Dispatch from South Korea: Connecting with S. Korean students

September 18, 2008

(Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of dispatches from Luke Zeller, who graduated in June with a bachelor of science in secondary education (English and communications) from the College of Education.A Schreyer Scholar, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English as a foreign language in South Korea. He arrived in early July, and spent the first six weeks in an intensive Korean language and culture orientation at Kangwon University in Chuncheon. Afterwards, he was placed with a host family to begin his teaching at a community school until July 2009.

Sept. 4:

Teaching has begun.

Teaching can be very draining. My first week of teaching, which was last week, was an absolute whirlwind that left me speechless and out of breath.

It started with me riding my freshly bought, used-bike to school. It squeaks quite a bit, which contributes to the stares I receive as a relatively tall white man biking through the streets of a rural Korean town. I have found out that there are about 10 foreigners living in Hwasun. Little children stare and sometimes muster up the courage to say, "Hello!" All I can do is smile and wave, "Hello."

When I made it to school the first day, students were just returning from a two-week vacation. I thought that they knew that a new foreign English teacher was coming to school, but they certainly seemed surprised. A "celebrity" was not exactly what I had in mind when I decided to major in education, but here I was, apparently shocking everyone I saw. My neighbor in the kyomyushil, or teacher's room, laughed when I returned to my desk after the morning and stared blankly with wide eyes at my computer screen, breathing deeply.

The students have settled down since the first couple days. After they meet me and realize that I am actually a teacher who is interested in teaching, their perspective of me balances out.  

I teach about three classes a day with about 35 students in each class. I only see each class once a week, so it is a little difficult to create any curricular continuity, but it is an interesting challenge to take on. The students tend to see my class as an alternative, fun English time, which has been a little frustrating. I do not completely blame them, though. They are literally at school from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day of the week, and they sometimes have class on Saturdays. Therefore, I am just doing the best I can to create some sense of curiosity and interest into actually learning to speak English. The biggest problem I face is the lack of relevance to the students. For nearly all of my 450 students, I am sure that I am the only person that they would actually need to use any English with in order to communicate.

I have been spending my first two weeks just trying to develop a relationship with the students by telling them about my family, Philadelphia, and my hometown, Narberth. It is important for them to feel comfortable speaking in English to me. They have been doing a creative project about themselves this week for me to get to know them a bit. Many of them want to be rich someday.

The teachers at my school have been very kind and really make an effort to include me despite the language barrier. I sit next to a teacher who is anxious to improve her English and has agreed to teach me Korean along the way. We just had an afternoon sports day together where all the teachers gathered to play volleyball and badminton. They love badminton. It is nice to see how all the teachers get along very well. As public school teachers, they are forced to change schools every three or four years in order to adequately service the more rural schools.  A majority of teachers want to live and work in the cities; therefore, they have this rotation policy in place. That may sound difficult, but this whole country is about the size of Minnesota, and they only move within their province.

Here  is an aerial shot of the city of Hwasun up from where a Buddhist temple sits in a mountain. I liked the contrast between the traditional Korean temple roof and the modernity of the city.

 Sept. 18:

I have been fortunate enough to spend the last couple weekends in Seoul, so I think that I should be telling you all a bit about one of the top-five biggest cities in the world, with about 10 million to 11 million people living there. New York has about 9 million people. I was there with my uncle and then with Jamie Myers, professor of education at Penn State.

Seoul has this unbelievable feature that if you are able to get above the city a bit, like I was able to do in Seoul Tower, it looks as though the city goes on forever through the twists of the mountains. Seoul Tower is an observation point that stands upon one of the mountains surrounding Seoul for a 360-degree view of the city.  You see older parts of the city that look like little houses and huts close to the ground and the more modern parts of the city of tall, not-quite-sky-scrapers, business buildings and the very common apartment buildings where thousands of people live.

 The modern existence of Seoul is a wonder for its unprecedented economic growth and city expansion in the course of about 50 years, since the end of the Korean War. People refer to this incredible development as the "Miracle of the Han River," named for the Han River that runs through the middle of the city and has historically been a major source for goods and trade. The country and this city were left in shambles after the war, but over the course of just a couple decades, it has transformed into an internationally competitive modern city.

What strikes you first is the sheer mass of Koreans everywhere. Korea is historically known as the "Hermit Kingdom" because of its past reluctance to accept foreigners, and to this day, even with its opening up, it remains one of the most homogenous countries in the world. The people of Seoul tend to be more accustomed to foreigners, so I do not receive quite as many stares, but I am still made quite aware of my white identity, especially when I find myself shocked to see another white guy. I think we both shoot each other glances with a raised eye-brow, thinking, "Hmm, What is that guy doing here?"  Ha, it is a funny occurrence, but when you become accustomed to seeing Koreans everywhere, seeing someone who looks like you is actually the most shocking thing you can see. In Seoul, however, if you go to an area called Itaewon, all you see are foreigners. Itaewon is a notorious district of shops and nightlife very close to the U.S. Army base.

Back in Hwasun, my teaching has continued amid some student resistance. There are several barriers in the way of actually reaching the students because many of them do not see my class as worth their time. School anywhere can often do a pretty efficient job of killing off any sense of intellectually curiosity. This is especially true in such a test-oriented education system as in Korea. Basically, the students are studying from the time they are in middle school to prepare for this major standardized test that is administered once a year to high school seniors. The test plays a major role in the college you go to (far more even than the SAT in America), and the college you go to is said to be a major factor in the quality of life you will then lead. Students go through the system rarely ever thinking about what they would actually want to do when they grow up; it is all about getting into a prestigious college. And, my class, about actually learning to speak English, has no bearing on that test. This system is a wholesale contrast to Sweden, where students have the agency to decide that they would like to be a truck driver, a hair stylist, a construction worker, or to continue into academia when they are about 16 years old. Then, they go to a school with all the resources you can imagine to continue their education in what they chose.

America, Sweden (where I did my student teaching), and South Korea have been such different environments to learn how to teach in, and teaching has been a fascinating way to learn about the culture. I am still finding my way here in Korea, and am learning a lot as I go. If anyone has any advice or thoughts about teaching abroad, feel free to share them with me.

  • An aerial shot of the city of Hwasun up from where a Buddhist temple sits in a mountain.

    IMAGE: Luke Zeller

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010