A Guide to Understanding Korean (School) Culture for Guest English Teachers

Editor’s Note from Jeff: This was written by a Korean elementary school teacher as an assignment for my Cross-Cultural Communication course. The task was to “prepare a guide for improving cross-cultural communication and interactions in your workplace”.  Since many Guest English Teachers will be starting school this week, I thought it was the right time to publish this. Hopefully, it will encourage a useful discussion about how Korean Teachers and Guest English Teachers can work together to create a positive learning/working environment.   Thanks very much to Jessi for agreeing to post this here.

The Native English Speaking Teachers from inside Korea or overseas who are going to take this orientation need to understand Korea and school society and to know how to teach at elementary schools. They are going to face a different culture from their own, communication difficulties with other teachers at their new schools, and challenges in how to collaborate with their co-teachers.

I think the key of success this program is communication with KT and NT, if they communicate well they could handle all the problems properly. That is why this program should be taken by new native teachers and their new co-teachers together. I think miscommunication causes all the problems and the miscommunication results from a lack of understanding each other and their cultures. The program has been focused on only native teachers to understand Korean culture and school system so only native teachers have to take this program however Korean teachers(KT) who become co-teachers need to understand native teachers(NT) cultures, too.


Understanding Korean culture

#1 Introduction of korean traditional things (Including video clips of Korean culture)

#2 The way of Koreans thinking

- High context culture

- How Asians and Westerners Think Differently

〔Supplementary materials〕

Website Usage Compared







Understanding School Culture and Working together

#1 Daily School Routine

#2 The Relationship with Students, Teachers and Principals

#3 The Attitude of Korean Students in English Class

#4 Working on Common Cross-Cultural Communication Challenges at School

-What is Korean parent's expectation for school teachers?

-What is Korean teachers expectation for native teachers?

-What is Korean student's expectation for native teachers?

〔Supplementary materials〕

Successful Classroom Discussions with Adult Korean ESL/EFL Learners


Working on Common Cross-cultural Communication Challenges (2nd half)


Consideration for Teaching English to Students

#1 Giving instructions effectively

-speaking clear, slow and aloud. repetition, using non-verbal languages

#2 Making good environments to study

-stress free: create a friendly, safe, cooperative class

#3 Providing plenty of comprehensible input

-using activities, using visual aids and contextual support for new language including pictures, gestures, objects, and experiences out of class

#4 Useful materials and games for teaching English


Collaboration to teach English

#1 Introduction of English curriculum or text books

#2 Watching a model class

#3 How to Collaborate

- What is the role as a native teacher and a Korean co-teacher?

- Why collaboration is important?

- How can we respect others cultures?


〔Digging Deeper〕


I'd like to focus on the "Understanding School Culture and Working together" part especially. Most of new native teachers do not have much idea of Korean schools and no experience of working together with foreigners like other Korean teachers. And both of them are not accustomed to this new situation and do not know how to handle it properly so tiny problems can cause big issueseasily.


What are the challenges(These are from my point of view):


#1 Different approaches to getting to know each others; Koreans are rude or blunt?

Most foreigners are not accustomed to being asked private questions about themselves. They might think it is kind of rude however Koreans think differently. Koreans think that asking personal questions is kind of  the process to know each other because if we know each others background we can find common ground each other easily and it helps people to make good relationships. Most of elderly have that kind of sense strongly that is why lots of school teachers who are afraid to speak native teachers want to ask. This is kind of the way elderly express their favor toward foreigners of course including elderly teachers from schools. So when you are asked private questions, take them as a sign of favor or goodwill.

Even though asking private questions to you like above why most of Koreans are afraid to bump into you automatically, because they think they have to speak English properly to greet you however they do not want to be embarrassed in front of people speaking English. That is Korean way to think, you are a foreigner who is visiting Korea so as a host, Koreans should treat you well including speaking your mother tongue English. Most Korean teachers are ready to welcome you as a member of school staff however they do not know how to greet you because of language barrier and inexperience meeting foreigners in person so when you meet Korean teachers smile and say hello first it makes them feel more free to reach out to you.


#2 Difficulty to communicate with Korean teachers

Most native teachers feel lonely at school at first because he(she) is the only foreigner in his(her) school and most of teachers can not speak English well.(even though some of them speak well however they do not speak out because if they speak well they feel it is kind of show off things or they are busy to handle their own business) And co-teachers look so busy always and there are only Korean messengers popping up on your computer screen all the time. Most Korean teachers want to take care of you well however they do not know how to reach you (language barrier and culture differences) like yourself and they also have really busy schedules.

However if you ask the day's event or what's happening in your places they are going to try to answer including your co-teachers, remember most of them are not accustomed to working together including your co-teacher. While answering your questions they have a chance to think about you or the situation. I think during the process(giving them a chance to figure out how to handle new situation) they are going to think about you, and themselves to find the way of communication like you. I bet you will notice how to communicate with other teachers(most of them have knowledge of basic English words)


#3 Different working style
Korea is a hierarchy society

Why Korean teachers break their plans easily or do not make plans in advance? There is a condition to inform native teachers 2 (or3) months ago when the school make a plan for summer camp or winter camp however the schedule could be changed actually.(so earlier period of this program there were many arguments because of it) Sometimes teacher's meetings or other occasions are announced without notice. Teacher's dinner gathering can be a mandatory even though after work hour. Why those things happen? Because Korea is a kind of hierarchy society so school is not an exception.

As a Korean I have a lot of complaints however I have to accept most of them, most of time. I complained sometimes however there was no other way but accept it or refuse it and suffer from it. So if your co-teacher informs you of unexpected things suddenly, then ask your co-teacher why? and if you have some situation tell it to your co-teacher nicely and figure out the wisest way together. Because of hierarchy system if your co-teacher is a young teacher or new teacher of the school there is not much room for her(him), usually power comes from school principals and occasionally from head teachers or elderly teachers.


#3 Different working style

②; working hard is the only way to be rich in the past

Why do Koreans work so hard? or demand to finish quickly? give directives without rooms? Korea is a small country and there are not many resources. Especially after Korean War we were one of the poorest countries in the world. We Koreans had to make something out of nothing so we had to tighten our belts, work extremely hard, educate next generations for the future for several decades. There was no time to waste, no room to hesitate. That is why Koreans have developed 빨리 빨리 palli palli(hurry hurry) culture. It contributed to Korean economy boosting so quickly that is why we Koreans are accustomed to finishing things in a short period and working so hard for a long time with terrible working conditions. Especially old generations had to sacrifice their life for their family, society, country, so they think most people have to be accustomed those kind of lifestyle. They want next generation to follow their model like be patient, work hard, respect the old so working hard is a virtue, and finishing one's work quickly, pushing someone to work hard are acceptable concept for Korean.


#4 Different attitude towards conflict

When I was young I tried to hard to solve conflicts directly so I met the people who faced conflicts with me and tried to talk the problems however I ended up worst situation most of time. After those experiences I tried to figure out how to fix the problem by myself instead of talking to someone to solve the problem directly. If I find the way to solve it I try to fix it and then I have to wait for the right time. When I meet some problems which I can not solve by myself then there is no way but for waiting.


Most of Koreans have a tendency to avoid any kind of conflict. Some people try to solve the problem directly to talk to each others however speaking out about the problem does not help to solve it  usually, because most Koreans believe that conflict results from somebody's fault or represents somebody's incompetence so it is considered kind of negative thing. So standing in the middle of the situation makes them embarrassed or uncomfortable in most cases. If you can avoid conflicts, that is better way.


What are suggestions for overcoming the challenges?


Working together is not easy even though workers have the same nationality. There are lots of things we have to consider: different characteristic, different education background, different concept of things, different way to think, different way to express, different way to accept things, even though there is different to accept the same thing how? depending on the mood or surrounding can make different I think so it is very complicate. That is why I suggest the followings:




#1 Do whatever your co-teacher does

You can learn lots of things while you are doing what your co-teacher does. You can feel what your co-teacher feels and then you can understand your co-teacher well and you are going to establish strong relationship with your co-teacher. Besides there is no time to be bored. You can not do exactly what your co-teacher does actually, I mean whatever she(he) does you follow her(him) together and help her(him). That is enough.


#2 Mutual respect is core

Koreans respect teachers traditionally so we have this expression "One should not step on even his(her) shadow". It means students and parents respect their teachers and teachers should be a good model of student's life at the same time. That is why most of teachers care about their words, their behaviors, even though their outfit is not luxurious, it should be clean and neat. Korean society have changed rapidly so it is difficult to keep our beautiful and fine customs however this concept is based on Koreans mind for a long time. Teaching in public school means not only delivering knowledge but also raising human beings. You should respect your co-teachers and your students then your co-teachers and your students respect you, too.


#3 Share your ideas and your culture

If you share your idea and your culture with your co-teacher then she(he) understands you well, and your co-teacher can use the information to teach students it can be authentic and valuable material for your co-teacher and your students to understand western people and culture well. And it gives you and your co-teacher more room to think about each others circumstance. If you share your culture to your students you are going to be an ambassador to represent your country. It makes your class fun and works a good motivation for your students to study English.


#4 Take your time to think, to read and to prepare your class

If you sit on your chair without work, it maybe remind you a word "deskwarm". It makes you lots of time to think unnecessary things, you are going to feel frustrated and lonely. If you organize your work and schedule always, you are going to prepare for your class ahead of time and it gives you a chance to talk to your co-teachers to make plans for classes. You can make your co-teacher trust you as a professional teacher and feel comfortable. You do not need to hurry or your co-teacher should not push you to do some extra work. If you have books to read or something to do, you are never bored.


#5 Open your mind to others

You have to live in foreign city, teach English to the students maybe for the first time. It gives you lots of stress so you feel frustrated or lonely however if you live in your homeland you feel the same emotions sometimes because we are all human beings.

I think you are not the only one who feel frustrated at your school, your co-teacher could be the one and your students also could be the one. Your co-teacher has to handle her(his) job maybe for the first time in her(his) life. She(he) might have no idea about teaching English or working together and there is a big gap between a homeroom teacher(which all elementary school teacher are familiar with that position) and a subject teacher. I prefer English teacher when I have to focus on studying English but I do not like the job all the time because there is not much room to handle the timetable or other things as a subject teacher. Students have different attitudes toward subject teachers most of time because they feel more free with subject teachers than their homeroom teachers. It makes me frustrated sometimes.

If you are surround with Koreans and they talk to each other you feel uncomfortable, don't you? Maybe some of your students have exactly same feeling in your class especially lower level students. You can imagine how they feel during your classes. As a foreigner learning Korean is not easy and some of your students have some difficulty to learn English. As an English teacher taking care of them is one of your main jobs so you have to find a way to encourage them to stimulate them to be interested in English.


We run into lots of people in our life, some of them are nice and pleasant, however some of them are not so good. Some of them are good, however they do not mingle with other people well. Some of them are not so good however when we meet them in different places and different environments, we could see a different side of them, and it’s like meeting a totally different person. I guess the point is try not to jump to quick conclusions. Always try to look on the bright side, and hopefully you can enjoy different (positive) aspects of the people you meet and things you experience. .