[edited twice as of this morning, 6/17/10)
I've been thinking about my role as an English teacher in Korea more often lately. I know it's likely due to my approaching contract renewal. I should probably just relax. I know I'm a good teacher, but we don't get much peer review in Korea. Certainly not as much discourse as I'm used to in the US. So, I am anxious.
I took a little time to reflect on my work the last week and discovered, since my 2008 arrival in Seoul, I've weathered a strong revision of my teaching practices yet a strong reaffirmation of my pedagogical principles. My principles are renewed and my practice is more vital than it has ever been in the past. I feel like I know what I'm doing yet I'm doing something new.
I think a lot of Native Speaking English Teachers (NSETs) arrive in Korea with vague notions about how to teach English and little experience. That's problematic and for what are obvious reasons: new teachers, little support, no training, rigid contract, et al. However, many people coming to Korea to teach are dedicated teachers looking for work in a country that respects teachers and looking to teach in Korea, a place they want to know more about. Many teachers arrive here already trained, with strong pedagogical principles and practical experience. As one of the latter, it's often painful and frustrating to be compared to the former. Teachers should be able to gain experience, certainly, but I do believe that experience should be developed at home and in conjunction with the direction of their own teachers. That's for another post.
I'm tired of hearing from my surprised Korean colleagues that I'm such a good, dedicated teacher who has good ideas and loves Korea. (They're always happy I don't show up late, smelling of soju and kimchi, with my shirt untucked, dead tired and unable to teach. Koreans seem to expect the worst as a rule.) I always want to crack wise and stand up for myself. I don't. I just smile and say, Thank You. It's the Korean way, for sure.
I've always thought English is useful as a global language because it's capable of assimilating essential everyday language from other languages without much of a hassle or misunderstanding. However, the teaching of English can be much less democratic and accepting of difference than the language is. For many reasons, many teachers act as if they are guardians of the English language. It's not enough for them to teach it; they like to act as if they own it and are protecting something they bought with their knowledge of it.
One thing I've learned in Korea about English instruction and that I'd offer to anybody seeking advice about teaching ESL and/or EFL in a foreign country is that a teacher must have the ability to strive for excellence while setting classroom standards and expectations appropriately with respect to the students' current needs and demands in contrast to the teacher's own desires. Teachers really do have the power to set this conflict between desires and demands aside, to disengage from it for the benefit of the class by stepping down from doing things for the students and actively engaging with them in classroom discourse. English language instruction and acquisition can be a coming to terms with the language rather than enforcing it: a negotiation rather than a standard.
What I have been coming to terms with in Korea is a strange disconnect between my radicalism (pedagogy) and my pragmatism (my objective). I have learned that balancing the desire to express ourselves in the classroom and department successfully and meaningfully is not the same as managing a classroom in a manner suitable to the students. Only the teacher is in a position to assess what the students need and this gives teachers a lot of power. We know that government is always seeking to proscribe this power. And students often like to rebel against it. Regardless of the situation outside of the classroom, a teacher can make the decision to empower student participation and activate learning in useful and meaningful ways no matter what interference exists.
Judging from the bulk of lesson plans I see circulated and the general discourse about teaching (in Korea,) the less-experienced teachers seem to make the wrong decisions for what may seem like very practical (read, good) reasons. Teachers tend to decide that the requirements of the lessons and demands of the culture are so significant that they must insist students accept a classroom environment the teacher thinks will work best for them to meet curricula-determined goals. I disavow this practice. I guess this could be my reaction to useless lesson planning practices. After all, how long have teachers been composing plans based upon concrete goals that are met only after imposing a strict outline of timed classroom activities? It's stale; it ignores students.
A good lesson plan illustrates a teacher understands how to define an attainable goal. A good plan never addresses how and what students think about it. Moreover, detailed plans always determine how students should approach a lesson. Therefore, plans limit creative and critical discourse. Nowhere in these lesson plans are students visible. Students are unnecessary to its implementation, and they will be present when a lesson is discussed and assigned. They will be given a lesson. I know many teachers who can compose wonderful lesson plans who cannot teach, aren't interested in teaching. They are good plan implementers. And the students' grades are merely numeric representations of the quality of implementation. In fact, that's how both the US and Korean Republic see education. This is the prevailing theory of education: if students receive high test scores, then they are learning.
My Korean colleagues often sadly approach me and apologize because I have had to "lower my expectations" since coming to Samsung High School. When I first arrived, I thought this was because my school's Principal had read my CV to the teachers in a faculty meeting before introducing me. It was embarrassing. I'm proud of my work but I don't brag. And some teachers were intimidated. What was I doing here? They asked it; I asked it. But I have learned that they're thanking me for working hard and trying to be respectful. I'm not good with gratitude. I have a real problem seeing myself as good. And it's even harder for me to figure out how to return gratitude. I'm terrified of obligation and never quite get it right. This, too, is for another post. But it shouldn't be overlooked that when I first arrived, were it not for my experience, I would have been shocked to discover that it's close to impossible for me to properly complete my contracted tasks--that much of my work, in the traditional sense of teaching lessons, is pointless.
But I have learned to stay focused on the students. To love my students and not necessarily their work. And so, when I'm reminded how sad it is that I have to lower my expectations, I respond with a smile and say "No problem." What's the point of explaining that I find such apologies demeaning to the student body? It's not worth it. I know how my colleagues think about my most recent approach to developing lessons: they see my newest take on teaching students here as a lowering of expectations. It is decidedly not that at all.
The level of English in my working-class district is lower than you might expect. I have 2 or 3 out of 35 to 45 students, in 20 classes, who can listen to a question in English and answer using complete sentences or meaningful clauses and phrases. That's about 60 out of 600-700 students I regularly see. As a result, the first thing I ditched was the English-Only Classroom. For me, that was the easiest part of the environment to change.
Even before arriving in Korea, I wholeheartedly disagreed that enforcing English-only in classrooms encourages and supports the students. Now I can say without a doubt that it's merely wishful thinking to suggest a classroom can be English-Only. It's a ridiculously limiting conception of language as well, as if language were only spoken. The students are not thinking in English. No matter what they say or think, the English language is always already in context with Korean language and culture. We might as well use that to our benefit. English-Only classrooms in Korea are much more about making English teachers more comfortable. I hate classroom power trips. Thus, my classrooms are proudly bilingual.
I would suggest that newer teachers in Korea think about ways to assert themselves in the classroom. Co-teachers will attempt to dominate younger and inexperienced teachers. They'll attempt to police your classrooms. If you need help and are a brand new teacher in search of guidance, this might be a happy coincidence. On the other hand, many teachers have practical experience and will find that Korea's classroom culture is odd, possibly alienating. One of the first things to learn while teaching here is how to fairly and positively manage a Korean English classroom. It takes some work. But the conflicts that will arise and headaches that follow are worth the stress. If you're a good teacher, they will respect your different style. If the students dislike you and you can't teach, they're going to get rid of you as quickly as possible anyway. And I agree with them. Korean students shouldn't be the lab rats for Western teacher wannabes. (I don't mean to be overly cynical or rude to younger teachers, but using another culture's student population as a tool to explore your options back home is unethical to say the least. It's something a teacher wouldn't do.)
The second thing I have learned is how to see the classroom as my students do: a boring, uninspired series of lessons about how to properly answer multiple choice questions based on reading, listening and thinking about ideas in English. Korean English teachers handle this aspect of the job. It's a teacher-stands-in-front-of-the-class-and-tells-you-what-things-mean kind of situation. And Korean students are often much more accepting of receiving such lessons from a Korean than a foreigner. Korean education culture mandates this approach as necessary to teach the students how to prepare for their standardized tests. The advanced students take notes and passively listen and the students who are slightly behind sleep or daydream. The issue for me, as an NSET, is a matter of role: What is my role in the Korean high school classroom?
I've decided my role is to be the one consistent English-speaking presence necessary to acclimate students to the sounds and logic of the English language. By using English with them, I'm performing what it sounds like, how it acts, what it means, and when to use it. In addition, I am what it looks like. This role is in opposition to how most foreign teachers work. This is not to say that they aren't well-meaning teachers with strong lessons. But who are they kidding? I have seen videos of lessons about idioms that drive students mad with laughter. But a PowerPoint presentation with videos and an active classroom is still a lesson about an idiom that relies on a stupid comparison between Konglish and English usage of English language words. It's simply not teaching language. It's teaching jokes. At best, it could be referred to as "reaching an understanding" about a routine. And, in many cases, a teacher risks reinforcing bad habits and lazy routines.
Many NSETs attempt to improve on the Korean English teacher's work and talk about teaching as a competition between co-teachers. At times, they wish to correct the mistakes and to encourage more contemporary usage. Many of the lessons online are based on improving the language the students already know. I think this approach almost gets it right but the flaw is in the pedagogy. NSETs like to be The Expert English Person on Campus. They like to own the language. They complain about the mistakes Koreans permit in their lessons and textbooks. They like to correct cultural errors. They like to transmit Western cultural lessons via language lessons. And as a result of playing the leader, they often find themselves very much an outsider in their schools. They become English Language Informers--the tool in their schools to illustrate who knows English well and who doesn't: somebody who is approached only when the locals can't answer a language question without an expert's help. I want nothing to do with this role. It's a means to alienate myself from my students. In addition, I may be an English teacher, but I do not own the language.
All NSETs should meditate on this mantra: I know I am not in Korea to change Korea.
On the other hand, I love Korea. So, why is it not enough for me to simply be myself using the language and being a teacher being myself using the language? It really does boil down to being a teacher or being like a teacher. Am I teaching or teachering?
I do everything I can to work with students on improving classroom discourse to permit as much student participation as possible yet insist that we maintain a useful direction. After all, we must succeed at focused study with a purpose. In my classrooms, even when I'm evaluating the students, I try to encourage them to use the language they have already learned in order to practice it and become more familiar with it. I insist they attempt to speak in coherent sentences when possible.
You may think I have set the bar rather low. I'd disagree. I have renovated the English classroom. Once a week the students feel at ease when an English teacher walks into the room. At ease because I am the Native Speaker, not in spite of it. (Although my co-teachers often feel alienated in my classroom. Yet again, for another post.) This serves an important purpose. I'm the guy you can speak your lousy English with because I'm patient and kind and want you to succeed. I'm not here to inform you that you're incorrect. Quite the opposite, I'm the one who will tell you, "I understand." I'm not concerned with your ranking nor your grade. I'll insist you use English, but I'll support your attempt. In addition, I'll not cater to you nor insult your intelligence. I'm the teacher who knows you know the answer but can't figure out how to say it. We'll figure out a way to say it together. Consequently, I'm the teacher who will insist that English is only possible in conversation with others no matter how much the government and anal Westerners insist it's about correctness.
I'll give you an example. This month we're working on illustrating six themes from the film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. While some of my students are preparing to find jobs and begin a life of hard work, many students are working towards University life. So, it's important that they begin thinking critically about ideas they encounter in texts. They need to be able to generate reasonable statements about those ideas. They need to know how to use examples from texts to support their statements. And they need to improve their English speaking skills.
I don't have enough time with them to work on reading and discussing texts. I do have time to screen films. We watch a film; I hand out vocabulary. We discuss the language in the film and homework is to familiarize themselves with words and phrases that are new to them. I encourage them to use dictionaries but require their answers in class be in their own words. They aren't permitted to speak in dictionary-ese. The following week, groups have to stand and answer questions about the new words and phrases. We spend one week writing sentences about the meaning of familiar words from the narrative. I assign homework to group leaders who must organize their groups and get them to present a discussion about one of six themes. In their presentations the following week, they must use the language from our earlier vocabulary work. Again, I assign homework asking the students to draw an illustration of their group work about a theme. Their illustration must contain a slogan that captures the spirit of their chosen theme. I sneak a little practice on writing a summary into an art project. The following week, group leaders present their work and the class evaluates the presentations.
It sounds like difficult work, doesn't it? It is and it isn't. These are smart lessons that permit duplication. In other words, in any given school year, I can help the students develop comfort with new vocabulary and English language culture using a format that entertains them. The material in each lesson is new, yet it recalls prior work. The students can become comfortable with my teaching style and a classroom routine without me having to give up the complexity I think is necessary to actually promote learning. I have a lesson ideal and a general direction that maintains a focused and accurate purpose.
The most time-consuming part of the preparation is putting students into groups because I make sure the groups contain high-performers and low-performers, students who both know and don't know English. The students teach one another by listening to their group members discuss how to complete the work and other groups present their work. They become the experts. Students learn who to trust and ask one another for help. I encourage the groups to routinely give others the answers. I encourage students who know the answer that a person standing doesn't know to share the answer. Students know there is nothing wrong with hearing an answer and then repeating it. Of course, they must learn to hear the most correct answer. As a result, I have discovered a way to permit a noisy classroom.
It's much more complex and demanding than anything they're accustomed to as students of English, yet they enjoy it. The difference is that we work in groups and share our results and discuss our problems understanding the meaning of the English language in both Korean and English. The classroom becomes less about the assignment and a teacher's evaluation than it does about the discourse needed to address the questions at issue within each stage of the assignment. Moreover, the students are involved with evaluating their performance as the final lesson requires classes to discuss group performance.
Ultimately, I'm satisfied because this is a practice I'd use with Seoul's most privileged students. It's not something developed with my students in mind; it's something that works regardless of social class. The lessons permit useful participation from all kinds of students, and their participation is required to be in concert with their classmates' work. I'm engaging with them on what can be thought of as their terms. In other words, I'm not reinforcing the stupid ranking system where the best and brightest are rewarded as they shame their classmates who haven't scored as high on their tests. (This is a problem in US classrooms, too, where teachers use the smart kids to motivate the kids who aren't doing as well. It's demeaning. As far as I'm concerned, it's a kind of training for corporate life that should be banned from the classroom.)
I've been using a word lately to distinguish between useful and useless teaching practices. Teaching is always useful teaching. Teachering is when what you do in the classroom fulfills your obligations but does not necessarily have anything to do with your students. Teachering is always useless.