Name: Allyson De Cairos
Hometown: Ontario, Canada
Currently Living: Chungju, South Korea
Job: University Conversation Teacher, Konkuk University (Glocal Campus)
What are you doing right now?
Taking a breather during the hottest part of the day, trying to decide how to tackle my disaster of an apartment. I have two weeks left at my job and then I’m off to graduate school at Korea University, thanks to the Korean Government Scholarship Program.
Wow. That’s great! What program is that exactly? I’m sure other teachers would be interested in how to stay in Korea without being a teacher.
It's a special scholarship for foreigners. There is an undergraduate scholarship as well. The graduate scholarship provides 1 year of Korean language study plus 2 years of a masters program (3 years for Phd). Tuition is 100% covered and there is a monthly living allowance of 900,000 won! It's very competitive. Those interested should check out studyinkorea.go.kr for more information.
And what’s your typical day?
I wake up around 8 or 9 in the morning, shuffle around aimlessly, slap on some makeup and head out to my lunchtime business English class. Sometimes in the mornings I have other extra classes such as high school camps, depending on who has asked me to teach. I have a few hours after lunch to run errands or lesson plan, and then I work at the university until 9pm teaching conversation.
So what type of job do you have? Hagwon?
My job is often called a "unigwon", but I simply teach conversation English at the language institute on campus. It's a low-stress rewarding job and I'm sad to be finishing up soon. I teach university students, but office workers are also welcome to attend. I often teach university faculty as well.
Where are you from?
A very small town in Ontario, Canada. I grew up surrounded by corn and cows. Not much to say about it!
Why did you decide to move here?
I knew I wanted to teach abroad, and after considering several different countries, Korea seemed to have the best overall work contract for my needs.
Why do you teach?
I am a big language nerd. I love dabbling in foreign languages and picking apart grammar to see how things work. I also love talking and meeting new people, so I figured a language teacher was a good fit!
If you weren’t teaching, what would you be doing?
Probably writing novels as a side project, and doing editing work as my main job. I’m interested in materials design, so if I’m not teaching I’m writing textbooks.
What separates the good teachers from the bad?
The ability to bounce back after a big hit is essential. I’ve had some of the biggest lesson plan flops you could ever imagine, and every time I just pick myself up and try again. Another factor is self-awareness. Reflective teaching is a must for any 21st century educator, so the ability to sit down and examine what went wrong and how I can improve it is key to growing as a professional in the teaching field. Not that I always get it right myself--I think that’s where networking comes in handy. Good teachers know when to reach out and ask for help.
What were the hardest life lessons you had to learn while here?
Even when I gave 110 percent effort as a teacher, my students gave 0 percent effort back. That was heartbreaking. I understand the kids are stressed and have a lot on their minds, but I’m a human being too! Respect my lesson plans! But no...every day they chanted “Game! Game! Game!” This is something I still struggle with, even now: a lot of times the native English teacher isn’t viewed as a “real” teacher. We’re just a fun prop, a silly clown who visits sometimes to say funny words and play silly games. As a serious educator this was hard to swallow. I like to have fun too! But we can’t play powerpoint games every day. Sometimes we have to do the boring stuff too.
That really grinds my gears as well. Do you have any specific tales of trouble makers that you could share?
I remember one kid who was a huge thorn in my side. He was a leader type who could rally the other boys to his cause quite easily--if he felt like resting in class, others stayed calm and followed. If he felt like being a joker, the whole class was out of control. He threw garbage, interrupted me with loud fart noises, sabotaged any group activity or game, and regularly refused punishment. On my last day at that middle school he came to me in tears, handed me a bag of onion snacks, and said, "Teacher... I'm missing you." in English. He meant it too! One of my strangest experiences so far in Korea.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about teaching abroad or living abroad?
There’s nothing wrong with doing it for the money, or for the vacation, or to ‘find yourself’...or whatever reasons people go abroad for. But remember that you are entering a classroom and no matter what goes down, your presence WILL have an effect on those kids. And they deserve to be taught well and the school deserves to have an employee who will do their best. Even if teaching isn’t your ‘thing’, you owe it to yourself and the kids to genuinely make the best of it. Sometimes you might get stuck with a crappy position with a boss who hates your guts for now reason--even then, take the high road as often as you can. And learn the local language!
Do you have any passions or hobbies that you pursue abroad?
I’m passionate about foreign languages, so I studied Korean really hard when I got here. I’m fluent now, after 4 years living here, and I can honestly say it has changed my life as an expat completely. I love watching TV shows, reading novels, and listening to radio talk shows--now I can do all of those things in Korean! I suddenly have so many new things to discuss with my students. I feel at ease here, and less like a hideous outsider (though I’m still the “other” and that will never change. Such is the life of an expat)
I’m also trying to start a teaching in Korea blog and youtube channel, but I’m still a bit shy about it. Stay tuned!
That’s great! I love seeing people start online projects. What’s your big plan for those two?
My goal for 2016/2017 is to focus on professional development and expand my skillset. I want to record my best lessons and share ideas that I find online. I'm also interested in video content for educational purposes, so I'm experimenting with online courses. I have no set goal for now, as I'm just focusing on learning how to blog regularly and edit videos. I'd love to monetize it one day but for now it's a hobby!
What would you be doing if you were still in your home country?
I’d likely be at university again to become a certified French teacher. Unfortunately English teachers are a dime a dozen back home, but qualified French teachers have excellent job security and prospects.
Can you tell us a few tips or tricks to help improve our classes?
Some teachers are lucky enough to have several colleagues they can ask for advice. I work alone, so I had to develop a way to improve on my own.
At the end of the work day, grab a pen and write down notes about your performance, the students’ performance, problems, breakthroughs, etc. Even 5 minutes of reflective writing each day will help you see which areas you need to fix up. Write about your energy levels, the students’ engagement (was most of the class slacking or was everyone working hard?) Flip back a few weeks and see if the same problems occur again and again.
For example, one issue I was running into was that my students were completing their tasks correctly and engaging with the target language, but they were taking way longer than we had time for. I had to make a decision: should I adjust the lessons to give them more time, or make the task easier? I tried both methods, and recorded the results. Giving them more time was the best option because they produced more language that way. They appreciated the leniency, and felt more relaxed.
It takes a lot of effort to be objective about your own classes, but once you develop the habit you’ll see the benefits.
What websites or books helped you when you first started? Which do you still use now?
I read teaching blogs a lot. I teach university EFL, but even reading the blogs of 3rd grade math teachers from Texas gives me amazing insights into classroom organization, generating ideas, and finding shortcuts to stay sane as a teacher. I do follow a lot of EFL/ESL blogs, but most of my eureka! moments come when I’m reading about other teachers from other contexts. Cast a wide net and you’ll find great inspiration.
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?
For intermediate and above, university students need to start engaging with real materials. A subscription to an English magazine or newspaper is essential. I used to ask students to find articles in their own time, but they get so lazy! I make the materials available in class so there’s no wasted time.
For beginner-level, Task Cards are great. If you don’t know what task cards are, google it and read up! These were a game-changer for me. I bought a template on teacherspayteachers.com and now I make my own according to what topics we’re covering. I use Microsoft Publisher to add pictures, charts, keywords and prompts to help them focus on the speaking task. They simply finish a card in their own time and reach for another in the stack. I often use task cards with shy classes who can’t do free talking yet, as it gives them something physical to anchor them to the discussion.
What are your long term plans for your life here in Korea?
I've definitely got a long term plan to open a hagwon....but I'm also looking to get into teacher training as well textbook writing and editing. Materials development is my main interest these days so I'd like to try my hand at that freelance. I love teaching adults, so helping Korean teachers improve their English is another dream I'm actively pursuing.
Do you want to add anything else?
Ironically, becoming fluent in Korean has made me a better English teacher. It gives me a big boost in credibility, and the extra respect I get from students feels good. They trust my advice about learning a language because I suggest methods that I used on myself. I’ve experimented with lots of different study tricks!
In addition, the administration team at my university is grateful that they aren’t stressed out trying to communicate with me. I’d like to remind expat teachers that you have to respect the language of the country you live in. Yes, we’re here to teach English--but that’s only a few hours out of our day. Outside your classroom you have to respect that the locals are not always bilingual. Don’t expect them to cater to you. Put some effort into learning it--this sounds harsh, but if my foreign language teacher was monolingual, I wouldn’t have much confidence in them. It’s all about respect!
You’ve mentioned that you speak Korean a few times. I learned about 50 nouns and 50 verbs and make it gets me really far here, which I guess reduced my ambition. How exactly did you learn Korean? And how did you not become complacent after becoming “just good enough”?
I have a passion for languages in general, so I just study for pure intellectual pleasure. But beyond that I recognized a niche for high quality native English teachers with high level Korean skills. Many of my fellow expats stated their reasons for leaving Korea were a lack of upper mobility and opportunities. I believe that not being fluent is a huge roadblock for anyone living here long term. I'm frequently told that I should just marry a Korean man and stop worrying about studying, but frankly...that's offensive! I'm fiercely independent and my Korean skills allow me to live a full and immersive life in Korea. I'll never truly assimilate, but I can get close enough to have a fulfilling career and social life. Korean fluency has gotten me so many side gigs and connections...it's opened up a whole other side of Korea that many expats can't even see. Totally worth it.
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