A lot of this post may seem like whining and I assure you it is not. I should start out by saying that Korea is a great country and one I would stay in longer if I had the chance. If you would like to see more of the positives about teaching in Korea, take a look at this post I made a while back. TaLK, the program I am in, is a great opportunity. I really feel this program offers something unique and special. Also, I have found that ultimately I love teaching. Is it my dream job? No. That would be a National Geographic photographer but it is a career that I would be doing along side my dream job if I had the chance. I really do love teaching. So much so in fact that I have changed my degree so that I can become a certified High School English teacher. I think that should speak for itself.
Also many of the things I say in this post should be looked at from a few different viewpoints. One, anything good or bad I say could be specific to me and me alone. Two, the things I say could be about teaching in general or teaching in Korea specifically, the distinction is yours to make. Finally three, I have only been teaching for a year, so take that for what you will. Also I guess it is worth mentioning that my opinion may be shaped by WHERE I taught in Korea but perhaps not.
So again I will reiterate that I love teaching. I also love kids. Kids are amazing little creatures. But my problem lies with the way English education is done in Korea. I have a lot to say on this topic and I will try to keep it as organized as possible...
I think it is safe to assume that you, the reader, know that English is not Korea's primary language... What you might not know is how English is seen in this country. Now, I am making very broad blanket statements but I think it is obvious that not every Korean thinks the same way about anything, let alone English.
English, from what I have seen, is viewed in a couple of ways. First, and perhaps the biggest one, is simply a test subject. Many Korean students must pass ridiculous English tests to get into the best Universities and jobs. For a lot of students speaking English is not their main focus but rather a hurdle to overcome to pass a test to get into a good school. That leads to a lot of people being able to write and read English but not speak or understand it. Worse yet, that leads to Korean teachers teaching English in their classrooms, but not being able to hold a conversation in English. This also means that most kids don't see the value, or the bigger picture that is English.
In my town there isn't much reason to learn English at all. If your main goal is to inherit the family rice farm, chances are you are not going to need English to plant next season's crop. There are very few people in this town that speak any English at all because of that. Which means that for a child in school there is little to no motivation to learn English. If that same child was in somewhere like Seoul, perhaps there would be more of a need to learn English, but only marginally. (Again, unless they are trying to get into one of the "SKY" schools.) The fact is for the average Korean who has no plans of travelling or living abroad, English just isn't that important.
However, there is the third outlook on English, and that is the Korean who actually wants to learn English for one reason or another. That reason could be because they deal with foreigners at work, they plan to work or study abroad, or even just because they want to watch more American TV shows. I applaud anyone who has this kind of intrinsic motivation, no matter the reasoning, but they are a minority.
Those are three main ways Koreans view English and of course there are many many more viewpoints on the matter. These are just a few that seem to be at the top of the list. But what does this mean for us English teachers?
Well let me answer that a little bit indirectly. Imagine a first grader. Cute, right? Bright and full of energy, sometimes even too much energy for themselves to handle let alone you. Now imagine a class of 15 or more of those first graders. That alone could be pretty overwhelming, but now imagine that you have no voice and can't hear. How do you tell little Johnny to stop jumping on the table? Suzy is eating glue, how do you tell her to stop? Oh yeah and Bobby, he's drawing on the wall. Steven is crying for some reason. Aaron is trying to ask you something... Do you understand what I am getting at? Now imagine for some reason they are all listening by the grace of the imaginary woman in the sky. How do you teach these kids? You can't speak to them to give them instruction, you can't hear when they have a question, so what do you do? Yeah you can use body language, you can use visual aids, but do you think a kid wants to sit through all of that? The minute they can't understand something, their focus starts to drift back to that tasty glue stick.
That's how teaching EFL is. Keep in mind that EFL and ESL are two completely different beasts. ESL is English as a Second Language. This is taught to kids who are in an English speaking country but their first language is not English. EFL is English as a Foreign Language and is taught in their mother country. So how is this different? Motivation. Think about it, when a Korean kid in Korea goes home, when do they need to use English? Their parents are speaking Korean, their friends Korean, their grandparents, their other teachers, the ice cream man, all Korean. ESL, however, there is an immediate need to figure out what the heck people around them are saying. That isn't to say that EFL isn't as important, but the importance is looming ahead in the future. When you're 8 years old, you have no idea how important something will be when you're 25 no matter how many adults try to beat it into your head. Trust me, I know...
Back to not being able to communicate.
Luckily for some of us we have a Korean co teacher. I was one of those lucky few. But that in itself can bring on complications. On one hand you could get the Korean who is just doing this for a little bit of pocket money. They don't really care about teaching, which is fine enough, they just happen to be pretty good at English and need a job. This means that you have very little support. On the other hand you could work with someone who really does want to teach. This is good in a lot of ways, and bad in many others. Ever heard the expression, "Too many cooks in the kitchen?" Yeah, this can be a huge problem. Different teaching styles can lead to lots of disagreements and the bad part is that both teachers have the best intentions at heart but not the same vision.
So that brings me to my other point, the way teaching seems to be in Korea as a whole. Now I can be completely incorrect about this. Remember, I am an outsider merely observing. Teaching here however seems very rigid, at least much more rigid than in the U.S. This rigidity does mean that things are neat and organized (figuratively) but also means that there doesn't seem to be much room for innovation or creativity in the classroom. Things are done a certain way because, well that's the way the book says to teach it, or because that's how the provincial office says to do it. (I get that the latter isn't so easy to shake off.)
Without sounding too pretentious, I do consider myself a creative person. (Feel free to disagree if you wish!) This creativity of course spills over into my teaching, how couldn't it? If you were to ask a Korean teacher if this is a good thing, the answer undoubtedly would be, "Of course" and I do think they honestly mean that. However, I do not think creativity in the classroom is valued as high here as they seem to think. In my opinion it seems to be more of a cultural thing that makes teaching so rigid and doesn't allow for much creativity. This country views teachers a certain way that the U.S. does not and this viewpoint they have is something that is really hard to explain. It's unlike anything we have in the U.S. Because of this scrutiny or perceived image of what a teacher is supposed to be, I think this leads to otherwise creative teachers leaving the creativity at home. Again, maybe I am completely wrong, I don't know.
For instance, I like to do little projects with my students. This semester I had a really lofty goal in mind for a project. My project was to have the older students all do "A Month in My Life" photo project. The idea was simple. Every day for 30 days the kids were supposed to take a picture of anything they wanted. It could be the friends they played with, the place they visited, the food they ate, it didn't matter. After that they would take all 30 photos and explain a little about each one in English. I realized that some kids might not have a camera available to them and for those I offered to buy a disposable camera. On the surface this idea was received well by the other teachers around me. However, I got so much push back with simple things like just asking the students if their parents had an old camera they could borrow, that I quickly realized the idea was too out of the norm here in Korea and it killed my motivation for doing the project.
Ultimately I went through with the project but it really fell apart. Some of that was because of all the push back I got the whole way through, and some of that was because of how the kids received it. This, I think is something that isn't specific to Korea but students in general. I get that some students don't want to do certain things. If this were the only project that some students didn't want to participate in then I'd say, "Okay, bad idea, let's scrap it and move on. Lesson learned." However, I started to notice that the same kids were giving the "bored" look for every single project before this one and after it. I don't understand this. How do you know you don't like something if you don't try it? Then again, I guess I really can understand that, I think that understanding comes with age though. I can't blame the kids really, I just do wish they'd try. Many of my projects are either based off of stuff I did as a kid and loved, or stuff that I have used in other classes and those students loved it. I know others would too. I think they have just never seen this kind of stuff in school, because of the rigidity I talked about, so it must not be interesting. Kind of backwards from how I thought as a kid, but to each their own.
So creativity. That's something I can say about the TaLK program. This program does allow for a lot of creativity to be used. We are free to make our lessons as fun and creative as we wish. This is good because we can put flare on stuff or we can really get the kids motivated. But it's also bad because we have very little structure laid out before us. Personally I think the TaLK program could benefit from a "text book" with simple guidelines to be followed. They should still encourage teachers to change things and put their own style on stuff, but provide them with a basic outline of what needs to be covered, along with example lesson plans to get the creative juices flowing. Just my two cents.
In the end I think the motivation just isn't there. You can be the most awesome teacher ever but there is only so much you can motivate someone. If you are their sole source of motivation, chances are they are going to lose interest after a while. There needs to be so many more forms of motivation to learn EFL and Korea just doesn't have that. Couple that with creativity being all but completely squelched and, at least for me, you get a pretty frustrated teacher.
Again, I do not hate teaching. I do not hate Korea. I am pointing out negative aspects and complaining a bit but I really think the benefits of teaching far out weigh the drawbacks. I have been frustrated before and said, "Ah I hate this and this and that and this." But I was just being over dramatic. Overall I love teaching and I love Korea. In fact I had to stop speaking to a certain foreigner recently because they were just complaining about Korea and teaching so much it was becoming really overwhelming for me.
Ok that's it.