Dillon native Elly Sawyer recently returned from a one-year stint teaching English in South Korea. Casey S. Elliott photo
This unmarked pavilion on Ahn Mountain (Ansan) near Bongwonsa Temple in Seoul, South Korea, was one of several photographs Dillon resident Elly Sawyer took while teaching English to South Korean students. Sawyer went trail running on paths that often led her past this pavilion. Courtesy photo
A Dillon native looking to learn a language and earn some extra cash got an extensive cultural education from the experience.
Elly Sawyer, 25, recently returned from South Korea after nearly a year teaching English to Korean children.
Sawyer, who graduated with degrees in political science and sociology from Montana State University in 2018, wanted to expand her knowledge and nail down a future career. Sawyer was a teacher’s assistant while in college who always enjoyed traveling and learning languages, so she combined all those interests and headed to South Korea.
“I’ve always been really interdisciplinary, so it’s been difficult for me to choose one specific direction,” she said.
The country offers contract employment for Englishlanguage speakers to instruct Korean students. Sawyer signed up, flew into South Korea in February 2020, and returned last month.
Finding her place
Sawyer stayed in Seoul, a city of 11 million people in the southern portion of South Korea. The country itself has a population of 44 million – a big difference from small-town Montana.
“I enjoyed simply taking a walk and seeing how lost I could get before I couldn’t find my way back – and trying to expose myself to the language without being a huge burden. There’s a lot of English used in Korea, but not enough to solve every issue,” she said. “What I really wanted to do was get a feel for how these people lived, and do some sightseeing.”
Seoul is a commercial powerhouse with a lot of shopping options. And though that was “not exactly my idea of a good time,” Sawyer said she had a good time investigating local shops as she wandered.
“There were sheep cafes, raccoon cafes, puppies, just a massive variety, and I’m not sure why,” she said. “I don’t think the goal was to foster a love of animals, it was just an attraction for the Korean people.”
Exploring was easy, with widespread availability of buses and subways.
“The public transportation there is amazing. You could track buses down to the last second,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to be independent considering you can use all these services.”
The city itself was very safe, and Sawyer said she never feared walking around at any time.
“I walked away from my bag all the time, and I just didn’t worry about it,” she said.
The weather also threw her for a loop, specifically during monsoon season.
“I used an umbrella every day for three months,” she said. “We have so little rain here – it was really cool to see what that looked like, endless rain.”
One of the more difficult things Sawyer had to deal with related to communications. Sawyer learned the language and worked to improve it during her time there. It helped that many Koreans spoke some English, though natives were adept at using smartphone translation apps to fill in the gaps.
Instructional, cultural differences abound
South Korea’s educational structure and pace were eyeopeners for her.
“There’s a lot of structured learning and more formal education,” she said. “In Korea for the most part, there’s a trend to emphasize education really strongly. It’s not to look for extra support if a student is daily – though they would do that too – but if there’s an opportunity to learn more, that’s what would be done.”
Often Korean students continued their schooling into the evening hours through separate academies.
Sawyer taught students age four to eight in the morning, and students up to age 12 in the afternoons. Grade levels in Korean education do not necessarily match up with American levels of education, as a person’s age is calculated differently in the country.
Sawyer worked for a private school, though the curriculum and quality standards are similar between private and public schools in the country. Class sizes are generally maxed at 10 students. Sawyer said she was not supposed to speak Korean in the classroom, though sometimes it was unavoidable. She traded off instruction with a Korean-speaking “co-teacher,” though that instruction did not overlap. The co-teacher also teaches English.
Sawyer noted that technology in the classroom was not generally frowned upon – most students had cell phones, which busy parents used to keep their children informed of schedule changes. For the most part, students were respectful of class time and the phones were not a distraction.
Sawyer said learning was accelerated, and difficulty elevated, compared to what she remembers when she was a younger student in school. Kindergarten was more about bookwork rather than learning through play.
By and large, the students had a good grasp of the English language, but when there were difficulties, hand-motions sufficed.
“For the most part, you can find a way to build an overlap of what they can and express and what you can understand in either language,” she said.
Sawyer noticed a hierarchy in the workplace that fit with the culture in general.
“There’s a strong sense of respecting your elders, even when maybe it’s not deserved or earned. Particularly in the workplace – there’s not necessarily an overt hierarchy that’s stated. But you knew how important you were in the school based on how much information you got, or how soon you got it,” she said.
Sawyer said she often found changes in the school day – or sometimes her own schedule – were dumped on her at the last minute without warning.
Pandemic upends schedule
The pandemic was in full swing in South Korea when Sawyer arrived, which threw a wrench in the regular order. Lockdowns closed cafes and other social activities. Some schools would shut down when outbreaks hit different buildings.
Right off the bat she saw a greater willingness to wear masks without being mandated.
“It’s more normalized there to wear a mask if you are feeling sick,” she said.
As the pandemic continued, schools adapted to providing remote learning as needed. There was no lack of internet connectivity, and the population by and large was relatively familiar with technology. But there were still some hiccups.
“A lot of these families are mothers and fathers living with their parents due to room, and to take care of their parents. And the elders help with child care while the parents go to work,” she said, noting the grandparents were able to pick up new technology fairly easily. It was working through different signin information on different computers that occasionally slowed things down.
At first the switching to online versus in person learning was difficult, but as the pandemic continued, some of those wrinkles were ironed out.
Planning for the future
Sawyer went to South Korea to learn another language and explore a possible career path.
“I went over there to try out teaching, and see if it was what I wanted to do,” she said. “It was such a big thing for me to do – I’m very shy and socially anxious, so it was huge for me personally. I had done very little traveling before. I just sort of jumped in feet first and went out and experienced things. I think it was really good for self reflection and figuring out my priorities.”
Teaching may not be in the cards, but more travel may be, she said.
“I’ve always been adventurous and I would say this probably fed that…it made me want to see other places.”
Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.