Monday, March 2, 2009

Korean English Co-Teacher Issues: Techniques, Challenges, and Strategies

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

There is a lot more I could write about co-teachers and I may do so in the future, but for now this is what I have to offer on that topic.

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

One thing I noticed, while I was re-reading the stuff I wrote almost 3 years ago now, is that I don't put book titles that foreign teachers can use to help their co-teachers learn about English culture/s and to use for discussions whether in a teacher conversation class, or just while having tea in the teachers office at the school . . . something to add in the future, I think.


Korean English Co-Teachers

Co-teaching Issues: Techniques, Challenges, and Strategies

Each native English teacher is assigned to a Korean English co-teacher who they will spend the majority of their work time with at school each day, and who will also assist them with living in Korea. This relationship is a critical one that should be given a great deal of time and energy.

As native English teachers in a foreign culture we should try to learn as much as is reasonably possible about the history, culture, and language of Korea. Books such as "What’s so good about Korea, Maarten?" by Maarten Meijer, and "Korea’s Place in The Sun" by Professor Bruce Cumings, are excellent choices. Meijer’s book is an easy to read survey of Korean history from its beginnings up until today that will not leave you dizzy with heavy academic facts and hundreds of Korean names. It covers almost every facet of everyday life and culture in Korea. And perhaps even more importantly, Meijer examines the Korean education system, its public school system, and the hagwons that many of our students go to after school. Bruce Cumings book is a university style survey of Korean history written with a clear and insightful modern perspective. New teachers will find Meijer’s book a fast read, and extremely helpful. Cumings book is for foreigners who want to dig deeper into the history of Korea.

The cultural and social information in Meijer’s book will be an enormous help to native teachers as they work each day with their primary co-teacher, and the other Korean English co-teachers assigned to their classes. Communication in a professional and mature manner is a must, and when combined with a good introduction to Korean culture, will help each person to be understood.

A very important thing to realize, also, is that Korean English teachers DO NOT HAVE AN ORIENTATION SESSION, nor do they receive any formal training on how to co-teach, or work with a native English speaker from a foreign (and sometimes very unfamiliar culture) country. Many times, a Korean English teacher is informed (as opposed to volunteering) that they will be working with a native English teacher—and, oh yeah, they will arrive at your school in 24 hours: find an apartment for them, buy everything an apartment should have for them, and get everything at your school ready too (i.e. desk, computer, etc).

As the Korean English programs gain experience, and more practice at bringing native teachers into the program/country this will improve, but for now keep these things in mind when you meet your new Korean English teacher. Exercise patience and understanding, and things will get done—maybe not right away, but they will get done.

Co-teaching Issues: Techniques, Challenges, and Strategies

The following are challenges that some native teachers need to be prepared for if they happen. Remember to always be professional and courteous no matter what the situation.

A) Chronic Lateness to Class: The general practice that I’ve seen in my time in Korea is that Korean teachers usually get to their classrooms about 3-5 minutes after the music/bell has rung signaling class has begun. When a co-teacher is chronically late, meaning "more than five minutes after the class start time," it is time to politely let that teacher know you need them to be in the classroom within the first five minutes of the class. This should be done in a polite, friendly, and professional manner. If you don’t feel comfortable saying it yourself, ask your primary co-teacher to do it for you (or if it's they are the teacher coming late, ask an OLDER and preferably male co-teacher to speak to them for you).

But, as with any and all disciplinary issues in a Korean school, Korean culture can make this seemingly simple process very complicated. Rank and status in Korea are based on sex, age, title/rank of teacher, marital status, and number of years teaching—to name a few. This means that how your co-teacher communicates with another Korean co-teacher may be "handicapped" by cultural constraints that we as new foreigners in Korea do not understand. You may also experience fellow Koreans saying "yes" to a request to do something, and actually meaning "no."

B) The "Yes"/"No"/" . . . ." (silence) phenomenon is something that many foreigners find very confusing. Korean culture is very complex, with a long and rich history; native English teachers will almost always be told "yes" to a question—but that doesn’t always mean "yes." When a Korean person is silent it generally means that they do not know how to say "No," or they don’t want to say "No" but have to for some reason that they also will not/cannot explain to you. Three general reasons for this phenomenon are: A) They do not want to hurt your feelings; B) They do not want to fight/argue with you. C) Saying "no" to someone of a 'higher' social/professional rank is not generally done in Korea. This cultural phenomenon creates a huge number of situations where misunderstandings and mis-communications between foreign teachers and Koreans occur.

C) Absenteeism: To a degree this is a very simple issue to resolve. English Program contracts and education office policy usually state that a co-teacher will be provided for regular classes. Korean teachers who come to you at the last second and tell you they will not be coming to your class due to being "too busy," having "too much paper work," or "a business trip" etc, should be politely reminded of this rule. Korean teachers who simply do not show up for your class—mention this to your primary co-teacher and let them handle it. But if it is a chronic problem, bring it up again. If it does not stop, then ask your co-teacher to make an appointment to sit down and talk with the English head teacher, or vice-principal. Then, after an appropriate amount of time (1-2 weeks is more than enough time for a change in this behaviour), if nothing changes, ask to have an appointment with the principal. And so on and so forth up the chain of command. Judge for yourself on a case by case basis whether or not the office politics social 'cost' of making a complaint is worth the reward.

D) Refusal to co-teach: I have heard stories (and experienced this personally) of native teachers in class asking their Korean co-teacher to translate something for the students into Korean, or to help with a problem student and class discipline—and the co-teacher refusing to do so during class in front of the students. This is a very difficult situation for the native English teacher as it undermines their authority, and it also makes their teaching job more difficult, and the education experience for students suffers too.

But remember that not every Korean English teacher has the same level of training and education in English. Sometimes it may be the case that the KET does not know what the meaning of the English word, idiom, expression, or cultural concept is (to name a few things). They may be embarrassed and not want to admit that they don’t know, and they won’t want to ask you to tell them/explain to them what the answer is in English because their students are all watching the "expert" Korean English teacher admit that they don’t have the answer.

"Face saving" is a big thing in Korea, and in Western cultures too. Nobody wants to be seen as a fool, or uneducated, or to be embarrassed—bear this in mind if and when you encounter a situation where a KET refuses to translate or help you explain something in your class while the students are watching. Wait a few seconds, and then YOU should try to explain the language again in a different way, or if you’re stumped yourself, and can’t think of how to explain it further, set it aside and deal with the issue later OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM.. Remember to give your KET the same professional courtesy and respect that you expect from them.

E) "My co-teacher hides in the back of the class.": Be patient. And think of five possible reasons why your co-teacher might be doing this; this helps prevent negative assumptions that will then make more problems for you when you try to change the behaviour. Also, realize that most KETs lack the needed level of English language skills, and speaking fluency with cultural background information, to teach and co-teach English in ENGLISH. When you ask a co-teacher to explain something they themselves don't know or understand you are deliberately creating a teaching crisis for yourself in the classroom with an audience of Korean students. Keep in mind that while YOU have had a lifetime of learning experience, and maybe some teaching experience, in the communicative style of teaching and learning--the Korean teacher may have NEVER been exposed to it. Expecting them to be able to co-teach with you in a method and style they have no training or experience in is unfair and unrealistic.

Be prepared to become a kind of teacher trainer (on top of your regular teaching) in the sense that how you teach your lessons, and even the lessons themselves and how they are made, will be something that your co-teacher will need time to OBSERVE (yes, likely from the back of the classroom), talk to you about outside of class about the differences . . . of course this is also assuming they have the language ability to communicate about teaching methods, and are not worried about losing face to the young foreign teacher who knows things they don't, and that they are simply the kind of teacher who actually wants to improve and expand on their personal teaching methods . . . new teachers often lack the teaching training and experience to consider their co-teacher's behavior in a context of fair and reasonable expectations as opposed to the all too often heard comment/context: my co-teacher doesn't know how to teach, and doesn't know any English--think that way and you're just setting yourself up for failure and a lot of stress. Keep a positive framework with compassion, patience, and an open mind and things will work themselves out over time.

F) Poor communication to native teachers in a timely manner about schedule changes/upcoming appointments and meetings/summer and winter camp planning and preparation tasks . . . expect that you will need to sit down with your co-teacher each and every morning you go to workand ask them if there are any schedule changes for that day, and the upcoming week and month too. Have a desk calendar that you can write down school test days, national test days that all schools do that can sometimes have your class/es canceled or cut short, national holidays, school birthday, and all of the other things that you can think of like when the semester ends, when the new semester begins, etc. Knowing when students have tests and exams is a critical piece of knowledge a lot of new foreign teachers don't take into consideration when organizing the lessons they will teach over a semester. If you try to do a semi-challenging lesson the week before, the week of, and the week after an exam period you're in for a really tough time trying to maintain student motivation and discipline when they are tired from studying/taking the test, etc. Expect several weeks if not months of having to teach your co-teacher about communicating to you schedule info--and also be prepared for this to never change as some personality types just never 'get it.'

G) "It’s too difficult" Korean co-teachers may say this when you expose them to a game, activity, or learning method/lesson that they have never seen before. It is critical to get them to not say this in front of students especially when you are in the classroom teaching. Due to the testing system in the public school KETs do not seem to use games, activities, and task-based learning/teaching as much as teachers do in North America. Be patient, and encourage them to just watch what you do and how you do it in the classroom, and then talk about it afterwards with them. After you have modeled how to teach and how to teach in ENGLISH the new learning/teaching thing you can then begin the process of easing the KET into co-teaching with you by explicitly asking them to do small easily achievable tasks that are a part of the teaching process, and eventually you both may work up to the point where you take turns doing different tasks and some actual co-teaching will take place. Remember to give your KET time to grow and change as a teacher and that everbody has a different learning speed--and perhaps most importantly that they are teaching in a FOREIGN LANGUAGE--not an easy thing to do for anybody.

I) 0-Experience with Western styles of teaching (see above)

J) 0-Experience with Native English teachers and foreigners in general: If your co-teacher has never been outside of Korea, and their knowledge of western cultures is very limited, it will fall to you to teach them about a lot of different topics. Compass Publishing has a great series of tiny books with English and Korean translations on a wide range of cultural topics from supersititions to holidays and major cultural events like Christmas. For example, "101 American Customs" 2004, ISBN 978-89-8446-369-1, by Harry Collis and Joe Kohl, W7,500

K) "Have you ever done this before?" When you ask your Korean co-teacher a question about how to do something in Korea (like finding a store or location) be wary of the advice and instruction quality you get. Often Koreans want to help you so badly that they overlook the fact that the kind of help being offered is going to cause more problems later. If the answer is "No." Assume that, as with any person in the world, that many pieces of information, and ideas, will unfortunately not be accurate. Be prepared to have to help yourself (and your co-teacher) out in many different ways, to have to do research about the task, methods, and logistics of a task yourself. Do not rely on things like estimates about time to travel somewhere, level of difficulty for the task, costs, etc, for things related to teaching, camps, and life in Korea.


Darren said...

Fantastic summary that hopefully help many bridge the Ko-teacher (pun intended) Native Language Speaker divide! Mega Kudos.

Brian said...

The vast majority of my coteachers either don't come to class or sit in the back of the room reading a magazine or flipping through a book. It's hard to respect people as professionas when they don't do their jobs and don't take an interest in helping their students learn English.

Have you ever talked to Korean teachers in your charge about working with native speakers? I mean, one of the most baffling things to me about English here is that they bring in expensive native speakers but have idea what to do with them. Sure, there is a curriculum and a set of guidelines published by the government (the latter I didn't find until seven months online, and that was when flipping through a Korean-language book). But coming to a school and either being told "do whatever you want" or getting eight different directions from eight different co-teachers doesn't make sense to me.

I know there was a poster on Dave's who works at a teacher's college who has talked with his students about working with native speakers. Like, their responsibilities, the common pitfalls of the relationship, how to participate meaningfully in class, the big complaints foreign teachers make, etc. But I think the most important conversation would revolve around what they expect of us and our classes? What is their ideal of a NS-led class? What can they do to contribute to it.

But---and this is getting off-topic a little---on the opposite end of the spectrum is Teaching English in English. It's a good idea, but the way I saw it done in Jeollanam-do made me fume. The goal is to teach the whole class in English, with a Korean teacher and a NS working together. At that particular demonstration class, the Korean teacher led the activities and gave the instructions, in his terrible, terrible English. Instead of calling on students by their names, he just barked "girl" or "hey." The foreign teacher's job was to model pronunciation and to give stickers every god damn time a student said anything. Christ, it was bad, and a terrible example of using a native speaker in the classroom. Sorry, rant over.

And I'm going to mention these tomorrow, I swear ;) . . . new semester, other distractions.

Jason said...

Hi Brian,

I don't have the energy or time to write a reply that would do your comments and questions justice--but I plan to maybe over the weekend.

As you might imagine I have a lot to say about co-teaching, and have a lot of experience with it both in terms of my own co-teaching, training Korean teachers, and giving presentations to foreign teachers too. . ..

Anyways, the pizza just got here--sorry, more important matters to attend to . .. pizza . .. aughghaghaghg . .

Talk to you later,

matt said...

Great article, Jason.
I second Brian's comments, although I have to say 2 of my 7 co-teachers do a great job, and try to actually co-teach, although all of them (except 1) are generally a positive influence on the class.

Since in only 28% of my classes do I have an effective co-teacher, what I've learned to do is teach as if they're not there. Since 72% of the time, I am essentially alone.
I am the disciplinarian (although I use a grade book, and not the stick) and I translate anything I think might be difficult via Korean friend or the internet, before class. I have a greatly increased workload due to this (keeping track of grades for 1000 students is job onto itself) but I certainly feel a greater sense of accomplishment then previously, when I relied more on the ineffective co-teachers.

It's sad to say, but another reason I don't like to use them in my classes, is because their English is so bad. It doesn't matter what their attitude is, if they can't speak proper English, I'd rather they didn't say anything.
I felt so awkward after seeing corrections my co-teacher made, only to have to proper their corrections. (I always do so, as teaching my kids English is a lot more important then my co-teacher saving face) Doing all the work myself save me this frustration.
Some of my students I see only twice a month! So my classes have NO time for ANY Korean speaking.

Anonymous said...

I'm desperate for help today. I'm having a heck of a time at my new school. I worked for 2 different schools in Jeollanamdo and got along wonderfully with everyone. The students, teachers, and principals and vice principals were very happy with me. I worked on getting my TESOL at Chosun University attending classes every night after school. I have spent a lot of time, money, and energy on making myself a better teacher. They asked me to resign but I wanted to be in Seoul with my fiance. I loved working with my coteachers. They always stepped in and facilitated conversations and disciplined and translated when it was necessary. Now, I am with SMOE in a school with almost 3000 students. My coteachers have never worked with a native teacher before. They don't like any of my ideas or suggestions. They devalue my experience as it was in the "countryside" and my level, I'm a level E with SMOE. The other day my co-teacher basically took over my class leaving me to do nothing. They constantly criticize my teaching even in the classroom. They don't look over my lesson plans and "accidentally" teach my sections of the text book. Last week, I graded over 600 student essays by myself. I'm so frustrated right now, I'm seriously considering breaking my contract, which is just not my style. Please help!

Jason said...

Hi Anonymous,

Please email me,

Carl said...

Didn't know you had 2 blogs! Same content so both are cool :)

Just wanted to tell you that I'll be quoting your co-teaching issues for a training program for new NETs and to also say thanks for being so generous with your knowledge.

All the best.


Christina Dunigan said...

Has anybody had any success convincing Korean CTs to use even minimal English in the classroom? My CTs would rather have a pelvic exam by Captain Hook than say, "Turn to page 22" or "Get out your pencils" in English. The head English teacher actually told me that the students don't need to even understand such phrases as "Open your books, please." or "Close the door, please," or "You will need a pen or pencil" because -- get this -- "They can understand from gestures and they'll never use that in real life anyway.

When I want to use Go Fish to practice the target sentences, I'm told "That's too repetitive and the students will think it's boring" from the same teacher who plays the same dialogs 5 - 10 times per lesson.

It's no wonder the kids are resentful and refuse to use English. They're just following the example of their Korean teachers.