Developing teaching materials

In my former life as a professor in Canada, one of the things I was always weakest with when it came to teaching was writing class notes. I could write slides well, and explain things well, and demonstrate things well, an answer questions well, but my class notes often ended up a bit sparse, which was a common complaint from students.

As I’m now teaching English more and more, I’m finding the need for good notes is becoming stronger. Kocachic has not officially had its grand opening yet, but we are dealing with students nearly every day, and the need for good notes has hit me quite hard.

I could just use an existing book, but existing books are annoying because:

  1. No single book has what I want. If I were to provide all the information I want to my students, I would need a big array of books. (Well, I have a big array of books, but my students don’t, which leads to….)
  2. My students don’t want to buy books. They’re already shelling a lot of money for classes and don’t want to spend more.
  3. Books cannot be modified! This is both a legal problem (copyright and all that) and also a technical problem, because I don’t have the books in electronic form.

So I’ve started making my own material, just out of necessity. I went into it without much of a plan, and I’m already up to some 30 pages of notes and worksheets and stuff I’ve made.

Once I finish a couple months with a couple students, I’m hoping to have a large enough corpus of notes for them that I can release something on GitLab. The project has given me a big appreciation for the Creative Commons. Not just the set of licences with the CC name, but the community itself, the “Commons”, which is full of drawings and photos and things that I now feel very fortunate to have been able to steal for my own teaching purposes. I’m excited to get to a point where I can release something to give back to the commons.

Experience teaching at a hagwon

I finished a one-month contract at a children’s hagwon (학원), which is why I’ve been too busy to keep up-to-date on other things, like this blog.

It was a good opportunity—most particularly my first opportunity to work with and teach children full-time—and a lot of fun, as well. We’re now focused full-time on our business, which is aiming at adults and older children, but there are a lot of things that I need to digest from my time working with younger children. My boss told me during our first meeting that “someone who’s good at teaching adults isn’t necessarily good at teaching children; but someone who’s good at teaching children must be good at teaching adults”. It may be exaggerated a little bit, but I think there is a lot of truth in that.


The youngest kids I “taught” were kids in a bilingual kindergarten, starting at roughly 4 years (international age). I put “taught” in quotation marks because while there are a couple things we directly teach them, like vocabulary, mostly we guide them in play and activities. In “bilingual kindergarten”, the kids don’t have enough English proficiency to communicate naturally or fluently in English. They communicate almost entirely in Korean. The biggest things I got out of this experience, beyond how cute the kids are, are:

  • It’s important to have a system. Young kids respond well to regularity and predictability. They actually have a pretty well-established inner sense of morality of right and wrong (or, less strongly worded, a sense of what they should be doing and what they should not be doing). They don’t lie or deceive, generally speaking. If they’re misbehaving, it’s because I’ve broken the system, or given them no system at all.
  • How to communicate with someone who can’t speak English well. My Korean is not very good (more on that in a later post), but judiciously using a bit of Korean here and there helps a lot. The key word there is judiciously. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using too much Korean, at which point the kindergarten class would probably be benefiting me over the kids. The point of the class is to expose the kids to English and make them comfortable listening to it, so Korean is a last resort.

Both of these points transfer over to teaching older kids and adults in a fairly obvious way, I think. Even though older kids and adults are more flexible, more interested in novelty, more capable in English, etc., they still benefit from having predictability and can gain a little bit of comfort by having a wee bit of English—just a word or two—thrown into confusing situations.

Elementary school kids

I taught two different groups of elementary kids at two different ages. One group was very comfortable in English, almost to the point of a native English-speaking child of the same age, and the other group could use English at only an intermediate level. The two age groups were grade 1 (early elementary) and grade 3/4 (later elementary).

Kids at this age are learning how to be funny, how to be individuals, and, for lack of a better word, how to be evil. They were actually quite fun to be around, so long as I kept a system in place and let them know what was expected of them and where the line was.

They felt too strictly regimented, to me. We had a pretty heavy curriculum that we had to go through in a short period of time. The kids understood that, and blasted through the work when needed, but it’s not what they wanted to do. What they wanted to do was be silly and play games and get a lot of personal attention.

Early on with my early elementary school kids, I allowed them to write a really silly sentence, because they all thought it was hilarious and I thought it would improve their motivation. The silliest they could come up with were things like “the talking dolphin swims”, which I suppose showed a good mastery of the structure and semantics of English, but from my view showed they need some more practice at being silly.

What I got most out of this was the complete shock at just how much studying kids here do at such an early age. These kids do their regular school, plus this hagwon, plus maybe another hagwon or two, plus homework at all of them, and somehow they all cope and they all survive. Really remarkable. But they don’t get a lot of opportunity for creative work, sadly.

Middle school kids

The middle school kids were the most fun, for me, and the most rewarding. I think there are different ways of looking at education being rewarding. Teaching the youngest kids can be rewarding because you can see that they’ll eventually grow up to achieve the highest levels of English mastery, probably even with little to no accent (native-sounding pronunciation). The older kids will probably never achieve that.

However, the older kids have their own type of reward. They can be a bit moody and sullen at times, and so with the older kids, teaching them becomes a game of motivating them more than anything else. Younger kids don’t need motivation, but older kids definitely do. If they’re not motivated, they’ll check out.

I find teaching middle school kids quite similar to adults in the way that I can teach things. I can explain things to them explicitly and they’ll understand. “This is why we’re learning this”. They can understand why something’s useful and can work towards an abstract goal. Younger kids, I almost feel like I’m tricking them into learning. They understand they need to do work, and are good at following directions, but a goal years down the line may be difficult for them to conceptualize.

Before taking the job, I had watched and summarized a lot of TESOL videos, and one of the strongest points I got from those videos is that all ages of English learners are task-oriented. They don’t want to learn English for the sake of learning English: they have a need to communicate. This is something which starts fading at the middle school level, actually. The kids at this age have become so accustomed and focused on testing, that they sometimes think of English as just another test, rather than an actual skill. However, if you show them and remind them that English is actually useful for expressing yourself, they can rekindle their inner motivation.

Starting the business

We signed a lease this week for an officetel in Gangnam. We don’t take possession for another week and a half, but we’re already starting to plan out our business.

Sinea will continue teaching Korean to foreigners freelance. It’s unknown at this point how much she’ll be teaching at the officetel itself and how much will be business as usual, travelling around the city going to cafés and people’s apartments and offices. Having the officetel gives her more freedom to expand into classes instead of primarily 1-on-1, though.

I am going to teaching two branches:

  • English. There’s a lot of demand for English education, though there’s a lot of supply, as well. I have the advantage that I’ve worked as a professor and have done technical writing. I can teach academic English and can teach presentation skills, as well. Still, it’s hard to gauge how much demand is unmet considering the saturation.
  • Computing. So this is the more interesting side of things, as it’s what I’m best at and I think there may be some interest in it. Here I think there’s an opportunity to set up classes specific to both children and adults. I’ve started sketching out some curricula for app development (web and mobile), embedded and HPC.

But, before we get to the point of offering classes and accepting students, we’ve got a lot of other mundane tasks to do…like buying furniture.

Beginning my job search

I’ve been in Korea for exactly 2 weeks now. I was expecting to take a little bit more time to relax and explore Korea and improve my Korean (which is not going as well as hoped), but after the first week, I found myself quite antsy and  in need of some work to do. It’s probably made worse by the fact that the first week in Korea felt like a month, just due to the constant errands and novel experiences. So, I’ve started looking for work.

In my old life in Canada, I was a professor of computer science at a local college. Broadly speaking, this means I’m qualified to do 3 things: teach, research, and write code.

Finding a coding job

On the coding front, I invested a couple days before coming to Canada into searching for software development jobs. When searching for these jobs, I was told to break it down into two different categories: working at a Korean company, and working for an international company. Korean companies, I am told, are not good. Unlike in North America and Europe (and quite likely elsewhere), software developers do not seem to be treated well in Korea. No flex hours, no working from home, no meditation breaks, no foosball tables, and, most importantly, no money. But lots of overtime. My searches into jobs at Korean companies showed that that was generally pretty true, everyone was offering very little money for very few benefits and too high a workload.

International companies such as Microsoft and Google are around in Korea. I never really properly considered them because I flatly refused to consider them while I lived in Canada. I’d had friends and colleagues try to recruit me into interviewing at Microsoft and Google and I could just never feel comfortable developing for a company that size. I haven’t ruled it out, though.

One other thing that I haven’t ruled out is starting up my own company, or doing freelance work remotely. Both of these are completely viable options and I do have a business idea that I’m currently developing and hope to release a preliminary version of within the next month or two. We shall see.

But, in any case, nothing concrete has come out of looking for development jobs.


After defending my PhD, my supervisor suggested that I may have a talent for research and should consider going back into it. I’ve been away from academic research for 5 years at least now. I had given up on trying to join faculty at a research university while I was in Canada because it was so competitive, political (with grants and publications) and often required sacrifices to your life, such as moving to a country or city you’d otherwise not want to move to.

All of that is still true, but my mind is slowly shifting in terms of whether the sacrifice is worth it. I do have to admit that I consider research more valuable, more worthwhile and hence ultimately more rewarding than I had 5 or 10 years ago. Maybe being in the middle of your PhD gives you a soured view of doing research.

There are universities in Korea, and around Seoul and Gyeongi-do/경기도 (think of it as the Greater Seoul Area) even, which are definitely worth exploring. Good research and (English-language) teaching universities who I would feel honoured to join.

The timing of my arrival is not the greatest. For one, I’ve missed the primary hiring cycle (usually March-ish) of a lot of universities. More to the point, though, applying at a university is a big deal. It takes a lot of effort, not just a day or two in polishing up a CV. When I applied for the college I was teaching at in Canada, I had the luxury of already having a full-time job at while I was putting together my application for a month and then waiting another couple months to work through the process. I feel I don’t have that luxury of time at the moment, and should find a little bit of stability before investing it putting together an application at a university.

But I think I will do it while I’m in Korea.


My last major qualification is in teaching. I don’t think it’s my strongest (that title probably goes to writing code), but it possibly is my most marketable. I am trained to teach computer science and computer programming, of course, but unfortunately I haven’t found a lot of opportunities to do that per se, at least not without joining faculty at a university. I’m attempting to find some tutoring work in programming, but most Koreans who want tutoring in programming want it in Korean, not in English.

The obvious other avenue, then, is teaching English. I have had two interviews, one at a hagwon/학원 (private cram school or after-hours school, which is very common for children in Korea), and one at a public elementary school. Neither position was quite the right fit for me, but they were maybe almost the right fit for me, a close enough fit that I’m thinking that I would be good at teaching children.

The nice thing about this, too, is that a lot of schools don’t have a sharp black-and-white division between subjects, especially when it comes to English teachers. In some circumstances, it seems, there can be a somewhat grey line between teaching English and teaching something else (like science or programming) using English, and both are valuable.

So, I’m mostly looking for teaching jobs these days, starting with public schools, and in the meantime, hoping to research a website before long. And, while I’m searching for jobs, I’m trying to get everything in order to get my visa, but that’s for another post….