This is an essay written by my friend J. who has taught in Korea for three years. It addresses so many of the challenges we face on a day-to-day basis as “outsiders” here in the land of the morning calm. If you have time, please read the newspaper clipping first (try to wade through the grammatical and spelling errors).
“Last night I read a newspaper clipping a friend of mine had saved from The Korea Times, titled “Wanted: Native English Speaker” (available here). It was written by a Korean co-teacher about his former (only days out of the country) native English teacher. The author of the piece, Mr. Lee, was complaining about this young man because he had had difficulty spelling and had made grammatical errors in the past. Additionally, he complained that this young man had only come to Korea to earn travel money. And for these reasons, Korea should be more careful about who they hire. These three major complaints were accompanied by a slew of implications that that teacher was, in fact, a knave swindling Korea out of a “fortune” and depriving students of English education.
I do not know the foreign teacher in question. I will likely never meet him. And hopefully, I will never meet this Korean co-teacher, either. But this article struck me as unfair and graceless. It felt all too indicative of how foreigners are portrayed in the media in Korea (albeit this time in an opinion piece). Luckily for the foreign teacher in question – who ostensibly holds a university degree and has learned “basic English grammar” – he had already left an obviously bad teaching relationship and went on to better things (motorbikes and beards, oh my!). But, it got me thinking more about what this article means for the rest of the foreigners who are still here. Many questions have been bubbling up in my head and I feel compelled to talk about them. Luckily, the Jinju Office of Education has asked for an essay from me at the busiest time of the year, so I am in a really benevolent mood.
To start, I have a few confessions to make: First of all, I am currently using spell-check. I am sorry. Second, sometimes I ask my Korean co-teacher how to spell a word. Third, sometimes neither of us knows, so I ask my students. Fourth, sometimes I don’t even notice that I have spelled a word wrong and a Korean has to tell me. Fifth, when it’s just too hard to spell a word I sometimes abandon it and use a simpler word. And finally, I spell like a Canadian and therefore neither American nor British. I have no spelling standards except that I refuse to drop the u in colour, honour, etc., regardless of what spell-check or Koreans would prefer. (NB: If there are no u’s in words like neighbour in this piece you know I’ve been censored!)
There are many foreign teachers like me; struggling with our grammar school English rhymes, such as: “i before e except after c or when sounded like “a” as in neighbour or weigh.” So, is spelling a big problem? If it is I’m lucky I haven’t been canned yet. But seriously, we weren’t invited here to teach spelling. That would quite possibly be the biggest waste of money in the world if that were the case. So, was it to teach grammar? Again, no we were not invited to teach that either. Yes, grammar and spelling are important “areas through which learners can access English” (Lee, 2008). But I’m wondering how I could teach grammar in English to students who don’t yet understand English. My job, whether it’s teaching the ABCs and colours or teaching how to make suggestions and give advice is more about establishing the building blocks with which my Korean teachers will help students construct language.
At the public school level, paying me to teach spelling and grammar is costly and inefficient. Why pay a foreigner a salary and accommodation for something a qualified Korean teacher could do better? That is the basic arithmetic of English education in Korea. And therefore I say: “Wanted: Korean English teacher”. Not simply a Korean who can speak a little English, or a teacher who was forced to teach English because no one else at school wanted to and they were the most junior, but a real Korean English teacher. I want to work with a teacher who enjoys English, who finds English fascinating, who continuously wants to learn and improve their abilities. And I bet the students want to learn from them, too.
I want to be very clear; I am not saying this about Korean co-teachers because I don’t have a co-teacher who embodies these laudable qualities but because I do. But, I have experienced the gamut of co-teachers in my tenure ranging from great (current), to harmless, to downright abusive racist sexist sociopaths (multiple people with different combinations of said traits). These teachers had varying degrees of English and varying degrees of respect for English education as well as the GEPIK/EPIK use of native English speakers.
What is unique about the EPIK and GEPIK programs is the native English teacher – Korean co-teacher dynamic. We are (or should be) a team; a team that relies on trust and mutual respect and fulfills the basic tenants of a well rounded ESL/EFL education. And therefore it is imperative that the KT and the NT understand their roles and develop a working relationship that is respectful of the skills and strengths of the other.
EPIK hired me to foster a positive view of English among my students and to provide students and teachers with listening and speaking practice. My job is to make English seem interesting to unengaged over-“educated” pre-teens. A job I enjoy and am, frankly, good at. Of course I follow the curriculum and develop new class materials, but my delivery method needs to be different from a dry grammar based format. At the same time I wouldn’t be able to have interesting classes if it weren’t for the ground work the Korean English teachers have been laying in theory classes.
What I find counter-productive to EPIK’s stated rationale for hiring foreigners is the abusive and unbalanced exposés such as the one mentioned above I have come across in the past three years. How can I encourage students, teachers, and parents to value English education if there are these anti-foreigner crusaders writing that I and my foreign teacher compatriots are illiterate brutes? That we’re overpaid and under qualified, we regularly get free lunches, and that we are, in short, free loaders milking the Korean system all for a tropical vacation? And not Jeju-do?! For shame!
How in the world could someone like me promote English education when such an attitude is coming from the mind of a fellow English educator? Someone who clearly has some first-hand experience dealing with a foreign teacher. I have the answer, again: Wanted: Korean English teacher. Fortunately, I have been blessed this year with more than one true Korean English teacher.
Having co-teachers who understand and speak English, understand English education, understand the difficulty, diversity, and dynamism of English, as well as understand the NT/KT relationship requires a willingness to listen, be direct and considerate, on both sides of the fence. Failure on all these accounts leads to passive aggressive opinion pieces that do more harm to English in Korea than a few (potentially) bad foreign apples. It feeds resentment but doesn’t change reality.
In the end I have one more confession to make: I agree that standards could be raised, but on all accounts. Hire more qualified native teachers; hire more enthusiastic Korean teachers. Make a relevant and effective curriculum. Expect more from students. Evaluate students on the ability to communicate, not on their ability to memorize useless phrases. Stop discouraging and disparaging foreigners. Start implementing changes KTs and NTs have been asking for for years. Stop opting for the cheaper teacher over the better teacher. Explain to non-English program administration team members what EPIK is all about, and make it a program that principals and policy makers want to stand behind. Respect the fact that it is hard, painfully so sometimes, to live here, even if the job itself isn’t always hard (even if we have some fun or go on a nice vacation sometimes). Remember that we come here because the pay to cost of living ratio is good, if we weren’t paid this well we’d likely go elsewhere. That’s just economics. Remember Korea is not doing us a favour by letting us come.
Finally, note well that I and my foreigner colleagues, for the majority, do try our best, discuss issues, share our successes and our failures, and seek solutions to problems with our co-teachers and with our friends. Many foreigners rely on each other a lot for advice and support, and share many of the same frustrations. Many of those frustrations stem from our portrayal in contemporary media and society. But despite my generalizations about the foreigner community, we are not one homogeneous category of “waygook”, the Other, or the outsider. Indeed, that is one of the biggest challenges we face as a minority in Korea. So next time a bitter resentful hack decides he would like to put us in that box and write an article about us, maybe he should think twice about what he’s saying about himself and how his thoughtless words affect groups of individuals who are doing their best (and for the most part that “best” is pretty darn good) in an at times hostile unsupportive environment.