Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Having a good relationship with your Korean co-teachers

blue dot
Jun 02 2013

I shouldn’t read the threads on waygook.org, because they make me crazy. But sometimes the title of a thread will intrigue me, like “Korea’s blending of Developed and Developing values in ways that don’t mix…”, and I will dip into it, only to quickly find myself in the strange cesspool of bitterness that seems to characterize the internet postings of many foreign teachers in Korea. (That message thread, by the way, was mostly about Koreans not sticking to a single side when walking. This seems to be a theme with such postings; elaborate theories drawing on whatever the poster studied as an undergraduate, all to justify trivial irritations. A lot of pop-psych and amateur sociology. Another recent thread purported to be about cognitive dissonance in Korea, but was actually about a teacher who was unable to prevent his students from ddong chim-ing him.*)*A Korean school tradition where one attempts to poke someone else in the anus with clasped, pointed index fingers. Not pleasant, and admittedly hard to handle with aplomb.

And then at other times I am innocently panning for gold in the lesson materials threads, and come across a burst of bitterness like this one:

I downloaded the game [and] I went to play the game with my students during the last 20 minutes of the class – only to discover that the Korean teacher had already downloaded the EXACT same game from the Indi School (Korean teachers website ) and had played it with the students the previous week.

I was very surprised that the game which was made by a foreigner and was on this website, but the korean teachers were downloading it from their website and playing it with the students and I had to make up another activity with my students due to the fact that they had already played this game with the Korean teacher the week before.

Guys, i just want to say, please if you are using games made by users on here, please don’t give them to your Korean co-teachers, because your Korean co-teachers are uploading them to “their” websites and many, many Korean teachers are downloading them and using them in “their” classes, so the same thing might just happen to you – you may walk into class to play a game – to find out the kids just played the exact same game a day or two before with their Korean teacher.

Co-teaching causes a lot of problems for teachers here. And if you don’t watch yourself, you can end up like the writer above; your attitude becomes one of war, instead of co-operation.

Having a good relationship with your co-teachers is essential to enjoying your time in Korea. Yes, your co-teacher can make your life extraordinarily miserable very easily. They have a lot of power over you. And you know what? You can make their life miserable very easily, too. And you can read a lot on waygook and other message boards from people who have come to that point. When your relationship with your co-teacher becomes one of mutual, silent war, you’re in a lot of trouble.

Using the broadest definition of a co-teacher, I’ve had 23 of them. Some of them I was close to; some were just homeroom teachers I taught a few classes with. I’ve had co-teachers who were amazing teachers, and dreadful teachers. I’ve had ones whose English was near-native level, and ones who could barely speak a sentence. I’ve had some who were friends, many who were dutiful, and one who was mean-spirited and did their best to mess me up. But I’ve never quite got to the point where I was in open war with a co-teacher.

In Korea, as with anywhere, there is always the possibility of running into a monstrous co-worker. But I have my doubts about many of the stories you hear from embittered teachers on Waygook. A lot of the time I think, “The problem is you.”

This is meant to be, I suppose, a guide to understanding, and might hopefully help people avoid being reduced to writing on waygook about how their co-teachers have ruined their lives, and how they hate Korea and can’t wait to go home.

What are co-teachers?

The term is confusing, because it is applied to two people with two different roles with whom you will work. There is your “official” co-teacher, whose duty is to manage you and help guide you on your linguistically inept path through Korean life; and then there are teachers who actually teach in the classroom with you.

“Official” co-teachers

Here’s the first and most important thing to know about your “official” co-teacher:

It’s a shitty job, and nobody wants to do it.

You might think that it would go to the most appropriate teacher: the one with the best English, the one with the most interest in meeting someone from another culture. But it doesn’t, because it’s a shitty job. So it generally goes to the youngest teacher, or whoever has even less power than that – possibly a contract English teacher, if one exists at your school.

Why is it a shitty job? Well – how much do you personally enjoy things like dealing with government bureaucracies, filling in forms, and arranging to rent apartments? Now imagine that you are doing all that, but for someone else. Why? Because this person, unlike you, never had to learn a second language, and can’t speak the language of the country in which they are employed.

Oh, and if this person screws up somehow, you will be held responsible; not them. And, by the way, this work is on top of your teaching work. And all the other extra work you have to do because you are the youngest/least powerful teacher. Also, this person you have to help gets free rent and free international airfare, and you don’t.

And the kicker? If you’re in your first couple of years of teaching, this person, who never had to pass the Korean university entrance exam or even get a teaching degree, gets paid more than you do. (Korean teachers’ salaries come with lots of benefits over time, but start off very low).

Now, this may not make you resentful or bitter, although I am sure it would bug the hell out of me. But if it so happens that this person is ungrateful, and constantly wants you to do more for them, and seems put out all the time for reasons you don’t understand – well, you might start to feel a little resentful. If they believe themselves to be some kind of god of teaching, and want to tell you how classes are conducted in their own, more civilized country, you might not want to do any more for them than you absolutely have to. You might even start to subtly shaft them, when you get the chance.

I have had four “official” co-teachers. The first was a kind, hard-working woman who, on my first day at the school, took me grocery shopping, bought me dinner, and showed me my apartment. Then she sat on the floor and told me that the previous teacher had been a bad teacher, and that she had endured many reprimands from the principal about him. She said that I had never taught before, and so I needed to work hard and not be like him.

I had some frustrating moments with her, because I didn’t understand aspects of Korean culture – and yeah, I snapped at her for telling me things at the last minute, which probably everybody does at some point. But I never had a problem with her. She was a good person, and approached being a co-teacher with remarkable generosity and kindness.

My second official co-teacher was a contract teacher with a child. At the end of the day she wanted to go home to her daughter, and expected, not unreasonably, for me to do things myself which I was capable of doing but found annoying, like navigating Korean computer systems. It took a long time for me to warm to her, but when there were some important things I really needed help with, she was absolutely there for me. Over time I got to know her well, had dinner at her house, met her daughter. I still have admiration for her and stay in touch.

My third official co-teacher was hopeless. After asking her various things, and being told either “I don’t know”, or completely wrong information, I stopped asking her questions. (An example – when I first came to the school, I asked her what time my bus left in the morning, and she told me a time which was off by about twenty minutes – and there aren’t many buses. It turned out that the time she told me had come from her subtracting her mental estimate of how long the bus trip took from her memories of the approximate time the previous teacher had arrived at school, with predictably inaccurate consequences.)

It would have been very easy to have had a poisonous relationship with this teacher. But the thing was, she wasn’t a bad person. She was just incompetent at life; incapable of managing her own, let alone anyone else’s. She lived in a room on the school grounds, and could barely manage to come to work each morning and teach her classes; anything else was beyond her. And she knew it. She knew she was horrible at her co-teaching duties, but she was the youngest teacher in the school, and she had been given them to do, despite being completely ill-suited to it.

So I smiled, and thanked her profusely for her terrible efforts whenever she made them. And asked other teachers when I really needed something. And she was grateful to me for that, and when I really needed her to do something, I could get her to do it – because she knew I was making her life as easy as possible. (For instance, I could ask her for her login details for the Indischool website, so I could download all the materials made by the Korean teachers off of “their” website and use them in my class. The bomb games are better on waygook, but the worksheets are way better on Indischool…)

Your official co-teacher should ensure you have a livable place to stay, assist you with essential matters of translation, such as filling in forms and where necessary, act as a liaison between you and the rest of the school’s machinery – although if it is linguistically possible, I think you’re generally better going to the appropriate person in the school yourself. The financial officers are in a better position to help you with pay problems than your co-teacher.

As for your relationship with your official co-teacher – make their lives as easy as possible, and thank them a lot. Remember: it’s a shitty job that nobody wants to do.

Classroom co-teachers – or, don’t hoard your powerpoints

Being  a Korean co-teacher can be another shitty job, but for different reasons. You are not exciting to the students, but the foreign teacher probably is. No matter how good you are at English, the native teacher will be better. You almost certainly see the class more often than they do, and are likely to feel that it is “your” class, so it is easy to get jealous or resentful when this other person comes in, and gets to do all the fun activities and games while you’re stuck teaching grammar and spelling.

Also, more so than your official co-teacher, you can mess up your Korean classroom co-teacher very easily. Correct their English in front of the students. Ask them questions they can’t understand in front of the class. You hear a lot about the Eastern concept of “face”, and it’s a concept I still struggle to understand, but what I’ve worked out is this: anything that is socially embarrassing in Western societies is equally or more socially embarrassing in Korea. And having someone point out your inadequacies in front of a group of people is embarrassing everywhere.

Having said that, it is possible to work well with, and have a good relationship with, your Korean co-teachers. I have doubts as to whether it is really a good use of resources to have two teachers teaching the same class together – but it can lighten both your workloads, and make life easier for both of you.

Other people’s thoughts

If you ever have a few hours you want to kill, you could try reading the extraordinary blog I hate teaching in Korea, or the author’s other blog, Teaching English sucks in Korea. Yes, this person was so embittered that they made not one but two blogs detailing their perceived hurts and bad treatment as an English teacher. They also took the ill-advised step of recording their co-teachers as an example of bad co-teaching.

What do you think? All I see is dreadful teaching from the foreign teacher. Not everyone is meant to be a teacher, but this is someone with no idea how to teach a language class. I could write pages on the things this guy does wrong, but I’ll just say one:

Never say, “OK, what I wancha to do is, I wancha t’ practice the dialogue. Practice the dialogue with the person sitting next to you. Practice. Practice in ENGLISH. In English.”

Say, “Practice the dialogue with your partner.” And indicate that with hand gestures. It will go a lot better…

As for this person’s co-teacher, I don’t know. It seems like extraordinary stoicism while watching a car-wreck, to me. How do you help someone giving a lesson that bad, short of clubbing them over the head with something and teaching over their comatose body?

This list of suggested duties for co-teachers is more positive, but I’m not that comfortable with it, either.  It seems like an inverted list of personal irritations. More than that, I think it is too specific. The best co-teacher I have at the moment routinely breaks rules 1,3, 4 and 8. She frequently comes late to class, always sits down, and uses her phone during class, none of which I have a problem with, because:

  • Standing up for no reason is painful, and as far as I can see, pointless.
  • She uses her cell phone when there is nothing for her to do.
  • She trusts that my prepared materials are fine, and that I can teach them.
  • She knows that my opening routine is just sitting down, greetings, brief English language conversation, and directing them to the appropriate place in the textbook, which I’m not likely to need help with.

She’s a great co-teacher, to my mind, because she doesn’t inject herself into the class unnecessarily, doesn’t start translating until it’s clear that I’m not getting my message across, tries to keep the students polite, and helps herd the students during games and activities. In pair and group work, she gives individual attention to weak students. If a teacher does all that, I don’t give a damn if they use their phone while the students are doing drills.

A lot of possible roles

The respective teaching roles you may have with a co-teacher range from you doing absolutely everything, and your co-teacher not coming to class, to you being reduced to nothing but a human tape-recorder. Depending on circumstances, I’m OK with any of these possibilities, except being completely marginalized in class. (The one time a co-teacher tried to do that to me, I just stepped up and started teaching. I’ll tell that story later.)

The problem with making “rules for co-teachers” is that there is a huge variety of possible circumstances which might apply. At my last school, I worked with dedicated English teachers; I taught two classes a week with each of them, and we did each class five or six times. It was appropriate for us to plan them together, divide the teaching responsibilities, and have written lesson plans. At my current school, co-teachers are just home room teachers who come with their class to the English room for a one-off lesson, and I’m happy to do 95-100 percent of the teaching, while they do whatever is appropriate, given their abilities and classes.

I’ve already told you about the 3rd grade teacher. Here are some other co-teachers at my current school:

  • The 1st grade teacher comes to every class. He is an active participant, explaining things in Korean, and teaching the slower students separately while I do activities with the quicker ones. He also helps maintain control, which I appreciate; 1st graders are wild.
  • The 5th grade teacher occasionally turns up and watches the class for ten minutes before leaving again. She is my official co-teacher, and has the best English in the school. Why does she do that? Because those classes run smoothly, the class is very small, and honestly, there is nothing for her to do. I don’t know why she feels the need to come at all, except that the 부장님 who drives me to school has been trying to encourage the homeroom teachers to come.
  • The 4th grade teacher comes to every lesson with his copy of the teachers’ guide, which he proceeds to flick through wildly as soon as I start teaching, as I am usually off-script for about 80 percent of it. He tries to stop the evil 4th grade girls from tormenting each other. His English is especially weak. I think he’s the only teacher that talks with me exclusively in Korean. He is doing the best he can.
  • The 2nd grade teacher comes to my class with a novel, from which he will look up occasionally to tell the students to be quiet, and otherwise takes no part.

Ohmygod! Co-teacher from hell! Neglectful of his duties! Does nothing to help! Off to complain on Waygook…

But wait – he’s actually one of my closest friends at the school. And his view is simple, and one I actually agree with. “I think you are a specialist English teacher, and good at your job.” Before each class, he tells the students to respect me, and listen to the lesson, and his presence does help to make sure that happens. Also, he’s the other 부장님 at the school, and frequently in conflict with the 부장님 who drives me to work. He doesn’t see any real reason why he or anyone else needs to come, and is, I suspect, annoyed by the부장님 who drives me to school’s attempt to get teachers to turn up to my classes, and so is happy to leave me to teach my class alone while he does the absolute minimum he can get away with.

And this is, I think, an important point: You shouldn’t need a Korean there to make your classes successful. If you do, you’re not doing your job properly.

There are so many teachers here with these ideas about what a Korean co-teacher should do, and generally they come down to, “You should do the things I don’t know how to do, because I’m crappy at my job.” Maintain discipline. Teach grammar. Stop the students from stealing my things and throwing them out the window.

I’m not trying to be arrogant, here, but I can teach English to a class of first graders who have never learned a word of it before and have no comprehension of why they are supposed to be learning it. You have to be able to do that, or honestly, you just suck at your job. *Although I should also add that teaching English alone to a large class of 1st graders is something I find extraordinarily painful and will do anything to avoid. If you can survive it and they learn any English at all, I think you’ve done it alright.

Another common complaint is a senior teacher who dumps all their teaching duties on you, doesn’t come to class, and just tells you that they are “very busy”. This seems to be more common in middle and high schools; the closest I’ve had is a 부장님 at my old school who managed to get her workload divided between the teachers’ room and the English teachers’ room, thus enabling her to attempt to convince both offices that she was always hard at work in the other one, which was a move I had to grudgingly admire. While she came to class and did actually teach, she was “too busy” for lesson planning.

How did I handle it? I just did the lesson planning, because

  • It was only two lessons a week, and not hard for me to plan them
  • I was better at lesson planning than she was
  • She was a friendly person, and
  • She was a 부장님, and could do things like let me go home early, and not tell me not to worry about doing other pointless things.

So I don’t have a lot of advice on how to handle that situation. It is a different culture, and age has its privileges here. Sometimes it is important to stand up for yourself; more often, I think, it is better to let things slide, because there are probably other, larger battles you will have to fight. My feeling is that if it is really, really important to you that they participate in class, and you’re delicate about it, you can probably get them to do that. As is often the case, the question is, is this where you want to spend your accumulated goodwill? For me, that always goes to avoiding painful, pointless, non-teaching related responsibilities (viz. deskwarming, lesson plans that nobody will ever read, etc.) I don’t mind teaching.

An ideal co-teaching relationship

When the best co-teacher I ever had came to our school, I asked her for her thoughts on co-teaching. She said, “What are your thoughts?”

I said, “When you are teaching the class, you are the main teacher, and I am the assistant teacher. You are in charge, and I will help you. And when I am teaching the class, I’m the main teacher and you’re the assistant teacher. And you help me. And if one of us makes a mistake, then the other will support them even if they have made a mistake, and we’ll talk about it after class. Is that OK?”

She said, “Of course.” And we did that without a problem for six months. I still think it is the simplest recipe for a supportive co-teacher relationship.

She was really bright and could tell a bad idea from a good one instantly. She always wanted to make the lessons more communicative, less teacher-centric, which was what I wanted to do as well. One time I wanted to redo the way we taught the first lesson of the textbook, which had a lot of listening and drill-and-repeat in it. I made a lesson plan, she looked at it, and said, “This is much better,” and we did it that way from then on.

Over time our lessons together became incredibly smooth. She knew when to translate what I said, and when not to. She was so good at this, in fact, that I measured my skill by how often she translated for me. Sometimes I would give instructions for an activity six times in six different classes, and she would need to translate twice. And she was always right – those were the times when I hadn’t managed to phrase my instructions well.

Our teaching was relentless; there was never a pause. As soon as one of us stopped, the other started teaching, and the first was then free to move about the classroom, monitoring, helping, redirecting attention.

Our students’ English improved amazingly in the time I taught with her. It is the only time when I haven’t felt that co-teaching was a waste of resources; where two people teaching together was better than the sum of the parts. It was a pleasure to teach with her, and you know what? I’m still not sure it was worth it. Her lessons without me were, I’m sure, great as well; and I would have done OK on my own, too.

If you get a co-teacher like that, you’re lucky.

The worst co-teacher I’ve had

In all my co-teachers, I’ve only had one who was horrible to work with. She didn’t want me in her class and did her best to trip me up. The previous foreign teacher at the school had apparently been happy with their lot, and just used to teach according to the lesson plan this teacher provided; I ignored this by immediately assuming we would be sharing the lesson planning.

One time, I made a lesson plan where the students practiced a dialogue, which she thought they should only have listened to; so she assigned me to teach the identical dialogue to the same kids the next day, which would have been death. I told the kids to do the dialogue again, but this time, change it, make it their own. After that, whenever they did a dialogue, they would ask, “Teacher, change OK?”

She would make lesson plans where I taught for only three minutes of the class. So I would make lesson plans where she taught for only three minutes of the class. I would give instructions, and she would give different instructions in Korean. Her English was poor, and her classes were exquisitely boring.

It was the closest I have ever come to being at war with a co-teacher. I didn’t like her, she didn’t like me, and I think she was unprofessional in the way she treated me; but it never become open war. It was always hidden beneath civility.

It is a classic co-teaching horror story, but you know what? She had a point. I was a disruption in her class. Her classes were boring, her English was barely above the textbook level – but she was a very good teacher. She was about five feet tall and very pregnant. Her personality was acidic, but superficially, she was a shy little angel. And she had an amazing skill for classroom management. She would literally teach in a whisper, and teach in the most boring, teacher-centric way possible, but somehow, she would manage to get the students to be quiet just so they could hear her. My strongest memory of her is of her asking for volunteers by saying in a whisper, “Who has big eyes?” while 30-something fifth graders leaned forward in their seats, silently, trying to open their eyes as wide as possible. She had every class trained so that every student would stand up and say the assigned dialogue, while the others listened in silence.  And every student in her classes learned the textbook. They never learned anything else, but they sure learned the textbook well.

Me, well – I don’t mind a noisy class if they’re talking English. I came in, whipped them up, got them shouting out answers to open ended questions, talked to them in English, made noisy games and activities. I really was a disruption to her class.

About three months into teaching with her, she took leave to have her baby. I was then teaching with the homeroom teachers, most of whom were clueless, and turned all the classes into creative, noisy, free-flowing language lessons in my own style.

She came back for two weeks, before the end of semester and before going to a new school. I remember her standing in front of a class, whispering, “Why are you so noisy?” But it was too late by then. The students had been converted over to me and my style. In her last class, the first time we taught the lesson, she tried to say goodbye to the students, but they weren’t listening to her. By then they thought that her classes were boring, and they didn’t care that she was leaving. And in the subsequent classes, she didn’t bother to try to say goodbye.

I didn’t like her, but I still feel bad about that.

Even nightmare co-teachers are people, and probably have their reasons.

I, too, was once a horror co-teacher

And now for my confession: I, too, was once a horror co-teacher.

My first year in Korea was with the TaLK program. The situation there is a bit different; they are after-school classes, and instead of teaching with a regular teacher, your co-teacher, 3 days a week, is a Korean university student volunteer.

I saw the classes every day, and thought of them as “my” classes. The co-teachers, as often as not, were an unwelcome intrusion. I didn’t particularly want them there, and thought I could do just as well without them. So I gave them very little to do. When they tried to get close to certain students, I resented it, particularly if it was a student I liked, too. Hypocritically, I also resented it when they did nothing, and seemed to not be paying attention to the class.

I was, in short, a crappy co-teacher.

As I said, co-teaching is a somewhat unnatural relationship, and I think it is hard to do well. I think I’m good at it these days, but it took time for me to get there. To do well at it you have to let go of your ego, and support your co-teacher even when they screw up, and respect their humanity. And if they want your powerpoints, particularly if it is just stuff made by someone else that you downloaded off Waygook, give them to them. Probably you will want their help with something one day, too.

Waegukin wrote these 5013 words on June 2nd, 2013 | Posted in Teaching |


8 comments on “Having a good relationship with your Korean co-teachers”

  1. Joe says:

    Hey there,

    Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post. I’ve been teaching here in the ROK for 4 months now, and I would most definitely say that my experience has been dominantly positive. I often reconsider my positive feelings because of all the anger I read on Waygook or hear from disgruntled foreigners. Your post, however, brings light to the whole situation, and I’m glad I took the time to read it (though I should have been lesson planning lol). Thanks again for taking the time to write this!


  2. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Joe, I know exactly what you mean about reconsidering your positive feelings because of the anger on waygook and other places… when a bunch of people tell you you’re being treated badly, it can definitely make you question yourself. but you’re not wrong, of course. I’ve taught at three different schools and the overwhelming majority of Korean teachers have done their best to treat me generously and make me feel welcome. I think some people just have a tendency to feel aggrieved.

  3. Natalie says:

    Excellent, excellent post. So well said!! I’m about to move out to Korea and I’m really glad I read this. Thanks!

  4. Katie Jurek says:

    Great blog post! I really love how you talked about co-teaching from THEIR point of view instead of just the guest English teacher’s. It really makes me more appreciative of what the co-teachers might be thinking as a strange foreign teacher comes in and, as you said, perhaps gets paid more and is more interesting to the students. Thank you for this rarely talked about side. 😀

  5. Naomi says:

    Hey, thanks for an awesome post! I have felt like I wanted to be positive and then get negative partially from just guessing whether they are angry with me about something and not saying it or if I am imagining it. I read your entire post and it inspired me so much to look at them from an entirely different viewpoint and think ‘What can I do to help YOU?’ and leave one day hopefully with them thinking ‘She was such a pleasure to work with!’ I really believe this will even dissolve any possible hidden anger with any of my teachers. (And that which doesn’t, will then be beyond my power to change in any case).

  6. Waegukin says:

    What a great attitude! I don’t know how to say this without seeming a little smug, but one thing I’ve found from living overseas is that I have become a lot wiser about a lot of things. One of the ideas I try to keep in mind is, “You’re not a mindreader”. Particularly when dealing with people from other cultures, it’s very easy due to misreading things to imagine that people are angry at you, or talking about you in Korean, or disapproving or something, when in fact they are not. So when I feel like that I always try to ask myself “Is there another possible explanation for this?” Very often there is one.

    Of course, there is always the possibility that you really are dealing with an angry, miserable person! But in my experience that’s pretty rare. As you say, you can only control yourself – you’re not responsible for what other people do. If you ever get a chance, let me know how it worked out for you.

  7. M. says:

    The longer I am in this country, the more relevant this particular blog post of yours seems to be, particularly since it is on how to successfully work together with co-teachers who seem difficult to get along with. So, thanks for writing this.

  8. R says:

    Have you ever taught middle school?

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