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Teaching English in South Korea
Sept. 17, 2012

DC grad shares his experiences teaching in Seoul, So. Korea

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

Having spent a year teaching middle school students in South Korea has only reaffirmed one Dassel-Cokato graduate’s desire to continue educating young people.

Neil Polzin, 2006 DC graduate, recently returned from Seoul, South Korea, where he taught English to Koreans ages 12 through 16.

In the spring of 2011, Polzin began the process of applying and interviewing for English Programs in Korea (EPIK), specifically applying for Seoul. There, he would be close to his fiancée, Minnie, who is teaching language in Seoul.

In August of 2011, Polzin was on a nine-hour flight to South Korea. When he landed, he spent five days straight in orientation, where he met other English-speaking teachers.

He was assigned to school in the northern part of Seoul, the capital city, with a population of 10 million.

“It’s a big city,” Polzin said, who added that it’s considered to be like New York City in that it’s a city that never sleeps.

Teaching middle school age children was good for Polzin, who doesn’t speak much of the Korean language.

“My students were old enough where they could understand me without the Korean translator,” he said. Also, since the students didn’t have the pressure of exams, they were more willing to listen to him, Polzin noted.

Though he started his one-year contract Aug. 24, he actually began teaching half way through the Korean school year, which goes with the calendar year, he explained.

Regular school classes go from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Students then get a dinner break before they head to the academy for extra learning until 11 p.m.

“I really would feel bad for my students at times,” Polzin said, explaining that education is strongly emphasized in Korea. “There is a lot of focus on education.”

What was most rewarding to Polzin as a teacher in South Korea was seeing when the students had “really gotten it.”

There was a time when Polzin felt the students really weren’t responding to him as a teacher.

He was soon encouraged by one student, Minju Park, who was also finding herself discouraged.

After school one Friday, Polzin found Minju sitting looking somberly out the window. He talked to her for awhile, even told her a couple of jokes. Then he said goodbye and went home.

The next day, he found a note on his desk from Minju who said, “Frankly, I want to appreciate you.”

She went on to say how he was a great teacher and he was there for her when she was feeling particularly lonely.

“That really changed my mood,” Polzin said. “I knew I had made a difference.”

That experience also reaffirmed why he was there as a teacher, and that teaching is what he wants to do as a career.

“I want to share what I have learned,” said Polzin, who has a bachelor’s degree in literature from Southwest State University. “. . . and just to make a difference in their lives like my teachers have made a difference in my life.”

This experience has also made him stronger as a teacher.

“I’m ready for anything an American classroom can throw at me,” he commented.

Polzin has decided to continue his schooling in January in order to earn a master’s degree in literature either at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire or the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Exploring South Korea

Like New York City, Seoul has a subway system, making transportation convenient.

The food was also great, he said. ‘The snacks are amazing,” he said.

He described the food as sweet, but spicy because Koreans use a lot of peppers in their cooking.

Kim Chi, or pickled cabbage, is a popular dish in Korea, he said.

The people were also very friendly, especially when he ordered or spoke in their language.

Living in South Korea for a year also helped him learn the country’s politics, which is perceived much differently in other parts of the world.

National media, Polzin explained, makes it sound like the country is always on the brink of war with it’s neighbor, North Korea, when in fact, South Korea is not all that intimidated by its northern neighbor.

South Korea also has peace with China and Japan, he said.

As fair as poverty level, South Korea has poor areas like anywhere else, but Seoul doesn’t seem to have very much of it, he noted.

Salary jobs are very desired, and education is strongly emphasized.

Because of this, there isn’t the demand for native teachers and the government has cut back on this funding. Otherwise, Polzin may have continued teaching a second year.

The climate is much more rainy than in Minnesota, and the winters are not as cold, but there is some snow, he said.

Polzin was also able to travel around South Korea visiting temples, including Haedong Yonggung Temple in Busan.

He and Minnie also took a minivacation to the island of Udo.

“I had a lot of good experiences,” he said, adding that he met a lot of great people, as well.

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