Day in the Life: Teaching in South Korea

Blogging Abroad’s third prompt is to describe a day in the life abroad. Since my schedule is erratic at the moment traveling, I’ll describe a typical day while living and teaching in South Korea. I truly enjoyed my job, but it wasn’t fulfilling enough for all of my passions. So, I spent a lot of energy outside of school on passion projects, spending time with friends, traveling around Korea, and exploring some hiking trails. Life is much more than work!

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

7:30am: Welcoming the bright day!

Beep Beep!

My alarm sets off yet again. What day is it today?

I stretch out of bed, still groggy, and switch on the water boiler to prepare my morning necessity: coffee. As hot water seeps through the grounds, I close my eyes and focus on my breath. Making time every day to be intentional and mentally prepare for the day has become a routine.

8:10am: Leave for work

I kiss Adam goodbye, skip down five flights of stairs, hop on my trusty pink bicycle, and weave through traffic jams. As cars and taxis stagnate and honk, I zip right past everyone and smirk while doing so. After fifteen minutes of getting my blood pumping, I make it to school and lock up my bike.

“Oh, Lianne! Hello!” A group of fifth graders were picking up trash around school grounds as part of their chores.

“Good morning! Thank you for cleaning. I want to help,” I snatch a pair of tongs from Jun Young and scoop up a “Crunky” chocolate wrapper littering the streets. Lead by example.

korea school slippers

Korea school slippers

I enter the school building and slip on my comfortable school shoes (no outdoor shoes allowed), greet the principal and vice principal with a bow and an 안녕하세요 (hello), and shimmy my way up to the “special teacher” office where my desk is situated with four other teachers. I’m the only foreigner in the building.

Fellow coworkers pile in, sometimes with breads and fruits to share, other times with coffees for everyone. We chat in limited Korean or English as I prepare for the day’s lessons.

9:00am-12:20pm: Teaching

It’s showtime. I usually taught four 40-minute lessons with a 10-minute break in between. There is no typically lesson. With fourth graders, I might teach students how to talk about the time, practice key expressions and vocabulary, practice with a dialogue and role play, sing a time song with actions, and play a guessing game with toy clocks. If I’m teaching sixth grade, the lesson might be about giving directions. I’d turn the classroom into a town and give elaborate clues (which they have to piece together and read it in the mirror) and race to find the missing clues to solve a mystery.

English class doesn’t have to be boring and laden with memorization and repetition. Certainly, I want to have fun too, so I strive to make lessons engaging for both myself and the students. Teaching English in a public school has its frustrations, but overall, it is an enjoyable and rewarding job that allows a decent amount of freedom to be creative. Placement is key; everyone’s experience varies. My schools were a good match for me, although it wasn’t all peachy.

12:30pm: Lunchtime

Teaching depletes my energy so I’m always looking forward to lunchtime. All five of us in the office walk together to the chaotic cafeteria where hungry children line up to receive their free meal. The dining children are chomping away, getting bits of rice on their faces, talking with their mouths full, and helping themselves to their friend’s tray. When eating Korean style, manners that I learned in America are thrown out the window. Then there’s the so-tiny-they’re-almost-invisible first graders grabbing spicy peppers with chopsticks. Their fine motor skills and spice tolerance bewildered me. It’s a sight, I’ll tell ya.

Fortunately, there is a special line just for teachers. We pick up a metal tray, spoon, and chopsticks and serve ourselves buffet style. There’s always some kind of rice, protein, soup, side dishes (veggies, bread, salad, seaweed), and if lucky, a dessert (fruit, yogurt, cake). Generally, school lunch is satisfying and delicious, but sometimes I leave hungry (especially when seafood or meaty and sweet spaghetti makes it on the menu). I wrote in more detail about school lunches in Korea.

When we’re all finished, we clean up, dispose of the food waste, and take a walk around the school grounds. I enjoy this bonding time with my coworkers. During this time, I learned about some of the stresses of life in Korea like marriage, children, and education.

1:00pm-4:30pm: Lesson Planning, After School Activities

After lunch, I usually don’t have any classes, so the time is quite open as long as I’m at my desk looking productive. I plan lessons, study Korean, write, work on side projects, waste time on social media and YouTube. We call this deskwarming. We hate it, we love it. When I hear about teachers in America bringing work home and being totally stressed out, I’m grateful to have ample time to prepare thoughtful lessons.

When I’m not deskwarming, however, I’m participating in after-school activities like volleyball with the other teachers, attending open classes, teaching workshops, after-school classes, conducting teacher English classes, attending staff outings, recording listening tests, etc. Every day was different.

4:30pm: Leave Work

Free to leave! Now my day is only starting. I might stop by the traditional market to load up on vegetables before cycling home. Still a bit hungry, Adam and I eat our ritual apple slices and peanut butter while talking about our respective days. The weather is just right, so I’ll go running at the track while Adam reads on the grass. The active atmosphere at the university track usually inspires me. We read on the grass until the sun goes down and weather gets chilly.

6:00pm: Prepare & Eat Dinner

Okay, so dinner may seem mundane, but some people might be interested in what kinds of groceries are available in Korea. Well, fetching familiar (and affordable) ingredients isn’t that easy in Korea, but I’m still able to whip up some favorites like falafel, homemade tortillas, vegetable stir fry, eggplant parm, veggie burgers, bean salad, etc. We always enjoy healthy vegetarian nosh at home. I wouldn’t be able to survive without getting some basics from iHerb. In fact, we kept a spreadsheet of our groceries costs. We spent about 3,000 KRW (about $2.5 USD) each per day; it’s quite doable to eat healthily while saving for worldly adventures. I plan to write a post about eating healthy familiar foods on a budget in Korea. Don’t get me wrong; I love Korean food, but I can’t eat it every day.  I learned to be flexible and creative with cooking in Korea.

7:00pm: Take a walk and pick up trash

It’s evening time and we’re stuffed; what a perfect time for a walk! Since we always noticed and complained about the trash littering our neighborhood, we decided to stop talking and start doing. We share a pair of gloves and walk around cleaning up our neighborhood. Sure, we get stares, but it’s needed to raise awareness of the trash issue. Some people even expressed gratitude, giving us drinks and thanking us.

These reactions motivated us to encourage other community members to help clean up our city, so we started a project, #CleanGwangju. It really doesn’t take much effort to tidy up your own street. Most of what we collect are cigarette butts, soda cans, beer bottles, candy wrappers — items that simply do not belong on the ground. It probably took a few weeks for the trash to pile up, but it only takes a few minutes to pick it all up again. Hopefully, when people see how clean the street is, they will be less likely to litter there again. Litter begets litter.

8:00pm:  Personal Projects

Now that it’s getting late, I spend time on personal projects: creating art, going downtown to sort clothes in preparation for the Gwangju Freecycle swap event, writing an article for the Gwangju News, baking banana bread, meeting my language exchange partner, planning our next vacation, or just meeting some friends for bingsu (Korean shaved ice dessert).

10:00pm

Nothing noteworthy to say here, just normal people stuff! Adam and I like to wind down with chess, Breaking Bad, reading, practicing our swing dance skills or juggling. We always had little personal challenges like practicing gratitude or public speaking. We were usually in bed by midnight!


 

Hope you enjoyed reading about my typical day living in South Korea. What about you? If you taught abroad, how did your schedule differ?

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