My Journey With TaLK: Bumpy and Uncertain Beginnings

My Journey With TaLK: Bumpy and Uncertain Beginnings

By: Carey Lau
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It was the summer of 2012 when I first heard about the TaLK program from a friend. It sounded almost too good to be true: teach elementary students for only 15 hours a week, no curriculum, and a chance to explore Korea. I was thoroughly intrigued when I compared that to what I had at the time: exams, papers, labs and finals. I later discovered their website (it was very informative) and attended an information session at SFU to obtain more reliable information and to get some burning questions answered. TaLK is a scholarship program funded by the National Institute for International Education (NIIED) and is a part of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology in South Korea. The TaLK scholarship program invites native English speakers from seven major English-speaking countries who are current undergraduates and graduates to teach English to elementary students in rural areas of South Korea on six-month or one-year contracts.  The aim of the TaLK program is to improve English public education in rural areas while giving young learners an opportunity to develop their English skills, build confidence, and encourage learning. 

As I learned more about the TaLK program, I imagined myself applying the skills I’ve learned towards teaching more and more. Coming from a background in Science and Business, along with piano music certification and an AP art portfolio, I saw myself as the ideal candidate. Arrogant? Maybe. But I was ambitious – I was keen on gauging my personal growth and taking on a worthy challenge that I’ll probably never forget. It was a challenge indeed. The seemingly endless amount of paperwork and preparation was an immense mountain to climb that required proper timing and minute execution.  Failing to get a certain document in or missing an important email would mean having to wait half a year to be considered in the next intake period. The application and selection process took at least two months and many emails.

Come January, one SFU panel interview and one Skype interview from the Seoul TaLK Office later, I was notified of my acceptance but I wasn’t off the hook yet. I raced through my pre-departure checklist: criminal record check, passport photos, visa application, flight arrangements, emergency contacts, settle things with my bank, pack my belongings, and last-minute goodbyes. My family was reluctant at first to let me go, but they too felt the strong desire and witnessed the dedication I’ve shown throughout my application period. After an embarrassing show of waterworks at the airport, I was on my 14 hour flight to Korea. I gazed out the side window: a cluster of minuscule lights and monotonous grey that was Vancouver and then clouds, azure-sky and brightness. I entertained myself on the flight with movie re-runs, grainy music and the occasional, roller-coaster-like turbulence.

I groggily stumbled through customs at Incheon airport and was greeted with a warm welcoming-team of TaLK volunteers. They shuttled me to the dorms at the Sejong Campus of Korea University in Jochiwon where I will spend the next month. I was immediately shuffled into a mini-orientation for early-comers the next day as we waited for the rest of the 200 TaLK scholars to arrive from around the world. With barely enough time to breathe or look around, the 211 of us went through a month of intensive training at Jochiwon. Lectures and exams back at home were nothing compared to the daily 8:30am-6:30pm Jochiwon ones. But somehow between our hectic lecture schedules and 11pm curfews – we found time to create memories and laugh together. Although the lectures felt like forever; the goodbyes seemed too short. We all dispersed with feelings of nostalgia and headed towards our respective provinces for another week of provincial training.

On the last day of provincial training, my Korean mentor teacher from my school came to pick me up. The first thing she did when she saw me was hold my hand. I don’t know why she did it but as I held her hand, I felt a sense of familiarity and assurance. I was later driven to my apartment in Andong and left to make myself at home. Afterwards, I spent some time walking around and did some lesson planning for my first week of teaching. Not knowing enough Korean to even order food from a menu, I took the bus and ended up at my main school when I should’ve gone to my second school on my first day. I sat in my business-casual attire with my large and clumsy-looking bag of materials in the school office with my mentor teacher as they contacted someone from my second school to come get me. I was exhausted and embarrassed when I arrived so there was no room left for anxiety as I stepped into the small computer classroom that doubled as the English classroom.

“Hello! My name is Carey and I’m from Canada.” From then on, I was known as “Carey Teacher” to my students. Seeing the cheerful faces of the children and having a supportive group of staff and teachers at both of  my schools inspired me to give my 100% to them. I often lesson plan for hours to come up with fun and interactive topics for the children. I also tried to accommodate for classes that had a mixed level of English comprehension and knowledge deficits. But no matter how much I prepare, things don’t always go as planned and I’m starting to accept that as a part of my teaching experience. They told me at orientation that it may take the children an entire semester to learn the letters A-H and I laughed. But as I see my kindergarteners correctly circle all the A’s and B’s from the other letters three weeks later, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. After a month of teaching, I’m starting to see the difference that I’m making and that gives me the confidence to hold the hands of these children as we run down the hall towards our English class together.

Carey's experience was also featured in the Fall 2013 TaLK Newsletter.

Beyond the Article

Posted on April 28, 2013