Politics, comfort zones, confidence, arrogance, shots of courage, scattered thoughts, a bit of bragging, and burritos

This blog post has been a long time coming.
It is sort of a diary and sort of a running diary.
(Please excuse the poor editing job. I noticed some mistakes but left them be)


Traditional Path to Namsan
Photo by John Steele Photo

12:34 pm on Monday June 17th
My students in my “Korea and Global Politics” (there’s some info on the course below) class are currently writing their final exams.

I guess I have mixed feelings in these final hours of the course.

Come to think of it, I almost always have mixed feelings at the end of a course. Generally feeling happy but always realizing  I could have done better that things could have gone better.

I know that I could have done a better job but I feel reasonably happy with how things went.

During this long spring I sometimes wished the course would be over and now it finally is.

Bittersweet might be the right word for these mixed feelings.

Teaching this course has surely been an interesting experience and I have learned a lot. The first area of learning that comes to mind is in subject knowledge. While I am still certainly not an expert I feel my subject knowledge on Korean (and global) politics has increased dramatically over the last few months. I have been involved with English teaching for more than 13 years. I feel like I must be very close to the vaunted 10,000 hour mark of in class teaching. This is not to brag but just to say I feel quite comfortable in an English language classroom.

All that comfort basically evaporated when I started teaching politics. If a student asks a random English question I generally have an idea or can speak based on some experience with similar questions. Or, I probably know where to find the answers and can get back to them with what seems to me as a thoughtful answer At the very least I can say things like “fixed expression,” “collocation,” “corpus data, ” and “prescriptive grammar.” When teaching politics I had no such luxury.

I feel I was generally quite well-prepared with what I was prepared for but I was not really ready for too much off the script. What a great and humbling learning experience this was for me. Perhaps I became a bit too comfortable teaching English classes and this was a bit of a wake-up call. This sense of dread about what might happen was a big change for me.
(This also gave me a new-found empathy for teachers who clutch their lesson plans tightly and feel naked without them)

My class was on Mondays. Mondays at noon. High noon. Since I felt severely lacking in my content knowledge that meant that Sunday nights, often late into the night, were spent trying to stay one step ahead of students. I tried to make sure that I knew enough to seem reasonably knowledgeable about the subject at hand and not to embarrass myself. I can’t say I had nightmares but I can safely say I had insomnia induced by fears of blabbering on like an idiot and sharing untruths, half truths, lies and inaccuracies with the world’s youth. I was terrified I would be stuck at the front with the eyes of these impressionable youths staring at me, disbelieving me, judging me.

So I was continually exhausted on Mondays after being pushed by fear to stay up all hours of the night tweeting  preparing enough to speak competently on the designated topics.

[This is not to say that politics classes or any classes really need be lectures (or that this one was) or that the only mark of a teacher is subject knowledge or that the whole point of a course is the transference of knowledge. Yet, the above are concerns I felt.]

My current thought is that truly good teaching is hampered when the teacher is overly concerned with their own choices and decisions and hangups, confidence gaps, and baggage they are not ready to attend to the students’ needs as well as they otherwise could. This might seem like a basic point but it became all the more clear to me this term in this class.

1:08 pm
One student gives me his test, says goodbye and says, “I just wanted to tell you something…compared to other classes… I just… I learned everything. I don’t know if it is the way you teach or… but I just learned everything. I think I could restate  everything from you class. You know, I just learned it. I learned everything.”

I was dumbstruck and didn’t really say anything. Just smiled and mumbled out some combination of “thank you and wow.”

My thoughts are changing and now I am thinking that the sense of humility and truly being a fellow learner and traveler cannot be underestimated.

1:32 pm
Most of the tests are in.
Kind of weird sitting here and typing this while they are hard at work.
I don’t know what I *should be doing though.

I genuinely and generally liked all the students. So that is a plus. I have been trying to end on a nice note with all the students as they handed in their notes. Then I come back to this blog post and write a few words and wonder if I should post it.

I decide I am going to post this.

I worry that it might not be useful for anyone but remain strong in my resolve to post it.

This course has been a bit of a struggle for me. Especially in terms of time, energy, and confidence.

A friend gave me some great insight during the middle of the term when I was a bit overwhelmed. He said something like, “Maybe politics is not the only thing they are going to learn from you, maybe they can learn so much more.” I am not ready to say this is the case but I can certainly say those words were a shot of courage, confidence and motivation when I needed it.

One student who had a very high amount of background knowledge on Korean politics and politics in general says thanks and mentions that she really enjoyed the class. I am happy about this because I sometimes worried that things were pitched far below her level. I also noted she wasn’t afraid to surf the internet during class.

(Note: Seeing her with the Wikipedia page open for the topic we were discussing was an interesting moment for me as a teacher. It really underscored the need for the lessons to go beyond the basic facts that could be found on Wikipedia.)

All the tests are in. The test is over. The class is over. The course if over. lass is over. All the tests are in.
I think I have time for a burrito.


Vibrant Kwanghwamun
Photo by John Steele Photo

Additional thoughts and context
*The class was offered for international and exchange students and offered in English. I had 20 students and they were from all around the world, with quite a few from North America and Europe. There were also 5 students from Korea in the class, who mentioned a desire to learn from and with people from other cultures as a main reason for taking the course. They also mentioned that they wanted to improve their English. The vast majority of the Korean students were very strong in English. Most of the North Americans first language is English and the Europeans were generally at a high level. I think I stumbled into a real English as a Lingua Franca situation.

Critics might wonder why I was so woefully unprepared each Sunday for Monday’s class and might (justifiably) wonder how this came to pass each week. I have a variety of excuses and explanations (some of them are even reasonable) about this but I don’t really want to get into it here. Let’s just say that time I had set aside for the “Learn all there is to learn about Korean politics” before the course started project got sucked away by other commitments.

Returning to the class, it was interesting for me to be in a situation where my focus was simply on the messages delivered by students and not on how they delivered the messages. Of course sometimes, confusion came based on the English choices that students made (or maybe because of the lack of resources they had) but I think these were dealt with by the group quite smoothly without any explicit focus on my part.
(Sometimes I asked the L1 users of English to repeat what they said and sometimes I paraphrased what they said when I thought something might not be culturally or linguistically understood by their classmates.) This is something I would probably focus on a bit more next time, if only out of personal interest.


Photo by John Steele Photo

Additional additional thoughts 

My other thought is that language teachers *should try to teach something else when given the chance. For me,  it opened up a whole new line of thinking and mad me consider what I do in my “day job” from a different perspective.

At this very moment I am thinking  experienced and trained (English) language teachers tend to have a nice bag of tricks that can be applied to content courses like this. Perhaps this is a bit different fr those with more limited training on teaching but more training on content. I feel like this background served me very well.

Id also like to give a big shout out to the occasionally maligned Needs Assessment as the often unappreciated continual feedback. I think these served me well.

One word that continually comes to mind when thinking about this experience is “expert.” I am now wondering how much expertise teacher needs. By this I mean content expertise as well as teaching expertise. Lots to think about indeed.


  1. Katy

    Really interesting, Mike. I would be interested to know more about what you were doing in this class. Do you think it would have worked for an all-Korean class or does it benefit/need international input?

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Very interesting question(s). The class is/was really pitched towards non-Koreans but I tried to make sure that that there was a bit of something for everyone.
      The Korean students were a bit more expert (there is that word again) on certain issues that they had studied in high school and the exchange students were pretty much all over the place in terms of background knowledge. Some people studied politics back home and some people studied engineering or mass comm or whatever. Your specific question was if it would have worked with an all Korean class…I think so, but I also think the various perspectives and cultures were very helpful. I also think the fact it was not a language class was quite helpful

      You asked about what we were doing. I guess you mean the specific content? A few themes: South Korea’s push towards democracy, South Korea’s relationships with countries around it (and the US) and plenty of DPRK and ROK stuff.

  2. ljiljana havran

    Hi Mike,

    Great blog post as always, thought provoking! I’d like to emphasise here how much expertise is needed when you teach ESP (since I’ve been teaching aviation English for over 15 years). I’ve spent years and years reading reference books and asking aeronautical engineers for technical explanations. I’ve been particularly interested in air navigation and spent a lot of time trying to master the difference e.g. between heading, course, track and bearing; there is confusion between Am. and Br. English and even the more confusing translation into Serbian; or there is also a very specific air traffic control phraseology described by D.Crystal as Airspeak and the problems such as homophony, or ambiguous phraseology that can cause misunderstandings in pilot/controller communications leading to fatal air accidents..). Teaching is a very difficult profession, and challenging too, the most wonderful of all is that every day you can learn something new. A teacher needs a lot of content expertise as well as teaching expertise, but it depends on our enthusiasm, love of learning and curiosity how much effort we’re willing to make.
    I enjoyed reading your running diary very much!:)

    • mikecorea

      Hi Ljiljana! I am so glad you liked the post. As you saw, I was really debating if I would post it or not. 🙂
      I am especially happy you found it thought-provoking.

      You raise some interesting points about Aviation English. I think I have heard a fair amount about this because a friend of mine worked in that area for a while. So thanks for yet another reminder of the importance of context!

      You wrote, “A teacher needs a lot of content expertise as well as teaching expertise, but it depends on our enthusiasm, love of learning and curiosity how much effort we’re willing to make” and I very much agree! Thanks very much for the support!

  3. Rob Dickey

    Nice post. Welcome to my world. Although — it sounds like perhaps there were no specific language targets? Perhaps tech terminology (see post about ESP from ljiljana havran). Since few of students in the past were internationals, my ciurses have tended to be 1/3 ~ 2/3 about language, depending on student needs and wants (and that is a first week’s survey each semester).

    I wonder what materials you used. Any course text? (which) Resources you found particularly helpful?

    • mikecorea

      Hi Rob,
      Thanks for the comments. You got it right about zero language targets. Some of the students mentioned wanting to improve their language skills but I was very clear from the start that it was not an English course but simply a course that happened to be in English.

      As you imagined there was some related terminology (in English and Korean) but again no real language targets.
      I didn’t actually have one course text (which might be related to my time issues!) but used chapters from various books. One book that I used here and there was “Korea: The impossible country. ”
      {http://www.amazon.com/Korea-Impossible-Country-Daniel-Tudor/dp/0804842523] The book isn’t strictly related to politics but provides a good starting point on many issues..

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  4. Tony Gurr


    I wanted to tweet this…but the title was too long 😉

    Lovely, honest post / rant – as usual 😉

    How long do you thunk you will stay there? BTW 😉


    • mikecorea

      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      True story… as I was typing I thought of you mentioning honesty in the past and just kept on going.
      Thanks for the feedback and support. Very nice to have.
      Speaking of nice, it is nice to you back the ol bloggery. Need to sit down with your posts next week.


      ps- As for the tweeting..it is the thought that counts. I know all the experts say to make sure titles are short enough for twitter but I really wanted to mention the burrito. 🙂

      pps- Very interesting question regarding how long I will stay in Korea. I will be sure to keep you updated. #cryptic. 🙂

  5. njport

    Great post. I enjoyed reading it. I have experienced similar feelings. I think these kind of feelings are helpful to a certain extent. They gave me the drive to learn so that I could teach my students well or at least be able to link certain ideas before they went off and did some research on their own. In my opinion, once complacency sets in we have no place being in the classroom.

  6. livinglearning

    Hey Mike, I find you reflections on this class very interesting. Willingness to try something out of your comfort zone is really important and really difficult. Blogging in class is legend. And without belittling your post or your experience, I also popped into the comments box to say “wow! amazing picture choices!” because that is also true.

  7. Julia M.

    Thank you for this post. I recently read another blog of yours ,”TEFLing at 35, a life gone right”, which led me to this article. I am considering a career in TEFL, and am in the process of applying for a CELTA program. I am not having much encouragement or understanding from family members at this point. I am 42, and DONE crunching numbers as a financial analyst. I am really nervous about TEFL, going out there alone and all to pursue a new career in a different country. I do have a master’s degree and an English minor, though no experience teaching. It is encouraging and uplifting to read YOUR experiences, so thank you again for sharing them. Perhaps I will have to start a blog too.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Julia!
      Thanks so much for the comments. I really appreciate it. I am so sorry for the delay in responding. I was on vacation at the time. The blog post you mention was written by good friend (that I have never met) Laura.
      (I wish I could write as well as her!!)
      Anyway, welcome to the field! I think it can be incredibly rewarding. Of course there can be challenges as well (family members being just one of them). I wish you the best of luck and I would love to help out in any way I can. Also, i’d love to read about your experiences starting out. I think this is something that would be very helpful for other new teachers.

      Thanks again for commenting and hopefully see you around. 🙂

  8. purpleHand

    Inspiring read indeed. Your writing is always pleasant to read. I wish I had an instructor like you when I went to school. Thank you for sharing your reflections.

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