Sunday, August 14, 2016

3 things I learned about managing people while teaching English in South Korea.

Long story short, I met a Korean girl and quit my job as an Engineer to move to Korea and teach English in a middle school for 2 years. I’m back in Australia now working as an Engineer and happily married to the girl I moved half way around the world for.

In hindsight, the lessons I learned seem blindingly obvious, but it took my baptism of fire teaching English to middle school students half way around the world to fully grasp their importance. Here are the top three things I learned about leadership and managing people while teaching English in South Korea.

Giving clear instructions sets everyone up for success.
In my first class I recall trying to get all the students to stand in a circle to play a word game. Sounds simple yeah? The ensuing chaos taught me (a) the danger of assuming my class/team know what I mean and (b) the importance of being specific, clear and concise.

Don’t waffle or make assumptions. Break a task down to a level appropriate for your audience and focus on “need-to-know” information. I like to use bullet points or numbers. They help keep instructions or actions concise and easier for the audience to identify and stay focused.

Set clear expectations
When I first started teaching, it is safe to say that some of my students didn’t meet my expectations. Many were late to class, didn’t bring a pen or work book, or would talk amongst themselves during the class. My perception of their attitude made me furious. Were they testing me? Did they despise foreigners? The school was a single multi story building and I could walk from one end to the other in under about 30 seconds. Students had 10 minutes between classes, why were so many late?

I put it down to a cultural thing. I observed that it wasn’t just my classes where students acted like this. It seemed almost universal within the school. Teachers were often late to their classes too, so why would students be on time?

I developed a set of basic rules governing how I expected my students to behave and had them write them in the back of their text book. After policing the rules for a couple of weeks, things improved dramatically. Students were generally on time, listened more attentively and brought a pen to class. I was happier, and that in turn made my students happier, which leads me to my next point.

Positive energy
Another lesson I quickly learned was that for every bit of positive energy I projected, my students would bounce maybe 10% of that back to me, but if I projected even an ounce of negative energy, the entire mood of the classroom would drop like a lead balloon and my job would become 10 times more difficult.

If you are not excited to be there, why would your class/team be? Positive energy can trickle up and sideways, but overwhelming it flows from the top down.