This is another fable sparked by class conversation. I’ll assume most of you will be familiar with the frog in the well story. Here’s my treacly version of it.
So there were three frogs that grew up living at the bottom of a well. They lived there all alone happy to know nothing about the outside world. One day after a rainstorm the water in the well rose to the point where the frogs could see the outside world. They saw the sky. They heard the birds. They could smell all the smells in the fields around the well. So they decided to jump out and see this new world. It was a lot to take in. Some of it good. Some of it bad. They were stunned. The flies were bigger than the little flies they got down where they lived at the bottom of the well. The world was louder and less muffled than what they’d heard in the dark below. And the sun was so much brighter than they expected.
Suddenly a bird landed directly in front of them. It was a tall long necked long legged crane with eyes like glass pellets and a beak as sharp as a knife. The frogs had never seen a creature like this before, and could do nothing but stare up at it in awe. It bent down and in one great big gulp swallowed the center frog whole. Just like that their friend was gone. The frogs fled. One jumped back down the well. The other jumped into a nearby pond. Which frog do you think was better off: the one that went back into the dark below, where he was safe, but closed off all alone, or the one that jumped into the pond that found a way despite the dangers to live in the wide open world?
One of my students brought up the legend of Pandora’s Box in a recent class in the sense of learning about something you’ll only regret knowing. For example would you want to know if your spouse was cheating on you? Since this happened at the end of class, we didn’t really get to dig into the idea too much. One thing I might do when/if we get back to the subject is talk about myths and how you can read different things into them. So in my version of the Pandora story, I’ll remove the hope angle and the box will keep getting bigger the longer it stays shut. So by opening the box Pandora did us all a favor, because if it had stayed closed the evils within it would only have gotten worse.
Hey, if reclaiming mythology to construct an idiosyncratic personal moral philosophy was good enough for Robert Graves, why shouldn’t we all feel free to do the same?
I’ve taught at the same school since 2011. For some these kids I’m the only English teacher they’ve had. One thing that’s fascinating to me this year is how utterly nice and good natured the current 6th graders are. Not that I’m complaining, but it puzzles me and I wonder if this was somehow created or if it’s just luck. Like, not every student is perfect or a great kid, but there’s no horrible bullies, which have been a problem in previous years, or kids prone to violent out-bursts (which is a problem at my other school). Instead the worst thing I have to put up with is some shenanigans where some boys have become competitive over who can be the best class clown. And if class clown shenanigans is the worst I have to deal with, I’ll say thanks and be happy.
And it is just these 6th and 5th grade classes. The classes coming up behind them are already showing some problem behaviors. So that makes me wonder what worked for those two classes and is it something that can be replicated?
Possibility 1: It’s dumb luck, and the chemistry between these students is just how it is and/or they had the good fortune to be matched with good teachers.
Possibility 2: It’s the environment. My school’s neighborhood went through a revitalization project that made the population dip while construction went on. Class sizes shrunk in real time (as opposed to always being small), so students bonded as a group better. Now this renewal project has ended and the neighborhood population has stabilized, but instead of having 3 classes of 22 students, the lower grades have 2 classes of 33 students, which is starting to feel crowded enough for students to get lost.
Possibility 3: A policy change, either regional or local. I’ve seen 3 principals come and go. Each one brought a different character to the school. Maybe a shift in the priorities at the top filtered down and affected the school’s character. Student behavior might reflect this.
But I count myself lucky for now despite the horrors of my second school – my main school’s all right, even if it does make me wonder.
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.
I’ve got these students, smart kids, but you ask them a question and they can’t answer it. Not because they don’t know the answer, but because they don’t think the question is the question. They think the question is a trick, a distraction, from another unasked question. And what they’re trying to figure out is the answer to that question.
Maybe you don’t do the same. I know I certainly do.
Someone asks you a question and you respond to some other, imagined question. Not what was asked, but what you imagined was asked. And sure, some people are Machiavellian assholes all too eager to trap people and get them all mixed up. And yeah, some of these people are teachers, and they’ll boast about how clever they are and stupid/gullible their students are. But those folks are something else entirely. Very rarely is life like some deathtrap dungeon of spiked pits and pendulum scythes (at least it hasn’t been so far). Instead life is rather straightforward. Better to answer the question asked than respond to the one from the imaginary conversation going on inside your head.