Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A reaction to Kang Eun-hee's "Korean English Teachers."

Okay, so I know that debating a Korean English teacher is like playing dodgeball against a fat kid. It's just that since I read this Korea Times piece a few days ago, I've been mulling over a few points. I've written a few drafts on the topic of English education, the most recent of which is about 2,300 words, without even getting to some of the objections I have to the article. For the sake of brevity I'll touch on a few things here and save the longer manifestos for later.

You know, I'm sure she's a nice enough lady, and I should cut her some slack because she's old and she's probably just happy to get her name in the paper. And, yeah, her piece is but one of, like, 3 million about quote-unquote English education that appear in the KT and the other rags each month, so on the one hand her article is nothing special, but on the other hand, it's the frequency with which such tripe is printed that is frustrating.

The piece is here, although I'll quote it below and write a little bit of my commentary.

Last year one native English teacher was assigned to our school. Our school became livelier than before. Especially on Halloween the students made much ado about candies.

Our satisfied principal publicized it to the parents on a gigantic scale, but after a few months we returned to the daily routine.
I don't understand why giving candy to students is exclusively the domain of foreigners. I don't do it in my classes, and any student who expects a treat for doing their job runs the risk of getting beat with my bamboo sword. But, in all honesty, I understand the arrival of a foreign teacher is a big deal, but it's a bit much to put the success of a holiday on a single person. Moreover, it's out of line to base an entire philosophy on one encounter with a white person.

Her disappointment at returning to the daily routine makes it clear that she views the foreigner as an attraction meant to be seen and enjoyed, and not as an essential component to the school.

One day I started to wonder if the temporary employment of native English teachers could fulfill our expectations: I have arrived at the conclusion based on my experiences.

In the long run, the expansion of intensive training programs for Korean English teachers is more urgent financially, than the employment of native English teachers.

Yes, training Korean English teachers does make sense. Though I do work with some wonderful people this year, I have encountered my fair share of dumb-fuck English teachers in the past two years, and am convinced that these unqualified teachers---who do the lion's share of English teaching anyway---do much more damage than the comparatively few inexperienced foreigners.

Based on what one of my coteachers has told me, it looks like there will be more opportunities for Korean English teachers to have intensive language and education training. According to him (so not sure how true it is), teachers have the choice to spend a semester studying at a university in Seoul, or spending a semester abroad. For teachers in Jeollanam-do, they have the opportunity twice a year to spend a month attending a training seminar in Damyang county.

Additionally, Korean English teachers are aware of the importance of the quality of English education and the emotional effect it has on the students.

Oh shit, she all done up and done it. If I may be so bold, I will suggest that a vigorous public smear campaign against foreigners and foreign English teachers has been more detrimental to the emotional well-being of Korean students than any of their imagined offenses. Based on what follows in Kang's piece, I would also suggest that "emotional effect" is another way of saying "kids are afraid to speak English (because I will hit them) so don't make them talk."

We will probably waste the national treasury in the long term, unless the government invests a lot more in training Korean English teachers rather than depending on the temporarily employed native English teachers.

The yearly cost for employing one native English teacher is approximately 45 million won in our school. The amount is almost as much as the gross income of a 25-year veteran Korean teacher (excluding the pension).

*Sigh* No need for hyperbole. Hiring white people will not waste the national treasury. Building a cross-country canal will do that. Relocating the capital from Seoul to Chungcheongnam-do will do that. Hell, ridiculous and misguided spending on poorly planned English Towns will do that. A foreigner in every school probably won't do that.

I dislike talking about money and salaries, especially when it comes to comparing mine to my Korean counterparts. There are too many factors worth considering. I get free airfare. They get holiday and performance bonuses. I get accommodation. They sometimes do, too, and they earn a higher salary. I have less work (sometimes), but they have more vacation time. I don't know what she's talking about with the 45 million figure, but I'm almost positive it's wrong. Even if my apartment were to cost a staggering million a month---which it doesn't, thanks to 전세---and even if you factor in the cost of a round-trip ticket, that hypothetical foreigner would still earn $200 more per month than me, and $600 more than a rookie. (I didn't figure in deductions like health care.)

I suspect what happened is she included other aspects of the budget, including the cost of creating and maintaining a "language lab," into that figure. Every school I've been in has had a fancy language lab, filled with computers, books, different listening devices, and a big TV. (In all of my schools, though, the equipment in the lab has been inferior to that found in other rooms). Anyway, it's unfair to include the cost of a language lab or an English Camp when calculating salary, especially when so many contributors to a Korean teacher's salary are left out. I hate pissing contests like that, and I really wish it weren't such an interesting topic of conversation for some.

American English teachers accept many financial preferences. They are exempted from income taxes for two years and the rate of the pension and the health insurance is lower than ours.

Again, she has her wires crossed. I think any minor financial advantages are offset by things like not receiving performance bonuses, or adequate yearly salary increases, or not getting bribes, etc. And I'm not sure why she singles out American teachers. I have no idea about the pension or health care figures, though.

Even the overtime pay is different. While they earn 20,000 won per teaching session, we get only 6,000 won. This is comparable to the 13.5 million won a trainee at the Korea National University of Education (KNUE) gets for six months.

The 6,000 won figure is wrong. The 13,500,000 figure, when divided by six, is comparable to what a foreign teacher receives each month. At just over 2.2 million per month, that's more, in fact, than many experienced teachers stand to earn.

One year intensive English training programs seem to be enough because we've already learned a lot about the methodology, grammar and reading from our former education. That means only two-thirds of the expenses for one native English teacher can create high value.

Again, I agree that training Korean teachers is a smart idea. I'm not sure we can talk about value, yet, because it will be necessary to hire foreign teachers for these Korean trainees. What she's talking about sounds similar to what's already in place. Some foreign teachers in Jeollanam-do, for instance, spend 9 or 10 months a year teaching in a public school, then spend a month or two training teachers in Damyang county.

I don't want to be (too) mean, but let's not overvalue the training in methodology, grammar, and reading the Korean teachers have already received. I don't deny that some are very enthusiastic about their subject. But, with few exceptions, the methodology consists of reading aloud from a textbook, of translating the day's lesson into Korean, and of punishing students who happen to get in the teacher's way. The myth of the Asian grammar expert is unfounded, in my experience. It's true that Asians study grammar throughout their school years, but do they actually learn it? I have a decent understanding of grammar---I've forgotten a lot since college---and I've never met a Korean teacher who has stumped me or who has known something I have not. Hell, some of them have been studying English longer than I've been alive. Moreover, how many Koreans have you met that could produce even the simplest grammatically-correct sentence?

It's not easy for the native English teachers to understand the student's personality or his or her level of former learning achievement. One of the most important effects on the students through education is in the emotional aspect.

Of course it's not easy. We are sent half-way around the world and put in front of a classroom with no training, with no curriculum, and with no support outside of "do what you want." This is one of the most glaring deficiencies in the system.

What also gets me is the sudden importance of "emotional aspects," or "emotional well-being," or "self-confidence," or whatever, any time English education comes up. Somehow, with the import of communication-based teaching and student-centered learning, the idea that students need to be coddled has come into vogue. Oh, not in all classes, mind you. Not in geography class, or music class, or gym class, and certainly not in a Korean English teacher's class.

Every foreign teacher will struggle with the "fun vs. functional" dichotomy. Should I spend my time playing games, giving candy, being their friend, and ultimately looking like an ass? Or, should I spend my time doing educational stuff, trying to actually teach something, and (at least to some) looking like a prick?

The teachers have to take into consideration the background or the character of each student. However this is difficult for our native English teacher, because she teaches more than 800 students, i.e. twenty-one classes each week. One day she asked a student who couldn't read or write to the front of the class to do some activities. The abashed student cried.

Actually, in my case I have 46 different classes (plus one workshop and one "English club") and about 1,700 students. After three months I know a few of their names. Not bad, considering I see them once or twice a month and have no seating chart. Any background information will be invaluable, but it's unrealistic to expect what amounts to a guest speaker to know anything about the students s/he will see 6 times a semester. I think "take into consideration the background or character of each student" means "don't yell at them."

I have, I'm ashamed to admit, embarassed a couple of students with development issues. In my defense, how the fuck am I supposed to know? They don't talk. Most students don't talk. The co-teachers don't say anything to me. Sometimes it's obvious who is painfully shy, and I try my best to work with them (because they are often capable, but just need personal attention to do the work), but there are times when I have no fucking idea, and I'd appreciate it if my embarassed coteacher wouldn't blab to the Korea Times about my dumb ass.

Additionally, if the native English teacher does not have any background knowledge of the Korean culture, they have difficulty relating to the students.

I agree that knowledge of Korean culture and a little of the Korean language is invaluable, and I can't imagine doing my job without either. I have had to speak Korean to my coworkers this year and last, and a knowledge of how their language works greatly helps me in adjusting my lessons to their needs.

Most foreigners who arrive in Korea will have no knowledge about its culture or its language. This is another area where a supportive co-teacher or a healthy welcoming committee would be helpful. In my experience, however, I haven't even had coworkers able to communicate with me, let alone explain particular cultural nuances to me.

I will add that the lack of knowledge about English-language culture has been astounding. For some reason, the word "please" seems to have been left out of the curriculum for the past 40 years.

Most of our students enjoyed the class with the native English teacher because many of them rarely had the chance to talk with foreigners; also the class structure allowed them move around freely compared to the formal grammar classes.

However, to their grief, they soon ran out of English words they knew and started to lose interest and in turn became stressed. The effect of the native English teacher employment is noteworthy in the short term.

See, I'm not sure why grammar can't be fun. And I'm not sure how what foreigners fundamentally do is really any different from what Korean teachers fundamentally do. When I make a table or a chart, or design an information gap activity, I'm hitting the same points as the Korean teacher. I don't scour the entire lesson and dissect every sort of sentence as some of my colleagues do, but by doing what I do with the main points, the students are moving around, using the language, producing sentences, and having a decent time. When I was growing up I learned English without the benefit of daily lectures in Korean, and I turned out all right.

If the students run out of words, TEACH THEM MORE. Jesus Tapdancing Christ. Waitwaitwait, don't teach them more. They already have weekly vocabulary tests and have workbooks filled with hundreds of words that they will never use. Why not spend a little more time showing them how English works, and how to utilize the lists they've collected. There's no sense in forcing them to memorize "pneumonia" or "hemorrhage" when they say things like "teacher, leg sick."

Show them how to use the language. Teach them what an adjective is. Have them describe their friends. Have them describe their friends' warts. Show them verbs. Have them build sentenes. Have them build questions. Have them role play. Type up a few sentences or paragraphs, stick some mistakes in there, and have the students fix them. Read a story but make mistakes and have the students correct you. Make surveys. Make information gap activities. The possibilities are endless. But until some people realize that there's more to English than tests, and a greater point to vocabulary than writing translations, they'll never learn. Jesus, if you look up "transparent" in a dictionary, you won't see "means the same as 투명한."

And learn how to fucking use the word "noteworthy."

Though we are not sure if the native English teachers help us curb soaring private education expenses as the government asserted, we can't deny that many Korean English teachers are motivated to improve and many students share in the benefits of having opportunities to acquire live language.

Presidential candidate Chung Dong-young believes placing a native speaker in every classroom will help curb private education costs. I dunno, demand is high.

What gets me is how many Koreans write this type of sentence. "Though [unrelated point] we can't deny that [good thing about Koreans]." It also works with "It's true that [Koreans are good], [unrelated point]."

Education issues and decisions should be dealt with considering the long-term outcomes. The government must make investments ― with long-term plans ― in the training programs, and create highly qualified Korean English teachers who can
keep up with the requirements of the times.

Her ultimate point is that more effort should be made in educating Korean English teachers. Why she wrote this tour de force questioning the abilities of foreign teachers, I don't know. There are a number of reasons why the long-term status of foreign teachers in Korea is in question.

First, there are objectionable and offensive policies in place that hinder a foreigner's ability to make long-term plans here. There is a ceiling on salaries, and salaries have been stagnant for years. There are limits on university and college professors, who are largely prohibited from gaining tenure and the benefits that come with it. More recently and most importantly, there are new visa regulations that will require further paperwork and expenses. Not only are these new rules inconvenient and pricey, they are blatantly racist and xenophobic, and I don't see how a teacher can, in good conscience, agree with the premise that he or she is a criminal.

Second, there is no curriculum in place for middle and high schools, and no viable long-term plans for native speakers. While one presidential candidate talks about putting native speakers in every classroom, another talks about training Korean English teachers, and other provinces are keen on phasing out native speakers all together.

Finally . . . well, this isn't unrelated to number one, but it just deserves its own paragraph. Trouble is brewing when this comes out the mouth of a country's immigration department:

The Korean Government will prevent illegal activities by verifying requirements of native English teacher and tighten their non-immigrant status [...] [and will] eradicate illegal activities of native English teachers who are causing social problems such as ineligible lectures, taking drugs and sex crimes. English teachers, who disturb social order during their staying in Korea such as illegal teaching, taking drugs and sex crimes, will be banned from entering South Korea.[...] [They will] prevent illegal English teaching activities and the taking of drugs and sexual harassment of English teachers, [...] teachers who disrupt the social order by taking drugs, committing sexual harassment and alcohol intoxication.

Maybe I make too much of these "the sky is falling" stories, and many of them turn out to be political posturing or the venting of hot air. But, when the government issues thoughtless things like this, I feel it's cause for alarm.

I will add the obligatory "idon'thatekoreaandiusuallylikeitherealot" postscript to protect myself from the usual suspects. However, sometimes teaching here can be tough. There are some fundamental dichotomies that influence how we do our jobs, and there are no quick and easy answers to them. What makes things worse, though, is that too few people are asking the questions.


mark said...

Good post. I agree with a lot of your points. Korea has a lot to offer, but I have more negatives than positives to tell people back home. I understand that Kang Eun-hee wrote this in her best interest. Of course, when so many Koreans believe this tripe, it hurts Korea and Korea's image.

Even though I was born here, I would advise most people to avoid coming here.

Betsy said...

Wow....i wanna teach English in a foreign school! Probably not the response you were expecting but hey, i felt i should tel you my thoughts.

Brian said...


the SNOWMAN said...

Even though this post was written in 2007, not much has changed. I recently finished a contract. My school didn't want to renew because I was Asian American (non-Korean). What is your opinion on the "sale" of foreign-looking English teachers. I can understand the overall reasons for it especially since it's a competitive business. It worries me though the "superficiality" of it all though. I was originally told that "Koreans don't believe Asians can speak English well" but I've come to the conclusion that A foreign looking teacher just sells better and many parents want their children to interact with someone foreign-looking. The U.S is so multicultural but I guess that's a side many people won't "see".