There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to stepping into a new work place, let alone into a foreign country. Your work environment in Asia will undoubtedly be unlike any other you’ve experienced before, putting your life and interpersonal skills to the test while giving you diverse and exciting ways to challenge yourself both professionally and personally. This is why we have created this in-depth section, to help you be prepared as much as you can be before leaving.

There are a number of expectations that you will be challenged by as an English teacher, many being ones you have never experienced before. But there are a number of expectations that you will have to challenge yourself with. This will often force you to let go of convention, think outside the box and use up as much inner initiative you can muster. Rising to the challenge of your position as an ESL teacher means constantly setting higher standards for yourself, making personal goals and being intentional about exhausting your abilities and resources. Many teachers resort to simply doing the bare minimum when they lack direction and accountability from their employer, somehow using the cultural disconnect as an excuse to be unmotivated and disengaged and are rarely fulfilled in their workplace.

We want this experience to be enriching and give you skills that will benefit you further along in life. Hard work matched with genuine interest in your students will make all the difference between simply getting bye and truly making this a meaningful experience.

Here are some important tips that will help you work cooperatively and effectively with your colleagues.

1. Mistrust and disrespect

At times, the employer and the employees will experience times of cultural mistrust and disrespect. 

This is a common occurrence when any two cultures interact especially on a business level. Frame of reference, perspective and good old fashion miscommunication can create mistrust and disrespect in any work place but add some cultural differences in there and business exchanges can become a little more personal. Lack of understanding one anothers culture creates natural confusion and compounds the sometimes daunting language barrier. The Korean method of saving face and using hints of dishonesty to cover over their mistakes seems to greatly add to foreigners mistrust.

Response: It’s as important to stand your ground as it is to remain respectful and cooperate when it comes to remedying conflict. Korean culture expresses that it is unacceptable for Koreans to express anger or intense emotion in the work place, as these are signs of “weakness,” so calm and composed responses when conflict arises could translate as signs of strength and confidence.

2. Saving Face

“Saving face” in Korea is usually more important than conveying honesty and trust, despite that being an ancient value they expect out of you.

To Koreans, blunders and mistakes are considered as a sign of weakness and should be covered up in order to protect their reputation and the reputation of their business. Unfortunately, being honest and direct about addressing mistakes and fixing them for the success and longevity of their business does not take precedent.  It is important to keep in mind the “Korean way” and their Confucian mindset when dealing with such circumstances. Speaking your mind or “saying it how it is” could be seen as disrespectful and provoking.

Response: Remaining calm and trying to understand is the best way to deal with these circumstances. Often challenging their “saving face” tactic will likely result in more blatant excuses and dishonesty. In this case unfortunately, it is better to allow someone to save face and politely express your disappointment as the result of their actions and encourage them to avoid similar circumstances in the future. Though this may be aggravating and impede on your own set of values, saving face is a deeply rooted practice and isn’t something that we can change.

2. Little faith in the teacher

The history between Korean employers and foreign English teachers has been tainted by reoccurring unfortunate and avoidable circumstances.

Blame shifting, disorganization and irresponsibility can cause a lot of finger pointing by both the employer and the teacher. From an unbiased standpoint, both parties have a hand in contributing to the strain and damage done to both their relationship and the work environment surrounding it. Thoughtless recruiters  who place their teachers in inappropriate or uncomfortable situations can also be to blame.

“A little drip can make a big ripple” and that has definitely been the case with both foreign teachers and the American Army in South Korea. In a homogeneous society, negative and skeptical news travels fast and although most teachers and soldiers are respectful and dedicated to their duties, the few that haven’t been considerate or respectful have done irreversible damage to the foreign community living in Korea. It’s important to know that there will naturally be some tension, skepticism and down right inappropriate interactions with Koreans, in particular the older generation which is understandable in light of some of the disgraceful things that have happened in the past.

Although the Confucian ideals are not practiced stringently by all Koreans, their ideals and etiquette are widely upheld throughout society. Some foreigners have little regard for these ideals and other rich and important aspects of Korean culture and have directly opposed these ideals in disrespectful and apparent displays. This behavior isn’t acceptable in Western culture and is certainly insulting and offensive to Korean people. Rebellious expats state their perceived supremacy by discrimination, not abiding the law and excusing themselves from social and cultural reverence. Poor work ethic and frivolous attitudes are other attributes that have damaged the harmony between expats and their host country. It is likely that every negative encounter a foreigner recounts with his or her Korean employer, the same employer probably has an equal opinion about the foreigner. There are some drastic mistakes that have made lasting impressions on many Korean employers that inevitably makes them weary about their Western co-parts. Many teachers have abandoned their jobs without notice which is detrimental to not only their students education but costly and a loss hard to recover from. Although some jobs are unsuitable and teachers shouldn’t remain working in such an environment, they should always to their best to leave with integrity and warning. As a recruiter, this is a situation that we want to work with you to remedy or worse case, change.

Response: Respect, cultural sensitivity and consideration are really the only response to these situations, even if it is frustrating and unreasonable at times. Ultimately we are only in control of and responsible for our own actions and cannot change others behavior or perceptions. As a foreigner in Korea, you represent a lot more than just yourself, you represent your country and all Western people in general. It’s inevitable that you will both offend and be offended by your Korean employer and numerous natives throughout your time abroad but such things can be excused and recognized as cultural misunderstandings. You bring with you 20 some odd years of ingrained patterns of thought, understanding and lifestyle, and it is important to bring those to the table in your work place and in your adventures. If you are unsatisfied with your working conditions or feel you are being treated unfairly, address these things in a professional and mature manner.  We are more than willing to do what we can to help you approach and navigate these situations with you. Recklessly addressing difficult situations and/or abandoning your contract without notice not only jeopardizes your finances and ability to return to Korea in the future but your students education, employers business and your recruiters reputation.

It will take some insight, self evaluation and welcomed change to broaden your scope for other cultures and Korea is a great place to start expanding your worldview.

4. Most Asian employers negotiate hard

Korean business owners and employers drive a hard bargain.

If they think they can get more bang for their buck, you can be certain they will give it their best shot. Negotiations may require a little gusto and a little cooperation in order to satisfy your employer and get what you deserve.

Response: As a foreign English teacher, you are an essential aspect of your school’s English program which can be used to your advantage in many cases. While negotiations should be done respectfully, don’t be afraid to stand your ground and be up-front about your needs. Your employer may seem at times aggressive and unreasonable, trying to get away with as much as you will give them for the amount they are willing to pay, so it is important to be assertive and patient while discussing or re-evaluating contracts. Fellow teachers and expats with more experience than you will be a great asset in helping you discern whether or not your situation is something that should be confronted or simply let go of. We are also more than happy to advise you through these situations.

5. Expect a little disorganization at your school

A common complaint among most ESL teachers in Korea is the disorganization in their work place.

Of course, there are a few schools and ESL programs that have established effective systems of functioning, but the majority of schools are still trying to develop, shape and direct the course of their programs which makes for a disorganized and often chaotic way of doing things. Most school directors or program coordinators are spread thin, short staffed and lack much needed resources, which is as much a result of business owners trying to get their moneys worth as it is poor management. It is frustrating without a doubt and can make for avoidable stress and conflict between colleagues.

Response: Being able to adapt to the ebb and flow of your employers management skills will help counter some inevitable frustration, even though it may not seem like the most natural or professional response. Unfortunately, being an “employee” will have you doing needless and ineffective tasks at times. It is often better to follow suit and observe the way things are being done before getting your hands dirty too soon and over stepping a boundary. Most directors have several years of experience and there is usually underlying meaning behind the madness. And remember it is likely that you have little if no experience in this field, so compensating lack of training with positivity and flexibility is a great trade off. Take comfort in knowing that it isn’t your responsibility to develop or direct your school’s English department and try to enjoy the ride.

6. Employers and their “need to know basis”

Informing, updating and including foreign teachers in significant events and details surrounding their position isn’t the Korean employers strong suit.

Important information about changes in the schedule, planned or spontaneous events, even alterations in curriculum tend to be shared the day of if not long after it should have been. Information isn’t typically shared in a clear and concise manner and planned events or set dates tend to be much more lenient in Korea than in Western countries. It’s not uncommon to be informed that parents or directors will be observing your class just as your students are filing into your classroom, nor is it uncommon to find out that your students are on a field trip simply by no one showing up for class.

Response: Asking plenty of questions and seeking out information will keep you a little more up to speed on daily and weekly happenings. Planning out your work week in advance to accommodate spontaneous changes or shifts in the schedule will help your lessons be more useful and effective. Try to clear up calendar details, including Korean holidays and personal vacations in a meeting with your employer and be in ongoing communication with them about any changes.

7. Employers are concerned about keeping parents happy

The ESL industry is as much concerned about making money as it is successfully educating students.

Because most English schools are private enterprises, they need to keep their “customers” happy in order to make a profit, and in this case these customers are Korean mothers with high expectations and competitive spirits. They want results, professionalism and of course, their moneys worth. There are thousands of institutes competing for their child’s enrollment and if they do not get what they want, they will go somewhere else. Most employers will bend over backwards to keep their student’s parents satisfied, often compromising the values of their program and its teachers.

Response: As a native English speaker, you are a necessary part of a lucrative business and a big reason why most children attend the school they do. Being proud to represent the program you are a part of will go along way in assuring skeptical and apprehensive parents. Treating parents with respect and regard isn’t only professional but positively contributes to the success and prosperity of the school and ultimately your students. Having a thorough understanding of situations that involve parents is imperative before voicing a negative opinion or growing defensive. School directors and coordinators have a greater scope for Korean business and ESL politics than foreigners do and will also understand the mindset of Korean parents more readily than you will. Cooperation and efforts to meet parents in their expectation will make your work more enjoyable.

8. Social status that plays a bigger role than you know what to do with

The influence of a long history filled with thousands of years of dynasties and Confucianism is still very evident in Korea – and most other Asian countries for that matter.  

“Chusok” and “Lunar New Year,” two of the most important Korean Holidays, are devoted to showing respect to their elders, paying homage to their ancestors and practicing age old Korean tradition. Rituals of bowing to their elders is a way that youth and younger generations show much needed respect and gratitude to them. Such signs of humility and respect are also displayed in daily exchanges between young and old in small head bows, hand gestures and in giving and receiving. In Korean culture, if a person is older or has a “higher title” (ie. an employer) they are deserving of respect from all those “under” them. Conversely, in Western culture, respect is usually earned, not granted on the basis of age or position even though extending respectful gestures to elders is general practice.

You can probably already imagine the problems that can and will arise from these differing perspectives. Although many Koreans are adopting new ways of interacting, generational and social status has created a very evident “from the top down” leadership style. Managers, directors and those in leadership have a sense of authority over their employees derived from their title. With over 50 million people in Korea, the national job market is extremely competitive and employees work very long hours and go to great lengths to win favor with their employer. This is quite the opposite style of climbing the career ladder that Westerners are used to and it’s easy to see why they become frustrated in this type of environment.

The hierarchical concept of respect is contrary to what they know it to be and in turn, foreigners will go to great lengths to protect their rights. Western countries have laws and regulations that mandate working hours, restrict employers from taking advantage of their employees and emphasize equality and cooperation. Managers are usually the ones trying to keep their employees happy and motivated by offering compliments, incentives and even bonuses. Such Western norms can make expat teachers feel undervalued and unappreciated in their South Korean workplace, motivating them to stand up for their rights and boundaries more than normal. Employers get frustrated with their foreign employees from time to time because of this and tend to compare them with their Korean co-parts.  Korean employees seldom resist or set boundaries with their employers whereas foreigners will outwardly defend their time and their boundaries with little if no hesitation, and this is seen as oppositional more than it is justifiable.

Response:  Balance is Key! And it is important to work towards finding a balance between the two cultures when working together. It takes a little cooperation and adjustment on both sides to work through these situations. It isn’t uncommon to feel like you’re the only one bending your cultural rules, so it is important to establish boundaries and are appropriate for you and not your boss. You must be willing to reason with them yet prepared to exercise some assertiveness. If you’re asked to do something unexpected, on short notice or something that is simply unmanageable, coming up with an excuse or reason why you cannot do it will be more helpful than just refusing to do it. For example: if you are leaving work on Thursday evening and your boss tells you that you need to come to work on Saturday for a demonstration class, an appropriate response would be to tell them the plans you have already made and your willingness to do it in the future if you are given more notice.

If a request or comment from your employer makes you feel uncomfortable or taken advantage of, you should approach them to discuss it and address a better form of communication. From an employer’s perspective, you are getting paid a significantly higher salary than all of the Korean staff around you with less responsibility and requirement. Showing that you are willing to do additional things to help out will be beneficial in keeping a good report with your Korean colleagues and developing relationships with them. Often foreigners seem completely unwilling to do anything beyond the dotted line of their contract which leads employers to be more forceful and hard nosed about their involvement, so a little give and take will go a long way.

9. Show me the money!

Most after school programs (Hagwons) and kindergartens are private enterprises started just like any other businesses: to make a profit.

Therefore, for school owners, money is a constant concern. Their programs are not sponsored by the government’s education system, rather they’re funded by student paid tuition. In order to keep their institute running, they must balance both the financial and educational pressures as well as compete against hundreds of other programs. This tends to make the line between profit and education very blurry. With that said, the most successful kindergartens and Hagwons are typically the ones that have a decent curriculum and educational philosophy.

Response: The schools success as a business is just as important as its success as an educational center. Unfortunately, alternative motives play a large role in independent educator’s evaluation of effective teaching. This can be very frustrating to Westerners who want to be valued for the quality of their teaching rather than for the quantity. As their employee, its your responsibility to fill the position they ask of you and do the best you can to fulfill it whether you believe it is the right way or not. In many cases this will require you to exhaust the resources you have been given and challenge yourself to constantly find new and effective ways to teach. Initiative and creativity along with some elbow grease will undoubtedly make your job more rewarding and impact your students in a more positive way.

10. Students who are pushed to the limits

It isn’t hard to see the expectation and pressure on Korean youth to strive for academic excellence.

Though its obvious in every educational system, it’s hard for Western thinkers to understand and find value in this sort of education. As mentioned before, the Korean job market is extremely competitive. Many college graduates have a hard time finding decent jobs or careers unless they stick out above the rest and for this reason parents are always looking for a way to give their children a competitive advantage. This translates simply into more education. From an early age children start attending English academies, after school programs and specialty programs. There they study a variety of subjects like math, science, reading, dance, martial arts, sports and of course English.  Since South Koreans view international business in high regard, and English is the business language, English is integrated into almost all educational systems and often takes just as much precedent as learning the Korean language.

Response: Remember that you aren’t going to change Korean society or their approach to education. Like all aspects of Korean life, their way of education comes from their deeply rooted culture. Creating a less stressful learning environment for your students will help them manage some anxiety they might have. Adding interactive elements like games and physical movement might help your students focus, relax and enjoy learning a little bit more. You may not be able to impact the philosophy behind Korean education but you will be able to change the experience and development of your students by giving them a more encouraging and positive environment to learn in.

11. After you’ve arrived

As you’ve probably gathered, things don’t always go exactly as planned when you’re living and working aboard.

Language barriers, cultural differences and everything in between contribute to many unexpected and surprising circumstances in Korea. From the second you step off the plane, these things will be overwhelmingly apparent. Small glitches can seem like big problems after a long trip to a new and unknown place. Practical and unavoidable circumstances are often the cause of these situations yet they are difficult to predict and the explanation often comes after the experience.  These experiences can be even more overwhelming if you are just arriving in the country.

Response: The transition you are embarking on can seem daunting at times, but believe us when we say that everything isn’t as impossible it may seem when you first arrive. Culture shock is a very real thing and can make you feel disoriented and confused, not to mention second guess your decision to move to Korea. Take a deep breath and know that things will calm down once you are a bit more adjusted.

12. Expect to work

Teaching English overseas is appealing to so many people who are looking for adventure and travel opportunities. The working aspect is an after thought for some and a necessity for most.

It may seem automatic to expect to work, but we want to reiterate that a good work ethic, diligence and investment are essential and expected. Like any job you would find at home, teaching takes initiative, careful attention and continuous effort and can be exhausting at times. You have the power and responsibility to positively influence the lives of your students and that is something that shouldn’t be over looked or disregarded no matter what your motives for teaching abroad are.

Response: Simply knowing that you are going to work hard upon your arrival should help prepare you. You are being paid very well for your services and are a major asset to your employer. Pride yourself in your work, and remember that teaching is an important responsibility and you have the power to really make a difference young lives.

13. Attitude is everything

This sounds very cliché, we know, but its true. If you adopt a positive and flexible attitude, your experience is going to be much more enjoyable and you are going to be a way more of an influential person in your work place.

It is easy to get negative and critical at times and that’s okay, but letting yourself adopt that attitude can poison your mind and those you are working with.

Response: Remain flexible (have we said this before?) Don’t let yourself fall into the pessimistic spiral that many teachers do. Take the opinions of others with a grain of salt and be sure to steer clear of those who’ve started to slide down the slippery slope of complaining and complacency. Exercising and doing things to stimulate and rejuvenate your mind and body will really help your overall perspective.