6 Things I Enjoy About Being an ESL Teacher

I never actually wanted to be a teacher. If you had asked me at age 20 if I wanted to go into teaching, I probably would have told you, “Pssh, no – I’m going to get my degree in film and then slum it up for years as a production assistant until I get onto the writer’s team of a successful comedy series all before I’m 30!” But then my last year of art school happened and I had to start thinking more realistically.

Thinking more realistically meant applying for a teaching program in Madrid, Spain. Luckily, I was accepted, and that August I began my post-art school career. Although it had nothing to do with art, film, or creative writing, the program gave me a chance to get some work experience, network with professionals at a variety of companies, (I was teaching business English,) and, most of all, live in Madrid. That experience had not only taught me that teaching wasn’t the worst thing to do as a profession, but also that I happened to have a lot of creative ideas to bring to the classroom.

Fast forward to two years after my time in Madrid, and I’m teaching children at a hagwon in South Korea. It was this experience that taught me what I actually loved about teaching and how it gave me a stronger, day-to-day sense of accomplishment.

So here is a list of things about being an ESL teacher that have made me realize that it’s truly a rewarding job.

Witnessing the mistakes and awkward word choices. 

Remove CCTV – it’s the key to pooping smoothly.

Things don’t always translate as seamlessly from one language to another. When those two languages are as different as Korean and English, then there can be some pretty funny mistranslations, pronunciations, and word choices. For example, in Korean there is no “z” sound, so most native Korean speakers will pronounce it like a “j”. This was a bit awkward when the movie Zootopia came out. A coworker of mine also told me that a student of his once tried to find out if he was in love by asking, “Do you have heart virus?”

While there are those honest mistakes, and there are also those students who copy and paste a Wikipedia article into Naver translate, then copy and paste that into their essays. In one such essay, the writer instructed the reader to “grasp the sausage at both ends.” It was supposed to be about how natural disasters occur.

Learning about what the students are interested in.

korean baseball.gif
Some kids are just all about that baseball. (via GIPHY)

I once had a student who showed very little interest in learning English. Then I noticed that he would light up every time he had the chance to talk or write about baseball. As it turned out, he and his younger brother both played and followed both Korean and American baseball religiously. This was in Gwangju at the time, which is home to the country’s most successful team, the Kia Tigers. So whenever I had the chance to let students pick a topic to write about, I always let the baseball brothers go wild and write stories about killer home runs and superstar batters.

Stopping a kid from crying.

Sometimes food does make it all better. (via GIPHY)

One day I walked into my first class to find Bobby*, one of my usually chipper students, crying. I asked what was wrong, and a crowd of kids tried explaining that one student was handing out popcorn to everyone, but when it was Bobby’s turn, he threw the popcorn on the ground. After the popcorn thrower apologized, I noticed that Bobby still couldn’t quite calm down. So I asked him to come with me to my desk, where I had a basket full of candy. I took one piece of candy out, handed it to him, and told him to keep it in his pocket until after class. He nodded, returned to class, and soon the tears dried up.

So far it’s one of my proudest moments as a teacher. Although it wasn’t much, I feel like I made the right call when it came to turning Bobby’s frown upside down.

Letting the students be the teacher now and again. 

Every now and then I let the students use Naver to translate a word from Korean to English if they’re having trouble communicating. I consider this my chance to learn bits of Korean, since I try to maintain a fully-immersive English-speaking environment in my classroom. My favorite part is repeating the word in Korean and seeing the looks on the kids’ faces when they hear a language that’s not English come out of my mouth.

Aside from wowing the kids with my sub-par Korean, I like to think of this as a bit of a confidence boost for them. It’s a reminder that they, too, hold knowledge and information that they can share with others.

Creating interesting activities and worksheets.

Swedish Chef – one surefire way to get 10-year-olds to write in their second language. (via GIPHY)

My nerdiness really comes through when it comes to developing materials for class. I’m one of those teachers who will throw in a Monty Python reference in a grammar worksheet about the third conditional, even if I know none of the students will get it. However, I’ll also throw in whatever K-Pop idol is popular nowadays into one of the questions or writing prompts. (My current favorite is Rap Monster from BTS, because I can’t get over how his name is RAP MONSTER.) Even small things like this will encourage students to complete worksheets with a little less reluctancy than they would normally have.

Also, remember that feeling you would get when you walked into the classroom and the lights were out? Or the TV on wheels was parked in front of the chalkboard? I try to create that feeling at least once a week in my class. This usually means I’m either showing a video as part of a creative writing activity or a series of slides to help them write sentences and improve their grammar. For example, a few weeks ago I showed my students this short video of Swedish Chef, and they’re still doodling little Swedish Chefs in the corners of their textbooks and worksheets.

All in all, it’s this balance between having fun and learning that makes me feel like I’m doing something right.

(Hopefully) giving them a chance to use the language as they explore the world outside their own someday.

In this metaphor, I suppose I would be a couple of threads in the magic carpet. (via GIPHY)

Everyday I’m reminded of what a privilege it is to not only speak English, but also to have it be my mother tongue. I don’t have to take any tests to prove my proficiency or struggle for long when I’m in a non-English speaking country, as it is so widely spoken. That, and I’m qualified to teach in numerous parts of the world simply because of the combination of my Bachelor’s degree and English fluency.

My students will undoubtedly have to prove their English competency to get into university either in Korea or abroad. While I know that my job is to help them fulfill this requirement, I also know that what I teach them will come in handy should they ever travel outside their country. After all, Korean is not an official language outside of Korea, (apart from an area in China near the North Korean border.) So as I teach children who are growing up on the other side of the world where I grew up, I think about how I’m helping them acquire a skill that will allow them to do exactly what I am able to.

All right, so here comes the cheesy wrap-up:

Overall, teaching ESL has not only been a rewarding experience, but also a reminder of what the job is truly about. It’s not just learning grammar and practicing pronunciation, (even though some days it can feel that way.) As you teach English you’re giving students the opportunity to express themselves in new ways and to people around the world who might not otherwise understand. There might be some funny mistakes, miscommunications, and tears along the way, but when all is said and done, these kids will at least be able to understand and answer the question, “What is your favorite baseball team?”


*Name has been changed. Considering that a student’s English name isn’t actually the name they go by outside of English class, it might not seem necessary, but I tend to err on the side of caution.

Featured image via Unsplash


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