English Teachers of South Korea: Aaron R.

korean language exchange seoul

English Teachers of South Korea: Aaron R.

Name: Aaron R.
Hometown: Fairbanks, Alaska
Age: Thirties
Currently Living: Hapcheon, South Korea
Job: Owner/Operator/Teacher at E. Bo. Young Talking Club franchise

What are you doing right now?

Living my life in small-town Korea. After marrying my wife, we decided it’d be better for me to quit my job to start our family in her home town as we’ll be closer to family. This year we had our first child, William. Our focus is balancing the needs of our business, raising our first baby, and having meaningful lives.

And what’s your typical day?

Wake up and take care of the baby. After that, head out for my daily 1.5 hour mountain hike. Some days after my hike, I’ll drop into the academy if there’s something I want to do, cleaning projects, arranging something, printing, corrections, speech prep, etc. I’ll head back to the house and do the regular domestic things of making lunch, cleaning, getting ready for the main day. After that, I’ll head into the academy and open it up. I try to get in there ~1 hour before students arrive and take care of the basics of turning on CCTV and making sure things are in order. Once students arrive, it’s teaching, managing students between entering quietly, class time, lab time, vocab, leaving, and communicating with other teachers about the whole process and making sure everyone’s on the same page as far as absences, tardiness, student behavior, etc.

During this time my wife will arrive after the in-laws have relieved her from baby duty and we’ll do similar tasks together. About ~2 hours before her, I’ll go home to relieve my in-laws with William and she finishes out the day at the academy and closes up shop. Rinse and repeat.

Committing to exercise every morning is a really awesome practice. I notice that I really need it to keep my head on straight, especially during hectic times in the business. How much do you think that helps your business?

So much. When I came to Korea, I weighed 280 pounds (127 kg) and after 2 years in Korea, I reached a high weight of 310 pounds (140 kg). I came to a point where I realized that students saw me as “the fat teacher.” I was unhealthy and unhappy. One day something clicked in my mind and I just set myself to undo that. Over the next 18 months, I lost 115 pounds (52 kg) mostly through adjustments in my diet. Going through that process gave me an incredible focus and confidence for my classroom performance. Basically, humans are attracted to healthy people. We want to be around healthy and stable people. This includes students. Maintaining health isn’t necessarily the only way to have students attracted to one’s teaching style, but it sure does help a lot.

Since that time, I’ve transitioned my health and weight maintenance to include exercise. My daily hike begins strolling along a river, then crossing a rock path over the river, and ascending a mountain trail in the woods. During that time I can’t hear city sounds and only see nature around me. It’s meditative to me. Once I reach the top, I use a headset to call friends and family from America. Using that time allows me to maintain relationships with about 15 friends and family from America. I come back home energized and socialized. It’s a highlight in my schedule.

Where are you from?

Alaska. It’s a great place. I miss it.

Why did you decide to move here?

During college, debate was my life. In the beginning and middle of my uni-debate career, I assumed I’d go to graduate school to continue in debate as a coach. But as I came closer to graduation, I just didn’t see myself ‘doing’ a university professional career. I went home, and worked for the same company as my father. Two years later, I was bored and lacked passion for work and life. By chance, I found an advertisement for a debate academy in Daechi, Gangnam. I applied and the rest is history.

13321679_10209661636117251_3976823497653946807_n

Could you tell me more about that? I taught debate at a children's academy, and while I loved the kids, I didn’t understand how to teach debate to students with mid-level English skills.

This is a giant pet peeve of mine. “Debate” is one of those catch words that academies and programs throw out there. I took A LOT of time to study debate, ponder it, and compete in it - so it annoys me when teachers and programs who too quickly make a claim they’re teaching debate. Alright, off my soap box.

Now for a helpful answer, students should be able to verbally make a few sentences together that form a cohesive thought prior to learning debate (in most cases – unless they’re in a language immersion program). If they can’t do this, they might be better off either focusing on persuasive writing or improving and quickening their ability to form ideas verbally in English that are not necessarily argumentative.

If a teacher finds themselves in a situation where they’re forced to teach debate to unprepared students or they themselves are less familiar with the teaching of debate, I’d recommend making it a group activity where topics are taken and the teacher leads group brainstorming and framing of arguments on both sides of a given topic. Then transition the students into briefly presenting the arguments in some structured format that the group prepared prior to that. Then follow up assignments that reinforce the arguments presented in the form of speeches/writing/essays/etc.

Why do you teach?

I enjoy the process of communication. I really have a passion for debate, debating, and the learning of debate. My initial steps into teaching came from teaching my interest of debate. Since then, I added and maintained a well-rounded set of employable and monetized set of skills. I’ve learned other portions or the broader ESL scope of niches wanted in the markets.

Now in my current situation, unfortunately I don’t teach debate all too much, I really fine-tune an education system to enable students to be successful in the obtaining of their ESL goals. Sometimes it’s hard to be as passionate about that, but I’m so fortunate in what that provides for my family and I.

If you weren’t teaching, what would you be doing?

In all honesty, really, I couldn’t know until something changed. I’d hope to be either an entrepreneur or leadership for an organization that valued my experiences.

What separates the good teachers from the bad?

Effort, developing social skills, an interest in self-improvement, and personal motivation (grit)

What were the hardest life lessons you had to learn while here?

Life’s a competition with winners and losers. My first year in Korea, I worked for 3 different financially struggling academies. Two of them went bankrupt and the other replaced me with a cheaper Filipino teacher. It was rough. But then I had an opportunity to be on the opening staff of a new academy. I worked with a young Korean male teacher who had been through the Korean academy grind and studied at an American prep high school. He showed me how students perceived their foreign teachers and the value of skills such as TOEFL and how to teach myself those skills. That experience opened my eyes to the difference in being a not- fired-teacher and being the most valued teacher on a staff. That lite a spark, that made me want to be the best teacher in any organization I worked for.

10882351_10152474075941791_5072332252727442517_n

If you could distill the difference into a few good bits of advice, especially focusing on the perception foreigner teachers have, what would you say?

I gave the advice to a new teacher once, “students in Korea are connoisseurs of teachers.” Korean students just see way more teachers and live in an education focused society. They develop a sense of criticism to their teachers. They’ll rank them, judge them, and evaluate them. That’s intimidating to teachers. But it’s the facts of educating in Korea. I’d recommend deconstructing the observation a teacher wants of themselves from their students. A teacher can work backwards to have the teaching performance they need to end in the perception they want from their students. Do they want to be the energetic teacher? The stern but fair teacher? What ratio in between? I’ve reached the conclusion that a teacher must appear as an authority on their subject matter and hold a level of awe from their students to have a top performance. Whereas in the west, a teacher can have a “we’re in this together – we’ll teach each other” mentality; that style doesn’t work as well in Korea. Students have an expectation that their teachers should be authorities that they can follow.

As a final example, I knew a new public middle school teacher. They were a bit full of themselves. They just loved all the attention they’d get from the middle school students and took it as flattery. They’d go to the same PC bang that all their students attended at night and let them watch them play games and socialized with them as equals. Sure enough a couple months later I heard, “Man, these students don’t respect me – I can’t control the classroom.” Now I’m not in their school, but I sure think they made the critical mistake of allowing students to see themselves as equals to the teacher AND they allowed themselves to appear as though they craved their student’s attention.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about teaching abroad or living abroad?

Be honest to yourself why you’re coming out here. I see too many people that come here for just “a year,” and it’s comfortable and nice. They stay another year, and then another – but they don’t develop increasingly valuable skills or networks. They don’t assimilate. And then, they have to go back and have a very hard time resettling. Teaching abroad for a year is a great experience, but if you’re staying in similar positions, you’re not gaining new skills or expanding your resume. So, have an entrance AND an exit plan. The longer you’re away the harder it’s to go back.

Don’t accept any slackness in jobs to be an opportunity for apathy. Even if you’re in an easy job, there are many ways to continue your own professional development: reading skill specific books, writing & creating programs/curriculum, making a portfolio, applying for jobs, doing extra work for your supervisors, etc.

Keep an open mind and be open to assimilation. Stay positive. When I came to Korea I had hardships. I allowed that to manifest itself in negativity towards my host-country. That’s a fruitless path. The more empathy you can give to another culture, the more you’ll enjoy living in it.

I love what you just said. When I came here, I wanted to mature, but I also wanted to keep the ‘college party train’ rolling. It wasn’t until my 2nd year that I changed how I treated my time here in Korea. Do you have an specific cautionary tales that you’ve seen?

Well frankly, anyone who needed this advice probably wouldn’t take it. Actually, I gave this type of advice to a group of new arrivals a few years ago and watched them quickly do a, “yeah sure ol’ man – whatever you say.” I’ve seen a few of them, a year or two later, verbally express regret that they didn’t do more with the time they had. They sat in easy positions, but didn’t progress in life or professionally. Even for me, it took about 15 months in Korea before I figured out that doing the minimum wasn’t the best strategy. In my defense, I had a rough first year.

People/teachers/anyone need to be pursuing goals and objectives. I see the least productive new NETS in Korea usually had the goal of getting “a job,” and after they got “that job” they didn’t set their next harder and greater goals. They just sat and enjoyed the fruits of that one job they have today, instead of looking to the future.

My general advice (even to myself) or anyone: Get motivated, maintain grit or build up one’s own grit, and set S.M.A.R.T. goals. Implanting that for anyone will get them more excited and more successful as a teacher or anything one is doing in their life. Someone who inspires and teaches me: Tim Ferriss. If you don’t have a guide to life, I’d recommend checking out his books and podcasts.

As far cautionary tales, I’d just say entry level teaching positions in Korea have to be the stepping stones to something else. They’re not career positions, and not ends unto themselves. They don’t come with a retirement, there’s not much opportunity for advancement, and the capacity for salary progression is low. All that being said, they’re good jobs for someone “today,” use the opportunity to set the next chapter in a teacher’s life; people who don’t do that struggle to advance/progress or struggle in their return to their home country.

Do you have any passions or hobbies that you pursue abroad?

Board gaming. As I started my family, I remembered the good memories I had playing and socializing, while playing tabletop games, with my family as a child. I wanted to foster that around my new forming family. For a while, I went crazy with it and really bought a giant collection. For a period of time, I highly incorporate board games into my academy. With my wife’s final months of pregnancy and the birth of my son, I’ve brought my hobby back to a more casual level. But, I keep and maintain a sizable collection. I look forward to introducing my son to the hobby as he grows older and I use them in my academy, but less often as before.

Which board games do you enjoy the most? I loved playing chess and monopoly my whole life. Also, which board game causes the most family fight?

Well, my personal favorite is Five Tribes. Since 1995 board games were imported from Europe. And it sparked a boom in Modern board games. IN 2000 they really began to take off. If one has only ever been exposed to mass market games (monopoly, etc.), I’d suggest starting with classic and iconic modern board games, developing one’s taste for them, and checking out newer releases. I’d try to play these first: Carcassonne, Dominion, Ticket to Ride, Small World, and Pandemic. That list will give a good exposure to same great games and mechanics and by playing them a new board gamer will develop an appreciation for the games they like to play.

As for family fights, not really. One time I beat my brother aggressively at Carcassonne and he said, “You play like a jerk.” But I won, so I still felt good.

english teachers of koreaWhere do you buy board games in Korea? I know other folks here love to use them at home or while teaching, but they seem expensive.

First, I’d direct you to the board game community for foreigners in Korea that I founded and administrate: Board Gaming in Korea. There you can have my advice, but also advice from the most enthusiastic board gamers in Korea.

As far as purchasing advice, I could write a giant guide, but that’s probably too much information for a new purchaser of games. So the method that’ll, 60% of the time, get the best price (considering shipping) is to set Amazon’s default shipping address to your Korean address and search for games on Amazon. Amazon’s search engine will consider the price, shipping cost, and shipping availability to Korea and then give the best results.

What would you be doing if you were still in your home country?

Probably - pursuing an unfulfilling career in retail management. It was good that I got out of that rut and challenged myself.

Can you tell us a few tips or tricks to help improve our classes?

The best advice I received, and I didn’t know it until a few years later, came from sleazy corporate academy owner and CEO. During an interview he said, “Being a good teacher is like being an actor.” When preparing to teach children go in front of a mirror and look at your facial expressions. Are they funny, entertaining, or strict? Develop a mad face, a happy face, a silly tone, etc.

And this can be applied to teaching more serious upper level students or adults. A teacher can practice having a formal stance and posture. Just like an actor – perform the role expected by the audience.

There are many many ways to be a good teacher, this is just the advice I took to heart. Maybe it’s my communications background, but I approach my style as a performance and build the character needed for my audiences. Sometimes it’s the silly goofy guy to a 7 year old class – and sometimes it’s the serious authoritarian when I’m acting as the owner/director and maintaining discipline for my students.

What websites or books helped you when you first started? Which do you still use now?

I have a slightly unique entrance into ESL education, so I used a lot of debate resources, but when I began to more purely teach ESL classes I found Practical English Usage (by Michael Swan) to be an invaluable book. I had never formally studied English and it gave me the knowledge and confidence needed to understand why things were the way they were in English.

Secondly, more than any book – I found mentorship the best way to critically improving my performance in the classroom. For new teachers in larger organizations: seek out the most respected teachers (by students) and ask them questions and figure out how they’re doing it. And as an aside, possibly avoid the teachers who want to tell you,” how good they are,” and listen to the audience’s (students) opinions more so than the teacher’s themselves.

What are the go-to tools that you think teachers should buy to improve their class. I’ve found that a set of mini-whiteboards work wonders for young learners. What about you?

The first thing would be to invest in a sticker reward program (assuming your teaching children) have the stickers and have some inexpensive rewards. This will allow you to maintain discipline without immediately going to the punishment side of control.

Secondly, invest in something that’ll allow you to captivate an audience; juggling balls, a good magic trick, etc. Yes, it’s not directly educational, but it’ll allow a teacher to catch student’s mind quickly. I’ve taught mys4elf to juggle balls, pens, erasers, and scissors as a way to get children’s attention. But that’s how I did it. Some use crafts. Just have that ‘thing’ that captivates a child audience.

Finally, don’t let money separate a teacher from doing a better job. I’ve seen teachers fold their arms and say, “if my employer won’t buy it – I won’t either,” but I’d recommend investing a small portion of your salary into things that’ll separate your performance from another teachers.

english conversation teacher aaron rahlfs

We'd love to interview you!!! If you're a current English teacher living abroad, shoot us an email at [email protected]

And check out our free lessons