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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

When Experience Is Silenced...

Quinton Stephen is from South Africa.  He is trained as a Marriage and Family Therapist as well as school teacher in Languages and Life Orientation.  Quinton lived and worked in North India and South Africa where he gained experience teaching and working with people of various age groups that wanted to learn English as a second language. He has been working in Korea for the past year and 5 months.  He is presently teaching English to Grade 3 to 6 learners at Giesong Elementary in Uljin, South Korea.  The school consists of three branches, Giesong, Sadong and Gusan elementary schools. The total number of students is approximately 68 per school year. The school follows the Korean English curriculum which uses textbooks with media lessons.  


Excited to begin this new season of teaching in a foreign country as an English as a second language teacher, I was quickly taught to accept my new title as native English teacher, even though I felt like the new student at an elementary school. I did not fit in and I didn't have much of a fight or flight choice on my first day at school. 

I grew up eating most of my meals with my fingers or a knife and fork. I knew no other way to eat rice but by mixing curry with my fingers into it before putting it into my mouth. With all eyes on me, in line for food, I bypassed the chopsticks and sat for lunch. I saw their smiles but it wasn't those of wanting to get to know me, but to see what I was planning to do to get this food from plate-to-mouth! A teacher noticed and handed me a set of chopsticks and spoon to eat my soup. Only then did their smiles take a different shape and the sounds in the dining hall were that of pity and surprise and maybe even wanting to come over and help me survive. That's where my journey began. 

I would classify myself as a social butterfly that loves talking and getting to know people. I was not sure how this was going to happen in this new environment because the harder I tried to communicate the less it happened. I suppose it's different in other parts of the country but here I am in a rural village with only a few kids per class who are trying to survive their English lessons.

I live in a one-street village that most Koreans from outside of here haven't heard of. However, it's the best place to become one with nature as recommended and to find solitude for personal growth and reflection. My home is surrounded by rice paddies in front, the ocean in the horizon and a few hills behind me.  The beauty is endless and changes according to the seasons. The village people are friendly and following the cultural cues of bowing and greeting makes being here all the more comfortable and easy.  

I thought I had 'the-know-how" after a few years of teaching in two other countries where English was more regularly spoken.  If I can make English relevant and exciting I think I will have reached my goals. In every class there's always a class clown but not in this case, they only have a school clown and that would be me! The one singing and dancing and jumping around, humouring and trying to make it simple to understand. Most clowns are supposedly sad within and so am I at times because not every circus has a great story to tell. 

There are days when I wondered if it's my voice or style that is so boring, so I choose a different technique to try to make it worth their while. I began to depend on Papago (the Korean translator software). The pronunciation of this translator made me smile because it's always back to "Papa-I- go". There's so much to teach, like the rules of grammar that need to be understood and vocabulary words that need to be memorized and used in proper simple sentences. Yet, they don't mean a thing if the student has no form of association and they won’t until they find its relevance in their ability to speak and hear it spoken. I have begun to build rapport with my learners now that I know their names and can keep their attention and gain their trust much easier.

I've learnt that like other kids I taught that spoke English fluently, Korean kids need the same trust. Their hearts opened to language spoken from my face. I began to fit in more by learning their names and by being a child alongside them. By letting them teach me their language and making my language appropriate to them. 

I was used to being a part of school management, helping with planning and other things which make up life at school, but I quickly learnt that knowing or not knowing Korean doesn't make a difference because I am always considered as the guest Native Speaker. It's odd not being told about staff meetings and even when I dropped in uninvited it was of no accord because no one translated the minutes to help me know what was discussed or what the schedule was going to be. There were days when I pitched up at school to see my students boarding a bus to go on a field trip and other days I would hear my classes were changed right after they began. It became a bit discouraging but I decided I won't give up this fight and taught myself that it's just the way things happen. 

I constantly question myself about whether I'm teaching enough and what is being learnt. This question was answered recently during one of my practical lessons at a grocery shop. A Canadian couple were passing through on a cycle tour in Korea. The couple over-heard me speaking English from around the corner and were full of cheer and started asking many questions. The highlight of meeting this couple was when they turned to my group of students and spoke to them.  The students replied to their questions without any fear! 

I press on this journey in Korea, making it relevant and fun because most my students may never speak English once they have grown up and work on their parent’s farms, but some may bump into that odd English couple and be able to recall those days of the school clown and remember words that stuck with them throughout their elementary learning. It's for this reason I am here, to enhance their learning, to help develop their skills of communication and make the language appropriate and relevant to their daily lives in this part of Korea. 

Tagged  Voices 
  • ELT in Korean Primary Schools: Three Common Methods
    Yoo Jimin, South Korea;John Breckenfeld, USA

  • Korean English Language Education: My Experience Learning English
    Minjeong Namkung, South Korea

  • When Experience Is Silenced...
    Quinton Stephen, South Korea

  • Native or Second Language Speakers, It Makes No Difference
    Lyman McLallen, USA

  • How to Motivate Lower-level Students in Korean EFL Context
    Kyungsook Kim, South