Friday, July 12, 2013

Troubles with the Co-Teacher

First a bit of background into teaching in Korea for those of you that haven't taught English here.  It is a part of education policy* for the school to have a co-teacher 'helping' or 'team-teaching' with the native English teacher in public school classes.  On first arriving in Korea, most public school teachers will have an orientation and perhaps some further instruction on how to work best with their co-teachers in order to deliver effective lessons.  There are different methods for doing this, but generally, the native teacher and Korean co-teacher should work together in planning and delivering the lessons, with interaction between the two in class.

Usually, there is one native English teacher per school and assigned to them is almost always one Korean co-teacher, who should be an English teacher (a bit of a no-brainer, one would think).  The relationship between the two is often a bit of an issue for foreign teachers working in Korea as it can be a recipe for disaster.  Generally speaking, it seems like the younger the Korean co-teacher the better as they are less likely to get in the way of the Native teacher's classes and maybe even genuinely work together.

At orientation and in online training, quite a pleasant, pretty picture will be painted of this working relationship; you plan together, you discuss problems together, you teach the lessons together, and your co-teacher may even sort out some things outside of the school for you.  The reality of the situation, however, is frequently very different.

First, from my own experience and what I can gather from others, you will be fairly lucky if your Korean co-teacher can speak English to anywhere near a respectable level.  Then you will very fortunate to have a co-teacher that has any time that can be spared for you to discuss classes, students, problems, plan, etc.  And finally, you will be exceptionally lucky if they actually help you at all in class.

Perhaps I am being a little bitter about this situation because my school is so astronomically terrible in this department.  I have worked at a High school in Jeollanamdo now for about 2 years.  In all that time, I have had 8 different co-teachers; only one was an English teacher and she was only in half of my classes for half a term/semester (she was actually extremely helpful as well).  I had one other teacher who could speak English, who was actually a music teacher.  The other six included; a maths teacher, two Japanese teachers, an old Korean teacher who was dying of cancer and so was put into my class (I can only imagine the reason was to let him sleep, because that is all he did), a geography teacher, and most recently the school nurse.  All of these teachers could not speak a word of English, indeed my meagre knowledge of Korean was far superior to their English, which was non-existent.

Actually, I didn't mind any of this.  I planned my own lessons and completely controlled all of my classes.  The co-teachers would turn up sometimes and at other times not show, but if they did show they would simply read a book or get some marking done at the back of the classroom.  Only with my most recent of co-teachers have I had problems, the school nurse.

This woman is about 3 feet tall and pretty weak in the discipline department - no surprise really as she is not even a teacher.  However, this did not stop her from trying to discipline students in my classes, often when they were doing exactly what I wanted them to do, i.e. be enthusiastic about the class and speak English.  She began telling them to be quiet more and more.

In a boys high school in Korea, the biggest challenge - that I dare say almost every foreign teacher in this kind of school will have - is the problem of student motivation and enthusiasm.  Objective number one in planning and delivering every single one of my classes is to try to encourage them to be interested in my lesson.  I want them in an attentive and sometimes even excitable state, indeed excitable is when they often just blurt out English loudly without even thinking about it.  This, however, can sometimes be noisy but it is the perfect state for my class.  My school nurse co-teacher was starting to make sure that this didn't happen; to her noise was bad, talking was misbehaving, she even started to send students out of the class.  I tried explaining that this was what I wanted because my class is after all a speaking class, but she either did not understand or did not think my reasons were justified.

Rarely do I trouble my school about anything, I sort out all problems myself, both in and out of the classroom.  Sometimes, however, I need a document from the school, to know my vacation dates, or scheduling information.  Whenever I need this kind of thing, I usually have to ask them 5 or 6 times or they are unbelievably slow in getting things done.  Even extremely simple matters that would take as little as a couple of minutes to sort out, often take weeks.  It can frustrate the hell out of me.  On the subject of my co-teacher, though, I was pretty keen on sorting things out fast, as she was ruining my lessons.

I complained, and when I got the usual nonsense and delaying tactics, I said I would write something down and ask my wife to translate.  I said it was my own fault that I hadn't let her know what I expected of her from class number one.  In a bit of a panic, the head of the English department (who sits next to me) pleaded with me not to and phoned another English teacher to try and rectify things (who works in the floor above me).  He then called back and told the head of English to tell me to wait until next week.  I simply said, "there is no time like the present, why not now?  If you don't sort it, I will."  I didn't want another ruined lesson and the impression to the students that I wasn't in charge, I was losing their respect with every class this was continuing in.

Panicked again, she called back to the man on the floor above, who then called to the vice-principal (who sits about 4 metres away from me and the head of English), who then called the principal (sits in the next room) and they eventually had a word with the school nurse about the issue.

To my school's credit, although I feel they don't place too much importance on my classes, I do think they trust my judgement and my teaching ability.  Despite all the bureaucracy - and the fact that they gave me a school nurse as a co-teacher in the first place - they fully supported me and agreed that I should take full control of the class and that my co-teacher should not interfere.

This is just my story about troubles with co-teachers, but I have heard countless more.  From my experience with the one co-teacher that could speak English and how we worked together effectively, it is clear to me that when there is a good working relationship between the the Native and Korean English teachers it is of great benefit to the students.  I found that a good Korean co-teacher can especially help the low-level students, which are often the hardest to motivate because of their difficulty in accessing the lesson when it is solely done in English by the native teacher.

It does make me wonder about the whole NET set-up in Korea sometimes and their bizarre system for educating students in English.  There is just no seriousness, responsibility, or care taken with NET's.  You'd think that because the government spend so much money on us, they would make sure of our efficacy and put a little responsibility on us to get results.  Instead they allocate most of us one lesson a week with 30+ students, no assessment for students taking our classes, and it seems little regard for making sure we all get adequate assistance from co-teachers in our schools.

Actually, I personally don't mind at all, except feeling a little sorry for those low-level students I find it hard to get through to.  I have zero responsibility, zero pressure, and absolute freedom to teach what I want and how I want.  It all probably makes for a breath of fresh air for many of the students in my school and a break from their usual monotonous routine, and the intellectual freedom it allows me is quite fulfilling.  I do, however regularly get the feeling I am teaching the kids about Western culture and life rather than improving their English.  While this might actually be valuable, I am fairly sure it is not what the Korean government intended when they embarked on hiring NETs from Native English speaking countries.

The policy regarding NETs the way it is, I really don't blame my school - and others like it - in how they deal with my classes and their lack of care when it comes to providing quality co-teachers.  Good Korean English teachers with a high enough level of English to be useful in class with the NET are in short supply and I can imagine they are needed for their own lessons.  Priority number one for schools is to help students pass their final exam at high school with flying colours, so they can make it to a reputable university.  Despite some research showing that NETs can improve English ability in high level students, their efficacy the way things are is negligible and this is not surprising for the reasons I have already mentioned and the fact that exams are not really geared to speaking and genuine communication.  If I was a principal in a school in Korea, I wouldn't put much of my time into the foreign teacher either.

I truly believe in the idea of importing foreign teachers to teach students about language and culture, this is genuine education, especially if it is done well.  It is not learning culture or language from a book it is experiencing it, interacting with it, and understanding it first-hand.  But the fact is that when it comes to getting students into a good university, the foreign teacher and true education is surplus to requirements.


* Originally "legal requirement", my mistake, sorry.


  1. Hi, I am also teaching at a HS in Korea. I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of the research that suggests NETs can improve Engish ability. Thanks

    1. Well, it's in Korean here:

      The article I found it was on a site called

      Thanks for pointing that out, I should have linked that on the article, I will do now.

  2. A bit interesting. I can definitely relate to what you said about co-teachers getting in the way more than helping... and also about them having no time to actually meet and talk about troubles or students.

    I would recommend that you change the language in this article because you often use terms like "mostly" and "usually" and "often"... but I don't think you really know what goes on in many other public schools across Korea. From the people I've talked to, and my own experience, the coteacher doesn't help plan or deliver lessons. They walk around helping students, grading, and disciplining. They're more like babysitters - as the ones you described.


    1. A few people have picked up on that one paragraph and, I agree with you I can't really comment on all other public schools. However, This is pretty much the exact language used at my orientation with the other teachers. They said things like, "usually you will have one co-teacher assigned to you" and that they would be working with us together. I think what I said was accurate; there will be many exceptions, but this is what we were all lead to expect at orientation.

      Thanks for commenting and giving me the chance to clear this up.

  3. I have spent considerably more time around Korean teachers of English (albeit elementary teachers) than I have around NETs in the public school system, and it is interesting to note that the Korean co-teachers often have complained about their foreign NETs, about their lack of training, poor attitudes, about immaturity, about lack of cultural understsnding, etc. Mostly I have attributed this to poor recruitment and a lack of instruction/preparation for the NETs, but I guess inadequate preparation and instruction for the Korean teachers can also a problem. I too am a strong advocate of having NETs in the Korean school system, but its a shame and a waste of public funds if the team-teaching system so frequently breaks down, regardless of which half is the cause. If Seoul and Gyeonggido are any example, however, it is likely that NETs in Korean high schools will be a thing of the past anyway.
    (FYI my experience is in teaching at the tertiary level and in teacher training)

    1. Yes, I think you are pretty much spot on here. I would never deny that there are a great many bad foreign teachers out there, but you can iron-out most of the creases with a good system. There is not much consistency with regard to the relationship between co-teachers and NETs and it can vary from school to school. The only thing you can be sure of is, in fact, the inconsistency.

      It was never my intention with this article to paint a picture of all schools being like mine in Korea, only to say that as an NET you really don't know what you are going to get when you start a new teaching position. That is the one thing I am pretty confident in generalising about regarding this subject.

  4. My bugaboo with the Korean co-teachers is that they refuse to actually teach English in their own classes (2 days a week), so when the students come to my class (1 day a week) they see me as an unreasonable freak, the fat person with the funny-colored eyes who expects them to SPEAK ENGLISH!

    In our school, the co-teachers teach exclusively in Korean. They don't say as much as "Open your books to page 22" or "Which sentence is correct?" in English. I sat in one one CT's grammar class. The kids were epxosed to exactly 8 sentences in English, 6 of which had grammar errors in them but were taught as being model sentences.

    The method the kids are exposed to 2 days per week is akin to teaching home ec by having the kids read cookbooks aloud, memorize how many teaspoons in a cup, etc., but never actually having them cook.

    Since my students have spent 6 years being taught that English is dull, tedious, and difficult, it's an uphill battle to get them to stop resenting it. To enjoy it? That's the Holy Grail.

    1. Yes, I agree. I think the biggest challenge is to make your lessons interesting in Korea, do that and it is half the battle won and it is my number one priority in planning a class.

      Completely agree with the way they teach English too, you use a cooking analogy, but I as a sportsman did use a football analogy on another blog somewhere: i.e. they get taught all the tactics of football, do a few dribbling skills maybe, but never actually play a game.