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Conor Austin, BSEd ’19 — First-Year Teacher Reflection

Conor Austin with studentsConor Austin, BSEd ’19, Secondary English, Language Arts, Reading (ELAR)
Jinjam Middle School and Gasuwon Middle School
Daejeon, South Korea

Seventh, Eighth & Ninth Grades

I graduated from Baylor University with a degree in Secondary Education for English, Language Arts, and Reading on May 19, 2019. On August 17, I packed two suitcases and moved to South Korea to teach English as a foreign language. I can hardly believe that it has been a year already. This year has honestly been one of the most taxing but rewarding years of my life.

In Korea, I teach at two public middle schools in a city called Daejeon. I teach at one middle school, Jinjam, the first three days of the week, and at Gasuwon Middle School the last two days of the week. At both schools, I teach all the students (grades 7, 8, 9). My job is to focus on conversational English and trying to get the students to speak English as much as possible.

Conor AustinIf there is anything I have learned from teaching this year, it is to be adaptable. Not only did I have to adapt my teaching style to fit the students, but I also had to adapt to the school culture in Korea. It may not come as a surprise, but Korean schools differ from American schools.

I am very grateful to the Baylor School of Education for preparing me to teach in a variety of circumstances. There is no way to be fully prepared when moving to a different country. However, I think Baylor prepared me with a set of skills that allowed me to succeed in my current environment. For instance, Baylor taught me how to manage a classroom, pacing lessons, and having confidence in my teaching. The multiple experiences I had to teach at Baylor were invaluable. My teaching experience at Baylor allowed me to teach confidently in my classroom this year.

I think this year’s highlight was getting to know my students. There is something so rewarding about watching the students use English. Many of them do not even realize how great their potential is in speaking English. Having conversations with my students is one of my favorite pastimes at school. I hope they continue their English studies even after they graduate from middle school. Additionally, I think the hardest part of this year was learning how to make lessons according to students’ skill levels. Many times, I made lessons too complicated and had to revise. I am continuously working on finding the balance between making lessons challenging yet not too difficult.

With the hit of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have had to become creative in my teaching methods. Korea’s school year begins in March and ends the following January, so for two months, there was no school. Now, students have been coming to school since May. Only two-thirds of the students are allowed to be at school each week. This system means one grade is online, while the other two grade-levels are at school every week. Classes have been shortened to forty minutes with five-minute breaks and students are only at school for half a day from 8:30 am to 12:40 pm. However, there are many rules and restrictions when teaching. For example, wearing masks is mandatory all day, breaks are limited, there is limited movement from class to class, and lastly there’s no group or pair work or sharing of any materials. These regulations make it extremely difficult to find ways to have students practice speaking English. With that said, I have still enjoyed trying to find ways to make class fun and beneficial.

Conor Austin with studentsCOVID aside, I enjoy my life in Korea. I have found an English church and have been able to make many friends (other foreigners and Koreans). Now I have friends from all different countries. My favorite thing to do in Korea is to go to cafés. There are more cafés in Korea than you could ever imagine. Plus, the cafés usually all have themes: animal cafe, pink cafe, Emoji cafe. You name it, and they probably have it in Korea. It is likely that after you eat a meal, that you go with your friends to a café to sit and talk. I love it. I also love walking around in Korea and exploring different neighborhoods. Korea is so rich in history, and I love experiencing it. Many people forget that the Korean war only ended in the early ’50s and that the country has made astronomical strides to be where they are today.

Culture shock was also a huge part of my experience in Korea. I enjoy learning about how Koreans and Americans do things so differently. One interesting face is that I am the youngest teacher by far in both my schools. I think the average age for a young Korean teacher is at least 25 or 26. In Korean culture, age is a paramount factor. If someone is even a year older than you, there are ways you must speak and act to show them respect. In the schools, students must bow and greet me when they see me. At first, this was uncomfortable for me, but I have slowly come to love it. I also love that students call me Conor Teacher. Here you do not call your teachers Mr. or Ms. instead, they are called 선생님 (sonsaengnim), which means teacher. Many of the cultural aspects, are about respect and respecting those who are older than you. In America, we do not acknowledge age as being highly significant. So when I came to a culture that places such value on age, it was challenging to understand but intriguing.

Overall, teaching in Korea has been such a joy for me. I have enjoyed the culture and people I have met along the way. Luckily, I was able to go home to see my family once before COVID hit the world. Now Korea has suspended travel on all long-term visa holders, so I am not sure when I can travel back to the U.S. again. However, I have loved it so much I decided to stay and teach another year. So here’s to round two!