8 Ways To Start Well At Your New School (Part One)

Spring is in full swing in Korea. The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, and the sidewalks are lined with children eating cold, refreshing ice cream instead of hot cakes. With the new season in place, there’s the anticipation that summer vacations are right around the corner, and just a bit further behind that corner is fall!

The Bow

I know I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as planning too early. Most EPIK applicants are gearing up for the big move that is just a short 4 months away. That time will fly by much faster than any will realize. After you’ve typed out and printed your packing list, be sure to print out these helpful tips to keep with the rest of your South Korea documents and lists. You’ll be thanking me once you’ve effortlessly survived your first day on the job.

1. Try to learn customs like bowing and gift giving before you get to Korea

Learning day to day customs should be your top priority when you’re doing your research. Your co-teacher will be the one to fetch you from your orientation to help you get situated in your new home. She will know what you look like, but you won’t know what she looks like. Waiting to be picked up and taken to your new home feels much like your first day of kindergarten when it’s pick up time. That is, if you had no idea what your mom or dad looked like. (I know it’s a silly scenario. Humor me, will you?).

You wait patiently with your new friends, watching countless cars come and go. Happy children are starting to leave one by one to leave, and you’re still waiting. You begin to panic.Oh no, they forgot all about me. I’m going to stay here forever. This is my new home now. Suddenly, a nice lady starts walking your way. She smiles and says she’s your co-teacher. Yay! You’re not forgotten, but how should you greet her? Bow? Shake hands? Hug her? The correct answer is wait to see what she does. My co-teacher shook my hand on day one, but after that we were on a bowing basis. So, it’s best to see what your co-teacher does. If it appears like she’s waiting to see what you do, I’d advise you to bow.

2. Never call a teacher Mr. or Ms. You should say their family name and add “teacher” at the end

Once again, my misfortune is your gain. Learn from my pain, friends. I got reprimanded the first day of school for calling a co-worker a bad name. What word did I so boldly bestow upon my new co-worker? “Mr.”  Yup, I accidentally called a teacher Mr. Park. The gasps that echoed throughout the room when I dropped the offense were deafening. My cheeks turned a deep red and I stuttered trying to correct my mistake. The problem was I didn’t know what mistake I had made. Maybe his name was Mr. Lee? Mr. Kim? I’d never wanted to shrink into an office chair more than that day. My co-teacher, who was in charge of teaching the silly foreigner, said under her breath, “Maybe from now on you call him Park Teacher.” In Korea, calling a Mr. or Ms. isn’t polite. It’s technically a demotion. Always call a co-worker with the honorific “teacher”, and if you really want to impress them, you can call them “teacher” in Korean. Seonsaeng-nim. 

3. Greetings are very important in Korea. Learn the proper ways to say hello and good bye

In the west, you only have one chance to make a first impression. In Korea, however, you have to make a good impression every time you greet a co-worker. When should you greet a co-worker? Every single time you see them. When you sit at a lunch table to have your rice and kimchi, you should bow to the table and greet everyone sitting with “anyeonghaseyo.” If you happen to leave a lunch table while others are still eating, you should bow and wish them to enjoy their meal with “masitkke deuseyo” (enjoy your meal). Every time a co-worker enters your office, they will greet the room. Everyone greets back. Greetings are extremely important in Korea. Get used to bowing and smiling.

4. Be flexible. Go with the flow

If you only remember a single tip from this list, please remember this one. Korea has a very relaxed attitude. From classes to meetings, nothing is set in stone in the land of morning calm. You might show up the first day and be expected to teach right away. You might show up the first day and be taken to lunch and shopping. You might show up the first day and meet the principal after a long day of moving into your new apartment. Guess what your answer should be when any of these schedules are presented to you? A smile and a cheerful,  “sounds great!” You’ll need to be able to go with the flow while teaching in Korea. Some days you’ll go into to work to discover classes are cancelled so that the kids can play outside. Other days you’ll have to teach a extra few classes because your co-teacher has meetings all day with parents. Once you learn to be flexible and go with the flow, your time in Korea will be much easier and happier.

One of the best tips I can give will always be show a smile to everyone you meet. An optimistic attitude and friendly smile can effortlessly leap over any barrier with Korean language or Korean culture. If you’re a current EPIK teacher in Korea, feel free to share your tips in a comment below. And for even more awesome Korean office tips, check out my detailed article on ChasingGlitter, Surviving The Korean Office: The Top 5 Dont’s.

Good luck!

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