Am I sure I know what I’m doing? : First Day on the Job in a Foreign ESL Classroom

Everyone has been there before. The first day of a new job. You have an idea constructed in your mind of how things will be, but once you get started, all of that goes out the window. It was no different for me when I began my ESL teaching position abroad in South Korea. In fact, it was even more so given that I was moving so far from home to a country that I knew relatively little about, didn’t speak the language, and was still on the fence about the cuisine.

I remember my director picking me up from the airport and driving me through the streets of the town that was soon to be my home for the next year. So many lights and interesting buildings the likes of which I had not been accustomed to back in the United States. “Rest well” were the words he told me as it would be the very next day that I was to start my new job as the head ESL instructor.  After a long and strenuous flight across the Pacific Ocean, slept is exactly what I did. The next morning, not as well rested as I would have liked to have been, I steeled my self for the challenging day ahead. I remember the turbulent mixture of excitement and anxiety as I made the first of what would become my daily walks to work. Knowing that I would be teaching English to Korean children was all I knew about the job. I had no idea what to expect in terms of their behavior, curriculum, nor the details of how I was to conduct each and every type of lesson. Believe me when I say that despite my prior ESL training, I felt incredibly overwhelmed.

But when I walked into the school for the very first time and instantly became the target of so many young children’s curiosity, my concerns became significantly relieved. Question after question, in English, about things like where I was from, how old I was, if I liked Kim-Chi or not, why my hair was yellow, etc. Throughout the day, I was taken by the hand to class after class by a new child to be shown off as some kind of show-and-tell figurine to their classmates. I was instantly in the thick of things with these little ones. There were so many questions concerning the particulars of my life in the States, I had to answer to things that I hadn’t given much thought to in some time.

While to some this may sound overbearing, I personally feel that there was no greater way to ‘take the plunge’, so to speak. The level of energy and interest displayed by the children truly helped me to feel more welcomed than overwhelmed for as the day progressed, I slowly felt that anxiety vanishing and in it’s place, a feeling of belonging that would continue to flourish over the following year. Indeed, my first day couldn’t have gone over any better with my new young students along with my wonderful co-workers who helped me to feel just as welcome among them.

That was the beginning of what was to become a wonderful experience for me working abroad. The level of culture I experienced coupled with the knowledge that I was making a difference in these young children’s English education was an incredible feeling I experienced on a daily basis and will cherish for the rest of my life.