Interview with Tonya Chen @hellotonyateacher

In this blog article we speak with Tonya, a language lover, fellow travel bug carrier, and free-spirited English teacher with 7+ years experience teaching international students. She went on her own teaching abroad adventure to South Korea, and now helps other aspiring teachers embark on their teaching journey’s with her online support program.

Hi! I’m Tonya Chen, 28 years old, and originally from Catonsville, Maryland. My teaching career started in 2012 when I taught Spanish at daycare centers in Maryland. I then made the scariest and best decision of my life to relocate to South Korea through the TaLK Program. I taught in a public school in the countryside for one year and then decided I wanted to live in Seoul. I worked at Seoul English Village Pungnap Camp and after that I got a taste of the suburban life, teaching at Uiwang Global English Center. Yes, I did a little bit of everything and each position brought its own unique and fun experience! Since leaving Korea I’ve been teaching English online to students in China through VIPKID and pride myself on being a 5-star rated teacher! TEFL is such a fun world- having taught preschoolers to adults, online, offline, in my home country and abroad- I truly have learned so much about myself, the world, and it has been an amazing ride!

Hello Tonya, what made you want to teach English abroad in the first place?

At the time it felt quite random really. I saw this flyer for the TaLK Program in South Korea posted in the hallway at my university. I had always wanted to study abroad and never took advantage of it. It was my senior year and I thought that teaching English abroad sounded so cool. However, I shoved it off as a “Plan B”. I had a job at a small translation company and as a foreign language major, felt that sticking with this job was the most “responsible” thing to do. But no matter how much I tried to ignore the idea, I couldn’t. And so, I slowly began doing more and more research about Korea and teaching English. That research turned into beginning the application, which then turned into accepting my first position abroad.

Why did you pick Korea?

Honestly I feel like Korea picked me. I studied Arabic and Spanish at university and so obvious choice would’ve been for me to move to a country that spoke one of those two languages. However after seeing that flyer advertising Korea, I couldn’t get Korea out of my mind. It felt so random but so right. I knew I had to go.

In terms of the job search, what was the hardest part of it? What tips would you give to any first-time teachers applying from their home country?

My first time around, I saw the TaLK program, applied and got in. I didn’t look at any other options. Turns out I was qualified for better positions so I always recommend people to do their research and look at all their options. Once in the country, having mingled with more seasoned expats and teachers, I decided to do thorough research for my next job. The hardest part is being patient and true to what you know you want in a position. Often times recruiters will be pushy about certain positions but it’s important to know your wants and needs so you can choose a job wisely.


The hardest part is being patient and true to what you know you want in a position

What was the biggest culture shock you encountered in South Korea? What advice would you give to teachers preparing for living in Korea?

The biggest culture shock for me was standing out and never being able to blend in. I’m not someone who naturally enjoys all eyes on me and being stared at all the time was very taxing if I’m honest. I desperately wanted to blend in a times and of course that’s simply not possible in a homogenous society like Korea. 

My advice is to know what you’re getting yourself into. Talking with current or previous teachers/expats is a great way to get an insider’s look. This advice can also come through blogs and YouTube videos. For example, one way this helped me was understanding that Koreans are very blunt before I moved. Often labeled as “rude” I knew that I’d need to go in with a “thick skin” and not have my feelings on my sleeve when living in Korea. This was really important for someone like me to know BEFORE moving, as I tend to be someone who avoids confrontation, so I could’ve easily misinterpreted Korean behaviors as abrasive or aggressive.

How about the teaching, was there anything that surprised you about the work or the students?

So many surprises in the TEFL classroom! I think the biggest surprise was how important classroom management is. I think oftentimes, before moving, people focus on the actual teaching, lesson planning and how to effectively do so. This is definitely important, however, if your students aren’t listening, they’re misbehaving or just unmotivated, all the planning, beautiful PPTs, and so on don’t matter. Developing my own system for managing my classes, relating with students and creating a positive learning environment was something that improved over time. However once in place, a solid CM plan changes the game!

Unfortunately, teaching abroad does not always work out well for everyone, and you hear of teachers having bad experiences with schools and recruiters. What changes to the system would you like to see for foreign teachers in Korea?

I’d like for teachers to come in more prepared and aware of what they’re actually getting themselves into. I’ve spoken to so many teachers who felt like that were thrown into the wilderness and blindsided by what goes into being a TEFL teacher. I’d also like to see more regulation around teacher contracts, training/orientation, support, and regulation that prevents scams like cheating teachers out of money.

You were in Korea for 3 years, what made you decide to go back to the States?

I knew I wanted to spend some time back in the States to see family, catch up with friends and ground myself for a bit in my hometown. But what really happened, I found love in Korea with a man in the US Air Force (the timing was perfect)! So we both came back to the States and since then I’ve been travelling with my now husband through the military.

I absolutely LOVED my time teaching abroad and could definitely see myself returning to Korea or elsewhere.

You run your own blog and online courses to help teachers start their journey teaching abroad. Can you tell us more about this, and why you started it?

Yes! So as you’re aware, there’s not much of a support system out there for people who want to take an alternative career path as a TEFL teacher. The application process is lengthy, tedious and often times you don’t know if you’re even doing it all right. Then the transition from your current life to a new career as an English teacher and being a foreigner adjusting to a new country, culture and language is A LOT to say the least. As you mentioned, there are so many horror stories out there and throughout the journey there are so many lessons to learn.

I wanted to create a way of helping those who have the desire but find all of this daunting and overwhelming. I work with aspiring TEFL teachers to help them navigate this job search the smart way, avoid scams, prepare a competitive application and truly prepare themselves for a smooth and pleasant transition. From bridging the language barrier gap with a solid study plan to creating a classroom management plan that’ll save you so much time & stress!

Overall, it really just feels amazing getting photos from my clients living their best life abroad and knowing I helped make their journey and transition a pleasant experience.

Lastly, what would you say was the main highlight of your teach abroad experience?

The main highlight? That’s a hard one. But if I had to name one it would be my dance career in Korea. Answering this “random calling” to move to Korea and teach English unlocked so many blessings for me. I grew up dancing but was very on and off with it. In Korea I was introduced to the insane K-pop/ K-urban dance scene. I performed in videos, did live buskings streamed to thousands, and was even sought out to teach my own Dance English K-pop class! It was an INCREDIBLE experience living out a passion of mine abroad and knowing that my courage to take the leap abroad was what made it all possible.

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