Teaching with Chopsticks


ICAL TEFLGuest blogger Jonathan Last presents an extract from his autobiographical book, Teaching with Chopsticks, an honest, funny, and insightful account of a year spent teaching English in South Korea.

Lunchtime. I’m trying to hide my growing weariness at rice every day, and fantasising about getting scouted by Seoul FC and seeing out the rest of my time in Korea as the first English superstar in the K-League, when the staffroom chatter is broken by the rare sound of English.

‘Jon?’ It’s Soon-yi.

‘Hmm? Oh… uh-huh?’

‘I will monitor your class today.’

‘Monitor my class? Today?’

‘Yes. To see the problem and help you.’

So that’s that then. I feel a mixture of fear and relief, which is soon joined by confusion when, instead of coming into the classes I always complain about, she elects to monitor my most mature group (aged thirteen or so), Older Class. It’s a comparatively good bunch, but certainly not without its quirks. At twelve, it’s my largest class and has an eclectic mix of characters, including a stubborn and pouty girl (Lindsay); a couple of lairy but harmless boys (Derek and Brian); a smart kid I can always rely on to know the answer (Tom); a vacant-looking quiet one (Terry); and some obedient but sometimes excessively giggly girls.

With their hormones just starting to kick in, Older Class can be a real battle of the sexes. It’s very hard to resolve disputes, since I can’t understand the subtleties of what they’re squabbling about, and moving them around the room never really helps, as voices don’t have to travel very far in the tiny classroom. Brian, for one, I don’t want to put with his mates, but the limited number of seats means that he’s always either next to them (bad) or his mortal enemy Lindsay (worse).

Anyway, I’m hugely nervous as I kick off the monitored class – it’s impossible to be free and easy in a pressured situation like this. Soon-yi’s sitting at the back writing a lot of stuff down on her pad. We’re studying directions, and the bulk of the class time sees them split into groups of three to give each other directions around a town map. I think I do all right, monitoring their progress, asking a range of questions, making sure they cover each of the four key areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing. I’m particularly pleased with the way I explain the follow-on activity, three different uses of look: look at a tree; look for my glasses; look scared – all improvised, I might add.

Soon-yi leaves at the end without saying a word to me.

A few days later, my trusted supervisor finally gives me some feedback. Bring it on.

‘Okay Jon, we should talk about your class that I monitored.’


‘I think that you should get them interested. More interested.’

‘Okay… what do you suggest?’

‘Bring in materials from home. You can use the internet, and print out at school. You can move away from the book.’

‘Sure. I’ll do that.’

‘Also, you should make sure they are taking it all in.’

‘How can I know that they are taking it in?’

‘Just ask them lots of questions.’

‘Okay. Um, what about discipline problems?’

‘Just come find me if they are really bad.’

‘But I want to stop them from being really bad.’

‘If they like you, they will respect you.’

‘But I thought I was supposed to be strict with them. They don’t like me when I’m strict.’

‘You can decide how strict to be.’

This de-brief’s taking a familiar turn. Overall, she’s satisfied with what I am doing and, on reflection, it did go pretty well, giving the appearance that I actually know what I’m doing, and demonstrating some banter with the kids. Ironically, if the monitored class had been a total cock-up, it could’ve actually been a good thing, the catalyst to get Soon-yi off her arse to actually lend a helping hand.

Perhaps her decision to come into my best class isn’t so baffling after all.


ICAL TEFLJonathan Last has taught English to adults and children in Europe and Asia. He currently works as a journalist in the not-for-profit sector. 

Jonathan Last’s hilarious autobiographical novel Teaching with Chopsticks: TEFL from the Frontline is available to download to PC, Kindle, Ipad and other e-book reading devices.

See also, Teaching English in South Korea

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