Teaching English Abroad Follow-Up: Two Years Later

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In 2009, Jeffrey Ferguson was a recent graduate of McMaster University with a combined Honours degree in English and Philosophy.

He was also about to leave Canada to start his contract as an English as a Second Language teacher in Incheon, South Korea.

Spending the two years as an ESL teacher of Grades 3-6 (ages 10 to 13 in Korea, compared to 8 to 12 in Canada), I thought it would be great to get a follow-up with him and see what he learned as a teacher abroad.

Back home for a short time, Jeffrey is planning to go back to Korea in the fall.

What do you do as an ESL teacher?

Jeffrey: According to my contract, my duties are to assist the reigning Korean teachers. Just what “assist” means is not written in stone. I’ve taught alongside a number of teachers during my time here, and just how active of a role I take in a given lesson has varied with each one (although “pretty active” is generally the norm). I teach at a public school, so we have a curriculum to follow, but it’s a little flexible itself.

As far as planning goes, I usually prepare some sort of interactive PowerPoint presentation as well as a fun game that helps the students practice speaking, reading, or writing the lesson material. This probably isn’t indicative of every public school, though.

What does an average day for you consist of?

Jeffrey: Four or five hours of teaching in the morning and early afternoon. Classes are 40 minutes each followed by a break. I always have a Korean co-teacher by my side – sometimes it’s necessary to explain things such as game instructions and grammar rules in Korean.

How did you get used to teaching without having major experience before you left?

Jeffrey: At a public school, they generally won’t just throw you into the deep end and tell you to start swimming. I observed for a few days, and was afterward able to ease into the role. Having a co-teacher is pivotal at that stage.

Before you left, you cited culture shock, homesickness and the language barrier being major obstacles you would have to overcome.   How did you tackle them?

Jeffrey: Having an open mind is essential for overcoming culture shock. I’ve just kind of taken everything in stride. There are quite a few foreigners here, so you’re never going it alone, either. As for homesickness, there’s always Skype.

The language barrier isn’t a problem as often as you think it is. Even if mastering the spoken language is a different story, the written alphabet is very easy to learn, which makes things such as reading menus much easier. English signs are everywhere, especially when you take public transport. And even if you only learn the Korean equivalents of “hello,” “thank you” and “how much,” you’ll be OK in most situations.

What skills you have developed through your teaching experience?

Jeffrey: OK, you got me. The language barrier is a bit more pronounced when you’re teaching eight-year-olds.  Overcoming it has been a big challenge, but I feel very comfortable teaching them these days. I’ve gotten to know what kinds of language I can use to get points across, both oral and visual.

You’ve also been able to do some travelling within and outside Korea.  Has this been a perk of working abroad?

Jeffrey: Yes, yes, 100% yes. Asia is beautiful. Go there.

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