Encountering Special Needs in the English Classroom

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 4th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.com, and he’ll let you know how you can start participating!

View the full blog carnival here!

I wrote a blog post about this about a year and a half ago, so longtime readers might be familiar with the story.  This month’s blog carnival topic is about most memorable and special moments in the classroom, so I can’t really think of a better story to tell than to repeat this one and add a few updates to it.  I also submitted this story some time ago to EPIK, and it is now one of the many great stories featured in the School Culture Episode section of their website.

One of the things that have been very frustrating about teaching at my school is how students with disabilities and  learning differences are treated in the classroom. My school is very big (over 1000 students). I only teach the 5th and 6th grades, and out of those classes, I’ve encountered a handful of students with various degrees of learning differences. One of my sixth grade students sits at a desk at the front of the classroom in the corner alone, and he just sleeps or smiles the whole time. He never speaks or participates and is ignored by everyone. Another student is very smart and always speaks to me in English, but has a very hard time staying still. He is constantly out of his seat or distracted by something. All he needs is a little redirection and he’s fine, but he’s never made to do any school work or encouraged to participate in the lesson.

There’s a boy in another class who sits at the front of the classroom, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out what to do about him. He never seems to know what’s going on, sleeps, or just does not participate, and he sometimes mocks me. My co-teacher always told me, “He’s slow, don’t worry about him,” and they never make him do the work or call on him in class. The other students call him “crazy” whenever I go over to his desk to help him. One day, I decided it was time to get him to participate in class, and I was determined to get through to him somehow. I knew if I took the time, and let him experience some success in the classroom that it would be beneficial. My plan was just to focus my attention on him for a few class periods to see if I could figure out what he knew, what motivated him, and what I could do to help him be successful. When I’m not leading the class activity, I circle the classroom and check on everyone’s progress. Instead of doing that, I decided I was going to sit next to this student the whole class period and see if I could help him. I figured even if I could just keep him from falling asleep, that it would be a step in the right direction. First, I wanted to learn his name. I pointed to myself and told him my name, and then I pointed to him and he said “John.” I was amazed he had an English name (not many people here have “English names”) , and I had a feeling he would keep surprising me. I pointed back at myself, but stayed silent and he said my name again. We did this back and forth a few times, and he was smiling. Then I started pointing at different pictures in the book and saying what they were. These particular pictures happened to be food. Then, on his own he started to point to things and saying what they were in English. I was impressed! He knew a lot more than I thought. So, I drew a smiley face on his paper to show him he did a good job, and he pointed to it and said “smile.” After that it just got better and better. I encouraged him to raise his hand to repeat words and phrases in class. Everyone praised him and he got so excited. A couple days later I did the same thing, but I let him do more on his own. He actually raised his hand to participate without my prompting. Everyone clapped and cheered for him, and again he was so excited and motivated. It was amazing. He’s really smart, but nobody really gives him a chance, and if he had someone there to help him and encourage him I think he would really thrive in the classroom.

Since this breakthrough over a year ago, I’ve witnessed this student grow and learn so much. He still struggles a lot and I can’t speak for his progress in other classes, but from what I have seen in my English classes he’s improved so much and I’m very excited. The best part is passing my acceptance and tolerance on to my students. The very best moment was when I witnessed my students doing for him what I usually do. There is one very high level English student who sits next to him every day and translates for him. She also helps him write the words and phrases in English. She is constantly encouraging him, and when she has free time after she finishes her work she helps him practice English.  He always has a huge smile on his face!

It’s easy to get discouraged when working with so many students, and sometimes it feels like I’m not really making much of a difference. But as a teacher, it’s not just my job to teach English words and phrases, but also to be a good role model and mentor to my students. By modeling the type of behavior I’d like to see in them, I know I can positively affect some of them so that they can in turn pass along this behavior to other people they encounter in their lives.

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EPIK trip to Andong and Yeongju

Fall arrived beautifully here in Korea.  I finally got the opportunity to go on one of the two trips offered every year by the office of education for my province.  Everything was paid for, and we got two days off from school to attend the trip.  I was really excited because my friends had told me the trips were really fun and interesting, and that we get to stay in nice hotels in beautiful places.

This years trip was to the north of Gyeongbuk province to the cities of Andong and Yeongju, both very historically cultural places in Korea.  I had never been to either so I was excited to finally get to see them.  The first stop we made in Andong was to a small folk museum.  I have to say it wasn’t too interesting, but the location was really beautiful.  I got some great pictures of the trees changing colors.  After that we had lunch (disappointing), and had a little bit of time to explore Woryeonggyo (Woryeong Bridge).


After that we drove to Yeongju where we would be staying over night.  It ended up being a folk village with the traditional Korean buildings and houses (hanok).   We participated in various cultural activities there.  I did the painting class, and the traditional tea ceremony class.   That night we were kind of trapped in this village as there was no convenience stores or restaurants nearby.  There wasn’t really anything to do, so the girls in my room just had a  “slumber party”, and went to bed early.


Our accommodation for the night.

Our accommodation for the night.

The next day we woke up early and explored more of the folk village and the museum that was also located there giving information about the history of the area in Yeongju.


Our last activity for the day was to see Buseoksa Temple.  This temple was located in the mountains, and was especially beautiful in the fall.  I’m really glad I got to see it during this season.


Overall the trip wasn’t very exciting, and a lot of people complained and were disappointed (apparently the budget got cut this year so it wasn’t as good as previous trips).  But, I got to see some new beautiful places and had two days off school so that was really nice!

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Korean cooking class

Last Saturday I finally took one of the Korean cooking classes offered by the YMCA in Daegu.  I was super excited to learn how to make one of my favorite Korean dishes: Jjimdak.   It’s basically stewed chicken with vegetables.  There are many ways to make it with lots of different variations and styles.  We learned just the very basic recipe, and it turned out great.  It was very simple to make, so I am confident I will be able to make it easily at home.  I can’t wait to make it for my friends and family back home when I return!


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Halloween in Korea! (again)

This year has gone by so fast.  It feels like I just wrote a post about last year’s Halloween.  I was really excited about my costume idea, and I’d been planning it for about a year. I wanted to do it last year, but I didn’t have enough time to put it all together.  This year, I was determined to pull it off.  I got all my materials together and worked hard sewing every day for a few weeks.  I’m terrible at sewing, so it took me a really long time and it was very tedious.  But, I did it!



I had a blast hanging out with friends downtown and hitting up a few Halloween parties at various bars in downtown Daegu.  I went into one bar that just opened recently.  On their advertisement they mentioned prizes for the best costumes.  I asked them about it, and the people working there didn’t know anything about it.  So I said, “Well your poster outside says you have prizes for costumes…So…it was a lie?”  And they laughed and said “Yes”.  Hahah…I guess I’m not surprised.

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Jeju Island Highlights: Hamdeok Beach


My accommodation for the trip was right across from Hamdeok beach.  Since it wasn’t peak season, we had almost the whole area to ourselves.  I was blown away by how beautiful this beach was.  I never thought a beach like this could exist in Korea.  It rivaled Borocay in the Philippines, in my opinion.  The water was the perfect temperature and crystal clear.  The beach had beautiful white sand, and was surrounded by amazing volcanic rock creations.  The only downside was there seemed to be an overpopulation of fish.  It was hard to swim without getting pelted in the face by swarming schools of small fish.  The guys kept kicking them in the water and making them fly out at us.  You could probably hear us screaming from a mile away.  It was fun though, and a true paradise on Jeju island.




This beach is very secluded, and there aren’t a lot of options for food, shopping, nightlife, etc.  On the first night we were there, our huge group all crowded around the local convenience store, and we turned it into our own bar/club.  In Korea there aren’t any open container laws so you can drink anywhere.  Most convenience stores have picnic tables set up outside so you can drink and eat snacks and ramen.  At one point there were probably about 70 of us outside this store drinking, playing cards, talking, and even dancing.  A guy pulled up his car and blasted some hip hop.  It was quite a sight to see and experience.  The poor people working inside didn’t seem sure what to make of it all, not to mention the Koreans and their families walking by.  It’s definitely something I will not forget any time soon!

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Jeju Island Highlights: Jungmun Beach


I was so busy touring all the beautiful landmarks around Jeju island that I barely had enough time to just relax on the beach.  Fortunately, on my tour of the southwest side of the island we had a couple hours to spend at one of the best beaches on Jeju: Jungmun beach.  Since it was Chuseok holiday, and the officially summer beach season had ended, the beach wasn’t too crowded.  The water was a perfect temperature.  There was just enough wind to create some great waves for surfing.  I didn’t get to surf, but I enjoyed watching the beginners surfing class that was going on while I was there.

I spend about 30 minutes in the water, and then joined my friends on the beach who were busy burying a guy named Joel in the sand. I’m sure this beach gets super crowded during the peak of summer, but visiting in late September was perfect.  It wasn’t too hot or too cold.  The air and water temperature was just right, and the amount of people there wasn’t overwhelming.



I’m terrible at jumping pictures.

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Jeju Island Highlights: Sanbangsa (Sanbang Temple)


On my tour of the southwest side of Jeju island, we stopped by the beautiful Sanbang temple.  It’s nestled in the side of a mountain with an amazing view of the ocean.  The whole mountain is the result of volcanic activity.  Walking around the temple I was completely in awe of it’s beauty.  When you’ve been in Korea long enough, many of the temples blend together and start to look the same.  This temple definitely stood out though, not only for it’s amazing location but also for the beautiful artwork and statues inside of it.




There is also a grotto you can climb up to which I’ve heard is very nice.  I decided not to go up there though, and instead rested on a bench and admired the view.


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