I often write about my experiences in Korea, especially the more remarkable or personally noteworthy moments. However, I don’t often share the realities of life as an ETA—my daily routines, work, and recreation. It’s important to realize that although there are English Teaching Assistantships around the world under the Fulbright moniker, each is administered independently by one of 50 bi-national commissions or, in countries with a smaller program presence, by the Public Affairs section of the respective U.S. Embassy. In Korea, the Korean-American Educational Commission coordinates all aspects of the Fulbright Program in concert with the individual provincial offices of education. Across the world, we may all be Fulbright ETAs, but in practice that makes for very different experiences.
For Fulbright Korea, the ETA program is split into two groups: Elementary English Teaching Assistant, which means that you work in an elementary school, and Secondary English Teaching Assistant, which means that you work in either a high or middle school–I teach in a middle school.
While Fulbright refers to us as English Teaching “Assistants,” most of us in Korea, including myself, are in charge of our own classrooms. In most cases, we have Korean co-teachers, but they are mostly there to observe and step in if something gets out of hand—this, of course, depends on the school.
What follows is a timeline of my average day at school, though it often changes!
7:00 am – My alarm goes off. If that doesn’t get me out of bed, my host mom’s struggle to get my brother up usually does.
7:10 am – My host mother, brother, sister, and I eat breakfast. On some days, it’s as extensive as rice, kimchi, and dok-mandu-guk, a kind of rice cake and dumpling soup, while others it’s as simple as a few steamed rice cakes served with sesame oil to dip them in.
7:40 am – My host mother drives my host sister to her high school, which is on the other side of town. My host brother usually tries to sneak in a few extra minutes of sleep.
8:00-8:15 am – I go through my lessons one more time after getting dressed, making sure that all of my PowerPoints, worksheets, and other documents are on my flash drive and ready to go.
8:15 am – My host brother and I leave for school. High-rise apartment buildings surround Gakri Middle School and I live in one them. It’s just a short 5-minute walk to school—I’m lucky in this regard, as I probably have one of the shortest commutes of any ETA in Korea.
8:20ish – I join the sea of students and teachers heading towards the school gates. Once inside, I change into my slippers (we don’t wear shoes inside school) and head up to my office in the fourth floor gyomushil (teacher’s room). I share this teacher’s room with five other teachers, one of which is my Fulbright co-teacher.
8:30 am – Students at Gakri Middle School have 30 minutes of homeroom. During this time, I make my final preparations for the day, usually checking messages and printing out worksheets, as well as setting up the projector in my classroom.
9:00 am-12:30 pm – Now come the first four periods of the day, each running 45 minutes long with a ten-minute break in between. I generally teach 4 to 6 classes a day, so how busy my morning is varies. My classes range from between 15 to 35 students, while I act as the primary instructor. My pedagogy varies from using PowerPoint, worksheets, activities, and, of course, playing lots of games to keep my students speaking English. If I’m not teaching, I’m either setting up my classroom for my next group of students or in the gyomushil. If I have all my lessons planned, I might work on a blog post, talk with my co-teachers, do some reading or studying, or catch up with fellow ETAs online. I usually drink an absurd amount of green tea or Korean instant coffee during this time, too.
12:30-1:45 pm – Lunch! Compared to the 30-minutes I had during middle and high school, the 1-hour and 15 minutes of freedom that students have hear seems insane. Then again, this is the only free time that the students have. All members of the school community eat in one large cafeteria, although the teachers get a separate food line from the students. The meal generally consists of rice, kimchi, some kind of meat, pickled vegetable, stew, and sometimes dessert. Taste depends on the day, but generally, it’s pretty good and much more varied than American school lunches. Teachers all eat together, although it’s a time more for eating than conversation.
After eating, students usually go play outside. Occasionally I’ll play basketball with some of my students, practice volleyball with the teachers (do not underestimate the abilities of 60-year old Korean men!), and walk around campus interacting with students.
1:45-3:25 pm – Two more class periods!
3:25-3:45 pm – Cleaning time! At Korean schools, the students act as the janitors. During this 20-minute period, students clean the classrooms, bathrooms, and teacher’s rooms. It was strange at first, but now I’m surprisingly used to it. Moreover, it gives some ownership of the school to the students.
3:45-4:30 pm – Final regular class period of the day!
5:00 pm – If there’s no after-school class, I head back to my home stay. On Thursdays, I stop by the market in the apartment complex and chat with students or buy them some snacks, ranging from tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) to bungeoppang (fish-shaped bread filled with red bean paste).
7:30 pm – Dinner with my host family, although usually my host sister is still at school studying. My host father lives in Seoul during the week because of his job.
8:30 pm-12:30 am – Downtime. Studying Korean, planning lessons reading, skyping with friends and family back home, editing and reviewing pieces for the Fulbright Korea Infusion (the official publication of the Korean-American Educational Commission), blogging, researching graduate programs, and, when the kids aren’t studying, hanging out with my host family!
12:30 am – Finally time to get some sleep. Meanwhile, my host siblings are generally studying until 1 or 2 am!
Obviously, even with my details, this is just one possible schedule. Korean schools are notorious for last-minute schedule changes, so ETAs have to be flexible.
On weekends, I often travel to Seoul, which is only 1 ½ hours by bus, go hiking in the foothills nearby, meet up with other Fulbright fellows across Korea, and occasionally volunteer with an orphanage in nearby Cheongju.
While there are good days and bad days, ultimately daily life at a Fulbright ETA in Korea is a rewarding and challenging experience. We stay busy!
Do you have questions about being an ETA in Korea? Post in the comments!
Hello 2014. Hello Ochang. Hello second semester of teaching at Gakri Middle School.
The past 2 months have flown by. Since finishing my semester right before Christmas, I celebrated New Year’s with a wonderful group of Fulbright friends and taught a remarkably fun English winter camp at my school. While the attendance fluctuated from a maximum of eight and a minimum of three, it was a great way to connect with some students on a more personal level before starting the winter break proper.
Whereas other Fulbright ETA programs run between 8 and 10 months straight through, Fulbright Korea is one of the few to offer the opportunity of a break in between teaching. Officially, I was relieved from teaching duties, save one week of winter camp, from Dec. 24 to today, March 3. So, what did I do with all that time?
The idea of the break is to use it as a time to recharge, think about your reasons for undertaking the Fulbright, and travel. I took advantage of my placement in Asia to explore the region further. Our contract specifies that ETAs are allowed up to 28 days outside of Korea during the Winter Break and I’m happy to say that I used every one of them. From January 11 to February 7, I traveled to Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was the most incredible trip of my life, getting to experience so many different cultures, sites, and, of course, cuisines. The trip is going to give me material to write and think about for many years to come.
-Eating Bun Bo Nam Bo, a kind of rice vermicelli and beef noodle bowl, at an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam.
-Hot Air Ballooning over Vang Vieng, Laos.
-Learning to cook Tom Kha Gai (chicken coconut soup) as part of a daylong cooking class in Chiang Mai
-Following the path of Gandhi’s final steps in Delhi.
-Discovering Khao Tom, the most amazing lemongrass/poached egg rice porridge, in Koh Samui, Thailand.
-Walking the Killing Fields and S-21 secret prison in Cambodia.
-Rope-swinging into the clear blue water of Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang, Laos with fellow Fulbrighters.
-Sailing on a junk boat through Halong Bay, Vietnam
TL;DR I could really go for some Vietnamese Pho Bo right now with a glass of fresh bia hoi, a kind of fresh beer brewed daily in Hanoi. Think global, drink local, my friends.
After traveling, I moved into a studio apartment in Hongdae. Hongdae is where a lot of students hangout in Seoul, and it also happens to be my favorite neighborhood in the city. Endless cafes, fun restaurants, and quite the nightlife make it an amazing place to live and relax in. The time went by faster than I could imagine. After moving out of the apartment, my parents came to Korea (my father’s second time, my mother’s first) to see what my Fulbright is all about. It was refreshing to see my parents after 7 ½ months, and somewhat reassuring that I have come so far since Orientation. I can comfortably communicate and get around both Seoul and Korea as whole—that alone is a huge confidence booster. I couldn’t be happier sharing this country, my home away from home, with my family. For my final week, I made a quick trip down to Jeonju to stay with my friend Jemarley’s host family and check out a different part of Korea. Jeonju is also the hometown of bibimbap, one of the best Korean dishes around.
I know that 2 months is perhaps the longest official vacation I may ever have in my life. However, with that comes the responsibility to my students and host community.
Today was my first day back at Gakri Middle School. Armed with a scarf from Cambodia as a gift to my co-teacher and a pound cake from a Korean bakery for the other teachers in my office, I headed up. Upon arriving, I found that two of the teachers from my office had changed schools. In Korea, teachers must change schools every 5 years to maintain educational equality across the system (somewhat logical, I must admit). I wasn’t very close with these teachers, but it was still a surprise to have them somewhat disappear without much adieu. I didn’t have any classes today, but this semester I will be teaching the school’s second and third graders, which means that I will have some of the same students from last semester. A bigger change came during the morning teacher’s meeting: I have a new principal.
The principal at a Korean school is generally more of a figurehead than anything else; the vice principal is in charge of day-to-day operations. However, this new principal is interesting because he himself used to be an English teacher. As I was leaving, he was in the lobby so I gave him a greeting in Korean. He ended up stopping me and we chatted in English for a few minutes about his visits to Washington and California. Considering that my last principal spoke no English, this is a positive change.
According to my co-teacher, I won’t have my first day of classes with my students until next week, so now is time to prepare, make connections, and get ready for the final 4 ½ months of my Fulbright grant. It’s time to get back in the game.
This was my first Christmas away from my family. It was strange not following the usual Christmas morning routine of waking up early to open presents and then flying from DC to Massachusetts. This holiday season, as cheesy as it might seem, was a very pure example of how the people who you are with change everything. Even as I was away from home and my family, new friends made it a very special Christmas.
My final day of teaching for the semester, December 23, was somewhat anti-climactic. Out of my four scheduled classes for the day, two were cancelled. That was a trend in my final week, and I’m still a little sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye to a few of my third grade classes who will be moving onto high school next semester. I did get a chance to share “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with my final class of third grade boys, thanks to the wonderful Fulbrighter who found a copy with Korean subtitles. Of course, they too appreciated the antics of Snoopy. After sharing Christmas cards and giving insa to the other teachers in my office, the head teacher, principal, and vice principal, I went back to my host family’s apartment to pack.
For Christmas Eve, I headed to Seoul. Two of my Fulbright friends got an apartment and decided to host a Christmas Eve party, including a full Western-style Christmas feast with a turkey, mulled wine, and homemade cookies. That night was truly the first time it felt like Christmas since I’ve been in Korea. Eating a delicious meal and sharing Secret Santa gifts while commiserating with chingus (Korean for friends) in a cozy apartment made Seoul feel like home. More than a few people exclaimed that it was perhaps one of the best Christmases they had ever had.
I did Christmas day in a much more Korean fashion. Waking up at our hostel in Hongdae, a few friends and I headed to a small Korean restaurant to eat different types of jeon, savory pancakes made from things like kimchi and green onions, and to drink makgeolli, a rice/wheat wine found only in Korea. While this was definitely different from the Western-style routine, it was extremely satisfying sharing time with each other.
One of the benefits of the Fulbright Korea ETA program is the long winter break. Beyond a one-week Winter Camp from January 6 to 10, I don’t teach until March 1. Over my break, I plan to explore Korea as much as possible. The highlight, however, is going to be a 28-day adventure to Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia!
It’s crazy to think that I’ve been in Korea for almost six months. The first half was an endless series of ups and downs; indeed, I only felt like I was coming into my own as a teacher the last two or three weeks of the semester. Now that I have one semester under my belt, I know that after my winter break I’ll be ready to take my new batch of students and give them the best English conversation class experience I can.
To everyone back in the USA, my friends in Korea, and all the other people in my life around the world, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
It’s American Thanksgiving and I’m in a small town in South Korea. I can honestly say that throughout the now over 4 months that I’ve been in Korea, I have felt far less homesickness than I expected. While there have been occasional bouts of loneliness and isolation, both mentally from culture shock and physically from being far from ETA friends and family, the majority of my time here has been stimulating and enjoyable.
Mulling over the past year, without any cheesiness implied, there is a lot to be thankful for. Over my final year at Pitzer I forged a wonderful group of friends. I graduated from college. And, of course, I was given the opportunity to teach Korean students conversational English and American culture on this Fulbright Fellowship.
Today is bittersweet. While there is a lot for me to be grateful for, it is moments like this when I want to share my experience with family and friends. Luckily, Fulbright did offer us a good opportunity to celebrate 2 weeks ago, when they hosted the ETA Thanksgiving dinner. Bringing all of the Fulbright ETAs together with the Fulbright office, American Embassy staff, and U.S. Ambassador in Seoul was a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. However, that event still left me wanting and waiting for my family’s thanksgiving traditions—meeting up with old friends for drinks on Thanksgiving eve, waking up to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the morning, and finally tucking in to an epic feast at the end of the day.
This week, I tried to share Thanksgiving with my students. I taught them about thanksgiving traditions and foods. I reviewed the history of thanksgiving and, like a good Pitzer alumnus, covered the true history of ghost suppers and the Native American Indian influence. After teaching over 10 hours about thanksgiving, and as excited I was to share this holiday (perhaps even more so than my students), I am missing friends and family a lot.
Wherever you are in the world right now, I hope that you have a wonderful and fulfilling Thanksgiving Day. Eat delicious food, celebrate, and stay in touch.
Happy Thanksgiving from Korea!
I woke up this morning to my host mom calling for my host brother and I to go eat. As I groggily shuffled my way to the table, blinded by the light after only waking moments before, I saw my host mother standing by the table. She stuck her arm out, pointed to the window, and, with a look of horror and a tone of disgust, said:
I haven’t experienced a “real” winter in four years. In college, the sun was quite literally always shining and temperatures rarely dipped into the 40s. My only brushes with the cold came during winter break; each year I would board my plane home to DC and, without fail, arrive just days before a snowpacolypse would hit. At that time, going from 70s and sunny to teens and a foot of snow was almost comical; an amusing escape from SoCal weather. My trips home came without transition, instead coming as immersion that left no time to reflect on the feelings that come with changing seasons and environmental shifts. I haven’t experienced a transition from summer to autumn to winter in four years.
Some of my strongest memories are associated with fall—cooking applesauce from scratch with my mom, picking pumpkins and apples, and decorating the front yard for Halloween with fake gravestones and putting dry ice in a plastic cauldron with my dad. I associate autumn and the transition to winter with particularly strong memories. I’ve only just recently come to the conclusion that Fall is perhaps my favorite season. In college, the weather did not trigger any of these feelings. I remember talking to my parents about their fall plans back at home, but Southern California continued to feel the same; perhaps there was a little bit less dry heat than usual, but nothing resembled autumn in DC. I rarely got homesick in those 4 years.
In Fall 2011, I spent the semester abroad at Peking University in Beijing, China. China was perhaps the most homesick I have ever felt. While I missed my family a lot, the more intense feeling was that of sensational confusion; I felt the temperatures dropping and I saw the leaves changing color, but none of the other things that I associated with fall were present. In a disjointed state, I found myself craving all of the trappings of autumn to fit with the environment. Sweater weather is powerful.
Korea is giving me those feelings of confusion and wanting again. As it gets colder, I find myself craving apple cider, hot chocolate, and, somewhat embarrassingly, pumpkin spice lattes. I want fall traditions. However, unlike China, where I was living in a dorm and could only reminisce, in Korea my homestay is helping me form new associations with autumn. Now, I think of coming home from my school and eating roasted chestnuts fresh from the oven, of hiking the foothills near our apartment, and smelling sweet potatoes as I wake up on Sunday mornings. They aren’t replacing all of the things that I associate and crave when fall comes around, but these experiences do give new meaning to the season.
It was surreal looking out the window and seeing the trees covered in white. All day at school, snow continued to fall. In between classes, students reached out the windows to catch the snowflakes. After dinner tonight, my host brother, mother, and I took out the trash and ended up having a snowball fight, bringing back more memories. Even now, snow is still falling. As the transition from fall to winter continues, I know that I will leave with redefined associations for each season and that come next fall, wherever I am, I will be craving these memories from Korea too.