Former Cowl Editor-in-Chief on Teaching English in South Korea, Connecting With Others, and Hearing Their Stories
by Sara Conway ’21
It had been a long 15 hours for Kerry Torpey ’20. Flying across the world to South Korea in order to teach English—and during a global pandemic, no less—was no joke.
There was the proper paperwork to put together before departing from the United States, then there was the 15-hour flight itself. But one of the last hurdles was the temperature check after landing at Incheon International Airport.
Since her trip was in February, Torpey wore a sweater and her winter coat for the flight. Unfortunately, when mixed with her backpack—which was “15 pounds heavier than it was supposed to” be—dragging her luggage through the airport, and the general stress of traveling overseas during a global health crisis, Torpey’s temperature was just slightly higher than what the authorities at the airport considered acceptable.
Cue her desperate efforts to cool down once she was in another line for those who had not quite made the temperature cut. The backpack was dropped, the coat was shed, and her hair was up. So close and yet so far.
Although Torpey would not leave for South Korea until February 2021, she began the tenuous process of acquiring the proper paperwork for her journey in July 2020. “Everything’s in the context of COVID-19,” Torpey said, detailing that if something was slightly off, you could be sent back to the U.S. before you even stepped outside of Korea’s airport. Plus, before she could board the plane in the U.S., Torpey needed a negative COVID test, so she spent her last month in America self-quarantining. Hence why she “wasn’t able to breathe” until she actually got to South Korea, made it through the airport gates, and was safely quarantining in her room. And although Torpey has been in Seoul teaching for a little more than a month, she said that it did not feel real quite yet.
Currently, Torpey is teaching English in a public school in Seoul, South Korea, where she has 22 different classes of students ranging from grades four through six. She applied for a teaching position through English Program In Korea, a program with the Korea National Institute for International Education, which is under the umbrella of the Korean Ministry of Education. While Torpey’s application was handled by EPIK, her employer is actually the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, since EPIK recommends specific applicants to education offices across South Korea that then hire the teachers themselves.
Pursuing a degree in education was on her mind during her time at Providence College, but Torpey was unable to double major in it alongside her English studies. But she remembers Cowl copyeditor Jennifer Dorn ’18, who received a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English in the Czech Republic. That moment in her sophomore year, Torpey notes, is when she really started looking into teaching English internationally. As to why she wanted to teach abroad—and specifically in South Korea—Torpey had a few attachments to the country, one being a high school friend who resides there.
Another was the vast difference between American and Korean culture. “That intrigued me beyond no degree,” Torpey said. She wanted to be in a place where she would have to learn, adapt, and immerse herself, especially with the language hurdle, although Torpey emphasized that Hangul, the alphabetical system that forms the basis of written Korean, is “potentially one of the greatest inventions of all time” (no disagreements there). But this cultural difference simultaneously holds infinite possibilities of exploration and fostering a deeper understanding: “the most human connection you can have with someone is talking about where you come from.”
As an English major, a staff writer, and an editor of the Arts & Entertainment section of The Cowl, and later Editor-in-Chief, these experiences built solid foundations for Torpey to pursue teaching English. She joined The Cowl September of her freshman year and moved up to an editor position by the end of the year, which further developed her “confidence in [her] ability to write, to edit, and [her] grasp of the English language.” While she was too late to double major in education, Torpey did take courses such as Educational Psychology taught by Dr. Kevin O’Connor, which focuses on classroom management and formulating better insight into the kids in your classroom.
She also has been around educators her entire life. Torpey’s grandmother was a teacher; her sister is a teacher; and her aunt is a dean of a law school. In addition, she volunteered in her sister’s second grade classroom for about five years, so Torpey is familiar with the school environment for younger learners.
These experiences also gave Torpey confidence as she prepared for her new role as an English teacher in a new country. She stressed that the schools and their relationship with their native-speaking English teachers are varied, and it depends on where someone ends up. Torpey’s school gives her a fair amount of creative freedom as she structures her lessons around the textbook and adds her own personal touches.
The nucleus of Torpey’s preparation, however, was research. Years of research. She is naturally still learning, but Torpey made sure that she was culturally aware and respectful of Korean customs, many of which are drastically different from those in the United States. Torpey emphasized that it all boils down to respect and understanding what is rude and what is polite, particularly for a culture that is founded on respect and hierarchy such as South Korea. For example, in Korea, one has to give and receive things with two hands.
Torpey is also the youngest teacher in her school, which is a role within itself. Since she is a foreigner, she generally is not expected to know certain customs. However, Torpey’s “effort to learn” demonstrated an awareness and a willingness that deeply respects the country, the history, and the culture of the place in which she now resides.
Language studies was a necessary part of preparations as well. Torpey used online resources including YouTube, a program called Talk to Me in Korean, and various apps. While she was in quarantine in Korea, she took an online class. Currently, Torpey is looking for a course in Korea, noting that she often learns better in a classroom setting.
While she has been studying the Korean language for some time, Torpey does get stressed about speaking. Although it is a persistent hurdle, she is aware that she has to push herself to use the language because “the only way you’re going to get better is if you use it.” In the end, yet again, “it is the effort that counts.” And Torpey does understand more than she gives herself credit, which she acknowledges, recounting, “Sometimes my co-workers will say something to me in Korean, and it’s funny, so I’ll laugh.” Torpey chuckles as she remembers their surprised reactions.
When I asked her about her expectations for South Korea and for teaching, Torpey said she had none. “There’s just so many unknowns that how can you possibly have any expectations?” Torpey muses over how she is usually a planner, but the journey to South Korea, including the 15-hour long flight—and the experience living in the country—has shown her that you can plan all you want, but those same certainties can be uprooted just as quickly. However, despite having no expectations, Torpey again emphasized respect: “take everything with grace and respect for others and yourself.”
This has guided Torpey from the day she landed in Korea and beyond. Now, a month into teaching, she is “grateful” and excited to go to work every day. However, it all “comes back to the students and their willingness and eagerness to learn and how open they are.” The first day was like how most are when they meet someone new. Her students were “a little shy, a little intimidated,” and Torpey remembers that they were a bit “fascinated” by her since Korea is a relatively racially homogenous place.
Despite the differences in age, culture, and experiences, mutual interests bridge Torpey and her students, who call her “Kerry Teacher.” On the first day, she created an introduction PowerPoint and because she mentioned that she played basketball for a while, she now plays with some other teachers on Wednesdays.
This foundation of openness that Torpey set from the beginning is what characterizes her classroom. By being “welcoming and accepting,” she encourages a mutual exchange that then builds an “inclusive and comfortable” space. Although her students do not speak fluent English, “we can still have conversations in which we are making connections with one another over similar interests in sports or movies or music,” Torpey added. In essence, a “human-to-human connection” is created. She gave the example of one of her lesson games called “Stay Alive,” which made learning “I have a cold” a lot more fun for her sixth graders, many of whom like playing video games. The lesson was designed so students can gain a life, lose one, or, if they were physically in class, steal a life as they worked to improve their writing and speaking skills. Listening to her students and taking note of what they like allows her to “find games that cater to their interests,” thus making the process of learning English more engaging for everyone.
While Torpey is the teacher, there is a great deal that she has already learned in her (short) time in South Korea. “We are all such small fish in a big sea,” she reflected, drawing the conversation to her walks through Olympic Park in Seoul, which she often finds many older Koreans strolling through as well. “The oldest generations here either remember the Korean War or grew up in the years that followed, in which the country was in a serious economic struggle as they tried to create a new nation,” Torpey continues. She emphasizes that the “rich history of South Korea can be seen on every corner in Seoul, and it is important not to forget this history when thinking about South Korea, which many now associate with pop culture.”
However, as Torpey notes, “the people who are here have stories from all of those time periods,” from the Korean War to its economic boom. As the time inches closer to 11 p.m. in South Korea, Torpey thoughtfully adds her personal reflection: “It’s made me realize how important it is for all of us to try and broaden our worldviews.” She emphasizes that there are so many stories ready to be told at our fingertips, and “Korea is a country that is incredibly rich with stories.”
Stories are the common thread: “With the pandemic, when you aren’t around people as much, you kind of lose that humanness a little bit and that connection and that closeness with people.” Teaching in a totally new country, while there are numerous challenges, presents a unique opportunity, where there are new stories and new histories to be found.
There is clarity in Torpey’s eyes as she concludes, “While I can’t speak the language very well, I still feel like there’s so much to appreciate here within the culture, within the people and the stories that they have. That’s why it’s important to me to study the language very hard, too. I’m not going to be an expert by the next year, but I want to be able to talk to people and hear their stories.”
One of Torpey’s favorite Korean words is ha-ru, meaning “one day.” Maybe one day Torpey will be able to speak to the people of Korea and hear their stories in their native language. But even now, she is connecting on a fundamental human level as a teacher, learning about the Korean culture, and getting to know her students—the next generations—and their own stories. And that is a start.