I spent four weeks this summer carrying out pro bono work across the South Korean peninsula. The trip was coordinated by Global English Mission (GEM), an independent firm who helps English Summer camps in South Korea recruit teaching teams from the UK and US every year. I went to South Korea not really having any expectations, I knew that the country had provided the world with ‘chaebols’ (conglomerates) like Samsung and Hyundai and of course, I knew of the quandary to the North (I even knew about the post-war origins of the conflict). However, my knowledge of modern Korea was an unopened book. On Saturday 21st July, I and six other intrigued young adults embarked on an 11 hour flight to Incheon Airport, South Korea.
Once we had landed at Incheon, we parted ways to our respective teaching camps. Four of us travelled to Okcheon via the KTX bullet train and the remaining three to Ilsan. Around four hours and a hundred miles later we were warmly greeted by Pastor Ou and his family with whom we were to stay with, for the next week. We became acquainted with the family over Shabu-Shabu (a Japanese hot pot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water). Following this delicious meal, we were taken to our accommodation and given a run down of the camp. The Okcheon English camp was run by a small church, the Korean name of which translates literally to “Happy Church”. Pastor Ou’s daughter gave a brief intro to the camp and talked us through the timetable. Interestingly, we were told that the children had vastly different levels of ability, and that we would have complete control of the curriculum.
Given the ambiguity in the challenge ahead, the first day was spent conducting interviews with the children (ages 8 – 13). We did this to gain an understanding of their English proficiency. To aid us in these sessions, we each came up with our own set of competency-based questions to gauge ability. There were generic questions like their reason for wanting to learn English and any difficulties they had with learning it in the past. There was also topic specific questions around greetings, hobbies, directions and food. The range in capability was vast – from a complete inability to communicate in English (thank you Google Translate), to coherently articulating their desires and aspirations. After all interview sessions were complete, we had a feedback session to relay comments on each child. The consultant in me decided it was necessary to come up with a framework to group the students into levels – these were based on ability and enabled us to classify what content was appropriate for each level. I shared this with the group and we agreed we would take this going forward.
To come up with lesson content for my classes, I used a combination of creativity, online ESL lesson plans and games, videos and feedback from the other teachers. Lessons ranged in difficulty from basic alphabet and numbers for Level 1 students, to advanced/abstract concepts such as the conditional tense, the phonetic alphabet and sarcasm for Level 4. I ended up taking a similar approach to teaching to the way I was taught modern foreign languages in school i.e. by covering topics together (directions, restaurant, sentence structure). Given that these children had given up their summer holidays to learn English, we wanted to make the classes as enjoyable as possible. I took an approach of gamification and rewards to achieve this. I played a mix of Hangman and Bingo, while also getting the children involved in competitive quizzes. One particular highlight was playing the popular western game battleships with the verb ‘to be’.
Okcheon was a great learning experience as I was completely independent in choosing what to teach and how to teach it. In other words, I was allowed the room to use my own judgement, in how to best add value to these children in the short time we had. Having such small classes meant the relationships we formed with the children were more akin to a mentor or friend than a teacher.
After a short graduation ceremony at Okcheon, we packed our bags and set off with Pastor Ou of Happy Church to Dangjin. Here, we met up with the teachers we had parted with at Incheon as well as 11 other teachers from the US and UK. Over dinner, we met the camp leaders and were given the breakdown. JCC English Camp (JCCEC) is part of a school that runs year-round called Visionary Christian Academy. VCA has roughy 230 students from ages 8-13 and typically all VCA students partake in English camp every year.
Although both English camps are co-ordinated by their respective Church organisations, JCCEC is significantly more integrated with the congregation. For example, the day after arriving in Dangjin at Sunday service, I was on stage singing and dancing dressed as a superhero in front of 3000+ people. After 10 more performances in similar fashion, I came to learn that this was the way of JCC – due to packed schedule there was no time for embarrassment, stage fright or preparation; JCCEC was all about leaving ego back home, getting over your inhibitions and making the best with the time given.
A typical weekday in Dangjin went as follows. I was dropped off at camp by my Korean homestay mother at 9.30am. Here I would coordinate with the other teachers to carry out lesson planning for the day. We taught four lessons throughout the day, broken up with an hour for lunch. Before and after school we would go to round-up – a time where we were either up on stage embarrassing ourselves or with the children in the stands embarrassing ourselves (depending on the rotation for the day). This was JCCs method of getting the children excited at the start of the day or to end the day in good spirits. Following afternoon round-up, we would head back to the staffroom for a feedback session. Everyone would sit in a circle, sharing our challenges, highlights and suggestions for the day. I was an advocate of these feedback sessions as it is a format of improvement that I typically use at work. We would then end the day with choir practice and subsequently dinner. This, like most of my meals in Korea usually consisted of boiled rice, seaweed and Kimchi (I am still having withdrawal symptms). Our homestay mother’s would collect us at 6.30pm, we would go home and wind down for the day.
Lessons at Dangjin differed from Okcheon in that we had Korean native speakers as teaching assistants at the former. This meant that when explaining complex concepts, such as sentence structure and tenses, I had the support of Andrew my teaching assistant to help relay this information to the children in Korean. Saying this, the lion’s share of communication with the students entirely in English. During orientation we were told that the primary objective of camp was to get the children comfortable communicating to foreigners. As a result, creative methods had to be used to explain new words to the children. For example I found myself acting words out, using pictures or even using word association with both synonyms and antonyms.
Similarly to Okcheon, I put an emphasis on keeping learning fun. I achieved this by rewarding students with sweets for impressive singular acts and stickers at the end of each lesson for the ‘MVP’. This ensured active participation and continued performance. Students treated the stickers as collectibles where the aim was to get the most in the class. The other tactic used to ensure a fun and engaging atmosphere were classroom games, either when the students were ahead of schedule, or at the end of a lesson. This was important as it allowed me to connect with the students as a friend rather than a teacher. This relationship was amplified through trips organised by JCC. We took the children to an Irrigation Museum, a small supermarket and a restaurant. The objective for each trip was simple, to get the children to take ownership of a piece of work and present it. The children were able to demonstrate in English their knowledge about Korean irrigation tools, discuss their order with a cashier (me) at the supermarket and order the food they wanted at an ice-cream parlour.
I went to South Korea hoping to immerse myself in the culture. I have been on far too many big city trips where I have undergone ‘more of the same’. On this journey, I managed to teach myself to read and write the Korean alphabet (hangul) as well as picking up a few key phrases (particularly around food). I refused to use anything other than chopsticks, much to the amusement of my Korean counterparts. I additionally partook in some activities most Korean’s my age have never experienced. I wore the Hanbok and was fortunate enough to be taught the Gayageum (a string instrument) by an acclaimed teacher – these are traditions that stretch back as far as the 3rd century BCE. I feel very lucky to have lived with the most amazing family. As one of the tiger economies of Asia, South Korea is in many ways a more developed country than England; Interestingly however, I would say I experienced a much simpler way of life – eating meals together on the floor, playing board games as a family or staying in and wearing panda face masks. These experiences have left me with a real affinity for Korea.
In summary, given the pro bono nature of this trip I think it is only right to ask, what have I taken from South Korea? How has this month living an unfamiliar life improved me as a person and a consultant? It would be easy to say, I furthered my communication through teaching children with a significant language barrier, or that I reinforced my knowledge of agile principles through iteration and feedback cycles. However in truth, I believe the greatest gain I have taken from this trip is more along the line of character development. Working with these kids, I have learnt (or rather re-learnt) to enjoy more of life, to find pleasure in the smallest of things. Despite working longer days in Korea than I do back home, I have since resumed and I feel less stressed, more centred and more confident in my ability to do my job. The two camps couldn’t have been more different, however both provided a truly unforgettable experience. I had a wonderful time, leaving me with amazing memories. I felt such a sense of love, community and belonging. I cannot wait to revisit.