Imagine you’re about to fly a Boeing 747 for the first time. The Good News: Despite being the only one on board who knows where the plane is headed and how to get there, you are very confident in your navigational skills, as they’ve been somewhat of a gift to you since birth. The Bad News: You are not a pilot by trade. Your training for the job has been minimal. And your native language is like total and utter gibberish to your crew and passengers.
Now imagine you have a co-pilot in this scenario. The Good News (for you): He or she has a degree in aviation, comes to you with at least 3 to 5 years of experience, speaks both your language and that of everyone else on board, and is basically there to make your job as easy as possible. The Bad News (for them): Passengers will be more enamored by your jedi-like navigational abilities than his/her superior training, experience, and dual-language ability. Additionally, your co-pilot must let you take equally in the credit for the plane’s safe and successful travel, regardless of your aeronautical ineptitude. And as if the ride weren’t bumpy enough, he/she must also pay for his/her own housing–even though yours is free–and accept a salary that is lower than yours.
Welcome to the story of a Guest Native English Teacher in Korea and his/her co-teacher. You, the GNET, are about to teach English as a Second Language for the first time. English is your native language, so it basically comes to you as easily as breathing. However, you are probably the only Native English speaker at your school and most likely you’re coming to this job with little-to-no teaching experience. You’ve been certified by an accredited 150-200 hour TEFL/TESOL program, but that’s about it. You also only know how to say “Hello” and “Thank You” in Korean, which leaves English as your only method of conveying directions/lessons to students. *Cue nervous gulp sound effect*
Enter the co-teacher. A critical aspect of the English Program In Korea (EPIK) experience, a co-teacher is a Korean instructor who is present in every class you teach in order to help you be a successful educator. He/she most likely has a bachelor’s, or even master’s, in education, has been teaching for at least a few years, and possesses good to excellent English skills on top of their native Korean language abilities. They do not receive paid housing (unlike yourself), and their salary will most likely be less than yours.
Sounds rough, eh? It’s not uncommon for the co-teacher to get swept aside by the shiny, new Guest Native English Teacher in students’ eyes either. He/she is also obligated to make sure you, the Guest Native English Teacher: are properly situated in your apartment when you arrive, get your Alien Registration Card, have a bank account and a working cell phone. In return for spending all of this extra time and energy outside their normal job responsibilities, they are compensated a whopping 0 KWON. That’s right, nada. And if he/she’s miraculously still feeling nice and friendly towards you, you’ll also receive a little tour of the city in which you’re staying and assistance with getting your internet set up.
As I’m sure you’ve read on other teaching-English-in-Korea blogs, the relationship and classroom dynamic with your co-teacher may vary. I’ve heard inspiring stories about the most wonderful co-teachers, as well as terrifying tales of “co-teachers from hell.” In my opinion, it should only go one or two ways. Option one: You are very very very very very kind, polite, thoughtful, generous, and grateful to your co-teacher, and you let them dictate entirely how the classes are run. Or, option two: You are very very very very very kind, polite, thoughtful, generous, and grateful to your co-teacher, BUT you come to a mutual agreement on how the classes are run (i.e., who plans lessons, who gives them, how you share in the grading process, etc.). My vote is for option two.
At minimum, you should consider this person your co-pilot, someone you can count on as a partner in the classroom and who (short of being a native English speaker) is WAY more qualified than you to do your job. At most, you should consider this person your savior. However, don’t abuse his/her generosity. Koreans are known for being very kind and polite, and never saying “No” just so they avoid “losing face.” Yes, they are there to help you in the tumultuous transition that is moving to and working in another country. No, they are not your slave, personal assistant, or someone who needs to get out of your way.
They are your co-pilot, your translator, your life-logistics coordinator (internet/cell phone), your co-worker, and your friend. To guarantee a good start with him/her, take a word of advice from Chicago’s Big Mama, “When you’re good to mama, mama’s good to you.” Upon meeting your co-teacher for the first time, make sure to bring them a small (relatively inexpensive but authentic) gift from your home country as a token of your undying appreciation. And every now and then, treat him/her to lunch or dinner! It’s the least they deserve.
When you’re good to co-teacher, co-teacher’s good to you.