How Not To Teach English

Sometimes I wonder how effective it is having Native English Teachers (NETs) in Korean classrooms.

Some background for you all: the program that employs me is called EPIK. It’s a government agency overseen by the Department of Education. It was formed in 1995 and places NETs in public schools. Overall I suspect it’s a pretty expensive program to run. We’re paid quite well and receive other benefits like having our rent paid for along with receiving a decent renewal bonus. There are other programs, TALK and Fullbright Fellowships, that place NETs in Korea. I just know a lot less about them. Like most education programs EPIK is influenced by politics.

Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, has decided to focus less on English education and has done away with NET teachers in middle and high schools. This began in Seoul a year or so back, but has now been implemented everywhere. I teach elementary school, and figure I’m safe for a while yet.

Anyway, all this has got me thinking about English education in South Korea, and in particular the NETs role in it all. We’re a phenomenally underutilized resource. But at the same time I have no idea if it would be possible to measure our effectiveness.

First off, throw out whatever image you have of teaching English. Much of what I do is what I call Vocational English. Phrase book stuff. And what my students are tested on is their proficiency using these phrases. Understanding these phrases or being able to use them fluently are less important than being able to parrot the “correct” answers back. If I have a student that approaches an organic fluency or proficiency that’s great, yay for me. But that can’t be my goal. Nuance, organic fluency? If I dwell on those things, my students fail their tests.

Not that they want to pass them.

Other schools may be different, but 90% of my students could care less about learning English.

I teach in the old part of an industrial city in the poorest and most conservative province in South Korea. My students come from working class homes. Some are being raised by a single parent or their grandparents (or in one case I know of by an older sibling).

For a time now Korea has made English a benchmark in society. And what it’s spawned is an industry of parasites and resentment. Parasites in the form of testing agencies and pointless certifications (I have no respect for TOEIC exams). Resentment in what I see every day in my students, which I have to suspect is resentment they pick up from the society around them.

By having me or any other NET there, we’re likely increasing our student’s resistance to learning a foreign language. For one, there’s no payoff for my students. At best it’ll arrive 12 years or so down the line when/if they apply to college. They’re certainly not going to use English outside of school. Okay, maybe when they play video games, but again that’s phrase book “warrior needs food” parroting. Two, they’re bombarded with the general anti-foreigner mindset of their culture. To learn English would get them singled out as disloyal and unKorean.

The kid that’s really into English and dreams all the time about leaving Korea is a similar joke set-up to that kid in Ohio that always talked about going to LA or New York and making it big after high school. So why learn it, if it’ll single you out from your peers? And that’s not something Korean culture wires people to do easily, go against group consensus.

Social mobility? Errr, maybe. But the way the gap is growing between the haves and have-nots here is stunning, and I doubt the haves want to share.

Someone once said to me it was to make sure Korea got the jobs that outsourced to India, instead of those that get outsourced to China. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but Korea has no problem stuffing its own people in horrible factories for others benefit. Sure, the slogan is to make Korea a global player – but it’s an odd vision they have of global, when everything outside the country is depicted as broken, dirty, and/or immoral.

I suspect every Korean born after 1990 likely has English anxiety, all because it’s been forced upon them.

“Here’s another failure for you to dwell on, Sunmin! Only it’s English, and that’s okay, you can make fun of that.”

All I’m doing, I fear, is inoculating my students against English.

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10 responses to “How Not To Teach English”

  1. Lord Gwydion says :

    Interesting. My experiences as an ALT (different letters, same job) in Japan sometimes felt like that, but modified by the fact that the majority of Japanese are not so vehemently anti-outsider.

    And now I’m working in Korea, teaching the children of the “haves” at an English kindergarten. Gives me a completely different sense of what I’m doing, although I realize what I’m doing is of limited value due to the gatekeeping function of the expense and the fact that most of my students go on to elementary school with an “edge” that singles them out among all the students who went to normal kindie.

    • Justin says :

      Yeah, it’s that “edge” that makes me think I’ll never have to worry about finding a job here if/when the bottom falls out under EPIK.

      • Lord Gwydion says :

        Not having to worry about a job, sure. Plenty of jobs. Not always plenty of decent jobs, though. Which is why I got my MA in TESOL and am working on the Ph.D. 😀

      • Justin says :

        And that’s why I’m working on my MA in TESOL. Two can play this game, Mr. Gwydion!

  2. birdhousefrog says :

    Ok, that’s not something I would have realized. That’s what I meant about your blog. I think it doesn’t seem earth-shattering to you there. But it’s earth-shattering to me. When I grew up, French was the diplomatic language and used a lot in the NE (near Quebec, duh). I had French 4-12 grades. Never took it again until I worked for a French company 10 years ago. But the non-native speaking teachers I had were just not that good by comparison to the native speakers. So I believe in native speakers, where possible. That aside, elementary school foreign language kind of sucks. I hated French most of the time until High School and the kid hated the Spanish they tossed at her in Elementary to the point where she took GERMAN in 7th grade to get away from it. Alas, NY doesn’t offer German, so she’s currently taking French because I can help her with it. She still hates Spanish. She’s only enduring the French because she has to have it for college (the old rules about languages). But she’s not middle class or lower class, she’s from a very educated family background. So she can see a point for her future in enduring the class (with a VERY non-native French speaker).

    So the attitude is interesting. It’s both similar and different. You’re probably wasted teaching elementary kids, frankly. Enjoy the perks while you still can. 😀


    • Justin says :

      French was popular when I was a kid as well. I had no idea why I was learning it. Granted if someone had told me the reasons, I’m unsure if I would have believed them.

      Well, one goal is to try and teach at a college level after this year. We’ll see how that works out. On the downside, it would be a pay cut. On the plus side it’s something like 4 months vacation.

      • Gord Sellar says :

        I’m pretty sure you’ll be wasted teaching college too, unless you can get into a department and teach actual content courses. 🙂

        However, as far as the pay cut goes, if you can get a decent position in terms of working hours — TEFL at the uni level requires not so much prep, after you get into the swing of things — you could probably supplement with tutoring, if you wanted. 🙂

        As for English teaching: well, I find a lot of the institutional implementations have much more to do with parental anxiety, and institutional stakeholders’ anxiety, and less to do with teaching. That said, I’m coming to the conclusion that the most useful function of a non-Korean teacher is in terms of postive intercultural inputs: the worldview expanding effects of modeling for kids that not all adults think in ways represented by the unified front of mom and dad and teachers.

        I’ll have a very long post about that coming soon, as the follow-up to this one which may interest (or may annoy) you.

      • Justin says :

        It’s the 4 months vacation that most appeal to me about teaching Uni.

        Yeah, that parental/institutional anxiety consume and direct much of my teaching. One teacher I know told me how her school has had to implement this terrible program for multicultural children even though they do better than a lot of their peers simply because her principal was on the committee that designed the program.

        And I definitely agree about being a positive intercultural input. And I think that’s part of the reason we’re vilified. Sure, it’s sometimes justified, but often I think it’s to keep people from making connections outside of their peer group.

        Thanks for that link. I missed that post while on vacation. I look forward to the next one.

  3. Gord Sellar says :

    Yeah, the long vacations are hard to beat, at least if you’re not so exhausted by the end of the semester that you spend most of the vacation recovering! (Which is the hidden cost of a proper department teaching position, because you’re also likely to be loaded with any extra classes your (much-less heavily loaded down to begin with) Korean colleagues don’t want. So: TEFL all the way.

    I’ve heard stories like the one you mention: “This program will have a negative effect but for reasons of face we must implement it.” Always frustrating.

    I think you’re right about the vilification of foreign teachers because of their providing a positive intercultural input. (And that it’s sometimes justfied, but often just about circling the wagons culturally.)

    I have a draft of the follow-up post, but it’s almost 8000 words long: I think I’ll probably split it in half, when I get a chance. (Maybe on Monday.)

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