English Teachers of South Korea: Austin Mettetal

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English Teachers of South Korea: Austin Mettetal

Name: Austin Mettetal
Hometown: Lincoln, Nebraska, USA
Age: 27 (born in 1989)
Currently Living: Seoul, South Korea
Job: 공부방 owner

What are you doing right now?

Right now I run a 공부방. I started in February of 2016. The bulk of my students are in elementary school, but I also have one middle school class and several pre-elementary classes.

And what’s your typical day?

I usually wake up about 8 o'clock and have some oatmeal for breakfast. I like to mix peanut butter powder that I ordered off of 쿠팡 into the oatmeal. After breakfast I usually do some small prep for classes or any other small tasks that I might have to get done. I then usually then go to the gym at about 9:30 and workout for about an hour. After the gym I get lunch. My classes usually start at 1:30 nowadays so I usually have a bit of time to vacuum or do consider some final touches I can add to my classes before they start. I then work straight from about 1:30 to 9:30. Some classes are back to back, and some have about 10 minute breaks in between.

Because my schedule is like this it's really important to have my prep work and a plan ready before I start teaching. Teaching is a lot like a sport in that once the "game" starts you as a teacher should just be performing without having to exert a lot of unnecessary mental effort. That isn't to say however that ideas don't come to me as I'm teaching or that I don't have times when I do improvise.

So after my classes finish, I get my dinner at about 10 and then may watch some TV or help out my wife (who runs a math 공부방) drive some of her students home.

Sounds like you’re busy, which is a great thing to be! How did you go about starting your study room and how has it gone so far?

Well, my wife actually pulled me into it. She is also a very active teacher (in math) and she has a friend who has been running an English academy for about 10 years. This friend suggested to my wife that she open either a math academy or 공부. Because of startup costs, my wife decided to start with a math 공부방, and so as we were preparing to move to our new place my wife suggested to me that I start an English 공부방 as well. It just so happened that at this time I was also reading a lot of books on business and had been following the Hagwon startup group in Facebook. So in this way, everything kinda just came together at the same time.

Where are you from?

I was born in San Diego, California. I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska when I was about 2 and grew up there. I returned to California to attend university in Santa Barbara. Although I spent most of my life in Nebraska, I go to California if I ever go "home" to the states because that's where my mom is living now. Also, if I ever move back to the USA I think I would live in California. So usually when people ask me where I'm from I just say California. But, I should mention that I am huge Nebraska Huskers fan.

Why did you decide to move here?

The thing that brought me to Korea originally was an earth quake that occurred in Japan in March of 2011. I will explain a bit more about that. When I was a kid I had a huge fascination with Nintendo, Dragonball Z, and Pokémon among other things from contemporary Japanese culture. My dream for a lot of my life was to travel to Japan. Luckily, my university in California had a study abroad program in Tokyo. I studied Japanese for my first two years of university and then went to study abroad in Tokyo as a junior. I planned to be in Japan for a year, but unfortunately 8 months in there was a huge earth quake and my study abroad program was cancelled by my university.

Therefore, I was asked to return to California by my university. I wanted to have 12 months of study abroad experience under my belt. While I was in Japan, I had taken a short trip to Korea and really loved it. Therefore, I applied to study abroad at Yonsei university for the summer before my senior year started.

Well, I really loved Yonsei university and so many things about Korea. So, I extended my study abroad program through December. During that time I also met my current wife, and ended up extending my study abroad program more and more. Basically, I finished my university studies here in Korea and ended up staying here in Korea. I've been here now for about 5 years.


What did you do during those 5 years? I know you went to University and then opened your hagwon this year, so tell us a bit about the time in between.

So I was at my university for two summers plus one full year. I got to the university in Summer of 2011 and finished at the end of Summer 2012. During that time I started to do some private teaching and once I finished university I began teaching more and more. Private teaching was really great for me because it allowed me to teach a very large variety of students with a variety of focuses, from young toddlers, to adults, to elementary school students focusing on speaking, to high school students focusing on 수능. In addition to private teaching, I worked at Chungdahm for a portion of those 5 years, as well as volunteered with North Koreans and later orphans wanting to study English. This really allowed me to learn a lot as a teacher and to develop various methods for teaching in different environments.

Why do you teach?

Hm... First of all I enjoy the creative aspects of teaching. I enjoy creating material for my classes and incorporating a bit of zest into the things I get to teach. I enjoy watching my students improve and continuously achieve new highs. I enjoy interacting with my students who are all very unique (all humans are unique really, definitely teaching isn't the only way to find what is unique about people but it is one way.) I enjoy the leadership qualities that teaching requires. I also am very interested in business and teaching is one way in which I can grow a business.

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

Again, hm... I believe I would be attending graduate school to become a professor. That is one thing I considered before teaching became a very serious part of my life. In university I was interested by the way my professors could "perform" up on stage, and I was attracted by the way professors have the freedom to choose what they want to study and then utilize their creative energy to generate new information in their fields.

I’ve just talked to Aaron R., another school owner in Korea, and he mentioned that great instructors in Korea also must be great performers. Do you think you “perform” at your current school?

Definitely. The book “Teach Like a Pirate” actually goes into this aspect of teaching a lot. You know, I feel a performer needs to have a lot of energy, be attentive to his facial expressions/body movements, speak artfully, and keep his audience captivated. A great performer will even get his audience involved in the performance as well. All of these things are also true for great teachers.

Yes, what we are teaching is and should be academic. But, if we simply deliver our content in dry didactic ways, much of what needs to be learned will in fact not be learned. Now you ask if I “perform” at my school. I am not saying at all that I am a great teacher, but I will give an example of how I may “perform.” When I teach the five short vowel sounds I will associate a physical movement with each one and then display each movement to my students, so it is almost like I am dancing as I am teaching these sounds. I will then ask my class “Who wants to try?” and a lot of students reply “I want to try!” So then they start doing the movements and sounds as well. In a sense they also become performers in our class and I think this is essential for long term learning.

What separates the good teachers from the bad?

I want to interact with more teachers so that I can answer this question better. I haven't met many teachers I would say are bad teachers, but that is probably because if someone isn't into what they are doing they won't be doing it for that long. I think the bigger separation is between teachers who just get by and teachers who go the extra mile every single day.

So how can teachers go the extra mile? They can leave their worries and concerns at the door when they step in the class room. They should constantly reflect on their students' progress as well as levels of interest. They should have a good understanding of what works for their students and what doesn't. They understand that teaching is a whole-body performance. Learning can also be a whole-body performance.

Teachers who go the extra mile also ask big questions. How can I make this class so incredibly great that students will be begging their parents to attend class, even on Sundays? How can we learn this new grammar or word with an incredible experience, as opposed to a simple flash card and repeat after me drill? What can I create and implement so that my students will be able to read this entire book, then discuss about it in detail, and enjoy every step of the process?

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

Well, in Korea you may study Korean very hard and try to follow a lot of important social norms, however there will always be Koreans who still see you as an outsider in their country.

Since it sounds like you’ll live here for a while, are you bothered that you’ll never quite fit in?

Hmm… I have come to terms with that. I feel like in the USA it’s a bit different. If someone moves to the USA, after some time people may not recognize that person as being an outsider. In the USA, even if you met somebody whose last name and face is Japanese, you wouldn’t likely ask them “Where are you from?” “Do you speak English?” or “How long have you been here?” Sure there is a chance they emigrated from Japan, but there’s also a huge chance that they were born and grew up in the USA and associate more with that identity than a Japanese one.

In Korea, however, if your appearance is not physically Korean people will very often ask “Where are you from?” “Do you speak Korean?” and “How long have you been here?” In the USA these questions could even be rude to ask somebody. Somebody who was born and grew up in the USA might be really offended if they were asked similar questions. While Korea is changing, traditionally it has a different context than the USA and so I think it is important for people to understand that such questions aren’t rude. I’m not perfect at this yet, but it’s important to understand ways of thinking can vary greatly from country to country.

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

Have a completely open mind, but also don't expect others around you to have an open mind. It may sound paradoxical, but expecting others to have an open mind is actually a very easy way to develop a closed mind. Understand that the things you think are common decency may actually be culturally specific, and therefore don't start judging people when they do things that aren't standard or acceptable where you are from.

This is some great wisdom. I find myself becoming more close minded because I was so “open minded”. How did you come to be so mature in your concepts?

Time is really important. I think a lot of people will go through a similar process. At first they may go to a foreign country thinking “I’m going to totally fit in and do things like the natives.” Then after some time a period of frustration might set in – “I’m doing my best to have an ‘open mind’ and fit in with everyone here. I’m following cultural norms, I’m learning and speaking the language. I’m accepting this culture, but this culture isn’t accepting me.” This second stage can be long, but I think after it a stage of understanding sets in – “Ok, I’m going to do my best to have cultural relativism towards others, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to expect others to have it towards me as well.” I suppose this ties in the “life lessons” question you asked me. We should do our best to fit in, but we should by no means expect people to accept us 100% as Korean. If I do that as an American I am just imposing my ideas of cultural relativism and multiculturalism onto Koreans.

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

Yes I think I do. I enjoy working out and I do that often. I enjoy drawing with colored pencils and I do this occasionally. I am very interested in business lately and have been studying a lot about this lately.

I also try to incorporate my hobbies and passions into my work. I think that is very important to do in any job. That also is an extra thing I could add for question #7. Teachers that incorporate their interests into their teaching will be more passionate and as result better teachers.

What would you be doing if you were still in your home country?
I suppose I would have just finished graduate school and would be a professor at some university. Or perhaps I would have some type of small business related to food, such as a food truck. Maybe I'd be eating some stuffed crust pizza from Pizza hut.


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

Consider your passions when planning your classes. Incorporate these passions. Rather your students are interested in these things or not, you will teach more strongly and your students will be more interested as a result.

Always ask big questions.

Try techniques such as mindstorming. Mindstorming is where you ask a big question and then write down 20 different ways that question could be addressed. For example, you might ask "How can all of my students get 100 on all of their vocabulary tests this month?" and then write down 20 different solutions to this question. Usually the last solutions are hardest to generate, but the ones that are most effective.
Don't just show up to classes. Generate, create, and think outside of the box in order to make the class great. Not only will your students benefit, but you will also enjoy your job much much more.

Work smart first, work hard second. (This doesn't mean don't work hard of course, but don't just fill up your time with unproductive activities.)
If you have a class plan that somebody already created for you, then great! If you don't, make sure to generate one. Having the class plan already down will allow you to not have to worry about what to do, and put more energy into creating great content for the plan.
Although they may not know it, students love patterns. Each class will be much easier for you as well as the students if it follows a common pattern. Again, this will allow the class to worry less about what to do, and put more energy into what is being done.

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

Books -

Teach Like a Pirate
Explore like a Pirate
무한반복 급상승 수능 영어
The System is the Secret

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?

Hm.. This would be different for every class. I think there aren't any "go-to" things, but rather you got make the things that you go to work whatever they may be. So like in my room I have a large white magnetic white board on the wall and that really helps me. I also have a TV that I can hook up to my laptop. When I want to show images, videos, play songs, or type out sentences for my students this is really helpful.

I think having reading books that start with basic phonics and then gradually go up in level is very important for young learners. Scholastic has very good beginning books, as does Oxford.

But again, it's not necessarily what you have which matters, but rather how you use the things that you have. Always stay creative and ask yourself big questions. You'll find that you can do a lot of magical things with the things around you.

Do you want to add anything else?

Sausage and pepperoni.


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  • stephaniejt

    This is really interesting thanks for writing and putting up Austin’s story.