One of the common complaints levied against native English instructors in Korea’s public school system is that they’re ineffective. For all the money spent on woneomins (원어민), the media has long cried the investment is an unwise one. Since making the switch in 2011, from the hagwon system, I’ve been able to gauge just how effective I am as native instructor at a middle school.
I’ll add some of the common speaking points and then provide my personal thoughts towards them.
Foreign teachers can’t teach to the test, and since tests are paramount, their classes are inconsequential.
Scroozle’s verdict: Mostly true, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
Tests are of the utmost importance in Korea. It’s been that way since Confucian scholars wiggled their way into Korea centuries ago. Different initiatives have tried to wrestle the Korean educational system out of its obsession with memorization, but they haven’t been entirely effective.
When the foreign teacher teaches, chances are their material isn’t coming directly out of the textbook. The Ministry of Education here does not provide pre-made lessons for the native teachers. The Korean teachers have their lessons made for them via CD-ROMS, and they sometimes supplement them with worksheets and other activities. The native teachers don’t have that luxury.
Can we teach to the test? Of course we could, and our classes don’t have to be entirely independent from the rest of the English program at the school. The native teacher can always make test questions and make their classes relevant to the examinations.
The MOE hasn’t made any effort in trying to incorporate the teaching style of Western instructors into the curriculum. The native teacher’s job is to improve fluency and overall communication, but they do not feature whatsoever in exams. This is supposed to change with the upcoming NEAT examination, but the government responded by slashing the budgets of the English programs, and shooting itself in the foot.
Foreign teachers aren’t actually qualified to teach in Korea.
Scroozle’s verdict: Wrong.
People making this argument have no idea what the native teacher actually does in Korea. They have some trumped up idea, and go with it.
This argument is usually framed by judging our qualifications in our own countries. Since I’m not qualified to teach English in Canada, I’m not qualified to teach it in Korea. However, I don’t think that’s a logical leap to make. The job I’m doing in Korea isn’t the same as the job an English teacher does in Canada. So by that token, none of the Korean teachers are qualified to teach English in foreign countries either. Since we’re not teaching in Canada, why use Canadian qualifications as a measuring stick? It’s a false comparison, and one that doesn’t have anything to do with the position in Korea.
Could qualified English teachers come over here and do what I’m doing? There are very few of them, and I don’t know any personally. I know of people with English/literature majors over here, and people with an educational degree, but not someone who was specifically trained to be an English teacher in the West.
Fully qualified English teachers would probably throw their arms up in disgust before their first month was finished. They’d be making substantially less pay, and working potentially longer hours. There are very few benefits, and the vacation period is laughably less than North America’s. The lack of respect and power within the school’s hierarchy would rankle them. Not to mention the complete lack of career advancement opportunities.
Despite the wailing in the media, Korea has never been serious about attracting fully qualified English teachers. The government simply does not have enough cash to entice them to put up with the hassle of coming over here to teach. Hence the inclusion of the TALK program, which takes university students from abroad, and gives them a teaching contract in rural locations for a lot less money than EPIK teachers.
Despite the allure of being fully qualified with an education major, I’m not entirely convinced such a teacher would know the first thing about teaching in Korea. If you have a university background heavy in analytical thinking, and the humanities, I think you’d be better prepared to tackle Korea. You need to know how to break down cultures in simple terms and feed it to students. You need to have a pretty deep understanding of the world to answer questions the students throw at you on a variety of topics. You need to know how to coach for public speaking/speech contests. You need to know how to get students to drop their guards and let the lesson sink in, which requires an understanding of Korean culture. It’s not as clear cut as simply having a diploma with a teaching certificate.
Foreign teachers are expensive and a drain on resources.
Scroozle’s verdict: Depends.
Are we expensive? Compared to other teachers in Korea, we are. When my pay grade moved to 2.5 million a month, my co-teacher told me she envied me. I was making the same amount of money as a Korean teacher who spent 10 years teaching. Not privy to the pay scales of the other teachers, I took what she said as truth.
Naturally, many of us send money back to our native countries on a frequent basis. When that happens, we realize just how much money we’re actually making in Korea. While the cost of living is cheap in Korea, and our pay cheques afford us a comfortable life, we’re barely over the poverty line in Western countries.
Many of the teachers in Seoul and Gyneonggi-do were cut due to budget shortfalls over the past year. However there’s so much mismanagement of funds, it’s difficult for me to buy the argument that we’re too expensive to keep around. So many useless vanity projects get funding on a frequent basis in Korea, I roll my eyes whenever I read the government can’t afford to pay for native teachers and student lunches.
Of course, this ties into the quality of the teachers, as mentioned above. If the government isn’t willing to dish out the money for qualified English teachers, then why complain about the quality and expense? When you boil it down, English instructors in Korea are essentially specialists. They leave their native land to do a specific job for a populace unable to do the job themselves. If you want to attract specialists, you need to be willing to spend the cash.
Otherwise, you get what you pay for. And when the people responding to jobs, with rock bottom wages, aren’t what you expected, who’s to blame?
Foreign teachers reflect poorly on Korea’s education system.
Scroozle’s verdict: Offensive.
Are there fools teaching English in Korea? Most certainly. I avoid them like the plague, and refuse to associate myself with them. I knew of a guy who had been in Korea for at least five years, and had never completed a single contract. He kept getting released early because of his drinking habits. Was he stupid? Sure, but not as stupid as the people who kept hiring him. I know of another guy who was fired from his job as a teacher for never planning for his classes and failing to show up on work days. He was fired and sent back to his native land, but came back with a new contract at a later date. These people should be flushed out of the system and not reintroduced. Such hiring practises are the cancer eating away at the system.
On the flipside however, there are many excellent teachers in Korea who go forever unnoticed by the masses at large. They get no recognition from anyone, because they are too busy doing a great job teaching. I’ve come into greater contact with them over the years thanks to the interconnectivity of the Korean blogosphere/vlogosphere. EPIK has also allowed me to connect with some pretty great teachers over the past two years. These are people who put up with the constant aggravation and do a job always lambasted by the press. While the regular idiot makes the news, these teachers are busy lesson planning and working through their students’ problems.
If the recruiting process put a greater emphasis on hiring trustworthy and dedicated individuals, we wouldn’t have most of these headlines. Sloppiness and laziness is making it too easy for the dredges of the Western education system to find employment in Korea.
Students find it too difficult to understand the foreign teacher and prefer Korean teachers.
Scroozle’s verdict: Who exactly were you polling?
This particular line has been used again and again over the past year. I’m not even sure where to begin with this one.
Do students find it easier to understand the Korean teachers? Of course they do. That’s because the Korean teachers spend 90-95% of the class time speaking in Korean. Korean teachers are meant to drill grammatical rules and vocabulary into the students’ skulls. Once again, we run into the problem of memorization.
The native teacher’s job is to improve comprehension. If the students aren’t able to comprehend the native teacher, then it’s obvious they need greater exposure and not less. Granted, not every student will understand, as there will always be students who don’t have any English skills whatsoever. I always aim for at least 60% of the class being able to follow me initially. As the lesson progresses, other students explain bits and parts of the class to the remaining 40%. Slowly but steadily, the total percentage of comprehension creeps up before class is finished. My tactics require students to participate in the class to understand things, so if they’re sitting sullenly or distracted by their compact mirrors, the lesson will be lost on them. I also encourage the students to speak to me outside of class so I can strengthen their understanding.
As for preference, the students, in my experience, have always overreacted to my presence in the classroom. I remember ovations whenever I entered hagwon rooms in Daegu. The same thing happens in Gangneung, despite me teaching the students here for nearly two straight academic years. The students gang up whenever my class with them is cancelled, and give my coworkers a rough time. Afterschool students prefer to spend more time with me after the class has officially finished, rather than going home and screwing around with KakaoTalk or computer games. Students across the different grade levels have said I can’t stop teaching at our school, and have forbidden me from discussing “moving on”.
I highly doubt my experience is unique in Korea, and I’m not sure where the statement “students prefer Korean teachers fluent in English over native teachers” even stems from. The foreign teacher will always be a novelty, and in some cases an entertainer, and the students usually react well to that. I try my best to convert that exuberance to focused studying.
Fluent Korean teachers can do the same job as the native English teacher.
Scroozle’s verdict: Good luck with that.
In a perfect world, this would be the best case scenario for Korea. Fully bilingual teachers who are cheaper than the foreign alternative and able to pull off the same job. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in such a reality.
This notion comes off the announcement of over a thousand new positions opening up for fluent Korean teachers. Despite nearly entering my sixth year here in Korea, I haven’t yet found a Korean teacher who is fluent enough to make a passable foreign teacher. I’ve met Koreans that had great speaking abilities but couldn’t construct an error-free written paragraph. I’ve met many gypos (Korean-Americans, etc), who obviously have impeccable English skills, but I don’t think they’re the folks the government wants to hire (being foreign nationals, they’d want decent pay, and the government is aiming to save money).
For all the talk, I’m not sure where the government is going to find all these people. If such people were already in great abundance, why haven’t they already found a job in Korea? If there were so many Koreans with perfect English abilities, they’d be working for multinational corporations, and would probably skip over a two-bit teaching job. Unless, of course, the government’s definition of fluent is far different from mine.
Although it would mean I’d be out of a job, I’m aiming for the day Korea no longer requires E2 visa holders to teach English. I just don’t think we’re there yet.
Alrighty then. What needs to be done, Mr Scroozle?
And now, we come down to it. Buckle up.
Instead of accepting anyone who passes a criminal background check and submits notarized forms, how about an actual skill evaluation? Let’s closely examine their resume for any prior teaching experience. Let’s look at the skills they have and how useful they are in a Korean classroom. For those with teaching experience, ask them to submit lesson plans or videos of them teaching.
For those with prior experience in Korea, closely look at their references and prepare to set your BS detector to “full”.
Stop asking for photographs and hiring people based on their ethnicity. Look at what the individual has to offer and place them in a location that can best use them. Make it a competitive work environment, that can out-compete the likes of China, Taiwan, and Japan.
Native teachers who have spent a long time in Korea have a wealth of experience. Do not cut them for a rookie teacher who has a lower pay grade. Foster a culture of excellence by striving to keep experienced talent within Korea. Teachers who consecutively get good reviews and are dedicated to what they do should never be dropped to the curbside.
Select a few from each province to work as consultants for the Ministry of Education. Have them collect feedback from the teachers under their watch, and use this to guide the program and its curriculum. Foreigners are more likely to be blunt about what is practical in a classroom than Koreans, and are more willing to vocally identify problems. Use this to your advantage.
If you’re not going to abandon the teaching-to-the-test method but insist foreigners do their own thing and later complain they don’t teach to the test, at least have a back up curriculum. Foreigners should be given a guideline of what’s expected of them from their provincial office of education. That way their lessons can hit all the right notes, and the students are aptly prepared for their examinations.
That being said, if you make a curriculum, and the foreign teacher feels ambitious enough to create their own lessons…then encourage it. Hell, ask them to submit it to you so you can incorporate their ingenuity into the English program.
SPLIT THE CLASSES BASED ON SKILL LEVEL AS OFTEN AS YOU CAN
You did this a few years ago, but then stopped when I joined up. The one-size-fits-all approach isn’t very effective. You have students who have no understanding of phonics mixed with students who have studied overseas for numerous years. How effective do you expect such a class to be?
Ideally, the foreign teacher’s class would be held in a special room, and the students would be divided based upon skill level. This is how effective hagwons run their business.
Generally, students with the same skill levels have more fun together, and that translates into more enjoyable classes. An effective teacher can latch onto that and produce better results.
HAVE AN ACTUAL PLAN
Do you know why students are studying English in Korea? Start working towards that goal.
How many programs are there in Korea geared towards the public school system? You have EPIK, GEPIK, SMOE and TALK. EPIK’s for most of the country, SMOE was for Seoul but most of it was cut, GEPIK was just for Gyeonggi-do but it too was cut, and TALK was a strange little side project. Each initiative was announced to great fanfare, but later faltered due to poor management and faulty planning. There’s no excuse for wasting tax payers’ money.
How proficient do you want your students to be? Proficient enough to understand basic English (i.e. read traffic signs)? Okay then. You don’t need foreign teachers for that, as the regular Korean teachers can do that job. Cut the native English teachers, and save the money. The populace will be content, I’m sure, with the poor students using limited English, and the richer students attending private academies for more advanced lessons.
Do you want your students to be able to compete in the international marketplace? Do you want them to attend foreign language schools and study university overseas? Then you’re going to have to drop the Korean approach, and focus on actual comprehension and fluency. Your native English teachers are going to have to teach the students critical thinking, essay writing and coherent speaking. These things aren’t covered in the current textbooks, so what are you doing? If you want to compete against places like Hong Kong and Singapore, you need to seriously step up your game.
BE TRANSPARENT WITH YOUR COMMUNICATIONS
When the changes to the severance pay were made, nobody knew about it. Someone had updated an obscure part of a website and failed to notify everyone else. Oops.
Hire a team to look after the social media outlets so people are kept abreast of the latest news. Stem the flow of rumours and make sure everyone is on the same page.
Things, like contractual rules, are often interpreted differently based on the person reading them. Let’s have a consistent set of rules and interpretations. Make the schools understand they are under your thumb and can’t just make up rules for the native English teacher.
When you assign teachers to a particular school be mindful of past complaints and grievances levelled against the school. If you’re going to invite someone from another country, and pay for their airfare/salary/rent, ensure you’re placing them in a decent location.
HAVE THE FOREIGN TEACHER REVIEW THEIR COWORKERS AND SCHOOL’S ENGLISH PROGRAM
Reviews should be a two-way street. I’ve been blessed with great coworkers, but that hasn’t been true for many of my peers. While we’re weeding out poor native English teachers, let’s start doing the same with poor Korean teachers. We need to make the English public school system a healthier sector if we want it to succeed.
The same can be said of the individual schools’ programs. Find out what works and what doesn’t, so you can suggest appropriate teaching methods and lessons to teachers. You have thousands of people doing different things across the country. That’s a large enough sampling crowd to draw conclusions from.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE CO-TEACHING, THEN START MAKING ENGLISH EDUCATION MAJORS IN KOREA PRACTICE WITH NATIVE TEACHERS BEFORE THEY GRADUATE
This is a no-brainer. If co-teaching is to be the de-facto norm, then prepare the fresh Korean teachers. I had two batches of interns over the years, but I wasn’t able to practise with them, or grade their co-teaching techniques. Although I encouraged them to get involved with my classes, they rarely had incentive to do so.
The more experience a person has at something, the better they get at it. This should be fairly easy to fix.
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