Teaching English in South Korea! Meet Niamh
Tell us about yourself! We’d love to know about your background, what drew you to teaching abroad, and more!
My name is Niamh; I’m 23, and currently live in Wonju, South Korea! I work as a kindergarten teacher for the youngest students, the five-year-olds in Korean age 3 and 4 international periods. I’m originally from Kilkenny; I graduated from NUIG with a degree in English and Archaeology. I decided to teach abroad because I wanted to teach and I wanted to travel.
Tell us about your path to teaching abroad – did you always know you’d end up in South Korea?
I always knew I wanted to start my teaching career in Korea because it seemed like the best place for a teacher with no experience to start teaching. I completed my 120-hour TEFL course in my final semester of university, which was a very stressful time in my life! After graduating, I had about four months before I started working in Korea, so I decided to complete the 30-hour young learner’s course since I knew I would be teaching kindergarten.
Have you worked at the same school as an English teacher in South Korea during your entire stint?
I’m currently on month 10 of my 12-month contract with my school, but I’ve decided to extend my contract for another year to expand my teaching skills.
What is your favourite age group to work with, and why? Would you consider teaching other age groups?
I like working with elementary school kids, especially aged 8 to 10. These students have a good level of English and can work much more indecently than in kindergarten. I can also push them to work harder, and they won’t burst into tears! That being said, I don’t think I’d like to teach older students just because there are fewer opportunities to have fun since they’re at an essential stage of their education.
What was the most helpful portion of your TEFL qualification experience? Do you feel like you regularly draw from your course experiences in the classroom?
The most helpful portion of my TEFL course was the grammar section. I didn’t realise how bad I was at it until I did my course! And in South Korea, they expect native speakers to have perfect grammar, so I refer to that section of the system frequently!
What were three things about your experience in South Korea that you did not anticipate?
I did extensive research before moving to South Korea, so there were not many things I was unprepared for, but there’s still a big difference between reading about something and experiencing it for the first time!
The main thing I did not anticipate was how sensitive the parents were. Very little you do as a teacher makes them happy. If you push the kids too much, they say the lessons are too hard, and if you don’t do enough work, they say they want their kids to study more. There’s no way to please them, which I struggled with when I started working in Korea. Now I learned to ignore it and keep doing what I’m doing.
Another thing I didn’t anticipate was being unable to send items home. This problem is just because of covid, so I don’t think it will be like this forever. But my local post office doesn’t ship to Ireland or most of Europe because of covid. It was a big shock that I couldn’t even buy stamps to send a card home.
The third thing I didn’t anticipate was how helpful, and selfless Koreans are. They will do everything in their power to help you. At work, the Korean teachers will regularly clean the classrooms, buy things to help during lessons or even just toys for the kids to play with. There’s no thought about themselves; it’s just about the benefit of the school, which is refreshing to see and experience and motivates me to be a better worker.
What is one thing about the life of teaching abroad that you never expected/weren’t prepared for?
The main thing I knew would happen but wasn’t prepared for when I came here was how busy life is. Time passes exceptionally quickly here, especially when you are going out and being a tourist on the weekend. It can be straightforward to get burned out. Any advice I can give to people coming out to Korea is that, yes, travelling and seeing the country is one of the main reasons teachers come here, but remember you have a job to do, and the job should come first. If that means postponing your weekend plans because you must get teaching materials or lesson plans, then accept that. Your bank account will thank you for it too!
What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher abroad?
One of the most rewarding experiences happens every day when I’m in the classroom, and one of my students comes up to me and says a complete sentence in perfect English. My kids are so young that it takes a good few months before you see any progress in their English, and it can become straightforward to doubt your capabilities as a teacher. But when you see that progress come out in your students, it makes all the stress and hard work worth it and gives you a confidence boost.
What were the best parts of your experience- inside and outside the classroom?
The best parts of my experience were gaining experience and confidence as a teacher and also adapting to life in Korea. It’s gratifying to finally have the confidence to make solo trips alone without the company of my co-workers.
What advice do you have for someone on the fence about whether to teach abroad or not?
Suppose you are trying to decide whether or not to teach in Korea; just ask yourself if you can deal with the work ethics and lifestyles here. You will be tired and stressed, but you also get to live and see a beautiful country with beautiful people. The price of living here is meagre, and it’s straightforward to save money. But the lifestyle isn’t for everyone, so if you’re unsure, research Korean work ethics and living as a foreigner in Korea.