Monday, March 2, 2009

Introduction For New Foreign English Teachers To The Korean Public School Environment

The introduction below is from a selection of writings in an orientation program I put together.

There are probably a few things that need to be added, but I think that most of the big things are here.

And again, if you copy this and use it please cite the source: Jason Ryan.


Welcome to the Korean public school system. It will be unlike anything you've ever experienced before in your home countries. The first time you walk into each classroom for each of the classes you'll have on your schedule . . . be prepared to feel like you're a teen TV/movie/pop superstar. The students will yell, scream, and generally make a lot of noises and cheering. It is also likely that they will yell very honest and direct comments about your appearance and their first impressions of you. Smile graciously, and say thank you. Eventually your superstar status will diminish as the novelty of your presence will become routine for the students, but you will more than likely still be treated with a kind of celebrity status for the duration of your contract.

There will be many differences between your home country's public school system culture, and Korea. One major difference is that the schedule is subject to change on a moment's notice. A major learning motivation obstacle that you will also notice is that English speaking is not a testable subject yet in the system. Sometimes students will see your class time as play time, extra study time for other testable subjects, and perhaps even sleep time too. A number of Korean English teachers may also not have high motivation levels for the classes they teach with you for the same reason. It will be up to you to raise motivation levels, and to lead by example. Focus on the things that you have the power to control and manipulate. If you focus on things that cannot be changed you will only cause yourself a lot of stress, and create conflict situations that otherwise could be easily avoided.

Korean Students

Imagine, for example, that you are 14 years old. You wake up and begin your day around 6-7am, and head to school for 7-8pm. You spend your entire day in school, in a classroom, learning and studying, with only ten minute breaks between classes, with a short lunch period, until the regular classes finish around 4 or 5pm, and then you eat a hasty supper, and head on to your first of many hagwon (small private cram schools) classes.

If you’re lucky, you finish hogwan classes around 9 or 10pm, but many students do not finish their extra instruction/private tutoring in small classes at hagwons until around 11 or 12am, and then you have to travel home (and some students stay up even longer and study more).

Once you get home, you want to try to get some free personal time, and chat on the internet, post pictures and write stories on your Cyworld web page (blog), play computer games, write emails, watch TV or movies . . . and then the next day you wake up after 4 or 5 hours of sleep, MAYBE 6 hours, and you do it all over again—only it isn’t five days a week that you do this schedule of 18-20 hour days, you come to school on Saturdays too! Many students also go to extra hogwan classes on Sundays. This means that they are in school seven days a week.

Think about how the students daily schedule/school culture and life operates in your home country, and consider the differences in these things when you are teaching Korean students. Fatigue will be one of the most common obstacles to language learner motivation in your classroom. From what I can gather, most students in middle school average 4-6 hours of sleep a night. High school students seem to be around the same. The high school students have a saying, "Sleep four hours and get into the university of your choice, five hours and fail." Keep in mind this is a widely shared attitude among students, teachers, and parents. Choose topics that the students are interested in, and keep the class light-hearted and fun.

Your average class, no matter what the school level, will generally have 33% low level students, 33% average, and 33% strong language learners. Many new native teachers finish their first week of teaching in Korea and exclaim, "The students don't know any English!" This is NOT TRUE! The current English curriculum is focused on reading and listening--writing and speaking are still NOT the primary focus of the lesson plans and textbooks, and they are also not tested. The results of the way the English education system is set up is that students do know and have English skills, but they are not asked to demonstrate their writing and speaking skills in the everyday classroom, and on tests. Basically, your class time will be the only time each week, or once every two weeks, or once a month (yes, your schedule might be structured this way) when the students are asked to learn and perform these language skills--more specifically, to speak English as part of a lesson in a communicative manner as opposed to rote memorization and repetition drills.

Special Needs Students and Mentally Handicapped Students

There will more than likely be some classes in which you have a special needs student. These students, up until recently, had not been integrated into regular classes. The training system for Korean teachers, I believe, did not provide training on how to integrate these students into English classes, let alone classes in which there is a native English teacher and Korean English teacher.

The level of ability, and the kinds of handicaps these students have differs greatly, and it is up to each native teacher to decide how to integrate these students into their class, and lesson plans. One strategy is to provide a colouring page with low level vocabulary on it for the student so that they have something to do while the rest of the class is studying higher level conversational English.

Say hello to them when you enter the class, and smile at them. This small gesture will mean a lot to them.

Once and a while, if they have a special classroom in the school for them, drop by and say hello. I would sometimes (Chuseok and Christmas) give each of the six special needs girls at my high school a popsicle, or some kind of small gift. The value of this kind of thing for the special students is something that is immeasurable. We may not have a large amount of time to give them in a class, but the small gestures are possible if we take the time and remember these students are in our schools.

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