Korea,  Travel

How to trick your ESL students into thinking you know what you’re doing

…which you don’t of course.

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Teaching English to non- native speakers can be really challenging at times, most times actually. You have to become an Oscar winning actor, savant at context clues and remember all your grammar and English classes from when you were 10 all at once.

Here are the top five problems I’ve come across while teaching abroad in Korea and their “solutions”. Although, I don’t know how much help they actually are.

Some of these tricks are universal to all kids but for the most part it’s for when you don’t speak the same language and have zero idea what’s coming out of their tiny goblin mouths.

Disclaimer: No actual survey has been conducted. The kids may or may not be falling for these tricks. Results may vary.


Issue 1:

An out of the blue crying student


Just say “어 괜찮아~~~~?괜찮아?” “are you okayyyyy? are you okAY?” If they answer and I’m still clueless, I just alternate my inflection to make it sound like I understand what’s happening. I give them some head pats and a tissue. If I identify a culprit I make them apologize. If I didn’t see what happened and can’t understand, I can’t punish them unfairly.  9/10 success rate.

Issue 2:

A student keeps asking questions and with all your might and knowledge cannot seem to figure out what they’re saying.


This one has a pre-requisite. My kids know the phrase “help your friends”, so almost every time this happens I just pawn the problem off to them and in a very mature teacher-ly voice say “help your friends!”. Usually there are one or two mega smart hagwon (academy) students than can answer almost everything better than I can. 7/10 success rate- sometimes they can’t answer the question themselves. Very awkward.


Issue 3:

Your students will NOT quiet down.


I have two favorite tricks here. I know right? Two whole “useful” solutions.

  1. The good ol’ arm fold and stare. I just settle against the wall or roll my chair to the front of the room, sit and fold my arms, do an annoyed hair flip and glare the darkest glare I can muster into each and every one of their souls. And I just wait. 8/10 success rate, they hate eye contact.
  2. Make them police each other. If I’m waiting for them to be quiet to play a game and a few students won’t shut up I just call out their names and say “Oh, Minjae and Hyunwoo no game? Okay! Minjae and Hyunwoo are talking, no game!” and then they all gang up on those students and they shut up. This could be perceived as teacher-provoked bullying but they’re not that harsh, I promise.

Issue 4: 

You start a bomb lesson only to find out the students know all the material back to front, front to back and they could recite it at a debate competition in their sleep. Your whole lesson plan goes down the drain and floats away right before your eyes.


If you’re thinking “a little review never hurt nobody.” you’re wrong. Think of it as teaching a 30-year old native speaker the ABCs. Doesn’t work.

Two solutions here (again! I know!)

  1. Responsible Teacher: Do a spelling quiz or have them write a role-play with the information.
  2. Me Teacher: Card game time

*side note, teaching my students the card game Bullshit was the best thing I’ve done. I obviously don’t make them say “Bullshit” though.

Issue 5:

General communication gap


Sometimes all brain power and any inkling of language knowledge leave the station on a one way ticket to nowhere. Quickly downloading a full course on sign language into your micro chip is the only way to go.

That’s right, I’m talking about good old fashioned hand gestures, baby.

I mean the very well and alive “I didn’t learn an once of the language here and am just going to shout loud English at you while swiveling my arms in circles and rough angry pointing” type of gestures.

Sometimes it’s the only way to get your point across with those kids.

Put the paper *motion rectangle shape* inside *make a little cup with your right hand, put your left hand into the little cup* the homework box *point to homework box*.

You may feel demeaning but it really is the best way for kids to understand things. Hopefully they actually listen to what I’m saying too, but based on past experiences they don’t. They just look at Teachers “ugly monster” face and laugh.

Issue 6:

You and your students meet halfway.


On a more serious note, I understand quite a bit of what my Korean students are saying. Mostly because you’d have to be brain dead to not learn the four phrases they say over and over again. But once I started speaking Korean, the kids didn’t speak as much English. So I stopped, and as a result my Korean skills have greatly suffered. But my main job is for the kids to learn English, not Korean. A real hero, I am.

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To finish off, I hope you somehow got a tiny bit of info or at least a good laugh and are reconsidering teaching ESL as a career option.

Just kidding! It’s an absolute blast!


Comment below any tips you have for dealing with language barriers or funny stories you have from teaching!

Stay tuned for the next post: Can screaming children actually make your ears bleed?

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