You may recall that I wrote an article discussing common misconceptions about teaching English in Korea. Now, I’d like to turn my focus to coworker miscommunication – fostering effective communication at your school can make or break your experience. I have spoken with many teachers (Korean and foreign) and some administrators about the issues they’ve faced and I’d like to take a moment to share some of their stories. This post focuses on issues faced by Native English Teachers (NETs), but I hope to follow-up with some feedback from Korean teachers and administrators.

My first 3 (out of 4) coteachers - miss these ladies!!

My first 3 (out of 4) coteachers – miss these ladies!!

I told my students to open their books to page [email protected]!k you. I meant to say page 18, but I was obviously wrong. 

To those of you NOT living and / or teaching in Korea, you may not know, but those two words sound almost exactly alike. If you ever have the need to say #18 (십팔), make sure you pronounce it correctly–or, just avoid it ^^

6 months after starting at my first school I was told by my main coteacher that two others were unhappy with my classes. They never mentioned anything to me and pushed it all on my main coteachers, who felt ultra awkward about it all.

This is an all-too-likely situation. Saving face is a HUGE deal in Korea (and plenty of other places) and direct confrontation is not common. Many coworkers may feel uncomfortable bringing any issues to you and may put off speaking with you until it is too late for you to do anything about it. Be aware that this may happen. I DO recommend you sit down with each of your coworkers and explain that you really want to grow as a teacher and that you welcome any and all feedback, but DON’T expect it to happen, especially as some people may view asking for help as a weakness.

My second year there, I had a different main coteacher who was so afraid of talking to the foreigner for more than 2 minutes that he/she would often just say yes to whatever I asked from him/her.

This happened to me too! Keep in mind that teachers (at least in elementary schools) did NOT major in English. Many of them have not had any specialized training in English and it may be their first time teaching the subject at all (much less with a native speaker). This is a very delicate time and you must approach this situation with the utmost sensitivity. You may get extremely frustrated (especially if they teach the entire English class in Korean), but you want to help them get more comfortable with you, not scare them away from any future interactions.

My first day with one of my classes when I first arrived in Korea, I had students write down questions they wanted to ask me. One of my students wrote down a handful of scribbles. When I showed the paper to my students sitting near the front and asked who wrote it, they pointed to the student. It turned out she had a mental disability. I didn’t learn this until after my class when my coteacher came up to me and said she’s retarded. Two things wrong with this, the continued use of this word over the years when I’ve corrected a number of teachers and not being told in advance of students that have mental or learning disabilities.

Another time I had a student that refused to do anything in my class. My coteacher told me to just ignore him for the entire year and let him sleep in my class. He often let the student wander the halls during my class just to avoid it. This was when the student was in 1st grade (middle school). We had many conversations about this. I worked really hard trying to get the student to work in my class. I finally cracked him by 3rd grade, and he was actually able to do the majority of the work. Too bad that teacher wasn’t there for me to show him not to give up on students.

This is also a very common occurrence with all age groups. I can say that teachers are getting more specialized training to work with students who are differently-abled, but there is still an atmosphere of ignore what you don’t understand or what is too difficult to manage. There isn’t a lot you can do about this other than to prepare yourself to work with students on the autism spectrum, who have ADHD, learning disabilities and psychological issues – you may not get any help from your coteacher. You won’t be an expert, but it may help you understand some of the basics.

Started off as the English Coordinator, moved on to be my coteacher, and became a good friend in the process!

Started off as the English Coordinator, moved on to be my coteacher, and became a good friend in the process!

All I can keep thinking of is when I told my coteachers that I had ordered a phone sim card and was waiting for it to be delivered – what I needed help with was connecting my internet – he wouldn’t stop talking about getting me a new phone and literally took me to the phone store, had them bring out a contract for a used iphone 5 and a 2 year contract (when I had been telling him for 2 weeks that I didn’t need or want a new phone or contract) and I had to tell the clerk (who didn’t really speak English) that I had a sim card coming that afternoon and I didn’t need a contract and he told my coteacher that I had ordered a phone plan from somewhere else.

This was a very frustrating situation for one of my friends. Coteachers usually help you obtain a phone, set up your internet for your apartment, get a bank account, etc. Some coteachers may not listen to you and try to push you in to what they think is best / what you need. Be prepared to hold firm and not cave in.

My vacation, at the end of my contract; they told me what days my vacation were and I asked for permission to buy my tickets and they said yes. I bought them and then the next week, and up until I left for vacation, they tried to get me to cancel my international, (11 hour) very expensive flight, so that I could teach more classes, and didn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to pay to cancel not only my flight but also my parents’ flights (because I was meeting them in Hawaii) and it would have cost thousands of dollars. They offered me 1 more day of vacation and didn’t understand why I wouldn’t give up thousands of dollars and the chance to go to Hawaii for that 1 extra day.

You should always get approval for vacation days in writing, but even then, they may try to change the dates. This has happened to a few teachers I know and can be very challenging to work through. The only advice I have is to get your approvals in writing before you buy tickets and stick to your guns!

From my brief (18mos) experience, here are the three biggest pieces of advice I can offer:

  1. Meet with your co-teachers EARLY (discuss roles, responsibilities, strengths, weaknesses, classroom management, etc)

  2. If you have any questions or issues, make time to speak with your coteacher or main coteacher. When you have the talk, be courteous and respectful and work together to find a resolution. I had some issues with one of my coteachers and was very thankful that we took a walk together, discussed what happened (and what went wrong), and made plans to avoid any issues in the future

  3. BE FLEXIBLE – Korean workplaces do NOT function like they do in your home country. Also, your coteachers are NOT native speakers. It will take some time to get used to the work culture and to figure out the best way to communicate with your coworkers. It will happen, you just need to be open to the experience and not let the frustrations bog you down.

Please keep in mind that there is no way to completely avoid miscommunication at the workplace (at home OR abroad), but it is important to do your very best to communicate honestly and respectfully.

I hope to write Part 2 of this series, where I showcase some of the common communication issues, as experienced by Korean teachers and administrators. Stay tuned!