Thursday, October 18, 2007

Review of the Education Policies involved with teaching ESL in Korea High Schools in the Jeollannamdo Province

The Jeollanam-do Provincial Education Office is holding a meeting in a couple of weeks to discuss the current state of the education system. All of the Native Speakers in the province, not just Mokpo, are obligated to attend along with their co-teacher. I teach at a high school so I'm going and before I go I'll try to organize my pre-meeting thoughts while trying to steer clear of digressing personal rants.

At the high school level there's a core English class but it's taught by a Korean English teacher. I teach the supplementary English class where whatever work the students do has no bearing on their academic career. In fact, I am so segregated from the other English parts a student's education that it seems like the other English parts are the considered the real English parts and I'm left to define my own existence. I don't even have a curriculum so when I teach I do so with no direction what so ever. This it drives me crazy.

During my orientation all of the new teachers visited a typical Korean school where we saw a typical Korean classroom. Our guide, the local (Korean) English teacher gave us the tour and took us through some typical Korean school activities. They were for middle school girls so I didn't pay attention and quietly enjoyed the free strawberries in the back. I perked up during the end when the teacher told us that the money that the Korean Government spends on Native Speakers takes away money used by other programs, like school provided lunches for the poorest of students. The teacher was super nice, sweet, polite, etc. so it sounded like more of a plea to take your job as serious as possible. Ie. You have a pretty sweet deal so don't be an ass.

If I take my job seriously and examine where I am within the context of taking money away from starving children I see serious problems. I am paid to teach 30 students one hour per week of whatever I want with no curriculum, no direction, and more importantly no valid measurement of their progress. That means that nobody in the Ministry of Education has anything to prove that my presence justifies allotting funds for Native Speakers instead for the supplementary food programs.

That's what gets me; I cannot understand how the public education system can simply throw a foreigner in front of a bunch of Korean students and hope for the best. If the public education system is going to promote English over food then at least it could do so effectively. How can the education system justify my job as a glorified babysitting?

I hear arguments that my mere presence is justification of the program, as if the students will learn English by osmosis. This is a valid theory (and given my experience with the system so far I can see the belief in that argument) but even then, at that level of logic (again from my own experience) I could simply be replaced with a high school version of Sesame Street. Let's counter my claim and continue that argument with the word interaction; I need to be Sesame Street Live and taking that into consideration I think I just upgraded myself from babysitter to English Camp Counselor.

If that's the case, if I'm supposed to play games with the students, then we're back at the original problem of a lack of curriculum: What should I be doing with the children that would help them the most? Including my roughly 6 months here in Korea I have roughly 6 months of experience teaching Korean high school students English; I am obviously not qualified to answer that question and I don't think that I should.

The Co-Teacher
As far as I can tell the co-teacher has two distinct roles. The first is co-teacher, literally standing next to you in the front of the class and both of you teach the class. And the second is cultural ambassador since Native Speakers are fresh off of the boat and need somebody to help them adapt to the Korean Way. While in theory the idea of a co-teacher is, in reality it's a a poorly implemented idea.

The Co-Teacher in the Classroom
Everybody has a different experience with their co-teacher. In my situation I teach multiple classes each day, going through the entire first and second grade each week. Each of the 8 English teachers is assigned to two of my English classes but in reality my English classes go without any teacher supervision.

In a Korean high school I'm dealing with the same teenage dramas that you would expect in a North American high school but without any real communication between me and the students. So having the class room supervision by a Korean teacher is absolutely crucial. If nothing else just quietly standing in the back of the class as an authority figure keeps trouble making students from disrupting the class. When I don't have a co-teacher the class is clearly less behaved; in the past I've had to kick entire gangs of students out of my class room.

When the co-teacher does establish a presence, it's crucial to have the correct presence. Otherwise the co-teacher ends up undermining your authority and does more harm than if he or she had just skipped your class. What's more frustrating is that there's no guideline issued that defines the roles of both co-teacher and native speaker, or to what the correct presence should be.

Since a high school native speaker is expected to create and execute the lessons, a correct presence for a co-teacher should be more about managing my class than actually teaching. Other levels of education require a different co-teacher model since they're dealing with different situations. For example, the native speakers in elementary schools teach in the actual English class and all elementary English teachers teach out of the same Ministry of Education issued text book, something that's completely different from my situation.

From my high school experience, managing the class room should involve watching for hidden cell-phones, dealing with secret gossip circles and (in a mixed high school...well maybe not) dealing with young hormonal love. Given that every teacher hates dealing with these issue (although I'm sure that some of the teachers at my school live for corporal punishment) adding the complication of a language barrier presents a even bigger challenge for the native speaker to handle these issues by himself.

Once a native speaker feels that his co-teacher is dependable enough to act as class room enforcer, then the next step for a co-teacher is to act as a mediator. This is a bonus step for some and is the most difficult to define, but it usually involves recognizing that the students should be doing the work as if the co-teacher wasn't there. Involving the co-teacher is the nuclear option that should only be use when all communication between the Native Speaker and students have failed.

Whispering answers to students, or just plain answering the question for students is one of the worst things that a co-teacher can do to undermine the native speakers authority for class, not to mention the entire rational for spending public money on flying and housing a foreigner with no actual teaching experience. That said, being a foreigner with no actual teaching experience and no understanding of the Korean language, I do recognize the need for something like a walking and talking Korean English dictionary in the classroom.

On the flip side, the dictionary part is something that most co-teachers loathe since they feel insecure about their own level of English in comparison to the students. But there's one English teacher here that's figured out how to bluff his way through this insecurity; he orders them to bring a dictionary to class and even if he knows the word he makes them look the word up in the dictionary. He also carries around a bamboo wand.

Of all my classes, the ones where I walk away feeling productive, I've had a co-teacher fulfill these steps:

  • Show up to class.
  • Act as enforcer.
  • Act as mediator.
And it should be pointed out (again) that I am foreigner with no actual teaching experience working in within public education policies that I question, in a culture that I don't understand, in a country where I can't speaking the language. There's probably more qualified opinions floating on the Internet.

The Co-Teacher out of the Classroom
The co-teacher is also the main contact in charge of our living arrangement. That means that anything like paying bills, fixing leaking windows, etc, falls under their jurisdiction but from practice the co-teacher really does not want anything to do with you out of school. Like Tracy mentioned in the comments about my bank post, she obviously knew some information that I would have found useful if I had only talked to her before. That situation happens a lot and generally falls into the following pattern:
  1. Foreigner faces a problem.
  2. Foreigner stumbles around finding answer.
  3. Foreigner applies answer to solve problem.
  4. Foreigner leaves the country.
  5. A new foreigner face the same problem.
I have to applaud my co-teacher going to distance and actually trying her best to help me with various living in Korea things, but there are gaps in her knowledge that I find frustrating. After a steady rotation of native speakers that have lived and worked in Mokpo, who have shared and accumulated their knowledge into sites like and Galbijim, I would expect to find an something like an official cultural ambassador within the same organization that payed for my plane ticket over here.

I don't want to appear to criticize the efforts Waygook and Galbijim. I love both sites but they're volunteer organizations and run the risk of "This server is costing me too much money" or "I just don't feel like doing this anymore." Like the curriculum problem I can't define the exact solution; I guess that I want the Jeollanam-do Provincial Education Office to have something like an dorm don, an experienced foreigner who knows about Korean culture and trying to adapt to it from a foreigner's perspective. Plus, I'd like to see that don preemptively solve problems. like listing the English speaking gynocologists in Mokpo; somebody who is on the provincial payroll and who keeps a F.A.Q. for the F.O.B.


Brian said...

Another nice post. I'm sorry if I'm commenting on things that are a month old . . . these are the things that are showing up on the front of your page, and I hadn't seen them before.

The lack of organization really gets me, too. They expect the native speaker to work like a charm in the classroom, but the schools, counties, and provinces provide no template or guidelines. Being told "do whatever you want" might sound liberating to some, but it reveals a lack of interest in a native speaker's classroom.

I really wish more organization went into importing and supporting foreign teachers here. There ought to be a standard form and procedure for getting airfare reimbursed, for example (both times it's taken over a month to get my money). There should be a set of goals that the county or province has of its native teachers, and if there are assessment tests, the native speaker should be involved in planning and teaching to them. There should also be, at the Jeollanam-do Office of Education, a committee in place to ease the transition into Korea, its culture, and its work environment.

The Galbijim Wiki is a nice idea, but it's operated by volunteers (and as you'll notice it's not in service right now). Seems like everybody in Korea has their own blog, and people are generally plugged into sites like Dave's,, facebook, etc., but because there is no real information hub, no real leader in things Korea-related, you're left with a ton of redundant information.

Anyway, I appreciate your blog, and wish more people shared your passion for finding information and contributing to the foreign community like this.

Alex said...

hahaha, what a RANT...and for the most part I feel that it WAS pretty true....
But you've been here for almost a year now, that has to have racked up some experience, so I don't think you can call that an excuse. Moreover, like people on have been going on and on about "you CHOSE to come here" (though, I know you were totally doing it for Rachel haha)

But I DO have the worst co-teacher ever, which must drive you insane. They should be hiring COMPETANT English speaking Koreans to teach the core classes, then the kids might actually learn something, and there would be less miscommunications.

And I don't feel they need to take a vested interest in your class, because my best co-teacher doesn't...they just need to tap their wand once in a while and stop undermining our fucking power. The main way they've done this is a lack of point system in our classes. Our classes ARE like I just treat them as such...and I think you're getting the hang of that too with your South Park lessons :P Really, just enjoy it and don't give a damn if you don't really do anything one week, because no one else does.
This week my lesson has TOTALLY failed - too hard, even for my advanced classes (which is frustrating), but when I realized this, I just took up wandering from kid to kid and making idle conversation. Whatever. Not my fault they're uneducated.