Lessons Abroad: Three Years in South Korea

This is a guest post by Sean Lords.

My decision to leave the United States and teach abroad was not something I had really considered when I thought about my future. My plans after graduation involved some vague idea of being a public school teacher or perhaps subbing part-time and continuing on in my education. But during my last block of student teaching, all of that changed. The high school I was student teaching at was the same school I had graduated from some four years earlier, except it was nothing as I remembered it. The students in my class seemed about as far removed from me as possible. No matter how dynamic I made my lessons, how involved I tried to make the students, nothing seemed to click. I slowly became discouraged and upset with an education system that had shown these students that this type of behavior was acceptable.

A few weeks later, during one of the last classes of my capstone class, a board of previous English graduates came into our classroom to speak with us about their experiences after graduating.One woman was pursuing a degree in library sciences. Another had landed a job at a local newspaper as an editor, while another was heading into an MFA program at a nearby University. The last individual stated that he had just returned from a year overseas teaching English in South Korea. This immediately caught my attention. He spoke of students who not only excelled in his classrooms but actually expressed their enjoyment of being there. I distinctly remember writing down, “teach English. Korea,” in my notebook at the close of the panel.

Fast forward: a few Craigslist inquiries and a graduation later, I found myself on an airplane, flying over the Pacific Ocean on my way to a small town in South Korea where I was informed that I would be the first native English speaker the town ever had. This should have been cause for concern but in my imagination I would be a pioneer, going where no English speaker had gone before.

My lodging was pretty modest. I was put up in a room above the small town’s only convenience store. The owners of this establishment greeted me with the biggest smiles every day when I passed the checkout counter on the way up to my room. The public school I worked at was about a thirty second walk across the street. The English wing of the school was recently retro-fitted for my arrival and was equipped with more fancy electronics and craftsman-style wall paneling than any house I had ever lived in back in the states.

I was 6,000 miles away from everything I was familiar with, at the time I didn’t speak a lick of Korean, and though my recruiter had promised there was a Costco about a thirty minute drive away, it was more like three hours away. Even with all of this, I didn’t care. I was ecstatic in fact. Every single day, every single moment, would be a new experience. A new way to impact someone’s life and a new memory to be recalled later on.

I spent a year at that job. Working at a reform school for high school boys who were expelled from traditional schools certainly had its challenges. There were days when I spent more time breaking up fights than I did teaching English, but then there were days when one of my students would approach me in the hall asking me, “how’s your day?”, and suddenly, it was all worth it.

No amount of preparation or planning could have prepared me for how my life would play out that year. You cannot read in a book what it feels like to be the six foot two white guy at a supermarket garnering stares and gawks from everyone in the vicinity. No book teaches you how to empathize with a 16 year old boy who has been told he won’t succeed and that he’s better off at a trade school, perhaps maybe landing a job as a road paver, someday.

My time abroad encompassed so much more than just teaching, and, when thinking back, it is this that I am most grateful for. I was given the chance to escape my hometown bubble, a community where most have never had the experience of being the minority or the odd one out. My year living in that small town in South Korea opened me up to prejudices that I was never even aware I had, until the tables were turned on me.

I realize that everyone’s experiences while teaching abroad are different. Depending on where you end up teaching things could be vastly dissimilar to the environment I was in. Sure, if I had been in a bigger town I probably would have had more friends, access to more familiar foods and perhaps a different demographic of students, but I would have missed out on so much more. I would have missed out on the chance to be exposed to one of the most unique adventures of my life and one that I will carry with me well into the future.

By Sean Lords. After obtaining degrees in English Literature and English Secondary Education, Sean packed up his bags and left to Seoul, South Korea where he lived for three years teaching English abroad. Sean has since returned to the States and is currently at work on his Masters degree.