Teaching at a Korean Public School: An EPIK Experience

After living in Korea for 8 wonderful months, I think it’s safe to say I’ve got into the swing of things. This is certainly true for the main reason I am currently in Korea, my job as an English teacher. I work as a public school Native Teacher with the EPIK program. What that entails and looks like depends on where you work and who you work with. Here is what my experience has been like so far.

 

Coworkers and Co teachers

If you work at a public school through the EPIK program you will be assigned a co teacher. As I have said, this is case by case so you could have more than one and how involved they are in your teaching depends on who you receive. Even between semesters this can change drastically.

When I first came to my elementary school, I had one main co teacher. I was mostly her back up and made any materials she asked of me and followed her lead. I taught all of 3rd and 4th grade with her. I also taught 5-1 and 6-1 with her. This was the case since those two classes are run by the head teachers of those grades. This also meant that I would go without my co teacher to teach the rest of 5th and 6th grade. You technically aren’t allowed to teach curriculum classes without a certified teacher in the room, so the homeroom teachers became my co teachers as well. Each one of them had a different idea of how their English class should be run and what my responsibilities were.

Two teachers had me prepare a game and come for the last 20 minutes of class. I would then lead and teach the class alone. One teacher had me come for the whole class and towards the end would randomly choose a game from the book and I would have to quickly figure out and then teach it to the class. Two other teachers just sat in the back of the class (or left the class in 1 case) while I taught the whole period. I ended up actually preferring these since I felt I could focus on what I wanted and had total control.

Come the new school year, I now teach every curriculum class with my main co teacher, no more having to go to homerooms. It is much easier for me. I have time to focus on the added classes of 1st and 2nd grade, my after school classes and teacher training. Plus I save so much money on candy now that I don’t have to bribe them.

jenny
My wonderful elementary school co teacher, Jenny.

 

Kids (behavior, level, etc)

class
Learning numbers and body parts!

Korean children automatically have more respect for their teachers and dedication to their education. This I think is a culture thing, instilled in them by society, and not a bad societal influence I might add. I was teaching in after school in America for a class of 5th graders before coming to Korea. It was a nightmare. To be fair the class I got was the worst of the bunch and by the time I got them; they had chewed up and spit out 3 other counselors. I quickly learned to be skeptical of everything they said, assume the worst and do my hardest to not let their cruel, selfish ways get under my skin. By the end of the year I was more or less able to control them and forged a relationship with even the toughest kid, plus I became very good at disciplining.

Korean children are not all well behaved robots, let me tell you that. Each class has some tricky students. One of my classes that I visited the homeroom for was the worst I have met in Korea. And was honestly one of the few times I have had to discipline. The most I even had to do was cross my arms, give them the teacher look and say in an even tone, “I’ll wait.” It quickly got deathly silent and all of their eyes were on me. Even at their worst, Korean students are a dream in terms of classroom management.

In terms of their level, public school students are often a mixed bag. Some come from wealthier families who can afford to send them to Hagwons (private academies) or bring in a tutor. These students will be at a higher level than the others who don’t have access to that extra instruction. This means that nearly every class you teach will be a mixed level of English proficiency. But even more than that, the location of your school will determine the level of your students. I teach in the countryside, and this I have learned means lower levels of English. I can make assumptions as to why this is, could be it isn’t as valued here, most of the people in my town don’t speak English. But that would just be speculation, and I can only speak from my own experience. Just take this information as loose indicators.

 

Hours/schedule/a typical day

Under the EPIK contract, you will teach no more than 22 hours a week. If you teach more than that they must pay you over time. BUT you must be at school during the whole day. This usually entails you arriving around 8:30 a.m. and leaving school at 5 p.m. You will have a lot of down time which you should fill with lesson planning.

Your schedule will change from day to day most likely, and more often than not, you will be teaching at more than one school. I teach at an elementary school from Monday to Thursday and then on Friday I teach at a middle school.

Monday and Tuesday

I have my first period off, so I usually relax a little in my office, have coffee and review what my lessons are for the day. I then teach 3rd grade for the next 3 periods, (or 4th grade on Tuesday) I have lunch with my coworkers and mingle in the teacher’s office for coffee after. Then I teach a 5th grade class. After I teach an after school class with some 3rd and 4th graders. I can teach whatever topic I want, and am completely in charge of them. These can be fun once you figure out what you are doing. After this, I return to my office until 5, which means about 2 hours of lesson planning or whatever else.

Wednesday

I have no classes for the first 3 periods on Wednesday but right before lunch I teach a 5th grade class. After lunch I teach what is called a “care class”. This means I basically expose the 1st and 2nd graders to English. Their level is extremely low which makes sense considering they don’t even start a formal English education until 3rd grade. But now they know their ABCs and are slowly learning all their phonics as we go through the alphabet.

Thursday

Thursday is when I teach 6th grade. They are the biggest grade in the school and so have 4 classes. I teach them during the 4 periods before lunch, then after lunch I spent the rest of the day in my office.

Friday

I head over to the Middle School on Friday. It is a tiny school and has about 16 students total. Yes, that is all 3 grades. This is more typical in a countryside school, and was what I was expecting. My elementary school is the biggest in the city and so that is why my class sizes averages just under 30. My middle school is in the middle of nowhere surrounded by farmland and mountains. Luckily my co teacher picks me up and drives me there and back so I don’t have to figure out the buses. It’s a nice ride. My middle school co teacher is VERY good at English so the conversations are always easy and in depth. She attended my teacher training classes the semester before and was my best student so luckily we already had a bond before I began work as her Native Teacher.

After arriving at the school I have a period off to get settled and review what I am doing with my classes for the day. I am in charge of reading and writing with the kids. This I like so I can focus on grammar. It’s different than what I expected since I figured my main existence at the school was to get the kids used to hearing and understanding a native speaker. But getting to focus on writing with the middle schoolers is a nice change of pace.

I teach the 3rd graders, (this is 9th grade for the Americans reading this), then the 1st graders (6th grade). We have lunch and then I teach the 2nd graders (7th grade). I speak the same way to them as I do the elementary school students but their understanding of me is higher which is nice. I’ve had to figure out how to slow my speech and break up my sentences into thought groups so the kids can have time to translate what I’m saying before I continue. I also have to use a lot of charades and one word sentences but we make it work. The middle schoolers can understand longer sentences and even joke around with me more.

After my last class I have about a half hour until my co teacher and I leave for Teacher Training. Teacher training is an hour and a half long class I teach for the teachers in my district who want to work on their English. It’s listed as a conversation class but I have free reign with what I teach and it’s honestly one of my favorite classes to teach. This semester I go to a separate Board of Education owned building and teach there. My class is much bigger, and their levels are all quite high so we can have some very in depth conversations. I’ve taught poetry, similes and metaphors, western versus eastern culture, and plan on teaching a debate class as well. Watching them formulate their thoughts in another language is so impressive and I love working with these amazing teachers.

Extra activities/misc.

In addition to the classes we teach, an EPIK teacher is required to teach two English camps. One in the winter and one in the summer while the school is on vacation. What those look like and how they are structured depends on your school. My teacher friends in town all have different camps to mine. They might split their time between two schools, or not have a camp to teach at all. For me, I teach 2 weeks of camp. One week is for the 3rd and 4th graders and the second week is for the 5th and 6th graders. So far I’ve taught the winter camp. It was Minion themed and each morning we would watch 15 minutes of the “Despicable Me” movie before moving on to activities. I have 4 hours a day to fill and so pulled the topics from the part of the movie we were on for the day. We learned about space, American money, made crafts, did science experiments and even had a cooking day where everything was banana themed. If you don’t know, Minions seem to have an obsession with bananas. I planned this camp for about a month or more before it finally arrived. It was A LOT of work, but so worth it in the end. I bonded so much with the kids and their English really improved. This was most evident during the craft and cooking days. My co teacher doesn’t know much about either so if the kids wanted to know what to do, they had to get the instructions from me. This meant no translations from my co teacher. They used critical thinking to figure out how to communicate with me and it really improved our bond.

Application process/paper work

The application process was long and grueling. For a list of exactly what you need, head on over to EPIK’s official website. It’s easier in other countries to get some of these documents and much faster. You will need a criminal background check at the federal level. If you send it off to them directly this could take about 6 months to get back to you. There is the option of using a courier service, which is what I did. It costs extra but it is so fast. You basically send a third party your documents and they walk into the office of the FBI, wait for it, then express ship it back to you. So instead of 6 months you’re looking at a week or two. These are easy to find with a quick google search. In other countries I have heard their process is not only smoother and faster, but also free. Downside to living in America I guess.

You will also need to pass a skype interview with EPIK before they will even accept your paperwork. This is tricky and it’s hard to tell how it’s going honestly. Just speak clearly, and a little slower than normal. Also be friendly, smile a lot, seem warm and open, and honest. They asked me some interesting questions so be ready to think on your feet.

If you pass the interview you have to send in all your documents and they will send you a contract which has either your Metropolitan Office of Education (The city you work in if it’s a big one) on it or your Provincial Office of Education (If you work in a smaller city, this is the name of the province in which you will work. Provinces are comparable in size to a state). This means if you are located in a province, you won’t know anything about where you will be until after you have already arrived in Korea. But, if you want the job, you have to sign and send it back.

Next you will arrive a week before your start date and attend an orientation. You must pass a medical exam and then it’s long and grueling week of classes and at the end you must teach a mock lesson with a fellow classmate. Then the night before it’s all over you will learn exactly where you are teaching.

classroom
My Classroom

Recommendations/warnings

If you have never taught in Korea before, I recommend this route. Once here it is easier to shop around for a job after your contract is up. Otherwise it’s a gamble in terms of whether your Hagwon will be like slave labor or sketchy as hell if you choose to go that route. Being an EPIK teacher is quite easy and rewarding. The pay is decent, they provide housing, you get 18 days paid vacation and get immersed in the culture of your school. If you have any questions just go ahead and leave a comment. If you decide to teach with the EPIK program I hope you have as great of an experience as I am having!

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