Friday, February 13, 2009

Intensive 6 month teaching English through English program -- The horror, the horror . . . reflections on the first time I taught in this program

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the fact that this is the start of my fifth year in Korea . . . and the path that has lead me to where I am right now.

I originally began considering what I would do to pay off my student loans in my first year of university (2000). I basically had three options: go back to retail management (nope, I went to university to avoid working there as a career--not really an option), go back into the military for a 3 year contract (nope, apparently I "think too much" to do that--I was told this often during my basic training, and on many other occasions to which I'd always reply, "Thank you, master-corporal/sergeant"), and lastly to go and teach English overseas . . .

I also had considered that with student loans and some credit card debt that going straight to teachers college right after graduating with a BA wouldn't be a good idea. I'd need to work a job while doing teacher training and didn't think I could manage that. I also knew that I wanted to do an MA in English, and possibly a PhD after that . . . so going to teachers college right away wasn't going to work.

I decided that going overseas to teach was the best option--my long time (ex)girlfriend strongly disagreed and a lot of ugliness ensued over the issue during my fourth year of university when she began to realize I was serious about following my plan . . .

Anyways . . . the 'original plan' was to come to Korea for 2-3 years, pay off my student loans, and save some money. Then go back to Canada and do the MA . . . things haven't gone exactly the way I had planned.

I found that in order to survive in Korea during my first year that I had to get off of Ganghwa Island (where I taught at 3 different middle schools for my regular 22 classes a week, and did extra classes at an elementary school and a girls high school for a total of 34 classes a week--talk about a baptism by fire!) almost every weekend so that the Monday to Friday isolation of living in a two-street village next to a mountain was bearable. Needless to say that required a fair amount of spending instead of putting more money into the loan.

My second year was in Incheon city teaching at an all girls academic high school, but still in a relatively isolated place--the closest foreign teachers that I actually knew and wanted to spend time with were at least 30 minutes away by subway . . . so, yes, more trips to Seoul where I'd meet up with people I knew--and, of course, more spending of capital that should have been . . . well, it's at this point I began to realize that "should" is a word that is incompatible with life in Korea--any time I've made "should" statements here I generally find that I am just banging my head against a wall in a futile effort to impose my own reality-matrix on a situation that uses different 'reality laws' . ..

The third year, after leaving the all girls high school I taught at, was a move to a different island--Yeongjongdo, where the Incheon International Airport is. After a long discussion with the Incheon education office's director I agreed to do something that I never should have even though the salary was really really good--some things are just NOT worth the money! I thought it wouldn't be that bad because the island has the AREX train that connects with the purple line of the Seoul subway station (a two hour trip), and I was going to be working with 9 other foreign teachers.

I quickly realized I was in another form of isolation as I really didn't connect with more than 2 of the teachers, and even then it was really only a good working friendship, and not one of more substance and meaning that I generally tend to prefer. So, yep, more expenditures to help deal with the isolation and general crappiness that was year three (the last 6 months of which were the worst I've had in Korea).

The training center is privately owned but also under the umbrella of the Incheon provincial education office. The training center runs 4 night/5 day English immersion programs for middle school and high school students from the Incheon area. Over the first six months that I was an instructor there we did about 2-3 camps a month with down time in between where we just came in to the training center and did whatever we wanted to (some of us would do prep for coming camps, while most would watch TV shows, movies, play computer games, use the Net, chat with friends, recover from the previous night of drinking, etc) . . . not exactly what 'should' have been going on, but the foreign teacher office was on one side of the main building (the training center has 2 buildings, and a large dormitory behind it), and the Korean teacher and supervisor office was on the other--and traffic between the two was infrequent at best due to problems in professionalism both on the part of the Korean staff and the foreign staff--and the cultural differences were so amplified (and not managed well by either the foreign head teacher nor the Korean office manager) that it became impossible for the two teams to work well together. You could almost say there was a whole North and South demilitarized zone lying between the two offices (you decide who is which country) . . . that's how bad it was.

Anyways, I guess one positive thing that came out of the first six months at the training center is that when I combine all of the camps I did during my first year's summer and winter, second year's summer and winter, and then the third year's first six months . . . I pretty much feel like an 'English camp in Korea' expert. Of the 10 foreign teachers at the training center, only 3 of us (in my opinion) had the training, experience, and TALENT that is required to make good quality lesson plans, activities, and all of the other things you have to prep for a camp . . . the bizarre and crappy thing about the training center that I absolutely hated when I first arrived was that new foreign teachers were expected to use the same lessons and materials that the other teachers used in the camp programs so that all the students 'have the same experience.'

***Making original and quality English teaching lesson plans requires not only teacher training but ALSO a TALENT for it.***

I didn't make many friends on my first day at the training center when I opened up the first camp lesson plan manual, scanned through it, and then said out loud, "This is crap! I can't use this . . ." Everyone in the foreign teachers office froze--but I didn't care. I knew in that moment that I would likely NOT be friends with anyone there when the kind of lesson plans I was looking at were being given a thumbs up by the majority in the office. Even more shocking was that a professionally trained and licensed teacher from Canada was the head teacher, and she directed the curriculum production . . .

I think this story illustrates a truth about foreign teachers in Korea that not many people talk about. It takes a lot of teacher training, experience in the classroom teaching, and a specific kind of TALENT to produce original quality lesson plans for whatever level of school/student you're teaching. The training center was doing camps for MULTIPLE levels of students in different kinds of programs but the Koreans running the center never addressed the issue of how to assess which foreign teachers were CAPABLE of making quality lesson plans and camp programs, and who would do curriculum development COMPETENTLY. They also never considered that maybe using professionally made textbooks would have been a better idea to begin with . . . though if I remember correctly I think the reason I was given when I broached that question at one point is that the 'originality' of the training center comes from the fact that it only uses native English speaker 'original' materials . . . meanwhile almost all, if not 100%, of the Korean teachers/supervisors would use textbook materials when they would teach . . .

This is something that blows my mind about foreign English teachers and the working conditions in Korea. A fresh off the plane, recent graduate of BIOLOGY (a lot of people don't have degrees related to English, linguistics, or even education--and even when you DO have those they generally don't do shit for you because the teaching/education system is so radically different here), without a TESL/TEFL/CELTA teacher certificate, will go to a public school job with usually a poor to crappy orientation (some of them are improving, but still have a long way to go) and on arriving at their new school with usually no teaching methodology books or resource books they are told to produce 'authentic original native English teacher lesson plans' (whatever that means), and oh yeah, don't expect help from your co-teachers as they're all usually too busy and also don't have the training, experience, or talent to make original lesson plans too . . . the game is over for many new teachers before it even begins . . .

Back to the training center situation . . .

The most common rationalization of the curriculum's poor quality that I heard from both foreign teachers and Korean teachers and supervisors was that the primary purpose of foreign teacher-Korean student interaction was to 'have fun' and expose the students to English with native speakers.

When I responded by asking, 'Then why are we teaching them, for example, how to write a paragraph in English in FOUR CLASSES (an impossible task, by the way), and doing academic lessons with the students if that is not the GOAL you've stated . . . I got blank stares and idiotic responses . . . I think this is when I began to lose my mind . . . the sheer and utter unfairness I experienced of having to try to ask students to learn how to write a paragraph in English (when many can't write simple sentences in English) made me want to die because I'm one of those teachers whose heart simply bursts into flames when I see the majority of my students willing to do something in spite of the fact that it is beyond their language abilities yet I'm tied to a curriculum that I had no say in and have to teach the students, and that was produced by people who have no business making lesson plans, let alone teaching . . .

BUt this is the situation a lot of people get put in whether they choose it or not in Korea, they come here thinking they can do it, with or without some training, and the realities are far far far different than what they imagined before getting on the plane . . . and the hard realization I came to is WHO THE HELL AM I TO JUDGE THESE PEOPLE? They have their own set of reasons and motivations for coming here, and every teacher (or 'edutainer') has their own set of capabilities, degrees of training (or lack thereof), and degrees of talent for teaching . . . and to impose on them my own standards and idealized notions of what 'should' be this, and 'should' be that . . . I was being an IDIOT--I learned this lesson too late, but at least I learned it.

In one of the books I bought to do research before the 6 month program began I read about research studies done to see how a school's general atmosphere influences the quality of teaching that teachers do. It said that if a school's general atmosphere is one of mediocrity and settling for doing the bare minimum, that when a new teacher arrives at the school they just get assimilated into this collective attitude. And if you're the principal, and want to make changes to how things are run, and the school's atmosphere is counter to this, that it's very difficult. I knew this intuitively before I read that book, so when I arrived at the training center on that first day I knew that the only way things were going to change was to create a 'tsunammi' that would rock the boat in such a way that it would force people to engage in dialogues about how things were being done--instead of just accepting the status quo . . . maybe not the best strategy--but suggest another way to get changes taking place in a short period of time if you know of one . . . the bugger is that the social penalties are huge for the boat-rocker, but I couldn't stomach not doing anything, either.

A lot of us get put into teaching/educational/learning situations by people who are more concerned about putting a native English BODY in the room with Korean students over anything else that might be related to something like doing an actual assessment of what the native English teacher has in terms of teacher training, experience teaching IN Korea, and the kinds of talents the person/teacher has in general . . . and all too often the person in charge also lacks the criteria you'd think their job title would require, and they're doing whatever it is that they're capable of doing . . .

Anyways . . .

Later on at the training center I established enough credibility with the director to begin to demand some respect from the supervisors who were there to put in the time required to earn points towards getting a promotion to become a vice-principal in the regular school system. When the supervisors realized that I would follow the chain of command, raise issues, and that when no progress was made in a reasonable period of time after having communicated an issue and tried to proactively suggest solutions, that I would talk to the director of the training center and tell her the TRUTH about what was going on . . . they began to take me seriously. I had one really good day when one of the Korean teachers in the KT office told me that the director had told all of the Korean staff to 'listen to Jason, he knows what he's talking about.' That was ONE good day . . .

So, after having worked with the Korean teachers and supervisors, and the foreign instructors, for close to 5 months or so we began to hear rumors about the training center being chosen to teach the intensive 6 month teaching English through English program that I'd read about in online news about Korea . . . I began asking some basic planning questions because knowing the Korean supervisors at the training center and how they had 'planned' things for the first 5 months of the contract year that I'd been working there I was already worried about what I imagined was going to happen in the teacher training program due to lack of careful planning, poor team work between the two offices, and poor communication too . . .

Leading up to this point I had been pushing for improvements to the foreign teacher office so that if the space was made more professional it might help to shape and alter the attitudes and behaviors of the people in that space. One small victory was getting a massive white board put on a wall so that we could put upcoming dates and projects that needed to get done so that everyone in the office (especially those that wouldn't turn away from their computers when there was an office 'meeting') would at least somehow, maybe, see this info . . . and indeed they did begin to take an interest in the board, and engage with the day to day issues of working there--a little.

I put up on this white board everyone's upcoming vacation dates spread out over the late spring and summer--and then wrote stuff about how many hours it takes to do X-number of lesson plans that we were anticipating the Korean staff would come in and tell us to make for the 6 month program. I wanted to stress to them that after a certain date there would only be 4-5 foreign teachers actually at the training center at any given point in time, and that it would never be the same foreign teachers throughout the duration of the summer as some of us left for vacation, and some would return--I was told the dreaded phrase, "Don't worry about it." I SERIOUSLY HATE THAT EXPRESSION when it's used in Korea . . .

Eventually, I think about a month before the start date of the program (the first Monday of September), myself and three others were 'appointed' (gotta love how they inflate the meaning of something like that) as homeroom teachers for the program. There were four homerooms with 12 trainees a piece. Two classes were made of 12 elementary Korean teacher trainees, and two were comprised of middle and high school Korean teacher trainees. Four of us were going to be doing the majority of all the teaching, while the other 6 would continue teaching the camp programs, and occassionally they would be asked to teach a conversation class on the teacher training schedule--needless to say the people still teaching the camps were relieved when they saw the hours we homeroom teachers were going to be doing . . .

I got assigned the homeroom with the oldest Korean middle school and high school teacher trainees . . . and while I appreciated the vote of confidence in my teaching abilities, I did NOT look forward to the idea of me, a 33 year old unmarried foreign guy with almost no social rank in the Korean scheme of things other than being a teacher, negotiating the teacher-trainee power relationships that I knew I'd have to do with each of the older trainees. I had taught Korean teachers before in one hour a week conversation classes at my public school positions, and had also taught them in two 60 hour teacher training summer courses I had made on Ganghwa . . . and had some idea of what I was in for--or so I thought--man was I wrong!

I actually grew my hair back (I'd been shaving it then too) in order to not have to deal with the stereotyped thinking that seems to dominate so many minds here--especially older Korean teachers, though NOT all. I didn't want to be already fighting an uphill battle the second I entered into contact with the trainees in my homeroom simply because of a shaved head. I didn't like that I felt like I was compromising my self-image in order to conform to the 'norm' here, but also saw that I'd be saving myself some unnecessary stress by giving up a small thing for 5 months (and I did shave my head again later on after the program was finished).

Back to the 'planning' . . . myself, and couple of the other foreign instructors, began pushing to become involved in the planning, or, at the very least, to be given some of the basic info about the course so we could begin preparing in whatever way each of us needed to . . .

After several weeks of pushing, pleading, and arguing with the Korean supervisor in charge of the program, we finally got her to have a meeting with us to let us know what was going on. It was horrible . . .

After hearing that we needed to make over 200 original lesson plans for speaking classes, listening classes, writing classes, and how to teach speaking, how to teach listening, how to teach writing, and how to teach reading (and all of the tests and evaluation forms to go with that too)--all of this in the context of how to teach EVERYTHING in English . . . I nearly started crying--literally. It was the middle of July, I think, maybe even closer to the end of July, and there were only about 6 of us in the meeting. The program would START the first Monday of September, and we basically had about 25 working days to complete the work with very few teachers--most were on vacation--and of those in the training center the issues of what training, experience, and talent they had for making lessons was a major obstacle, on top of which one could add that what kind of quality is there in a lesson plan made by a teacher who is NOT going to teach that lesson and has no personal investment in the materials or teaching of it? NONE . . . and yet the Korean staff thought it would be okay to ask the non-homeroom foreign teachers to help with making the materials . . . nuts!

My face must have been ashen white, and I remember feeling like I was going to be physically ill. I think the Korean supervisor saw this, and probably the most deafening message that reached her was my silence--I had just pretty much mentally collapsed and given up after hearing the number of teaching hours per week and throughout the course, and how much work they wanted us to do without all of the foreign teachers even at the training center--never mind the fact that only 2-3 of us could produce quality work . . . add to the mix that to do teaching methodology on top of the English content would also require a lot of research, reading up on, and refreshing our minds with the information needed in order to even begin making the lessons needed, etc, and I was completely and utterly crushed by the impossibility of the task being put in front of me and the other foreign teachers . . .

To be continued . . .

I need a break. Writing is a form of reliving the past . . . time for a break.

J

4 comments:

rwellor said...

nice blog..

got here from your brilliant kimchi comment/thesis on the Korean Rum Diary. May just have to put you on the blogroll in my head. ;-)

Mark Eaton said...

Jason, I appreciate how you think and approach situations, and I'm glad I had the time to read this post. I can feel your frustration down south here.

I've taught in the States and was given fair warning that the education process is a bit different in South Korea. 'Don't worry about it' has been uttered in my direction more than once, and I've come to accept that. I realize also I am the only white guy English teacher from America in the school, and I'm okay with that.

I've literally have shocked the entire school more than once when I've taken one of my classes out of the room and into the kitchen so the students could actually have some real life experience. The number of times the light bulb of understanding switched on when I showed a real mirror to these little precious kids (some are not precious but that is for another comment on another post) rather than the poor representation of a drawing in the text is significant. If I don't get these students out of the classroom, then I'm six feet under emotionally.

I've noticed within the past few weeks the managers are bringing prospective clients and their children into my classrooms. Sometimes an iffy proposition considering I do enjoy the Jones Method of teaching and that carries risks in a traditionally strict environment. So many students are so acclimated to my using Jones that they will leave the room to find a spare chair for me if there isn't one available. I even had a mother come into a class and take photographs. Of course, everybody stopped smiling when the camera came out of the purse.....

When I clear the cobwebs from my mind, I'll drop you a note to ask how you have approached the issue of students writing English.

Your post struck a nerve and a chord, hence the lengthy comment. This made me tired, so, I'm going to take a nap now.....

miky said...

Hello. Thanks for mainting this blog. I've happened to be here, but only by choice. The title of your beginning months in Korea struck me because you used the words "the horror, the horror," the very enigmatic words uttered by Kurtz, but never delivered to the Intended by Charlie Marlow. Well, I need to come back here again to read more in order to understand you properly. Yet I am quite impressed by (as well as secretly glad to find) your blog. For me, I have been studying English in the U.S. Perhaps,that's way I'm seeing more than you offer.

Jason said...

Hi,

rwellor,
Thanks for comment, and for putting me on your blogroll . . . I still haven't made up my mind what I think about the Korean Rum Diary but I think that he has SOME valid things to say, and others are just burned out toxic crap . . . but that doesn't mean he should be dismissed completely . . . I think he just needs to have some sympathetic readers who offer models of how to be in Korea and not be so off-balance in how one sees everything here.

Hi Mark,

Thanks for taking the time to read my post--it was a long one, and it's nowhere near being finished . . . lol, sigh.

I've had my own experiences with Korean parents in the public schools and some are good, some bad. I can't imagine the hogwan situation cause things usually sound a lot more nuttier there with how the moms can be.

Because the training center Korean teachers expected to see finished paragraphs from the students in my classes I had to do my best to teach how to write a paragraph regardless of student levels. The Korean teachers assigned to each of the 10 classes at the training center generally just write in the missing words or finish the paragraphs for the students so that something would be finished at the end of the camp--I tried not to do this in my classes because I felt it was defeating the 'learning' that I wanted to take place . .. but then, apparently that was not the purpose of the students coming to the training center . . . yeah, go figure.

Anyways, more to come on that.

milky,

Hi, thanks for reading. I think I understand what you're saying but am not completely sure . . . thanks for you comment.

J