Five Things I Learned Teaching English Overseas

A Guest Article by Sean Lords

After obtaining degrees in English Literature and English Secondary Education, Sean Lords packed up his bags and left to Seoul, South Korea where he lived for three years teaching English abroad. Sean has since returned to the States and is currently at work on his Master's degree.

During my three years abroad, a lot changed. I went from being in a relatively tight-knit community where the only minorities were the snow birds who left for the winter and came back with a tan in May to the only American in a 100 mile radius. I was given the opportunity to be the first native English speaker a rural South Korean town had ever seen. The amount of looks, points and giggles I got stepping into their supermarket for the first time is something I will never forget.

Taking the plunge and making the decision to teach overseas is certainly not for everyone. It definitely takes a tougher than average skin and the ability to be frequently uncomfortable. However, the rewards for the trade-off far exceed any minor inconveniences. Watching the spark in a student’s eyes as your grammar lesson finally sinks in and clicks is a priceless moment. Sitting amidst a crowded lunch room of 12 year old junior high school students, wolfing down fried squid and fermented cabbage is an experience that is unlike anything I will ever again be exposed to. Below are five of the most important lessons I learned while teaching overseas.

1) Try everything, at least once

That’s right, no matter how weird looking or how repulsive you might perceive it to be, try everything at least once. I have to admit, my first couple of weeks living in Korea saw me turning my nose away from an array of foods I deemed inedible. But after some time, a curious thing began to occur. Slowly but surely, some of the foods I deemed too foul for consumption slowly began making their way to my plate. What happened? They were in fact not nearly as offensive as I once imagined. Kimchi, Korea’s famous fermented cabbage dish possesses a smell that is very unique and unlike anything I had encountered stateside. It was because of this that this food item stayed off of my lunch tray for quite some time, but one day, on a whim, I decided to give it a go and the results were pretty shocking.

Since that day, nothing was too weird, too out there or too foreign for me to try because at the heart of the matter, this is what I was here for. To experience new things and part of that is trying new foods. Baby octopus that was still alive as it made its way down my throat? Not a problem. Boiled grasshoppers? Absolutely. Even the South Korean delicacy (that has since become outlawed) Gaegogi (I’ll let you do the Googling) was not out of the question. Part of immersing yourself in the culture is trying their cuisine and trust me, when you’re out with a group of ex-pat friends and you turn your head away from what everyone else is eating, you’re going to garner more quizzical looks than compliments. In short, don’t be that guy, be adventurous and who knows, you might just surprise yourself.

Like being uncomfortable

Being uncomfortable is par for the course when living abroad. Chances are, if your first couple of weeks were anything like mine, every moment will be as foreign to you as the language everyone is speaking. Learn to embrace these moments, love them, these experiences will be the basis for every good memory you have about your time abroad.

I remember the first few weeks the principle of my school insisted that I eat breakfast with him every morning. I know from the looks that I got from the other staff members that this was quite the honor, but for me, and at the time, it was a huge inconvenience. The breakfast itself was largely spent slurping up soup with the occasional reprieve of me trying my best to practice some of the Korean I was frantically learning. I’m not going to lie, the first few times I hated these moments. I was homesick, eating beef soup and rice for breakfast was nauseating and I was horrendously jet-lagged.

As the weeks went on these uncomfortable breakfast situations began to turn into impromptu English sessions with my principle. Rather than the more traditional questions an ESL student would have, his inquiries and topics of conversations would generally focus around American celebrities of the female variety and often those who were very gifted in the beauty department. Mr. Principle began to print off pictures he must have found on American celebrity gossip sites. He would bring them in and do his best to describe what he would see. I couldn’t help but laugh as I would sit across from him and imagine him, moments before on USWeekly or PerezHilton scouring for attractive female celebrities. I absolutely love this memory. It’s one of my favorite stories to tell. Not only was I genuinely helping him learn an assortment of adjectives and verbs (albeit of a questionable nature) it’s an experience I’ll remember forever and only because I stuck out those first excruciatingly uncomfortable days.

Give your best lesson every day, even if you don’t feel like it

I can’t stress to you how important this is. No matter what your mood, no matter what you may think the kid in the front row is thinking of you, give your best, most dynamic, thought provoking lesson every day. You may think you lesson on the present progressive would get more attention from the rock lining the road outside but chances are you are wrong. While your attention is on that one goofball who never seems to listen to a word you say, the student behind him ma be hanging on your every word.

The second semester of my first contract in Korea was a trying time for me. The establishment I taught at was a reform school for teenagers who have been removed from traditional schools for any number of reasons but largely for behavioral issues. Because of this, my classes tended to be filled with a demographic of students quite unlike the normal class room environment for Korea. My co-teachers were two very sweet women fresh out of college and probably couldn’t argue with something if their life depended on it. As the weeks went by, they became increasingly discouraged as their best efforts were met with typical high-school teenage boy angst. More than once they would leave the classroom in a fit of rage as they reached their limit with the same disciplinary actions day in and day out. This would leave me standing there, alone in the room trying to make sense of the flurry of Korean that was just exchanged between student and teacher.

The first couple of times this occurred, I followed suit and left the room in pursuit of my frustrated co-teacher. But as this occurred more and more, I stuck around, and in an equal flurry of English, instructed the students to sit down, stop talking and listen. They had to sit for 35 minutes in my classroom, your jokes can wait. And wait they did.

These instances gave me some of my best teaching moments to date. Much later that same semester, my co teacher approached me with news of a student that had recently moved away due to an acting gig he had landed in Seoul. Apparently, during his audition for this program he incorporated some of the English he had learned in my class. Before this news, I had barely noticed this student. In a classroom full of disruptive sixteen year olds, the quiet listeners tend to not stand out amongst their rambunctious peers. I was both flattered and a little disappointed. Should I have paid more attention to these wallflowers? Was my job adequate? Whatever the case may be, because I chose to stick out those trying times, this student was able to make something great of himself. I have no idea where he is now, but it is my hope that he has gone on to do wonderful things.

The expat who is better than you

I acknowledge that this portion will be a bit shallow, so please keep that in mind as you trudge through. No matter where you teach or where you travel you will always encounter that other expat who has done more than you. This expat would like nothing more than to entertain you for hours about how their trip to the rainforests of Cambodia was simply the best experience of their lives. “Yeah, Japan is pretty cool, but have you hiked to the peak of Kanchenjunga and just you know, taken it all in?” No, of course I haven’t Mr. Expat and I’m willing to bet no one you have shared this little travel gem with has either.

While I am aware that this probably was a spectacular moment in his or her life, the way it is delivered is off-putting and boastful. What people like this fail to acknowledge is that we are those people among all of our friends who have traveled and experienced extraordinary things. Your cool travel story is just as cool as my travel story. Accept this, if you do, I will ask you tons of questions about your hike which you are just dying to answer. The only thing I ask in return is that you show equal interest in my story. If you do this we will probably become friends and three years from now when I’m scanning Facebook and come across your travel photos, I will think back on our conversation together fondly rather than exhaling loudly and muttering, “oh right, that guy.”

Subsequently, this same logic holds true for you. Once you return from your journeys, you will have an arsenal of stories to share with anyone who gives you the time of day. Trust me, you will. These people of course, will be more than happy to listen to your exciting adventures while living abroad. Because we are human and we like to share, these people will probably offer a story or two about their own travel experiences. Perhaps they have not traveled overseas, and perhaps their stories involve the time they hiked a trail outside of their hotel in Los Angeles. Give them the same respect that you would want. This experience, while perhaps not as far-reaching as yours, is still important to them. Don’t accidentally be that expat who is better.

I was not the moral compass by which everyone else should live

Traveling to a new locale will present you with a host of new customs, social norms and acceptable behavior. Unless you have done extensive research into these social nuances, many of these situations will strike you as utterly absurd, inappropriate and in some cases, simply cruel.

I like to think of this as the dog’s wearing coats scenario. Dog’s lived for thousands of years without fashionable Burberry zip-ups. Yes, they probably get cold, but they have fur, they are dogs and they will be fine. While perhaps comparing a culture to a domesticated animal is probably not the most kosher of comparisons, I hope you get what I am aiming at.

The society you have immersed yourself in has gotten by for thousands and thousands of years without your moral input. Sure, peeing on the side of the road is pretty unsanitary and unsightly, but for their society, it’s something that just occasionally happens.

For the longest time I was extremely unsatisfied with the state of Korea’s education system. I taught several seven and eight year olds that woke up and were in a school environment from eight am to nine pm. In my head, this was simply too long. Where is the time for play! Where is the hour for afterschool snacks and cartoons? I would moan and complain about this, because naturally, I was the first teacher in Korea who this had ever occurred to. What I failed to realize, is that this is just how things are. Korean culture places a huge amount of importance on the education of their youth. As an American whose public school days consisted of coloring, an occasional math problem and more snack/recess breaks than were probably necessary, this seemed preposterous.

I had to realize that my job in this country was not to offer my two cents on how their education system is carried out. In the same sense, I was also not there to assert my political, social and health opinions. Just as your Visa implies, you are a guest in your host country. If you are asked, by all means, share away, engage in a debate, but be respectful. Don’t perpetuate the ideal of the naïve American.

What about you, do you have anything to share on your experiences? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories below.