Sunday, November 24, 2013

Beyond Surviving--How To Thrive as an Expat ESL Teacher: 7 Tips for the Journey

The questions were unfailingly predictable: What’s your name? Where are
you from? What university did you graduate from? What was your major? They came in rapid succession. It was the start of my very first semester here in Korea and almost every student was asking me the same questions.

I gave my name, mentioned that I went to school in Boston and said that my hometown was New York. My major? American history. More than several students reacted in a similar manner:

“American history? How could that be a major? American history is only 200-years old. Korean history is 5000-years old. That’s a major!”

That observation was not lost on me. “Wow,” I said to myself, “there’s something to this.” It didn’t take long for a self-induced wave of humility to cascade through my body. My country wasn’t the center of the universe? I began to unravel some 22-years of misguided self-importance that had been grafted on to my world of presumptions.

American history major--right off the bus
Tip #1 Be humble.
No matter where you are from, it’s not likely you have 5,000 years of history backing you up. More than just ancient history, according to Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country, South Koreans have produced the most impressive story of nation building in the 20th century. And besides, humility goes a long way here.

Tip #2 Learn the language.
You hop in a cab, patch together a few words of the native language, telling the driver where you want to go. Only thing is, you said you wanted to go to the train station. That’s where he took you. You meant to say, the local subway station. He’s confused. You’re frustrated. Make the time to study the local language--even if you’re exhausted from all the teaching you’re doing. Learning the language helps provide part of the necessary tool-kit for navigating life in your adopted country. Learning Korean opens the window to a better understanding of this incredible culture.
Korean Class: learning language, culture and making friends

Tip #3 Cultivate friendships with both Koreans and other expats.
Studying Korean, especially when done in traditional classroom fashion is a great place for meeting others. In my recent Korean language classes I was both the only American and the only professor.  Befriending the owner of a local coffee shop or dry cleaners may lead to a weekend hike in the woods. Joining an area club or organization (running, paintball, softball, or traveling) is a great way to make friends and enrich your expat experience.

Tip #4 Avoid thinking you can change the system.
By now you’ve heard all about the crazy drivers, the antiquated customs, the lousy weather, the seemingly ridiculous approaches to managing people. Guess what? Get a grip. It ain’t gonna change. And, more importantly, it’s not your culture.

Tip #5 Avoid Korea bashers.
Yes indeed, misery loves company. Finding flaws and faults can easily become contagious. “Red flag” this dynamic as soon as you notice it. Take two steps back. Find colleagues and friends who have a more balanced view of their experience here. Korea is not a perfect place, but it does offer a world of mostly pleasant surprises. For most people, even those who experience a few early “speed bumps,” Korea provides more than its share of spectacular memories.

Tip #6 Keep developing yourself professionally.
My current employer requires each faculty member to have an ongoing plan for professional development. You can do research, observe other teachers, attend conferences and write reaction papers, or give presentations to colleagues at regularly scheduled staff meetings. There’s a good message here: standing still professionally is not OK. There are many ways to become a better teacher--whether it’s through joining KOTESOL, becoming part of an acting troupe, taking traditional Korean art classes, or doing yoga.

Tip #7 Be an ambassador.
You didn’t join the Foreign Service when you decided to become an ESL educator. That’s true, but for better or worse, you are an ambassador. You represent your country in the eyes of your students, your Korean bosses and colleagues, and to Koreans at-large. Many people don’t welcome such an appellation bestowed on them without their consent. Totally understandable, but it comes with the turf. In fact, how you behave is not only a reflection on you, and your country, it is also a reflection on all foreigners who are guests here in Korea.

Recently, a fellow former Korean Peace Corps volunteer mentioned that he thought there was much evidence to suggest that a stint as an ESL teacher can be an invaluable “Part 1” in preparation for the adventure that is life. For others, an extended tenure as an ESL teacher can, as in any profession, lead to burnout. Tips for success aside, inertia can be an intoxicating trap.  Staying fresh, on top of your game, motivated, and most importantly, in service to your students, is a timeless and worthwhile challenge. Losing one’s humility may be like the canary in the coal mine—an indication that it may be time to check things out.


  1. This ought to get posted on blogs and in training materials as preparation for those thousands of people considering teaching ESL in Korea! Really good set of tips.

  2. This is the best advice anybody could receive. Nice work, Steve.

  3. Steve, great blog. My favorite part, since I am a professor but am unlikely to teach ESL in Korea, was this: "staying fresh, on top of your game, motivated, and most importantly, in service to your students, is a timeless and worthwhile challenge." All teachers and professors need to keep this in mind.

  4. This is a great post, I whole heartedly agree! I can only hope that those makign the move to Korea (or any country to teach) will accept and practice these tips.

  5. Great to see some positive thoughts published by someone in the guest community. Like all good advise some is easy to follow some not so much. Learn the language after relentless study I think I can order a soda, provided the assistant speaks fluent English, the machines are safer, on a more serious note breaking into life at a social level here is a slow process.