now I work in a private academy (hagwon) in South Korea. My students come to me after a full day in public school. The hagwon in which I work is definitely a business first, and an educational venture second. We’ve been told not to try to be “real teachers” during trainings, and while we struggle to keep students in classes it is not an attempt to keep them from a life without education but to keep the revenue stream going. On the upside, I have far fewer contact hours per week and a lot of downtime to plan lessons. The set curriculum is somewhat rigid but allows for my own interpretation. I teach TOEFL to ten year olds, whereas in Chile my students were learning weather and how to say, “How are you?” In Chile, I had a reputation as a hard-ass teacher. In Korea, I’ve been called a pushover.

The differences between teaching in Korea and teaching in Chile go deeper. In my school in Chile, many of the parents had never completed high school. Some had never completed 8th grade. A few were illiterate. There were students with developmental and intellectual disabilities in my classes, something that I had no experience with before I volunteered with the EOD program. Halfway through my time in Puerto Natales, nationwide protests over the cost and quality of education in Chile ripped through the country from tip to tip. I participated in two national strikes, although I would have prefered to be with my students in class. The current revolution that the Chilean educational system is undergoing in rooted in the massive educational gains in the last 20-30 years. Seven out of ten university students are the first in their families to reach higher education. In my town in Patagonia, the populace is going from barely-literate to college-educated in the span of two generations, sometimes one.

Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011

Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011

In Korea, education is a central focus. Children are in school from morning until night from a very young age. The implementation of the hagwon system has a lot to do with this, but the intense competition for perfect grades is more likely the true root. I’ve had students tell me that if they miss even one question on their elementary school finals, they will have failed. 100% or nothing. The pressure causes more than a few to crack, and South Korea currently has the highest youth suicide rate in the world (340 in 2011, or nearly one per day *every day*). It is impossible not to see the ways that education culture affects my students. They are often exhausted and hungry, with little family time and not a lot of direct parental supervision. I can happily say that I never once had a parent in Chile complain that their child did not have enough homework.

Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher, Halloween 2012

Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher, Halloween 2012

And yet with all these differences and their depth, there are remarkable similarities between teaching in Chile and in South Korea. In terms of history, both countries are in the process of recovering from decades of rule by leaders that I would call dictators (even though some still consider Pinochet and Park Chun-He to be beloved presidents). Chile is currently the fastest-developing country in South America, and Korea has outpaced most of its neighbors for years to become the 11th largest world economy. Both governments have put a huge emphasis on the acquisition of English in their young people, through government programs like EOD and EPIK (public school placements in Korea). It is relatively easy to get a placement as an English teacher in both Korea and Chile, and the general requirements are the same: a degree from an university, a clean criminal record, HIV- status (despite the obvious discrimination), and the ability to move to another country and adapt to life there.

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures

Another striking similarity is the massive gap between the rich and the poor in terms of access to and quality of education in both South Korea and Chile. My students are almost all from highly-affluent families, and their lives are very different from my students in Chile who occasionally struggled to have enough to eat. They see their attendance at an English hagwon as a burden, but their classmates in public schools simply do not have the same chance on an exam if their families cannot afford the tuition. The hagwon system in Korea perpetuates educational inequality, but in Chile the private and semi-private schools do the same.

This is how we did parades in Chile. A favorite photo of mine.

This is how we did parades in Chile. A favorite photo of mine.

This is how they do parades in Korea.

This is how they do parades in Korea.

The behavior of students is relatively different, but in both countries I occasionally have problems because my students do not see me as a real teacher, or perhaps even as a real person, because I am neither Chilean nor Korean. In both countries, I had to assert my authority as a teacher and win over students in spite of my readily-apparent Otherness. It usually works, and in both Chile and Korea I’ve found students who are happy to see me each time I walk into a classroom.

I miss the outdoors desperately in Korea, but generally things are great in both countries!

I miss the outdoors desperately in Korea, but generally things are great in both countries!

That last one may reveal the biggest similarity between teaching English in South Korea and teaching it in Chilean Patagonia. The children are precious and mostly willing to learn in both countries. Despite all the major cultural and linguistic differences, the day-to-day experience in my classroom is largely the same. Perhaps the thing tying the two vastly different experiences is simply that I am in both places, and that my teaching style is similar in both. In Korea I have infinitely more resources than I did in Chile, but it’s not possible to decorate the classrooms the way that I did in Chile. I felt more like a teacher in Chile, but I believe that I teach more here in Korea. My day-to-day life was more rugged in Chile, but my attempts to broach the cultural and linguistic divides in Korea were less successful.

I highly recommend TEFL in Chile. I highly recommend TEFL in South Korea. The two countries and their mirrored experiences continue to shape me, and certainly will as the next steps of my life become less foggy. If you have to choose between the two, know this: you cannot make a bad choice!

The Things My Students Think I Don’t See

Teaching is 50% preparation, 50% stand-up comedy. 

I think someone gave me that little turn of phrase at the truncated training sessions all the new teachers in the private school company I now work for had to attend about a month ago. Someone must have complained that they were not adequately prepared for life and teaching in Korea, because otherwise no one would make us sit through two hours of “cultural lessons” on where to sit on the subway and other things that one would be able to figure out alone rather easily.

I’m inclined to believe that the ratio is closer to 50% preparation and 50% observation. My students are caught in the dream (to which I was once party) of thinking that the teacher is somehow blinded by adulthood. They rely often on the tiny bubble of space around themselves, and think that I don’t see the hilarious things that they do in class.

Here’s a short list of the things my students thought I didn’t see this week.

The magnifying glass, larger than a silver dollar, passed between friends to focus light, ostensibly in a desperate attempt to set their reading textbook alight.

The bits of eraser thrown at each other’s heads. Especially the piece left sticking to her cheek like a green pimple.

The wild dancing feet under the table. She’s obviously hearing music fit for shuffling despite the relative silence in the room.

The one sentence summary telling me that the story is stupid and not worth reading, quickly erased when she realizes that this is in fact a graded assignment. 

The absentminded braiding of her own hair for five minutes, nothing written on the page that I’ve just written out on the board.

The sweeping glances at the clock in the middle of class.

The army of a hundred “POOP”s written in Korean all over the desks of three of my students.

The texting under the desk, despite the fact that their phones must definitely not be in their hands but in the box at the front of the room labeled with our classroom number.

The in-fighting between the seven year old girls, who think I can’t hear them sniping at one another in Korean.

The cough into his hand, look of surprise, and subsequent slurping up of the lugie thrown therein by his sneeze.

Much of this observed behavior I let slide as if it didn’t happen, with the exception of those behaviors that prevent working in the book and the ones that might land my butt in trouble (zero tolerance for texting). I don’t want to burst their little bubbles, since part of the wonder of being a child is thinking that you can get away with anything and that you’re cleverer than adults. Let them be silly kids a little longer.