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Korea experience sparks Lisa LaBeau's desire to keep traveling

As might be expected the Korean singer PSY and “Gangnam Style” was everywhere during Lisa LaBeau’s year in Korea pictured here on left with two friends. (Submitted photo)1 / 5
Without having any formal training as a teacher, Lisa LaBeau said she initially had some issues with discipline but learned on the job how to handle those few problem students. She said the majority of her students wanted to learn and enjoyed having an American as a teacher. (Submitted photo)2 / 5
Lisa LaBeau said she got along well with her Korean colleagues during her year-long experience teaching English in a variety of Korean schools. She was often left to her own devices to communicate with her students. She learned to eat cake with chopsticks. (Submitted photo)3 / 5
Lisa LaBeau, Class of 2009, learned to play the ukulele at Hudson High School from teacher Gerry Uchytil. She teamed up with two other musicians and performed at an open mic night while she was in Korea. (Submitted photo)4 / 5
:Lisa LaBeau spent a lot of time hiking in the parks and many mountains of Korea. The towers of rocks in this part were made by one man to honor the families that were separated from one another during the war between North and South Korea. (Submitted photo)5 / 5

Lisa LaBeau had hoped to spend a year teaching in Spain following her graduation from UW-Eau Claire with a Spanish major but when a position wasn’t available she thought she’d try another country. That’s how the Hudson High School Class of 2009 graduate ended up in South Korea for a year. It wasn’t what she had planned but she knows now she wants to keep traveling.

It was her father Glen who found a recruiting agency for teachers on craigslist. After an interview process, LaBeau, 23, headed for a year-long teaching assignment in an area south of Seoul of about a million people.

She worked in a variety of schools over the year, both public and private, and also served as a private tutor to both children and adult students.

She admits to being somewhat intimidated by the role of teacher, not having had any education classes in college.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had no expectations so that might have been good but it was a challenge at times.”

LaBeau said it didn’t help that there was no orientation to her new job upon arriving in country. Short of the 45-minute Skype interview, she really didn’t know much about the schools she would be assigned or Korean education at large. She said the biggest challenge was adjusting to each new situation she was assigned with her students’ ages ranging from kindergarten to college-age and older.

“I really never had any set curriculum at any given school or from place to place. Lesson planning was difficult under those circumstances and it was hard to prepare for classes. A lot of time, the teachers I worked with wouldn’t have much planned either. They would just point out some pages and tell me to teach from them that day. A lot of it felt kind of last minute.”

Despite those feelings, LaBeau said she enjoyed working with the students and the teachers and learning about Korean culture. While she had a few difficulties with disciplining some older boys, Korean children are raised to respect their elders and have a very specific code of conduct they follow. Education in Korea is “very intense.” Students go to regular school from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then to a “hagwon,” a smaller setting where they work with tutors often until 10 p.m. There are comprehensive tests that students must past to go onto university and it is all very competitive.

She said her female students and fellow teachers often said they envied her. “American women can do anything but in Korea, a lot of things are more like the 1950s for women. Women tend to defer to men but I think it is getting better with time.”

Regarding the threats made by the North Korean government against South Korea, she said South Koreans have heard it all before and tend not to take it seriously.

She made friends among her Korean colleagues but believes she made lifelong friends with many of the other American teachers she met while there as well as friends from Europe and South Africa. “It was easy to meet other ex-pats and we took some great trips together.”

An apartment was part of her compensation and the pay was “decent” according to LaBeau. She took advantage of it by traveling extensively through the county. South Korea is more than 70 percent mountains and she spent a lot of her time hiking through them. Her travels also included a trip to the DMZ – demilitarized zone near the North Korean border as well as other countries including Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines. She also loved Korean food, especially the barbeque.

LaBeau said she learned a lot about herself during her experience.

“I didn’t know any Korean or even the alphabet when I got there. There is just something missing when you can’t communicate. I kept thinking ‘what have I gotten myself into,’ but looking back, all of it was fascinating. Not knowing anything about a place meant I looked at it all with fresh eyes. And I learned to communicate. It was a great experience I wouldn’t trade and it felt really good to see my commitment through to the end.”

LaBeau will spend some time around home for the near future but she intends to take another extended journey, hopefully this time to central or South America. She isn’t interested in just being a tourist. She wants live and work in the countries she visits. She proved to herself she can do it.

LaBeau is the daughter of Glen and Florence LaBeau of Hudson.

Meg Heaton
Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
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