From Korea with Love

"I carry your heart with me… always."

First Things I’ve Learned from Teaching (Korean) Students


My first batch of ESL Elementary students… from naughty to nice
(The picture is a bit blurry because it was taken from an old cell phone. ^^)

Imagine yourself walking into your ESL class filled with confidence and great anticipation, but instead of your students greeting you back when you say, “Hello, everyone!”… you were greeted by a foul smell permeating the air-conditioned classroom. You think perhaps it’s Bada, one of the boys in your class, who is notorious for taking off his shoes in the classroom and torturing everybody with the smell of his feet that can be likened to the stink of a decaying carcass. (No kidding!)

Just as you are about to tell him to put on his shoes, you notice that he hasn’t taken them off. As if that isn’t strange enough, he and the rest of the class are sitting quietly, which they never do until you tell them to. From the suspicious look on their faces, you know they are hiding something… and the smell… ugh… the smell is just unbearable! If it isn’t Bada, who or what can it be? Your eyes search every corner of the room, but you can’t find the culprit.

Then you seize the opportunity to use one of the idioms that you taught the class the other day: “I smell something fishy.” (Literally… it does smell fishy.)

You start prodding until somebody speaks up, “Can you smell that?”

“Where is that awful smell coming from?”

No one answers.

Ah, right… don’t assume that they know the word ‘awful’. Most of the members of this class are at the early intermediate level of English proficiency. Some of them are even at the beginning stage. (Don’t you just hate it when they put them together in one class, regardless of level of English proficiency?)

After explaining to the class the meaning of the word ‘awful’, one of the girls, the most mischievous and the toughest, who likes to play ‘the leader of the gang’, giggles and starts talking in Korean. The rest of the class laughs. You have no clue what they’re laughing at. Is it something that you said? The example that you gave for the word ‘awful’? (Well, that was kinda funny.) Is it the shade of your lipstick today? Remember the time when you came to ESL class, wearing your new Lancome fuchsia lipstick, and Spring, the smart-alec, told you that the color of your lips hurt her eyes? You are not wearing that lipstick today, and you certainly don’t look like a clown in your uniform. You are tempted to ask, “What’s funny?”, but the more you ask that question, the more they laugh… so you remain silent for a while and stare at them with seething eyes. (This method may work with other students, but trust me, it’s not effective for Koreans. They won’t even notice your silence.)

You hear a lot of, “Ya, ya, ya!” (‘Hey’ in Korean) and someone calling his classmate “babo” (‘stupid’ in Korean). They think you don’t know what those words mean, but you’ve heard them many times. (Your hometown is invaded by Koreans! Also, you have tutored Koreans since you were in university.) You are aware that “babo” is a common expression among friends and children in Korea, but in your class, you don’t merely teach English, you teach RESPECT and DISCIPLINE as well… two things MOST Korean students lack. You have made it clear before: saying rude or bad words is NOT ALLOWED in ESL class.

Their voices are getting louder. They sound like they are arguing, but with Korean children, you can’t really distinguish ‘chatting’ from ‘bickering’ and ‘playing’ from ‘fighting’. It seems as if they are all just the same to them. You are starting to lose your cool. You want to holler, “Shut up!”, but you’re a teacher, and you know you can’t do that. (Argh! If only you could smack them right in the face!)

Then you remember ‘the rules’.

Yes, they know ‘the rules’. It has been two weeks since ESL class started. The class rules have been discussed to them from day one. By this time, they should have learned the rules by heart.

You turn to the NOTCH WALL, and mark the names of the students who speak Korean. (A mark or notch means demerit.) You give Wan Jin two more notches for saying “babo”. The students grumble and ask, “Why? Why?” (So typical of Koreans.) (At least you’ve got their attention.)

On the white board, you write the sentence: “SPEAK ENGLISH, PLEASE.” More grumbling in Korean. Each time a student speaks Korean, you add another notch… without saying a word… then you turn to the board and underline the sentence you have  previously written. There must be more than five lines under that sentence now. Finally, the students get your point and begin to speak English. (My number one rule in my ESL class: SPEAK ENGLISH… or at least TRY TO SPEAK ENGLISH.) (Should you have this rule in your class, make sure that majority of your students can communicate their basic ideas using simple sentences. It’s not a good rule for beginners’ class, but if your class is ‘mixed’… you’ve got students who can communicate in English and you’ve got those who can barely speak the language, you can pair up a student who is unable to understand or produce English independently with someone who is able to understand and speak English better. This way, the ‘early intermediate student’ can help translate in Korean the ideas that the ‘beginning student’ finds hard to comprehend or express in English; however, make sure that the student doesn’t mind translating for his classmate. Some Korean students don’t like “translating” for anybody or they don’t like working with a partner. If buddy system is just not for your class, teach students how to say, “May I use a dictionary?”, “Can someone translate for me, please?” or “How do I say ___ in Korean?” Anyone in class can volunteer to translate or explain, but make sure you reward the student with points. You’ll be surprised how many students are willing to help a classmate in need when there are points at stake.)

Wan Jin, the most mischievous and the toughest among the group, is first to stand up and complain, “Why you put many?” (She is referring to the demerits.)

“How many times did you speak Korean? You also said, ‘babo’, right?”

“I’m Korean. I’m not speak Korean?”

“Yes, you’re Korean… but this IS NOT Korean class… and you CANNOT say bad words here.” (You remember to speak slowly and refrain from using verb contractions that you haven’t discussed in class yet, so your students don’t get confused.)

Wan Jin is furious. She slams her backpack on her desk and mutters to herself.

You tell her that is not the way to behave in front of a teacher, ask her to pick up her backpack and place it properly on her desk.

Although you want to skin Wan Jin alive, you try to be patient with her. You give her a warning, but you say it calmly yet firmly, “If you do that again, you are going to pick up your bag and put it nicely on the desk twenty times. Do you understand, Wan Jin?” (When you tell your students you will do something, you must do it no matter what. If you tell them that if they don’t do their homework, you are going to give them more next time, DO IT. If you say that you are going to call their parents to inform them about their constant misbehavior, keep an anecdotal record , CALL THE PARENTS and TELL THEM everything. You should have something nice to say about the child, too. No parent wants to hear only negative things about his kid. Also, expect to be asked about how the child’s English is improving. Korean parents are very particular about this. ALWAYS PREPARE YOUR CLASS RECORD AND ANECDOTAL RECORD WHEN YOU MEET A PARENT FOR A CONFERENCE.)

Wan Jin doesn’t look at you, but she nods. (Koreans don’t look the teacher in the eye when they are being reprimanded. It is considered impolite. Don’t make the same mistake I did before, when I told one of my Korean students, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” She would not look at me, and she ended up crying. The next day, her Mom came to school and explained why she would not look at me when I was scolding her. LESSON LEARNED? Know your ESL students’ culture and why they behave the way they do.)

You address the entire class: “What class is this?”

No one answers.

You write the letters E-S-L on the board, and as you circle the acronym, you ask again: “What class is this? Can you read the letters on the board, please?”

“E… S… L…” Their voices are so low you can barely hear them.

“ESL. Say it aloud.”

“ESL.” Sounds louder.


“ESL.” Sounds better.

In one of our ‘ESL Cooking Festivals’, a group of Korean high school students in my Early Intermediate Class made this cake. The group called it ‘ESL Oreo cake’. ^^

Although you can no longer take the putrid odor in the classroom, you spare a little time to remind the students of the number one rule in class and what course they are taking up. (Most Korean students just attend their English class without even knowing what they are learning. Is it Grammar? Reading and Writing? Conversational English? Business English? ESL? What on earth is ESL? Why am I taking it? Why are my parents forcing me to take it?)

“What does ESL mean?”

No one answers (again). (Ugh! Korean students can be so passive. T.T)

“I told you what ESL means, remember? Who can tell what ESL means? If you can tell me, I will take out two of your notches from the notch wall.”

Now they all want to answer… even Han Byul, the youngest and the most quiet boy in class. (Korean students are grade conscious, you see?)

You have everyone say the meaning of ESL: “English as a Second Language!” (Some only lipsynch.) You have the class repeat the phrase twice or thrice (after you say it) to make sure everyone says it with correct pronunciation and remembers it. As they say, PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT. Thus, repetition is one of the basic fundamentals of memory and learning.  (But don’t dwell merely on rote learning or your ESL class will be boring, and will turn into a ‘Koreanized’ English class where students do nothing but to memorize and repeat, memorize and repeat… zzz… zzzzzz… zzzzzzzzz…)

“What do we learn in ESL?”


“What do we speak in ESL?’


“Do we speak Korean here?”


“Do we say bad words in Korean?”


“What happens when we speak Korean or when we say bad words?’

Some point to the notch wall. Some answer, “Minus”, “Notch”, “Sad point/bad point’.

True to your word, you take out two notches from each student. They all seem pleased and ‘calmer’. The grumbling has stopped. Everyone is quiet again, waiting for what you are about to do next or what you are about to ask them. (Never lose your composure in front of your Korean students. They will shake you, break you, challenge you in every way… but you can’t show them defeat nor can you IGNORE them. Koreans like to win… even against the teacher. From the first time they show wrong behavior or defiance, you have to correct them and let them know who is in charge. Korean students who are older than other members of the class tend to act ‘tough’. They do this because they want to win their classmates’ respect. The younger ones, on the other hand, follow whatever the older Koreans do, because Koreans value ‘seniority’ and it’s ‘All for one, one for all’ for them.)

You sit down in front of everybody. The students’ desks and chairs are arranged in a semi-circle, so you can easily see their faces at a glance. You smile and say, “I like the class when we are all sitting nicely and talking nicely… in English… but there is something I don’t like today.”

As you have expected, it is Spring who asks, “What, Teacher?”

You pinch your nose, “The smell. I do not like the smell.” Because you are pinching your nose as you speak, your voice sounds lilliputian. The class laughs at your voice, but you let them enjoy the laughter. It is your way of changing the students’ sulky mood from what happened a while ago.

“Do you like the smell?”


“So tell me, who did not take a shower today?”

Students laugh some more. Somebody mentioned Bada’s name.

“It is not Bada. He is wearing his shoes, and he smells good today.”

You look at Bada. He is smiling from ear to ear.

“I think you have something you are hiding from me. Tell me now, or we will check your bags, and we will find out all your secrets there.”

The students look at one another. He Jin, Wan Jin’s best friend and one of the smart students in class, nudges Wan Jin. She whispers something in Korean, but you don’t mark her name, because she asks permission to speak Korean. It appears that she is trying to convince Wan Jin to do something.

Later, Wan Jin takes out a petri dish she had been hiding all along.

The moment she takes out that petri dish, the fetid odor becomes worse. The students, including Wan Jin, cover their noses.

You pinch your nose again and examine what’s in the petri dish, but you can’t figure out what the slimy grayish thing is. Whatever it is, it looks and smells gross, so it can’t be good.

Before you can ask or say anything, Wan Jin, covering her nose and mouth, speaks.

“Sorry, Teacher. Only play. I’m throw now.”

“Wan Jin, what is that?” You can’t hide your annoyance anymore.

You hear someone say, “It’s yucky, Teacher.” A student pretends to throw up. Others copy the act.

Just as they are starting to make a commotion again and Wan Jin starts to say, “Ya!”… you remind them about the notch wall and tell them to keep quiet.

“Wan Jin, tell me what is in that dish.”

“Teacher, can I use dic-sher… dic-shor…”

“Dictionary… ‘dik-shuh-ner-ee’…”


“May I use a dictionary?”

“May I use a dictionary?”

Wan Jin gets her electronic dictionary from her backpack and looks up a word; then she shows you the word she typed.

“Tadpole? Are those tadpoles?”

The students must be scared of you now… even Wan Jin. Your voice can be heard in the next room, an indication that she or they (other students involved) are doomed.

“What have you done, Wan Jin?”

Wan Jin and ‘the gang’ like to catch tadpoles in the school pond. Now you remember… a few days ago, Wan Jin was bringing a bottle of mineral water with tadpoles swimming in it. She put it in her backpack when you said, “Put everything away, please.” You didn’t mind the tadpoles, because you used to catch them, too, when you were young. Besides, who would think that Wan Jin likes to massacre tadpoles?

The tadpoles had been dead for days (that’s why they are stinking). Instead of getting rid of them, Wan Jin thought it would be better to do an experiment. (You don’t know how she got the petri dish from the Science lab, but she said it’s hers.) She mashed the dead tadpoles. One of the members of her gang suggested they burn the mashed tadpoles in the petri dish, but they didn’t have any lighter or match. Thank God! Who knows what could have happened or what else they could have done with those stenchy dead tadpoles?

To make the long story short, the tadpoles are discarded. Everyone in class cleans the desk where Wan Jin crushed those poor tadpoles. The smell stays for a while, so you turn the aircon off and open the doors and windows.

You give the class a brief lecture about the consequences of what they have done and proceed to the day’s lesson and activities.

Because of what happened, you cancel the day’s game and tell the class that you are not giving them any break.

You talk to Wan Jin again after class. You call her guardian to report the incident. You also inform the parents/guardians of the other students.

You are not really a strict teacher. You are known as an amiable and ‘animated’ teacher… but from this day, you make a promise to yourself that you won’t be too kind on your ‘misbehaving’ ESL students. First, they need to know that you mean business. Second, they need to follow ‘the rules’ and YOU.  Third, they need to use English in class as much as they can… even if they make mistakes in Grammar. Lastly, they need to take part in every activity and group dynamics in order to accumulate points for class standing… and accomplish their homework and vocabulary review.

Most of all, you promise yourself that you are going to make your ESL classes MORE fun, engaging, challenging and life-changing to motivate your students to do well in class.

NEWSCASTING in my ESL Summer Class


ESL COOK FEST (Everyone loves this activity.^^)

20 thoughts on “First Things I’ve Learned from Teaching (Korean) Students

  1. This was very interesting to read. I’m planning to study Korean at university and eventually take a TESOL course online in preparation of hopefully becoming an English teacher in Korea one day.


  2. how to apply korean online teaching?


  3. I used to have a colleague with the same name. haha. He is one of the photo/videographer in our ESL School in Alabang.

    I used to have a korean student who plays with his “balls” while I was discussing the lesson. The moment I saw him touch it, I ignored it but deep inside, I am terribly shaking. I felt disrespected, annoyed, and mad, and the same time worried.. I do not have an idea of what should I do with that student. It would be really awkward for both of us if I tell him to stop it. That wouldmean that I have seen him actually doing it. It is a one-to-one class, by the way. After an hour, as soon as the bell rings (five minutes break), I literally ran to our ‘Filipino Boss’ and narrated the whole story. To my surprise, he just laughed at me and told me, “wow! ganun kalakas ang sex appeal mo?” I faked a smile as an indirect way of telling him that it is something too serious to laugh about. He then called the student and i don’t really know what they talked about during that “private convo”. All I know is that the following day, that student never dared touching ‘his’ again during our class.


  4. Thanks a lot, Aimee. ^^ Wan Jin is quite mischievous, but I don’t think she is a candidate for Ms. Sociopath… ha, ha, ha! =)


  5. Aaaw, you seem like an awesome teacher – with impeccable English, might I add! I found myself laughing/smiling throughout this blog post, with the exception of the tadpole massacre part… That was… troublesome and quite scary. Hopefully Wan Jin has learned from her mistakes and does not become a sociopath in the future (I mean that sincerely).


  6. hi! very interesting post! 🙂 I had just came back from a vacation trip from korea. 🙂 i became interested to seek a teaching job there. Therefore i’m a C-3 visa holder already. 🙂 I graduated AB Communication in de la salle lipa, and currently working as an online english tutor to Japanese. 🙂 can you please help me , please tell me the steps that I should take in order to have a teaching job offer from korea. 🙂 do i have to contact the phil korean embassy? :)thank you in advance. 🙂


  7. No prob, Alodia. Take care. ^^


  8. Ooops! I only get to see this today. O.o I guess I failed to tick the notification check box last time.
    I have very little experience in teaching ESL. I work online most of the time. But I had one student while I was in Korea and I had fun. It was a bit difficult at first because my student was quite shy and she hated it when I gave her homework. She keeps giving excuses when she failed to finish/do her homework. So I tried finding ways in making our study time fun with interesting stories and powerpoints, and games. And it worked (I guess) because she eventually didn’t want our tutorial sessions to end anymore and she said she likes English now because it’s fun “pala”.

    And thanks for adding my blog in your blog roll! I’ve been reading and following this blog but I’m just too lazy to leave comments. XD 죄송합니다.


  9. Hi, Ileeina. ^^

    Thank you for such an inspiring comment. Why don’t you try teaching? Who knows you’ll love it?

    What’s your profession? They say that not everybody can be a teacher… but I don’t believe in that. As long as you have “the heart”, the skill and enough training to be a teacher, you can TEACH. Good luck! ^^


  10. Hi, Sarah! ^^ Syempre kaya niyo yan… just don’t let little unpleasant experiences put you down. May mababait namang mga Korean students… they will serve as your motivation. Un mga hindi masyado “nice”, take them as “challenges”. Once na nakuha niyo na ang respect and trust nila, madali na lang pasunurin ang mga yan. Aja! Aja! Good luck! ^^


  11. What a great insightful post! Salamat po 🙂

    My partner and I are doing our TEFL course at the moment – we’re hoping to apply for the next school term (Aug/Sept2013) there in S.Korea. Sobrang kabado kaming dalawa to apply kasi ibang-iba ang culture and tradition ng mga Koreans.

    Somehow this post really helped me. Nakakastress isipin kung kakayanin ba namin magturo dyan o hindi 😀

    Thanks again for this post! 🙂


  12. I really can’t remember how I stumbled upon your blog (Oh yeah, I actually want to try teaching English, although I am not a teacher by profession. :D), but I enjoyed reading this article. I love how it felt like I was reading a book (novel). It’s funny but at the same time, I feel you as if I was there in the room, or I was actually [you] standing in front of them, trying to keep my composure but also firm. I admire how you handled that experience. And suddenly, I remember how stressed my primary school teachers were (not because of me because I was like the silent/well-behaved goody girl type back then :p). If I was your student, you’d probably be one of my favorite teachers. 🙂


  13. Hi, Alodia! ^^

    Thank you that you have found this lengthy post useful. Tell me about your experiences on teaching ESL. I’m sure a young teacher like you has so much to share, as most idealistic teachers come from the youth. ^^

    I have checked your blog. Can I include it in my blog roll? ^^


  14. Nice post! I’ve stumbled upon your blog because I was working on a paper on multicultural marriage and I ended up browsing your entries from beauty products, Korean culture and this, ESL teaching. This is a wonderful post! You’re great! I think you really are! And thanks for sharing this. I also teach ESL once in a while (part-time) so this is something really helpful. ^^


  15. I agree, Krizzy… but the best way to avoid “the drama with your co-workers” is to avoid them. I had a co-worker (here in SK) who would slam her books on the desk every time she came to the office and I was around. It was her way to say she didn’t like me. It all started when she had to sub for some of my classes. I shunned her. Later on, maybe she got tired of slamming her books on purpose, so she stopped doing that. She left the hagwon a few months later. If it was because of me, I don’t care. =)


  16. Funny experiences.. In my case, I never had a lot problem with my kids since all of them are living in Gangnam area so most of them are having quite great manners and their even fluent with the language. But they’re very competitive that they wanted to have affection all the time from their teacher and the smart ones descriminates the weak ones. Teaching in the ESL world is tough and fun as long you don’t have to deal with all the dramas with your Gyopo co-workers since they’re also very competitive..


  17. Just be more patient, Julie… and be more strict. You should be tougher than your Korean students. Aja! Aja! Fighting! ^^


  18. Like it poh the first time i teach korean students my temper and patience loose I really wants to give up that time
    but i want to teach again


  19. Oo nga, I think mas disiplinado parin ang mga Pinoy students. Maraming nationalities na din akong naturuan sa IS, and hindi sila kasing wild and rude ng mga Koreans. Sorry, pero iba talaga ang mga Korean students kung umasta… pero meron parin naman matitino. Kapag naman bumait eh sobrang bait naman and hindi kinakalimutan ang teacher kahit na hindi na siya nagtuturo sa kanila. Ung ibang Korean students ko na college na now and nawowork na, tinatawagan pa ko dito sa Korea and nakikipag-meet. ^^


  20. Waaa~~~ now I miss teaching…I miss teaching in the Philippines where the students have really more respect for their teacher. Nakaka miss ang paglalakad ko sa hallway at nagkakandarapa ang mga students na pumasok sa room nila. I also have some funny expiriences before when I was teaching Korean kindergarten students^^ they are really naughty but they easily get scared and of course they easily cry. But Filipino kids are the best 😉

    For now, I would stick working in the hospital but would definitely be back to teaching…


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