Tag Archives: shit my students say

Top 5 Confusing Korean Compliments

27 Aug

I was going to update you on my summer, but I actually don’t know where to start. I’ve left it a little bit too long and I have so much I want to say that I think that, actually, I’m not going to say anything at all. I’ll leave the summer for now, and come back to that once my friends upload their photos (I am a terrible photographer – I mostly just forget to take photos, or am too lazy or embarrassed to get my camera out. Especially when everyone else is snapping away!)

It’s the first week of the new semester and I’m sadly not filled with the renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm that I had secretly been hoping for. Instead, I just feel a little bit homesick and a little bit tired. I’ve been in Korea six months as of August (man, that’s flown by!) and I really miss my friends and family. I also miss being able to make decisions about my future, long-term. Living in another country temporarily means I am always thinking about things that I want to do, or make, or own when I get back because there’s no way of doing those things now. Does that make sense? I miss making plans, and starting on projects, and a feeling of stability.

I’m sure these feelings will pass, though, once I get really stuck in to the new semester. I still have plenty of things I want to do and experience here in Korea, and a load of wonderful friends to spend my time with. It really makes a huge difference to know so many people who are incredibly easy to be around. It also makes a huge difference that it’s now raining! If anything could make me feel happily at home again it’s rain. Ah, England. I miss your grey skies, wet days, and cool winds now that I’ve endured endless weeks of heat and humidity. A typhoon is due to hit Korea (only glancing Busan, I’m told by my students, who are mostly upset that this means school won’t be cancelled) this week, so that should bring a little change. Hopefully it won’t do too much damage as it passes over.

My students seem to feel much the same as I about the new semester. They’re unhappy about the shorter summer vacation (shortened from last year to make up for the loss of Saturday classes) and seem tired, but they also seem to be seeing me with a renewed fascination leading to a barrage of observations that resembles their curiosity from the very start of the year.

Let me give you my top 5 confusing “compliments” from my Korean students (I say “compliments” because I’m not sure if some of these aren’t just descriptions!):

5) “Teacher! Small face!”

My small face. Photo by Maddie Lamb

This is something most Westerners hear from their students and hairdressers, and something that confuses us all no end. What does it mean? Well, students often couple it with a raised fist, or a circle made from hands that they squeeze down around their own faces. Does that help? They think the typical Korean face is quite round with small features and they strive to make their faces look smaller as a result. With my middle school kids this mostly means big blunt fringes. Personally I can’t really see what they’re talking about most of the time, but I am repeatedly told that my face is small and that this is a good thing.

4) “Teacher, so tall. Good ratio.”

Ratio is another thing that confuses Westerners. My kids like to pinch my head from a distance and try to work out how many heads they can fit into my body length. Apparently being tall with a relatively small head (giving you a high ratio of head to body height) is a good thing, and something that Koreans strive to achieve through the use of high heels for women and lifts (a sort of wedge inside the shoe that acts like a high heel – usually seen in high top trainers and boots) for both women and men. It’s basically like worrying that you’re too short, but with added maths. You can read some things about ratios and other aspects of the Korean beauty ideal here: http://www.teamliquid.net/blogs/viewblog.php?topic_id=321767

3) “Turn and let me take a picture of your nose.”

My students like my nose. There’s a lot of plastic surgery in Korea, and getting a bridge built up on your nose (so it resembles my Western nose rather than the generally low-bridge of the typical Korean nose) is a popular surgery here. I guess that’s not surprising – I think nose jobs are pretty popular back home too!

I was once sitting in my classroom at lunch time chatting to some of my students when a girl tried to get me to turn sideways, holding her camera phone up at my face. I didn’t understand, so in exasperation she asked her friend to distract me. The second girl ran in front of me and started jumping about going “Teacher! Teacher!” to get me to turn my head, and when I did the first girl took a photo of my nose in profile. “Very good nose, teacher. I will buy,” she told me, very seriously, afterwards.

2) “Your hair, teacher. Original?”

Korean middle schoolers have to obey strict school rules about their appearance. The one that seems to upset the girls the most is the hair rule, which states their hair must be less than 10cm below the ear and straight. Some girls cut their hair shorter with special dispensation (presumably their parents have to argue their case) but most sport a shoulder length bob, with or without a fringe. Their hair is uniformly dark brown or black, and they cannot dye it. I have naturally wavy hair which I dye unnatural colours, and let grow as long as I can. My students are very jealous, and every alteration or new hairstyle is scrutinised in great detail. They were convinced I must have a perm for a very long time. They even seem enchanted by the frizz I’ve been sporting in this heat – apparently it makes me look like Hermione.

1) “You look like…”

I hear the name “Emma Watson” at least three times a day.

What do these women have in common? Anne Hathaway, Keira Knightly, Emma Watson, Kristen Stewart, a young Catherine Denevue? They’re young, they’re white, they’re skinny, and they look like me, according to my students and fellow teachers. Emma Watson is the one I get the most, although I’ve been told that from drunk Brits at times (I blame it on the frizzy Hermione hair). Sometimes a particular hairstyle will lead to an accusation of “Bella Swan, teacher!”. When a Korean teacher told me I looked like a young Catherine Denevue, however, my Korean friend considered this and then said “I think all Westerners look the same to some Koreans.” Hopes dashed.


Teaching and Learning

16 May

I’m aware of how cheesy and cliché it sounds, but teaching and learning are two things I do pretty much every day here, with varying degrees of success.

When it comes to teaching, this week I’ve been struggling to learn how to discipline my classes. I’m not a very stern person naturally, and it’s hard to discipline children when you can’t actually say much that they can understand. One punishment that we do dole out a lot in my classes is to make students stand at the back facing the wall, and all my students know what a silent and angry pointed finger means!

In the last class of today, which was a particularly rowdy one, I turned around and caught one of my students firing a spit-ball at my co-teacher’s back. This infuriated me! I know this class is unruly because my co-teacher is unpopular and the students have no respect for him, but not speaking Korean, I am only as strong as my co-teacher. I immediately ordered this girl to the back of the room, but she apologised and begged me to change my mind. She’s a pretty good student, who I also have for after school class and who always works hard, so I nearly gave in and allowed her to stay put. At the last minute I decided to hold firm – I can forgive many things, but spitting paper at a teacher is not one of them. I didn’t tell my co-teacher why I’d sent her there – one punishment ought to be enough. I felt terrible about it when I saw her face though! I suppose I’m torn between wanting to be liked, and wanting to be respected.

One of my adorable letters!


Obviously some students like me, as I received a pair of letters for Teacher’s Day! Teacher’s Day is when Koreans honour and celebrate their teachers, often by visiting former teachers and giving flowers and other gifts. My school had a ceremony in the morning where the students sang to us (enthusiastically but not very well!) and gave us carnations. Some of the classes had decorated their classrooms with balloons and in one case a red carpet leading me up to the lectern. The students seem to enjoy Teacher’s Day more than the teacher’s do, I think!


Back to the learning… I’ve realised that a certain amount of homesickness has started to set in. I’m lonely. Not to a crazy extent – I have made plenty of wonderful friends here who I see all the time. I can share things with them and relax around them in much the same way as I can with my friends at home. The difference is hard to explain. Essentially it’s tactile. My group of friends and my family at home are all pretty tactile people – we hug and hold hands and link arms and curl up on the sofa. It takes a long time to get to that point with new people for me; I’m generally not that cuddly a person! I realised that I’d been skipping a few stages by just drinking a little too much which allows those barriers to come down. Problem is, I don’t actually feel any better for it in the long run, so I’m going to have to try and push through it sober, I think!


I’ve always been surrounded by pets, too, so being literally alone in my flat all the time is having an effect. I’ve always thought I could live alone, and I think that’s true, but I can’t live alone and pet-less! I have no idea if I’ll go straight home at the end of my contract or if I’ll be tempted to resign, but I’m worried that I wouldn’t be able to live here, by myself, for more than a year without getting seriously depressed. After all, I only survived the last three years or so in London thanks to these little guys:

My guinea pigs, Arthur and Merlin. Merlin is still with us, and currently wrapping my Mum around his paw.

Teaching English in South Korea.

22 Mar

I’ve been in my new job as an English teacher in South Korea for a couple of weeks now, so it seemed about time to let you know what that’s actually like.

A bit of background for the uninitiated – I don’t really have much in the way of teaching experience. I wasn’t a teacher in the UK. I taught at voluntary clubs and volunteered at schools at home over the years, but I’ve never had teaching be my day job. I taught some classes on my TEFL course, but that was only for a month. That’s the sum total of my teaching experience.

In South Korea, I teach English as a foreign language at a public school. It’s an all girls middle school, actually, and I teach grades 2 and 3. That’s between ages 13-15, roughly, although Korean ages are counted differently, so I’m never that sure! I see each class (and there are 8 or 9 in each grade) once a week. I have a text book to follow and I teach the speaking and listening pages from that textbook. Once chapter in the book = two lessons (of 45minutes each). I split up the listening over the two lessons, and combine it with some speaking exercises designed to get the kids practising the key expressions that are highlighted in the book. Other than the listening exercises and those key expressions I try to get away from the text book as much as I can, and come up with tasks for practising the language that are natural, and fun.

That’s the hardest part. Sometimes a natural way to use language isn’t also a fun way to use that language. Some lessons the tasks work really well – they’re entertaining, the kids are motivated and understand what to do, and they use the key expressions in a way that native English speakers would use those phrases. Sometimes the tasks are boring as hell, and try as I might I can’t come up with anything fun. The kids hate the tasks, they sleep through my lesson, and they hate me for it. Well, you can’t always win at life, I suppose!

The students themselves are interesting, and a far cry from what I’ve known in the UK. On the whole, my students are one of two polar opposites. Type one is painfully quiet. When I try and talk to them, they stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed. If I ask them to speak to me, a look of panic creeps in and they freeze. My guinea pig does this when he meets strangers. Maybe I should try offering them carrots? Mostly I settle for coaxing the occasional word or phrase out of them, and then encouraging them to talk to other students (who are usually less fear-inducing that I am). Some of these students actually speak quite good English when they see me in the hallways!

Type two is noisy. They yell answers at me at the top of their voices. They groan loudly when I tell them to open their text books. They chatter to their friends constantly. They’ll happily talk to me in English, and talk to their friends in English. And Korean. A lot. Some of these are good students who blast through my tasks in ten seconds flat then spend the rest of the time disrupting their classmates unless I entertain them by answering a bazillion personal questions, and sometimes they have poor English and so don’t understand what I want them to do, and instead entertain themselves by… disrupting their classmates.

Of these two types, I prefer type two. Give me noisy, but with some English spoken over silent as the grave any day. Of course there are always the occasional kids who go to sleep during classes. This might sound odd to Brits reading this blog, but Korean kids are seriously over-worked. These girls are in school from 8.30am to 4.30pm studying. Then they go to private academies and study some more. These academies are only allowed to stay open until 10pm, but many parents disagree with this curfew, and many students study much later than this. Then they go home and study. Then they start all over again the next morning. Knowing this, it’s hard to be completely upset when kids nod off in my classes. I try to keep them awake, but it can be pretty difficult! As I only get two or three sleepyheads in a week, I won’t sweat it too much yet.

Back to my schedule – I also teach two after school classes (one of which I see twice, so three after school lessons a week altogether) which I get to make up myself. I try to include songs, videos and games. Even though it’s a conversation class, I want to keep these students motivated and awake at the end of a long day, and fun stuff like this is a great way to make our learning feel less like a lesson.

Okay, well this is starting to get long again, so I’ll sign off there. Once again, if you have any questions then let me know in the comments. The colleagues-and-admin side of my job is a whole other deal, so I’ll get in to that in a future post!

I’ll leave you with a couple of my student interactions of this week… Most of these I threw up on Facebook as and when I was hit with them. They make me insanely happy.

Me: *walks into classroom*

Students : Ohhhhhhhhhh!!!!! *spontaneous applause*

Me: Err….

Students: You’re wearing a skirt! So beautiful! *keep applauding*

Student: Teacher, you like Sherlock Holmes?

Me: Yeah, I like Sherlock.

Student: Benedict Cumberbatch so handsome. Martin Freeman looks like Pooh Bear.

Me: Tell me something special about you.

Student: I fancy British guys.

Student: Teacher! Teacher! Do you know K-pop?

Me: Yeah, I know some. I like Beast.

Student: Beast?!

Me: *waits for student to be impressed that I know a cool band*

Student: Beast SKANKY! Big Bang most important K-pop band of our times!

Me: *stunned face*

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