10 Myths on Teaching in Korean Public Schools

In my almost four years of teaching in Korea I’ve heard some truly amazing claims regarding the job. Here is my take on a few of them. Please bear in mind, these are just my beliefs, I’m certainly not saying anything as a matter of fact (other than number 5!)Edit: I just want to make it clear than I am NOT saying all (or even a large number) of native speaking public school teachers in Korea hold these beliefs, just that they are opinions that I have heard and these are just my thoughts on them.

1) One hour a week is not long enough to effectively teach.

O.k. the easiest thing to do here is some maths, 45 minutes per week, for 30 weeks a year, for 7 years. 45 x 30 x 7 = 202.5 hours of purely conversation based classes (I’m basing this on having no conversation classes in 1st and 2nd grade). This is building on top of the other 2 or 3 hours per week that students spend in other English classes.

When I was at school I only had one hour per week of subjects such as business, economics and R.E., I’m almost certain my teachers were not resigned to failure because of this. Lack of time does not automatically equate to lack of effectiveness. If you are only teaching in Korea for a year, they will not suddenly stop conversation classes when you leave. Learning to speak a language is a long drawn out process; we have at least one year to do as much as we can to contribute towards that process.

Also, if you feel you need more time, why not set up an after school class?


2) You need to be a ‘candy teacher’ to motivate your students.English conversation isn’t on the University Entrance Exam, that doesn’t mean Korean students are not interested in speaking English. I’m not saying all our students are going to run inPictureto the classroom hardly able to contain their excitement at the prospect of having an hour to practice conversation, just like when I was in school, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with learning French, however I had wonderful teachers who were knowledgeable and did everything they could to make us interested. Exciting, interesting and engaging lessons with a fun reward system should do the job just as well, if not better, than bribing with candy.

3) Korean people can’t speak English and low level students don’t need conversation classes anyway.Think back to when you were a student, how would you rate the average level of the students in your language class? Now compare that with the average level of your students in Korea. I would be extremely surprised if your Korean students are a lower level. If they are, then perhaps you can take motivation from this; if the students are truly a very low level, they have probably been left behind by the state education system. You now have the opportunity to do something about that.


4) Co-teaching is an ineffective and unpleasant experience.If you don’t have much teaching experience or qualifications you’ve Picturejust been given the opportunity to work with a highly qualified and probably more experienced teacher. That is anything but a waste of time. The important thing is to figure out what you can bring to the lessons and what they can bring to the lessons.

A couple of suggestions, your co-teacher is most likely knowledgeable about (to name just a few) Korean students’ interests, possibly large class classroom management techniques, structuring a lesson and specific issues Korean students might face in your lessons.. You can bring to the table new teaching and activity ideas, authentic materials to expose the students to, a sense of fun, excitement and intrigue. Play off each other’s strengths. It’s not always easy, but it is doable.

If you are experienced then discuss each other’s roles in the classroom. How can it possibly not be useful to have another teacher in the room with you? They key is to be clear about what each of you are there for.

Either way, make sure you both have a clearly defined role in the classroom. If your co-teacher sits at the back playing on his/her phone, it’s most likely because she/he doesn’t know what role you would like them to have.

5) Korean students are not creative.It is not often I say this in teaching, but if you think this, you are WRONG. The truth is that Korean students are not as used to being given thPicturee opportunity to show off their creative abilities, due to this they will often need more scaffolding and structure than we might initially anticipate. With a little bit of practice, your Korean students will knock your socks off with the creativity they are capable of, we just have to give them the chance and support.


6) Desk warming is a waste of everyone’s time.If you are asked to desk warm, get involved with professional development. A teacher never stops learning and improving. Take an online course, read blogs, write blogs, review your lessons, develop a syllabus, do a needs analysis from your observations over the year…… there is always something you can be doing to improve your teaching.

Not buying it? Well, please find me another job where you are paid to sit at a desk and do whatever you want for a period of time. Use the time effectively; you are being paid to be a professional teacher.

7) A PPT is a lesson plan.If your PPT is your lesson, it is quite likely you have a very teacher centered lesson. Just one example; telling your students what you did on your holiday for 20 minutes with pictures on a PPT, then giving them a quiz to check they were listening, not an English conversation lesson. Also, you know all those lesson plans on www.waygook.org ? Yep, I’m going to say it, a lot of them aren’t that great either. I’m probably now the most hated public school teacher in Korea.

If I was to offer one tip for planning your lessons, it would be to ask three questions in every stage of the lesson:

‘What are the students learning?’

‘At what point is the learning happening?’

‘How are they learning it? ‘

If you haven’t had much teacher training or experience planning lessons is really tough I know. Personally, I would recommend doing some research online, maybe start off with the very safe PPP format and, when you get a bit more confident, I would highly recommend getting to know and playing with task-based learning. Perhaps you could use some of the desk warming time for this?


8) That we are entertainers, not teachers.I remember in my first EPIK orientation, one lecturer said to us that, to keep his students’ attention for the whole ‘lecture’, he would jump on desks, sing songs and dance around.

Personally, I believe that that an effective teacher has the students’ attention focused on him/her for as little time as possible. Honestly, if you feel like you have to jump on a table to keep the students listening to you, you’ve probably been talking for too long.

9) The Korean way of doing things is wrong.If something is done differently in Korea, it does not necessarily mean it is done worse. The education systems in our home countries are nowhere near perfect. Sure, there is a lot Korea could learn from other countries education systems, but there is also a lot we could learn from theirs and a lot we could learn from many education systems around the world

We cannot just presume that because X is how we do it in our home countries, X is how they should do it in Korea. Step back, think about why they might do X like that in Korea. Korean culture is vastly different to that of our native countries, so why would they do everything the same? Learn to adapt and adopt, to understand and contribute.


10) Teaching in Korean Public Schools is a waste of time and you are not appreciated.The Korean media and government are certainly not too great at showing their appreciation for the native English speaking teachers, but they both have their own agendas. We have been privileged with the opportunity to help develop the minds of millions of young Koreans.

If you do a good job, if you are passionate about what you do, if you give your students opportunities that others can’t or won’t, your co-teachers and parents will appreciate you, but your students will never forget you.

Did I miss any myths? Don’t agree with any of my myths? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below! My new year resolution is to reply to every single comment for the rest of they year, why not test me?!You can keep updated with my ramblings via twitter here or facebook here.


04/04/2013 23:13

Yes! I so agree with you on these points, yet I’m ashamed to say I used to believe a couple of these myths!
Firstly, number 2 – when I first arrived I soon clicked onto the fact that this was the quickest way to get students attention and it does boost participation! But at a cost – literally! I still use candy but I let teams gain/lose points over a 6 week period then the winning team get a treat at the end. This works really well for me so I’m happy to give out a few chocolate bars every 6 weeks!
You should present these at EPIK orientations….? A lot of teachers believe these myths because so many before them believed it them; if they were aware of them from the start it might break the cycle….

Alex (AlienTeachers)
04/04/2013 23:20

Gemma, at some point in my teaching career I think I have fallen victim to, and probably even said at least half of these! I also still use candy, but as a final reward, which, for me, is different to bribing! I’m sure people might disagree with me though!

I agree it would make a nice presentation at the EPIK orientation, no idea how I would go about doing that though.

04/04/2013 23:32

I agree with Alex that this would make a nice EPIK workshop.

And I feel guilty in that I once (maybe more) blamed many native teachers for believing some of the above mentioned myths. Why not have the courage to openly discuss about them rather than complaining about their complaints? I was a young teacher back then though. The history of teachers from multi-cultural background working together in Korea is not that long. But I think we are becoming better than yesterday. FIGHTING! 🙂

Thank you for sharing this. I really enjoyed reading it.

Ming Ding Xiong
04/04/2013 23:41

As I posted on Facebook, I can’t accept deskwarming as an effective concept. I actually found it useful because I’m completing a master’s program, and I could find it useful in the future if trying to get out a publication. However, that few jobs, teaching or otherwise, require anyone to sit at a desk for 40 hours a week, for two or three weeks, without any official duties, indicates that deskwarming is simply a waste of time. Korean teachers do get a bit of deskwarming time, it’s something that should be done because it is a contract obligation, and it can be used well, but that doesn’t mean requiring someone to come in and sit in an office for 8 hours per day is an effective use of their abilities.

Most arguments in favour of deskwarming point out that the time could be used for something or that it’s a contractual obligation, but neither means it’s not a waste of time. Highly qualified teachers, be they Korean or not, don’t spend semester breaks forcibly confined to an office. Self-development can happen at home. Deskwarming is, as someone else mentioned, not an actual word, of course. It’s just considered work.

If I took an engineer with a 9-5 job and made him work from 9 am to 9 pm, he would rightly consider it ridiculous for me to expand his working hours while keeping his responsibilities the same. That’s what deskwarming is. Native speakers in public schools have something like a 30-hour-a-week, 44-weeks-a-year job that’s performed over 40 hours per week over 48 weeks of the year.

Alex (AlienTeachers)
04/04/2013 23:47

Personally, my response to that would be, we are grown adults, we shouldn’t need SMOE or whoever else telling us what we should be doing to improve ourselves as teachers. We are being paid to be at work between the hours stipulated in our contracts, those hours should be used professionally.

I can not understand how being paid to do whatever you want for an entire day could be a bad thing. You could even teach extra classes in that time if you wanted to and felt that would be a more effective use of the time.

If you paid an engineer to work 9-5, but some days only had enough work for him to do from 9-1, there is no way he would expect to be allowed to go home, with pay.

For me, what you are saying is, that those hours shouldn’t be in the contract, which is a different argument, and one I would probably tend to agree with.

Alex (AlienTeachers)
04/04/2013 23:48

Also, I absolutely should have added that I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, a good discussion like this is exactly why I wrote the article 🙂

05/04/2013 00:18

Hi Alex, thanks for this – someone on facebook called it an ‘anti-rant’, that’s a good expression I think. Myths like these (in any context) are a convenient way not to engage and work with the realities of the situation in a positive way – I really like your post for showing how to do this. And I also want to know what desk-warming is, and how I can get paid to do it 🙂

Alex (AlienTeachers)
05/04/2013 22:09

Hi Sophie!

I couldn’t agree more that ‘are a convenient way not to engage and work with the realities of the situation in a positive way’ and I think there are a number of teachers, probably not just in Korea, that convince themselves of similar myths for personal reasons.

Desk-warming, where to start? Basically all contract teachers in Korea (and what many native speaking teachers forget is that the same goes for Korean contracted teachers) do not get in their contract the full school holidays off. They are given around 20 days vacation in their contract, and if there are spare days above that most school require the teachers to go into school, even if there are no other teachers or students there. The reason they do this is that most teachers a required to fill the rest of the days by teaching camps, but some teachers don’t.

The history behind it is that about 5 years ago a lot teachers who had to work in the holidays complained, as they said it was not fair that some don’t and they do. So the powers that be turned round and said fine, even if you are not teaching a camp you still have to come in.

So now of course teachers complain that they are forced (with pay) to sit at their desks and ‘do nothing’.

05/04/2013 01:26

Re: #6 I think there are things schools and EPIK/GEPIK could do to make deskwarming a more positive and mutually beneficial experience. I think people react badly to the perceived mistrust (‘We think you are a lazy native teacher who deserves to be made to sit and do nothing!!!!’). But, I really agree with you that there are a lot of PD opportunities. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I used my winter deskwarming time to watch a bunch of talks and workshops on YouTube, and read books about teaching, and even to snazz up the English Center office a bit, and I feel I gave myself a nice boost for this semester’s teaching.

Re: #4 I guess I agree, but… I sometimes feel co-teaching works less often than it doesn’t work. And that some co-teachers make dialogue very difficult to have. And that it’s a structurally unfair relationship, because co-teachers keep tabs on native teachers and report on them, and get to control the discourse about the native teacher within the school much more…

My additional myth:

“Native teachers and their students have very little shared cultural experience, and it is the constant job of co-teachers to bridge this culture gap.”

I have been pleased to realize how much I have in common with my students, culturally. Many of them watch(download) the same TV shows I do, have a similar taste in music, do the same things on the internet – and often these are things students have in common with me but maybe not Korean teachers.

Also there are aspects of Korean culture where I may have knowledge students don’t – like about travelling to different parts of Korea, or knowing about the culture of Korean students studying English abroad, or knowing about the culture of Korean university students. Likewise there are parts of “western” culture students know much more about than me.

I think our image within our schools and the rituals of the school year and the rituals of co-teaching risk enshrining a ‘vast culture gap/exotic native teacher’ artificial image, but it can be helpful to draw out a more nuanced cultural relationship with our students. And this can help us to be real teachers, not myth #8.

Alex (AlienTeachers
05/04/2013 22:16

Hi Bryan,

Thanks for taking the time to read and join the discussion. I honestly and absolutely agree that SMOE could do a HUGE amount more to help make it a more positive experience and, in doing so, dispel this view of that time as desk warming.

Regarding #4 again, I completely agree, I think as you mentioned earlier it is the power relationship that causes problems, often knowing that the co-teachers can, and most likely are, keeping tabs on your and discussing you can cause problems in communication. I’ve also had bad co-teaching situations (just last year) where I didn’t follow my advice above either. Looking back and reflecting upon it now though I think there was a lot I could have done to improve that co-teaching situation.

I really love your additional myth. There is so much we have in common with our students and we shouldn’t be reliant on our co-teachers to bridge the gap.

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.


Lindsay Franchezca
05/04/2013 04:25

Iv’e been working and teaching in Korean school’s and Language centers here in Bangkok and abroad for almost 10 years. In those 10 years of working with ’em, I find them so friendly and loving– if you are friendly and loving too. Everything that you will do as long as you are not killing the time and you are not that strict, 100% you will win their hearts. What I believe in them is that- you cannot simply discipline them if you are so strict, and if you are setting standards that even you yourself can’t follow, or not following. Some won’t like old people or those with small eyes. Once they proved you are an expert in your own field, then you will certainly get their trust, love,care, and attention. They are creative but most of the time they can’t prove their creativity because of lack of opportunity.

Alex (AlienTeachers)
05/04/2013 22:18

What a beautiful comment Lindsay, I think you summarise the situation perfectly when you state “Once they proved you are an expert in your own field, then you will certainly get their trust, love,care, and attention. ”

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I really appreciate it.

05/04/2013 19:43

#11. Other teachers’ problems stem from their lack of professionalism, and that issues with students, co-teachers, admin, etc. can always be solved by being more “professional.” I think, for many NSETs, if they have it good, they find it hard to empathise with people in genuinely more difficult situations, and (and I don’t know why this is the case) the corollary is that their good situation is because they are inherently a “good” teacher/ person and the person having problems is “bad” or unprofessional. I don’t know whether it comes from malice, egotism or ignorance, but, to me, it is reminiscent of: “Well, poor people just need to get a job.” “Professionalism” is a pernicious and nebulous concept oft used against teachers in many NSETs’ home countries (There are people doing PhDs in this phenomenon right now). However, it is usually used against them by the other stakeholders in education (students, parents, government) and not their colleagues. Here, it is used by teachers against other teachers far more commonly. I do see support and practical and advice on teacher blogs and message boards, but I also see this vague and oppressive notion being deployed against people who are asking for advice very frequently, too.

Regarding deskwarming as an opportunity for professional development is being optimistic (I will not criticise you for that). I view deskwarming as a means of control. I had no classes for 2 months this winter; I came in to an empty staffroom for an hour a day and watched Netflix. I was fulfilling my contractual obligations by proving to the secretaries and the security guards I wasn’t having fun or doing another job. I suppose I could have been more “professional” by doing another degree (I already have 4 – including 2 postgraduate degrees in education), or studying Korean (which I already speak). Another friend worked in rural Gyeongnam. She was forced to come in to both her schools in the middle of winter, even though it was a long bus ride and one school turned off both the heat AND the water during the break.

Don’t compare NSETs in Korea to engineers (BTW, which engineers and where?). When you’re building cars/ships/substations/bridges there is always work to do, and not any old English-speaker can do it. That’s why the foreigners that work in Korean heavy industry are paid >10,000USD per month and are FIFO, with a one month on, one month off rotation (working every single day of that month).

Apples and apples, please. School teachers in England and Australia are not forced to come in during the holidays. They will have planning and preparation to do (with concrete guidelines and goals), but they’re not forced to come in and sit at their desks the whole time the kids aren’t there. If I had had any real work to do, I could have done it at home, and saved myself the 80-minute commute each way.

Desk warming isn’t an immediate deal breaker for me; I disagree with the philosophy behind it, but I can do it for a few years. However, it annoys me when I think that Korea could attract more highly qualified (professional!) candidates if they let NSETs take all the school vacation days. A lot of career teachers in English-speaking countries would like to teach abroad, and would accept the pitiful salaries, I think, if they had more time to explore Korea and Asia, do taekwondo, etc. Korea might not have the money to attract the teachers that are being recruited through the UAE NSET scheme, but I think cancelling desk warming could make them more competitive. (If they wanted to be, which I’m not sure they do, and that’s a blog comment for another time).

As for waygook, I think it is an excellent resource. (I’m not bragging here, but just for perspective…) I have two education degrees, more than 10 years diverse teaching experience and 100s of hours of formal PD, and I still find new ideas on that site. (100s of me sitting at a computer for 100 years would never have thought to make a Gangnam Style Bomb Game!) I think one of the strengths of the NSET teaching community in Korea is its members’ diverse backgrounds (Some people are good at/ like PC games; drama; writing). I would hope it goes without saying that no one expects to download a lesson and have it be ready to go for all or any of their classes. One of the luxuries of MY job is that I teach the same two lessons 10x a week. This means I can (and do) spend between 6-10 hours a week working on a single 45-minute lesson plan (and its cohort-dependent variations). I spend that long even if I got some or all of it from waygook (preparing my questions and instructions; predicting problems/ student questions/ redesigning, rewriting or customising a resource).

This response is not an ad hominem, Alex. I’ve seen you present and I like your approach to teaching.

Alex (AlienTeachers)
05/04/2013 20:45

Hi Sophie,
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond so eloquently, the points you make and the views you bring to the table are exactly what I hoped for when I wrote the article.

Regarding your ‘11th myth’, I suppose I partly agree and partly disagree, mainly due to the generalisations inherent in the very concept of the subject we are discussing. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it would work, at least not with the same impact, if the ‘myths’ were not based on sweeping generalisations. You said ‘other teachers problems… can always be solved by being more “professional”’, this is a point I absolutely agree with you on. However, I do also believe there are a certain proportion of problems that could be solved by being more professional.

You also mentioned comparing NSETs in Korea to engineers. I think you must have read that in the comments, and again I am in agreement with you that it is not a suitable comparison, however it was one I was presented with by the commenter and I didn’t really want to come across as, I suppose, ‘hostile’, by saying I didn’t think it was a suitable comparison as the point of the article is to promote discussion.

Regarding desk warming I think we have the issue as one of the previous commenters touched on. The point I make in the article is not supposed to deal with whether or not those hours should be in the contract in the first place. Removing desk warming would certainly help to attract more, dare I say it, ‘professional’ candidates, but then we move onto the discussion of whether or not the powers that be actually want to attract more ‘professional’ candidates, one of the reasons being the level of control you describe (another subject that would need a whole new blog!). However, the fact of the matter is that when we signed the contract we were aware of that stipulation. We made an agreement to be a professional (hmmmmm, we seem to keep coming back to that word!) teacher and to work during the hours specified. Again, I don’t believe it is as simple as this though, I firmly believe SMOE etc. made the decision that they do not want highly qualified teachers, they want cheap teachers. Given this, if they expect teachers to use that time effectively they need to present the teachers with support and guidance on how ‘desk warming’ time can be used effectively. If teachers do not have any training they are very unlikely to know the options available to them.

Waygook, actually again I think we are partially in agreement. In the article I specified that a lot of the lesson plans are not great, a point I absolutely stand by. However, I also agree with you that are a huge number of fantastic ideas being shared on the forum, many of which I use in my own classes. Unfortunately, I do not share you positive belief that ‘no one expects to download a lesson and have it be ready to go for all or any of their classes’. I actually believe this practice is very common, I actually know quite a number of teachers who readily admit to doing this. In fact, on several occasions I’ve been stood with them in a bar as they discuss this. Of course, there are also a large number (maybe even the majority) of teachers who don’t, and who use the resource as we do. However, for me, the myth does exist that simply downloading a lesson plan of waygook is acceptable practice. Actually, I have even spoken with people who have conducted classroom observations and have seen the exact same lesson twice in a week, with even the same spelling mistakes in the PPT.

Finally, I do disagree the any of these myths are only myths for me as, actually they are all based on things I have heard NETs state on more than one occasion. I actually heard a number of them from presenters in my very first SMOE orientation.

Alex (AlienTeachers)
05/04/2013 20:47

Oh, one more finally, I do not believe you can compare the role of a teacher in the U.K to the role of a NET in Korea much more than you can that of an engineer.

Alex (AlienTeachers)
05/04/2013 20:49

Actually, one more finally, sorry! I didn’t interpret your comment as as hominem at all 🙂 Just a good discussion with some not so different opinions!

05/04/2013 19:44

And, I know you offered some practical solutions to these problems. But some of these myths may only be myths for you.

Thank you for facilitating a discussion.

Andrew Griffiths
05/04/2013 22:22

5) I find my students to be some of the most creative people around – so inventive! I have no idea where the idea they’re not comes from. It honestly stumps me.

6) I love deskwarming precisely for the reasons outlined. I did my initial TEFL course off the back of it, as well as numerous hours reading and improving professionally. One of the best bits of the job, I say!

08/06/2013 19:56

9) I don’t think NSET’s are given nearly enough training on how to deal with the ins and outs of public school politics and etiquette. It can be a minefield of cultural misunderstandings if you go in with a Western-thinking cap on and you don’t adapt or even worse if you try to fight it.
10) I hear this all too often from other NSET’s here. In listening to a lot of peoples’ stories, I think a lot of it stems from #9 and peoples’ inability to adapt and be flexible. To be fair I’ve heard of some genuinely unfortunate situations that people have been placed in. But the more people I talk to, the more I believe that you get back from your students and your school what you put into it.


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