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5 Months Teaching English in Korea: My Life So Far
Written by: Michaela Cricchio
Last Updated: December 18, 2020
I was going to wait until I was 6 months into my contract to do this "halfway through" reflection post. Considering the current circumstances of the world, I don't think there's a more fitting time to do it.
Here I am living in the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. To me, it feels like the rest of the world is just catching up to the effects of the virus. All I see from this side of the world is Americans hoarding toilet paper, Italy's population disintegrating, and many cities around the world going into full lockdown. Meanwhile in Korea, I had no idea about the virus until I came back from Japan after Seollal (Korean New Year). I landed at Incheon airport on January 27th and saw people in masks or being pulled over for quarantine (for those that were on flights coming in from China). School was closed for three days shortly after because new cases were developing in Korea. Everything turned relatively back to normal for about two weeks, but we were now wearing masks out in public. Then on February 24th, all public schools were ordered to shut down for the next two weeks, the school year was pushed back, and all hagwons were encouraged to close by the government. My school gave me some supplies and recommended I stay inside for the next week or so until things calmed down. Now, one week has turned into four weeks.
In my most quiet moments when I'm alone in my apartment, I think about how much time has passed since I moved here. I remember the day I enrolled for my online TEFL class with the International TEFL Academy. Booking that one-way ticket to Seoul was one of the boldest things I've ever done. I was dropped off at my apartment that night, absolutely terrified. In the beginning I had so many "What if's" in my head, which was the exact mindset I was trying so hard to avoid. My first week of work was just an over stimulation of information and shadowing a seasoned teacher. Between the jet lag, doubting myself, and homesickness, it was hard for me to keep up. My first two weeks were pretty rough for me to say the least. Considering I had just made a life changing decision to move to a foreign country alone, knew zero Korean, unfamiliar with the culture, and working in a new field that I had almost no experience in, I felt like I had a lot working against me.
When it comes to teaching in Korea, you are dealing with a completely different culture and a more rigorous education system than the United States. To teach in Korea, you can work for a public school or a hagwon (private academy). I chose to work for a hagwon where I am completely alone in my classroom, no translators or anything. I am in charge of seven classes total which includes: homework, testing, report cards, etc. Doing all that, while keeping up with the schools systems, and classroom management on top of all that can be daunting. There were many times when I became my own worst enemy because I could feel the energy in the room become stale. Kids can sense when you're nervous or have no clue what you're doing (even if you think they can't). Standing at the front of the class remembering the days when I would have a super boring teacher, the only thoughts in my head were wanting the clock to move faster so I could go home.
Teaching is such a personal job and that is nothing but the truth. Nevertheless, I couldn't let a failed lesson plan or challenging students ruin me. In the beginning that did happen, but I had to talk myself out of it. In all honesty, you can only compare yourself to who you were yesterday. I couldn't compare myself to the teacher that was previously there, or the fact that the students favored her more, they had her for an entire year. Many pep talks later with my co-teacher, and I was finally in the right mindset to push forward. At the end of the day, I had to remember what was important to me and why I chose to do this. I wanted a career that would not only allow me to travel the world and immerse myself into the unknown (no matter how frightening it can be at first). I also wanted to incorporate my passion of learning a foreign language into my job because that's making a difference in the world. In the grand scheme of things, I am creating change and improving the next generation of South Korea.
I remember once that I dreamt of being where I am now. Living in a foreign country and traveling the world completely dependent on me, myself, and I. Moving here was not easy by any means, but I am so proud of myself for even having the guts to do this in the first place. I still have days where the language barrier gets in the way of the most simple tasks, or forever being seen as just an outsider. None of these things would ever make me want to go back to familiarity. I wouldn't change anything for the world. That being said, my journey still continues.
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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michaela earned her BA in International Relations from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2018. Like many university graduates, she had no clue what she wanted to do with her life. Michaela worked for two major cruise lines over the span of nine months before deciding to ditch the corporate world and used her savings to book a one-way ticket to South Korea to teach English there. She hasn't looked back since.
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