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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Have your own solutions? Sound off in a comment, or on Twitter/Facebook.

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  1. Great essay, and I do agree with most of it. I think it’s a lot more complicated than some of your suggestions would suggest though. I want recruiters to make more of an effort to hire better quality teachers and weed out the bad seeds (permanently), but I think that’s a lot easier said than done! I’ve met several teachers here with loaded resumes, experience in Korea, etc who are just bad teachers. Or theyre here for other reasons. There’s people like me who came here having very little teaching experience, no formal qualifications, and no intention of teaching ever until a few months before coming here–and I now see myself as a very qualified, effective teacher. How could they possibly know that in the hiring process? I didnt even know! haha.

    Just a few thoughts. I think if some of these things were implemented, Korea would be missing out on a lot of unsuspectingly good teachers. :)

  2. I honestly don’t see the need for recruiters in the public school sector. EPIK has its own application process, so it should be making educated choices without needing a 3rd party vetting candidates. By paying recruiters, EPIK’s eating into their own budget, and they should be fully capable of finding people on their own.

    As for the padded resumes, that’s where the “BS detector” comment comes into play. It’s too easy to BS your way through interviews. I know of directors who give fired instructors favourable reference letters because they don’t want to mean. Nuts to that.

    Did you start in the hagwon field like I did? I hold the hagwon industry to a different standard than the public school system here. Being private businesses, hagwons will do whatever they can to maximize profits and minimize losses. The quality of hiring practises will vary from academy to academy. However, hagwon instructors who have proven themselves in the private world, should be given top priority in the public system (in my opinion). They understand the ins and outs of Korea culturally and socially. Their specialized expertise can be of tremendous use.

    As for unproven applicants, it’s a bit of a gamble. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. The majority of applicants are probably going to be unproven (and recently graduated). Trained screening people should be able to determine which applicants are being sincere about their commitment to teach in Korea. Search the internet for their name, and see if they pop in any discussion groups (“Hey guys, I’m looking to be in Busan in a few months. Where are the best places to get drunk?”). Nip as many of those potential problems in the bud as early as possible.

    Right now, the criteria is: A) Do they have a criminal record? B) Do they have traces of drugs in their blood? C) Are they HIV positive? D) Do they have a valid university diploma?

    Here are some alternatives: A) How creative are they? B) What clubs do they belong to/or what hobbies do they have? C) Any prior experience working with kids and teens? D) Have they ever successfully adapted to different locations/cultures? E) Are they active volunteers? F) Do they have any prior leadership experience?

    The applicant might not know how good of a teacher they will initially be, but at least you will know if they have the potential of being a great teacher (if they let the skills develop).

  3. I agree with almost all of this, particularly your solutions, but I have to disagree with your assessment of the motivations of the TaLK program – it being for less qualified applicants willing to work for less money, which seems to be the standard line for Korea blogs whenever they mention TaLK. (Although your description of it as a strange little side project is on-the-mark.) TaLK “scholars” (irritating term, and irritating capitalization) get paid 1.5 million for 15 hours a week teaching. Generally they come to school around lunch time and work half-days. Beginning EPIKers with only a Bachelor’s Degree get 1.8-2.2 million for 22 hours. The hourly rate for TaLK is the same or better. Including non-teaching time, EPIKers’ hourly rates are considerably less. The benefits, including housing, are the same. In TaLK you don’t pay pension and taxes are minimal – I think mine was about 12,000 won a semester. There are also regular cultural trips which need to be taken into account – my year in EPIK included no less than 12 nights in hotels(!) and seemingly endless seafood buffets…

    As for qualifications, the 15 hours are after school programs, for which they want young, frequently bi-lingual Gyopos to engage the kids and make them comfortable with English. Not saying that I agree with the idea – there were plenty of clowns in TaLK, as in EPIK – but that is, I think, the motivation.

    TaLK is probably an over-funded boondoggle – I was a 3rd generation TaLK scholar, and in those days it was completely ridiculous. Our 30 day orientation included things like being dropped off at Lotte World for the day with tickets and 만원 to buy lunch. I’m surprised it is still running. But the idea that it’s motivation is low pay for less-qualified teachers is wrong, I think.

    I miss TaLK. It was a pretty great lifestyle…

  4. Thanks for the great comment, and clearing some stuff up.

    What’s the payscale like for TaLK? The sites I’m looking at says it’s capped at 1.5 million. It doesn’t increase if you stay multiple years, like EPIK?

  5. Yes, 1.5 million for the duration. You can only do TaLK for two years, although I do know some people who’ve managed to get around that – I guess their principal liked them and argued to keep them. It’s supposed to be a “cultural experience”, not a career. For what it is, I think it’s a pretty good deal.

  6. Yes I started in a hagwon, and I completely agree that we should be made top priority when switching to public schools. Not only because we have obviously proven ourselves. but because I think I am a better teacher because I started out at a hagwon. I know all hagwons are different, but there was no hand holding or co-teaching at my hagwon. I was shoved in a room alone with a group of kids my first day with no training, curriculum, or information. I worked my ass off the whole year, and I learned very quickly what works and what doesn’t, was able to do hardcore lesson planning and curriculum building, completely on my own.

    I don’t know about you, but when I first started in the public schools, I couldn’t believe how many unnecessary complaints I was hearing from other public school teachers. I immediately knew the ones I was hearing didn’t come from a hagwon. I think there’s a lot of things that could be improved, but very little to legitimately complain about working as a public school teacher.
    I think all teachers should be required to work at a hagwon their first year, and then if they’d like, move on to public schools. Thoughts? I think recent grads that immediately enter the public school system are entitled, whiny, and have no idea how good they have it. On top of that, I think the orientations COULD be helpful but generally aren’t and there’s just waaaaayy too much hand holding and redundancy.

    Got a little rant-y there, but I think that’s a response to you, haha. :)

  7. Haha, forged in battle in the hagwon warzone.

    I agree there are many whiny teachers in EPIK, who have no idea the rigmarole those of us went through in the hagwon system. Brutal working hours, the stress of declining enrolment, the madness of poor business decisions, the lack of coordination, etc. My EPIK position has a lot of overtime, and the class sizes are massive, so I can be very tired at the end of the week, but it doesn’t compare to the soul-sucking weariness of Daegu (I’d only really have one free weekend a month there).

    That being said, all the successes I’ve had in Gangneung are built upon the foundation laid in Daegu. It was invaluable experience,

  8. I agree with most of your points, but like a lot of teachers in Korea, you seem to have negative view points on the TaLK Program.

    The TaLK Program is aimed at kids in rural Korea where families struggle to find work, let alone conjure up funds to send their kids to hagwons.

    As a previous TaLK ‘Scholar’ myself, I can testify that it is not a strange little program. The Waegukin is right. TaLK teachers are not required to be in school (past the 15 hours) when they are not teaching, and there IS overtime.

    My TaLK days were filled with waking up at 10am and teaching for 3 hours daily, after classes I was free to do whatever I wished with my time. Being an after-school program, most teachers are given creative freedom to plan their curricula, and are usually required to submit around 15 lesson plans each week (I had to submit 30!). I had a wonderful relationship with my school (staff, teachers and students alike) and even taught extra classes for free on a daily basis (they did offer to pay overtime for half the extra classes, I told them not to worry).

    The town I lived in had a bustling community of around 40 EPIK/TaLK/Hagwon and even university instructors and we all had positive and warm interactions with the locals.

    I agree that a lot of funding is misspent on cultural trips and the like (my town had 4 TaLK Scholars, our cultural trip bill was well over $5000!), but we have no say on what, where and how the money is spent.

    Just like yourself and some of your posters, I had to learn fast in the classroom. I had no previous experience teaching in Korea (I tutored math and science back home) and it was evident in the first few months of my tenure. The lessons I learnt during my TaLK Scholarship term are what landed me my current job, which I am more than satisfied with.

    In order for Korea to revamp its English education system, there has to be a major cultural and mindset change first.

  9. I don’t have a positive or negative view towards TaLK. Like GEPIK and SMOE, I spend no time thinking about it, to be honest.

    The “strange little side project” comment was directed towards attitudes held in the Korean media. Every few weeks or so, there’s an article decrying how few English teachers actually have teaching certifications (or faked their university graduation credentials). If they think unqualified teaching instructors are such a problem, I often wonder how TaLK has escaped their notice.

  10. Most TaLK teachers are placed in schools way out in the countryside….out of sight and out of mind for those in the cities. Also, it is essentially a part-time job teaching some of the poorest/least funded schools in the country (that for some reason do not qualify to have EPIK teachers). Not very high up on the list of foreigner-bashing journalists.

  11. I think you make some good points, though the bit about not having enough Korean teachers to fill the jobs is something I’m inclined to disagree with. A teacher doesn’t need “perfect” skills, or the ability to pass him- or herself off as a foreigner in order to be an effective language teacher, as you seem to be suggesting. There are thousands of young Koreans now, products of intensive English education themselves in the naughts and the nineties (including student exchanges and study abroad programs), who are far more than capable of teaching English to the younger generations. Many of them seem to lack not skill but confidence, and to suffer from the popular perception that Koreans can’t teach oral fluency, which is more a legacy of the years when English teachers in public schools actually couldn’t converse in English. Korean teachers also have the advantage of actually having learned English as a foreign language, and they share a first language with the students, which is both immensely useful from an administrative angle, as well pedagogically, as it helps them target and identify problem areas (because they also dealt with those issues as learners). One of the main arguments I hear in favor of foreign teachers is that they encourage a more natural accent. That’s probably true, but my question has always been “So what?” Given what has been sacrificed to attain it (pedagogical training, experience, knowledge of the learner’s first language) it becomes clear that even moderately fluent Korean teachers are preferable to untrained foreigners.

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