Thursday, February 23, 2012

Native English Teachers in Korea (Part 1).

I am currently working in South Korea as an English teacher, and enjoying the culture change very much.  I am employed to teach high school students English, and invariably about western culture.  The governments in South Korea, Japan, and China, feel that it is very important for children to learn English, and although they have many English teachers of their own, teachers that are good at speaking are in short supply.  On top of this there is a slight attitude of fear and distrust among far-eastern countries of people from English speaking nations, and the western world in general.  With this in mind, they see the need to employ native English speakers, to improve English so that people from these countries are ready for business in a globalised economy.

The statistics, however, (at least in Korea) are not matching up to their expectations.  English levels are not improving, despite the introduction of thousands of native English speakers, and with a government spend of millions and millions of dollars.  In fact, the numbers of native English teachers has been slashed just recently in Seoul for this very reason.  So, the experiment is just a waste of time and money, right?

There could be many reasons for this failure, though, and statistics do not always tell the full story, here are some arguments I wish to put forward (I will stick to the country I know, South Korea);

1.  Native teachers often come to Korea fresh out of university, with no previous teaching experience, and no foreign language teaching experience.  Many are young, and just see it all as an extended holiday.  They do not take the job seriously, stay out late most nights getting drunk, and irritate the locals  Therefore they fail to properly educate young South Koreans.  This is certainly true of some foreign teachers I have met, but not that many.

2.  The Korean government and individual schools do not trust foreign teachers to do a good job, so they invite some of the attitudes mentioned above.  No responsibility is given to the native teacher for their lessons, no marking, no tests, sometimes the schools do not even care about the material that the native teacher uses in their lessons.  Typically, students will only see the native teacher just once a week, in a class of up to 40 students.  The number of students is hardly ideal for a conversation class, and the amount of time spent with any particular student is not enough to drive up test scores or significantly improve their English in any way.

3.  Government strategy is in complete denial, and has no control over what is going on in the schools.  All native teachers frequently receive online training guides from their regional offices of education, and are compulsory and for the most part irrelevant.  They usually revolve around co-teaching relationships, and model classes around a native teacher and a co-teacher working together.  The experience of most native teachers is that this rarely or never happens.  If, as a native teacher, you are lucky enough to have a co-teacher that can speak English to a good enough level to assist you in class, you then have to get past the culture and teaching strategy barrier. I can't think of one teacher, I have met, who thinks that their co-teacher relationship is effective in class.  Maybe there are examples of it working, but I don't think it is controversial to say that it is rare.

4.  English tests, are too focused towards grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing.  Even the speaking part of exams is too concerned with communication that is word perfect.  The ultimate goal needs to be understanding and fluency of communication for there to show any effect of having a native teacher.

5.  Students in Korea are over worked.  Learning a new language, especially when you are speaking and listening to people, is an exhausting experience.  When you are tired, the last thing anyone wants is to hear someone talking to them in another language.  For this reason, many students, particularly at high school, just give up.  Coupled with this is the fact that essentially the native teacher's lesson does not matter, many students see native teacher classes as much needed rest time, rather than an opportunity to practice their English.  To be honest, seeing how much they work myself, I can't blame them for thinking like this.

Below: A typical scene between lessons in a high school.  Some students even buy special arm pillows designed for napping at school.

All of the above reasons contribute to the inefficacy of native teachers in Korea in making a noticeable change in students exam results.  The statistics are irrefutable, it just doesn't make a difference to their English level, in exams, having a native teacher.  So should Korea, Japan, and China (presumably there are similar results there), just ditch the idea of native teachers.  No, absolutely not!  The reasons for this run a little deeper than exam results, and the arguments that I will make also are applicable to our own schools in the west, and how much of a good idea it would be to have native speaking teachers from the far-east teach in western countries.

I am arguing that the majority of Korean people, and even the native teachers themselves, just don't get the real benefit of having native English teachers in Korea.  What is surprising, is that the younger students seem to get it absolutely.  My first teaching job in Korea was in a Hagwon(private academy), and I mainly taught Elementary school and Middle school boys and girls.  The Hagwon was an especially good one, with very high level English students, something that is not common.  So after I had gained their trust, and they were able to speak honestly with me, (without fear of upsetting me) I asked them about their thoughts of native English teachers in Korea.  None of them felt like we improved their English significantly (at least the teachers in their public schools, the hagwons are another matter), but almost every single student thought that native teachers were a great idea, just simply because they never get to meet any foreigners.  I know what you are thinking, that this is a pretty weak reason for keeping foreign teachers in Korea.  But, I believe, this needs to be looked at in greater depth.

In what is now a globalised world, how good is it if only a very few of the population of your country have ever met a foreigner, and only the same few know about their culture and customs?  In Korea, without the native teacher policy, this would be the case, and there would be a good argument that it could affect the ability of South Korean businesses to find suitable employees in their own country to interact with foreign investors or customers.  People in Korea, unless they are very rich, rarely go outside the country, and if they do it is usually only to Japan or China.  If they do go further afield, they can usually be identified in big sightseeing groups, shielded from any culture that clashes from their own.  I experienced this in a trip around Europe last summer with my wife, where we saw a surprising amount of Korean people.  My wife was skeptical about the way they traveled, commenting that the only real reason that they are there is to take pictures, so that they can show people back in Korea that, 'look at me, I have been there!', a kind of higher status confirming reason to travel.  This is generalising, obviously, but my wife is Korean, she knows what's going on, and I have been witness to this phenomenon myself in Korea.  We do it in the west to, of course, in fact it might be a big factor in most people's decision to travel to far flung places.

It is not just the practical business element, though, there is also a great benefit of looking at things from the point of view of another culture, and without actually going to a country yourself, what better way than getting foreigners to come to your country.  This can help to build a better relationship between nations, and improve the way your own nation does things.  This last point I think is very important.  The argument of, 'well, this is the way we have always done it in this country', is a poor one, if you have always done something wrong, should you keep doing it?!  Sometimes they get things right in Eastern Culture, sometimes they obviously get things wrong, and the same is true of the west.  What is so curious about being a witness to both cultures, is that, usually the east and west do the opposite things right and wrong, or that some ways of life would be so much better in the middle ground somewhere (I have mentioned before about a continuum).  A melding of the two together would surely produce better results for everyone.  The native English teacher in South Korea, ultimately aids the Korean people with this (even if they have trouble in their schools).  As a teacher in Korea myself, I believe that this also goes both ways, that we can learn from the Korean way, and then when we go back home, talk to people in our own countries about what they are doing better than us.  I will give two examples, one pro-western and one pro-eastern philosophy in this particular blog (both of which I have mentioned in previous blogs), in the setting of a typical school in Korea;

Pro-Western - Workers Rights

Unfortunately, this is an issue that keeps cropping up in Korea for teachers.  In Korea there is a lot of wiggle-room in the contracts from the perspective of the employer.  Sometimes teachers are expected to work longer hours, get less vacation, and sometimes are also victims of last minute changes of plan, which can include the cancelling of vacations a couple of days before you are booked to go on your flight!  It really does depend on the luck of the draw as to what school you get to work for and their attitudes to contracts, and the native teacher.  What many foreign visitors to Korea do not realise is that Korean people receive exactly the same kind of treatment, and usually much worse.  Their contracts are very flexible, again in only one direction, and that's towards the employer.  Korean people are regularly asked to do extra hours without pay, cancel plans at the last minute, and do jobs that are not mentioned in their contracts.  The amount of pay can also be changed after interview, so until a Korean finishes their first month of work, they may not know what they are getting paid, and also exactly when.  If they ask their employer about it, it is considered rude, and the consequences are not worth risking.  It is important for Korean people to show dedication to their work to their colleagues.  If there is any weakness shown in this regard, it will be pounced upon by the employer and fellow employees, bullying in the workplace is a common and expected practice in a lot of professions.  Another problem is the taking of sick days and holiday.  You just can't take sick days in Korea, if you do, you must have to have been to the hospital and have a doctors signature and reason why you could not attend work.  You really must be seriously ill.  The problem is that, particularly in the setting of a school, if one teacher comes in with the flu, many of the other teachers subsequently come down with it, increasing the misery of all.  But, if you are really ill it is seen as a chance to show your dedication to the job.  Vacation time is also pitifully low.  My wife is a first year nurse in Korea, and she receives NOT ONE DAY of vacation, other than public holidays, she is also working six days a week.  When I ask the students in my classes how long their father's yearly vacation is, they usually say it's just 3 days.  This is different for school teachers, but for most jobs in Korea, vacations, at least for those not at the top of the ladder, is a no no.

This attitude to work clearly needs to change, and there is something that teachers coming to Korea can do to guide this issue towards a better deal for everyone in the future.  It is simple, do not stand for it!  Many teachers in the interest of harmony at their school, and because their job is not especially difficult, will just go along with unfair proposals from their school that are not specified in their contracts.  My argument is, that if you stand up for yourself, point at the contract and say no, you are helping the process along.  Many at your school will just think you are a lazy foreigner, who doesn't want to work, but maybe there will be a young teacher, who has been doing extra hours recently (for no extra pay), who might think, 'yep, they have a point, I wish I could do something about what they ask of me.'  In such small beginnings, the wheel of change starts to turn.  Teachers from a culture of better work ethics and protection of employees rights, I feel have a responsibility to point out unreasonable demands when they occur.  This is because we can.  The Korean workers can't, they risk being fired or forced to quit in an atmosphere of bullying in the workplace.  I often here from people that native teachers need to be ambassadors for their countries, absolutely right.  But ambassadors don't just agree and go along with everything that people do in their host countries, they point out where they think there is room for improvement in a country's behaviour.  They then report back news and ideas, good and bad, to their respective governments.  In fact, what would be the point of an ambassador, if there were no debate between the ambassador and their host country.  The Korean people need to be shown the way to worker's rights by us, if lower paid workers rarely travel outside their own country, who else are they going to learn from that the current system is unacceptable.

There is something to be learned from Koreans in the workplace, however, it is not all bad from their side.  Korean people show a dedication to their work and their attitude is something that many an employee in the west can follow.  They have a hard work ethic, that people in the west used to have, and that has seen them rise from a poor farming country to a booming economy in a very short time.  A balance between the two cultures again needs to be met on the imaginary continuum.

Pro-Eastern - Health

As mentioned, the attitude towards food and health in the general population is the difference between night and day, and it is most definitely those in the west that are in the dark.  The weird thing is that many people in west understand this and still don't even try to change their ways.  I won't go into it in any more depth here, as I have already written a fairly complete blog on why I think this is.

I have heard of some stories of teachers really not getting on well with the food here, and sometimes teachers take food with them into their schools and do not eat the school dinners provided for them.  I think this is a big mistake.  I regularly hike with an american friend in Korea, and I am going to quote him here, as I think it is a nice little nugget of wisdom.  He said to me that, 'If the food is healthy, I think it is possible to learn to like anything.'  There may be exceptions to this, but in principal, I think this is a terrific attitude towards food.  When coming to Korea, teachers should make an effort with the food.  Food is a huge part of Korean culture, and during the act of eating food, it is important to do it together.  We in the west need to learn to like better food, teachers in Korea should behave as good students in a lesson about how to eat properly.  Teachers should also take note that all the students are eating their meals, with no complaints, which are exactly the same, healthy meals as the teachers. When native teachers go to the cafeteria at the school, tastes, and maybe some principals need to be left at their homes along with their packed lunches.

In my next blog on this subject, I will highlight more areas I think that our respective cultures can learn from each other, and I will propose a far-east native teacher programme for western countries.  This way more people could have their consciousness raised about issues, such as food and health, from real people of countries that deal with these issues more competently.  Not just learn about it from the TV, whilst eating their favourite frozen 3-minute microwave ready-meal and chocolate pudding for dessert.


  1. Great blog Chris. Cutting to the core. I like how you are bringing together your experiences and looking at the benefits from both. Also, I liked the interconnected angle you are promoting. I agree entirely that through "real" travel, not just to say "I've been there" and brag about it to your friends back home, we can all learn and benefit so much from each other. I think our generation is on the cusp and hopefully, with blogs like this and educating people it will blossom.
    It's sad to see that EPIK and other means for foreign teachers to work in Korean schools is being phased out. I heard by 2015 EPIK will no longer be recruiting, not sure though. Of course hagwons will still be here, but having experienced the Taiwanese hagwon employer culture and hearing this on your blog as well as other negative stories I feel there must be some radical change in workers rights if the Western teachers of a decent calibre are to keep coming to the west.
    Last, I had a conversation about the "just out of college waygooks coming to teach english" before. It is a problem and, I think, undermines the East Asian TEFL community. It can taint the industry as unprofessional and amateurish, so I'd propose some sort of learned policy review based on ideas coming from the more experienced foreign teachers. An idea might be: instead of the Korean government blindly blanket spending on "any old white face" they make the package a little more lucrative, entice some experienced, qualified ESL / PGCE / MA professional teachers and have them teach a designed curriculum based on communicative English that has some weight behind it. Perhaps an examined conversation with two Western teachers. Food for thought.

    Keep it coming!

    Ps: the background photograph makes it difficult to read your blog.

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