Disclaimer: I have been teaching at a public elementary school in Daegu, South Korea for nearly a year and a half now. These are all things that have happened to me. Not everything on this list will apply to everybody. When moving to a foreign country, it’s best to expect the unexpected. Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.

  1. You’re noticeably foreign, and therefore every ordinary thing you say and do is fascinating to your students.
  2. No matter how many years you teach at the same school, your students will still say “Nice to meet you” every time they see you.
  3. Your schedule will change A LOT. One month I had a schedule change nearly every day. The worst is when you’re told at the last minute or after it’s too late. Sometimes it seems like nobody at my school knows what’s going on.
  4. The expressions taught in your textbooks will likely not all sound natural or even make sense. My textbook teaches that you should respond to a Yes or No question with “I have no idea” instead of a simple No. One of the examples they provide is: “Do you know anything about guide dogs?” / “I have no idea.” Yo, you’re you! You know if you know things about guide dogs or not.
  5. Sometimes you will spend a lot of time preparing things that are never used. This has happened to me too many times. All your time and effort going to complete waste hurts.
  6. Unless there’s a strict uniform policy, your students may wear shirts with incorrect or inappropriate things written on them. And you’ll be the only person who notices.
  7. You may not be informed that school will be out the next day, and wake up early for no reason. This has happened to me a few times.
  8. Even though your big appeal is that you’re different, everybody at your school will want you to be like them. It’s like going to an “American food” in another country. It’s not really American food. It’s their version of American food. When a student or co-teacher asks me what my favorite movie or song is, they don’t want my real answer. They expect and want me to say the title of a Korean movie or song, even though I’ve lived in the US for almost three decades and only year and a half in Korea. They want that feeling of “Wow, he’s just like us!” We all secretly want to spot a celebrity shopping at Walmart, right?
  9. Your co-teachers speak English as their second language, so when they tell you to do something, they may not say what they mean to say. As a result you’ll go by the words they said and how they said them. She may say make sixteen copies of this, but in her mind she said “sixty.”  Oops! Also, some English words have different meanings in Korean than they do in English-speaking countries. For example: in Korea, a certificate is a password. For me, the word “certificate” conjures up an image of a piece of paper proving that you completed a course. This has resulted in more than one confusing and frustrating conversation.
  10. Sometimes your co-teachers may not realize that certain aspects of work and life that their used to don’t exist outside of Korea, and will therefore assume you’re capable of something you couldn’t possibly know anything about.
  11. English Festival is an annual event at public schools in which every grade level dances to an English song. I’m not sure why, but every school every year does the same songs. It’s like a rule. This is my second year in a row at my school, and once again they’ve chosen “Marry You,” “Count on Me,” and “Sunny.” You’d think that I would get to suggest the songs as the person with the most knowledge of English songs, but no. The English songs Koreans like are not the same songs native English speakers like. They all know and like the same songs, and never tire of them.
  12. Being liked by everyone is a big deal. It’s a strange concept for me, because there were teachers I hated as a kid who were still there teaching years later. Here, if one student isn’t happy, their parents complain, and the school freaks out. Koreans are workaholics and perfectionists. I’m not. But don’t be scared. Hey, I’m still here.


NOTE: This is based on my personal experiences and observations. Although many of my friends here can relate to the twelve items on this list, not every school is exactly the same. There are no guarantees, as is life (and travel).

Which of my experiences can you relate to? Which ones surprised you? Any insight?