Teaching English in South Korea as a Female African-American
A young African-American woman describes her experience teaching English in South Korea, cultural differences and all.
Millennials like me were taught that it's as essential to have a career you’re as passionate about as one that supports you. During my junior year of undergrad, I realized finance wasn’t something I could see myself pursuing for the rest of my life. Instead, I became a substitute teacher for the same school district I attended throughout my childhood.
I’d always had a passion for children and education, so after my stint as a sub, I decided to earn a master's degree in education—a decision I sincerely thank God for bringing me to. These experiences led to the opportunity to teach abroad in South Korea for two years. As an African-American woman, I had to adapt and adjust to Korean customs, their education systems and the overall work-life and social construct within their society.
Teaching in South Korea Gave Me a Sense of Fulfillment
Teaching made me feel happy, like I was walking in purpose. I wasn’t only helping them build a foundation in English development, but was giving young people raised in a homogenous culture some much-needed exposure to a person who doesn’t look like them.
It didn't stop there.
I taught them to be kind to one another, even if the person looks different from you. I shared my hobbies and pictures of my family. I exposed them to American culture that they didn’t see in the media. It was an honor. I woke up daily with a sense of happiness, a joy I've never experienced.
Koreans are no strangers to hard work. A regular workday can last ten to 14 hours. The education system is actually two systems: public schools and private schools. Public schools are funded by the government, but private academies—also known as hagwons—are funded by parents.
I worked for a hagwon. I had students who attended public school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., then went straight to math academy, science academy, taekwondo, piano, swimming, private tutoring or English academy. I recall a 12-year-old telling me they couldn't wait until Tuesday, when they had 30 minutes scheduled to play with a friend. Mind you, this was on a Thursday.
Living in South Korea as an English Teacher Meant Working All the Time
Education in Korea is highly valued (as it should be), but not at the risk of mental health, emotional and even physical sacrifice. (Koreans have the tenth highest suicide rate in the world, and the public high school across the street from where I lived didn't let out until 10 p.m.) In a way, I envy how education is viewed in Korean culture because they strive at all costs to be the best. Their eagerness matches my own desire to teach.
Outside of the classroom, their parents ensured the children got some type of physical activity. My students would tell me about spending weekends visiting grandparents, museums, indoor water parks, camping or hiking. One of my favorite things about teaching kindergarten was our field trips: Once a month, we would visit a national park, science museum or fire station. We also had a cooking class, where the students made snacks from simple ingredients. It was cute and fun.
I taught English, while my co-teacher helped with class management and bathroom breaks. (I’ll get to those a little later.) Throughout the day, sometimes even during class time, the co-teacher would take pictures of the student to send to their parents. At first, it was awkward and took some getting used to. Korean parents are so invested in their child's education that they have daily updates and pictures sent to their phones throughout the day.
I thought it was a bit much, but I'm not a parent.
Social Hierarchy Is a Very Real Thing in South Korea
The hierarchy system is very real in Korean culture. Our superiors at the school were passive-aggressive in a way that threw me for a loop. They’d ask the foreign teachers’ opinions on making things more efficient and effective but ignored our suggestions. There were many times I felt devalued as if my voice or opinion didn't matter.
I was seen but unseen. I couldn't speak to my boss directly. I had to share my thoughts, concerns, ideas with my co-teacher (who was Korean), and she would relay the message to our supervisor. Instead of approaching me directly, they would relay their own messages. Back and forth we would go.
Here's an example: I got written up for using the bathroom too many times in a day. I wish I were kidding.
I could use the restroom at lunch, but often would struggle to get to 2:40 p.m., the end of the following class. That was just one slot where I became uncomfortable during the week. If I wanted to use the bathroom for even two minutes, I'd have to call in my co-teacher, which was an issue.
Eventually, my solution was to drink less water throughout the day, and when I had evening classes, I wouldn't drink water at all. I actually had to discuss my bladder with my co-teacher and supervisor—so there's that.
Teaching English Abroad as a Black Person Taught Me Discrimination Is Everywhere
For the most part, I loved Korea. I ran a 5K, made rice wine, floated in a tethered hot air balloon, spent my thirtieth birthday in Bali and created moments with new friends that challenged me to become a better person.
But I also remember a time when I went out to a bar with a group of friends who were also black girls and there was a sign at the entrance that read, "No Foreigners." I’ve experienced my share of prejudice in the States, but to experience the same type of discrimination across the world hit differently.
Still, it was an honor to teach in South Korea. I highly respect their value for education and culture. As an educator, I feel it’s my personal responsibility to influence and contribute to society by helping students become global thinkers and competitors along with the rest of the world. Teaching internationally has charged me to continue to shape learners for tomorrow and to be able to provide students the opportunity to unify with others as they connect to other parts of the world.