The Importance of Teaching Culture to EFL Students

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Piccadilly, Photo taken from ELTpics by Christina Martidou used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

I am very happy to share this guest post from Ljiljana Havran, an English language teacher and librarian from Serbia.  Ljiljana has an MA in English language and has been teaching general English and English for Specific Purposes (Aviation English) at the Aviation technical school in Belgrade for eighteen years. She blogs at and is @LjiljanaHavran on Twitter. I will turn it over to Ljiljana with thanks for sharing this excellent and informative post.

It was my great pleasure to write this guest post. The post was inspired by Mike’s posts and his reflections about teaching English to students in South Korea.

Cultures have widely differing characteristics and misunderstandings are likely to occur between members of different cultures. Intercultural communicative competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from other language and cultural backgrounds. My main aim in the post was to explain how we can develop a culturally competent attitude, why we must avoid cultural stereotypes, and also, to point out the importance of teaching culture as an integrative part of EFL. I hope this post is interesting and useful to EFL teachers, and teacher trainers who are preparing people for cross-cultural encounters.

My first cross-cultural experience

After leaving my secondary school I spent a month in Brighton in an English home with an English family. My journey to England was a fascinating experience; the appeal of the exotic and different was not only about distant geographic places but also because of cultural distance. I was very curious about the differences, and so I was eager to experience all aspects of the English culture. I attended a summer course in a private language school for exchange students. I visited some fabulous castles, colleges, theatres, museums, and pubs. I enjoyed listening to melodious English language (which to my great surprise was a lot different from the English language I had been taught at school in Serbia). I met some nice and friendly people who did not match at all a well-known cultural stereotype of the English as reserved, unfriendly and cold. My journey to England was an experience of a lifetime; it was as if I had lived a completely different reality.

What is culture, and how can we develop a culturally competent attitude?

Culture is a way of life. It is the context within which we exist, think, feel, and relate to others. We tend to perceive reality strictly within the context of our own culture, and there is still a tendency to believe that our own reality is the correct perception. Using the norms of our own culture as standards when we judge the behavior of people from other cultures is called ethnocentrism.

In the bias of our own culture-bound world view, we tend to picture other cultures in an oversimplified manner, and we view every person in these cultures as possessing corresponding stereotypical traits. The thing is that stereotype may be accurate in depicting the typical member of a culture, but it is inaccurate for describing a particular person, simply because every person is a unique individual and all of person’s characteristics cannot be predicted on the basis of cultural norms.

If we say, for example, that the Swiss are very punctual, this could be seen as a cultural characteristic. This is because it is a pattern of behaviour which is very typical in Switzerland: from their transport system to their business meetings.

In this way, generalisations can have some value and be useful as long as they are not considered absolute. However, it is crucial to view all people as unique individuals and realize that their experiences, beliefs, values and language affect their ways of interacting with others. If people recognize and understand differing world views, they will usually adopt a positive and open-minded attitude toward cross-cultural difference. A close-minded view of such differences often results in the maintenance of a stereotype.

Milton J. Bennett coined the term “ethnorelativism” to mean the opposite of “ethnocentrism” – the experience of one’s own beliefs and behaviors as just one organization of reality among many viable possibilities. According to Bennett (2009), intercultural learning is “acquiring increased awareness of subjective cultural context (worldview), including one’s own, and developing greater ability to interact sensitively and competently across cultural contexts as both an immediate and long-term effect of change.” Bennett describes six distinct kinds of experience that spread across the continuum from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism.

“In general, the more ethnocentric orientations can be seen as ways of avoiding cultural difference, either by denying its existence, by raising defenses against it, or by minimizing its importance. The more ethnorelative worldviews are ways of seeking cultural difference, either by accepting its importance, by adapting perspective to take it into account, or by integrating the whole concept into a definition of identity.”

Ethnorelativism supposes that “cultures can only be understood relative to one another, and that particular behavior can only be understood within a cultural context” (Bennett, 2009). By recognising differences among cultures, and by constructing a kind of self-reflexive perspective, people are able to experience others as different from themselves, but equally human. Adaptation to cultural difference is not assimilation; adaptation is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture.

Bennett points out that It is naive to think that intercultural sensitivity and competence is always associated with liking other cultures or agreeing with their values or ways of life. Some cultural differences may be judged negatively – but the judgment is not ethnocentric unless it is associated with simplification, or withholding equal humanity.” (Bennett, 2009).  For more information please see “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”

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My favourite Lancaster pub, and home to excellent blues, folk, and jazz. Photo taken from ELTpics by Martin Eayrs used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

What does it mean to develop intercultural awareness in the EFL classroom?

The role of English as an international language of communication in the modern technological world in the 21st century poses special demands on EFL teachers. ELT researchers have recognized the dialectical connection between language and culture since mid-1980s. Krasner (1999) for instance, recognized the necessity for language learners to develop not only linguistic competence but also an awareness of the culturally-appropriate features of the language.

In recent years there have been more discussions and research focusing on the importance of intercultural sensitivity and intercultural communicative competence. EFL teachers should not just draw learners’ attention to facts about other cultures, but they should teach in such a way as to make it clear that communication is more than the exchange of information and opinions. Effective intercultural communication requires empathy, respect, openness and sensitivity.

It is very important first to raise students’ awareness of their own culture, and in so doing to interpret and understand the other cultures. Raising intercultural awareness implies the development of skills for successful communication, i.e. competent and peaceful interaction with people who are different from us. Such an approach assigns another important role to the foreign language teacher/learner: that of “intercultural mediator”, i.e. someone who is capable of critically reflecting on the relationship between two cultures.

EFL teachers will be challenged to exploit this situation by creating opportunities for communication based on the values, cultural norms, and needs of learners, rather than on the syllabi and texts/textbooks developed in native-speakers communities. Most importantly, an intercultural language learning programme should help the learners to develop an “intercultural awareness” in order to “translate” culture in their own context (Guilherme, 2002).

How could culture be fully integrated in EFL learning?

Cultural activities should be carefully organized and incorporated into the EFL syllabus to enrich and inform the teaching content. These are some useful ideas for presenting culture in the classroom:

  • Students read articles or extracts from books, newspapers, magazines or websites written by travel writers or people who have visited the students’ town, country or region. Discussion topics can include the norms and values of the culture, nonverbal behaviours (e.g. the physical distance between speakers, eye contact, gestures, societal roles).
  • Students discuss funny stories and experience they once had related to cultural issues, or misunderstandings. They can role play a situation based on cultural differences (e.g.  a situation in which an inappropriate greeting is used).
  • Using photos in class to explore various cultures and lifestyles and answering questions together can be interesting for your students; these activities enable lessons to take the form of collaborative discovery.
  • Students are usually curious about the different foods, art and songs that have value in different cultures, and you can teach that by incorporating important elements of cultural celebrations into English language classroom. 
  • Using proverbs in class as a way to explore culture, its values, and analyze the stereotypes of the culture. Discussions can focus on how the proverbs are different from or similar to the proverbs in the students’ native language.
  • Students create a brochure, guidebook, poster or webpage for visitors to their town, country or region. This should not only describe famous sites and places to visit, stay or eat, but also give visitors some useful tips about what they may find strange or unusual about their own culture.
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Burning dried oak branches on Christmas Eve in Serbia Photo taken from ELTpics by Jelena Mihajlov

Here on Mike’s blog you can find a lot of very interesting posts that can be used for discussions about culture and the role of the teacher. Also, you can find some ideas for teaching culture to EFL students. Some of my favourite posts on the blog are:

Couldn’t teach today because Confucianism

Korean Culture Tips

18 things about Korean Students

They gave me a fork


#30GoalsEdu: Send a Future Message


It is my great pleasure to reblog and share this post from Maria MariaTheologidou (aka @MariaTheo1) a new Worpress Convertee. In the post she sends a letter to her future self which really appeals to me. She has lots of interesting posts on her blog and a few others I’d recommend are:

Bye Bye Bad Habits

Share your edtech success story

Letter to my #youngerteacherself 

I also recommend checking out her fantastic singing (in this case with Fluency MC)

Welcome to the WP neighborhood, Maria!

Originally posted on mariatheologidou:

The future is always a promise; a promise for a brighter, more enjoyable version of life or for the moment we will be able to live our dreams. It’s inextricably tied to the present though. As Shakespeare wrote, “It’s not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves”. Our present actions/decisions determine what our future will look like and build the way towards it. Talking about the future and our expectations of it is an essential part of my lessons, especially my first back-to-school ones. Since the future might be intimidating, I want my students to feel that by setting small goals they can accomplish their bigger dreams and that anything is possible provided they work towards it.

Here are some of the future message activities I work on with my classes:

  • Something I do with younger students is to ask them to write a “gift letter” to…

View original 493 more words

A short (mostly only audio) post

I have been wanting to do all an all audio post for a while and I even have a topic in mind but I never managed to do it. My class two weeks ago gave me something somewhat interesting to share so here goes….
(the story is just over 90 seconds long and can be heard by hitting play below)

Scaring students on the first day

The other day I was talking to a friend who also just stared the fall term at a university here in Korea. We were talking about schedules and plans and the weather and all sorts of things when my friend said, “I do enjoy scaring freshmen on the first day.” I was a bit surprised by this bold and potentially sadistic confession so I pursued a discussion on this by asking, “What do you do?” while not really knowing what to expect. What sort of scary tricks did he have up his sleeve? Did he dress up as a clown? Did he make them dress like clowns? Did he scream and yell? Did he make students do push-ups? Did he lecture them on the impermanence of life? Did he share statistics about youth unemployment in Korea? Did he have students march to the top of their desks or the building and recite poetry? Did he tell ghost stories? Did he explain how hard the course would be in a voice that would make a movie drill sergeant proud whilst getting bits of saliva on their first day of school outfit?


His response was not as exciting or cruel as I might have been expecting. He said, “I just use a stern voice on the first day. You know? Lay down the law.” That didn’t sound very harsh to me, and I found myself joining in, saying, “This is not high school anymore.” I think my friend could see I knew where he was coming from and he added, “They need it.”

I thought I was following my friend’s line of thinking for a minute there but then I got all wrapped up in my own thoughts. I wondered more about the scariness, thinking maybe he had students come to the front and do scary shit from minute 1, day 1.

Here I started to wonder exactly what students need at the start of the term. Do they need clarity or fear? Is fear a good way to get to clarity? Is it better to be feared than loved? Is warmth and rapport more important than fear? Is fear just a tool to help students get on board in the early stages so that rapport can be developed later on? Am I thinking too much about rapport because of the KELTchat on this subject?

I pondered the aspect of us both being “native” English teachers in Korea so maybe there is something here about the perceived roles of teachers and how serious our classes are or are perceived or expected to be. My friend sort of confirmed this by adding, “Some students expect it’s going to be a happy happy fun fun time, and sometimes it is, but they expect me to be like their HS English ‘teacha.’ Charades and all.”  I don’t really have anything against charades or high school or other previous teachers but I can see the benefit in letting students know from the start that this is something different and that their previous experiences are not a always great match for the tasks and expectations here. I suppose recognition could be scary for students, yet I suppose I am still mostly uncomfortable with intentionally scaring students.

I think I can see a few benefits to (slightly) scaring students at the start. One is potentially weeding out the students that are not there to learn and thus whittling down the class roster to a more manageable number. Another thought is that it is probably better for students not to be unexpectedly overburdened with the workload. Regarding interpersonal connections, there can be a nice feeling when the barriers break down over time. I think students can sniff out teachers that are trying to be overly friendly or chummy from the start and this might be annoying or distracting. Just some thoughts, of course.

My friend seemed particularly interested in expectations and helping students change their expectations about the course. He said his first year students, “think the writing topics will be along the lines of describing their bedroom and the process of making ramyeon so I have to set a serious tone from the get go, then open up some as we go along, especially when there are so many in the class.” His points sort of reminded me of the old, “Don’t smile till Christmas” advice younger teachers used to get. I am not sure I put much stock in that but I also realized every context is different.

What do you think of all this? How do you go about balancing between a serious and friendly tone? Do you wait until issues arise before laying down the heavy and reminding students that they are in a serious place?

Maybe it being in the syllabus is not enough?

A common complaint from those involved in English education in Korean universities is that students just don’t read the syllabus. Instructors complain, “Every term it is the same thing. These kids, fresh out of high school, first time not having their hands held, have no idea how to learn and no idea what education is all about. They are too lazy or too stupid to read the fucking syllabus.” The thing that most catches my eye here, even more than denigrating students or the complete lack of responsibility, is the “every time” bit. If it happens every time maybe their is something the instructor can do? Maybe there is something the instructor can learn from this biannual stressfest. “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,” right?


I like to think if something so incensed me I’d take some measures to prevent it. I think spending 10-20 minutes on the most important points in the syllabus (whilst being leery of too much telling time) is better than continually bitching about how students just don’t get it. I think giving students a chance and a reason to see what is on the syllabus is better than unbunching my panties every time students miss or forget something that is on the syllabus.

Rather than just looking down on people for getting angry about the wrong things I will share a few ideas to prevent what is now known as the ‘It’s in the fucking syllabus headache.” I am not suggesting any of these ideas are groundbreaking but they might be helpful for those at wit’s end. I want to emphasize there is something you can do. What can you do?

go ahead and read the syllabus

  1. Let it go
    We cannot control everything. Our time on this earth is limited. It is not worth losing sleep or pulling your hair out. Students missing something in the syllabus is not an indictment of your character or a referendum on Ss’ respect for you. It is a thing that happens sometimes, so let it go.
  2. Write and negotiate the syllabus as you go
    Probably the most controversial on the list and perhaps not possible in many contexts. Geoff Jordan shares some thoughts on the negotiated syllabus here. I think teachers often feel pressured to lay out everything well in advance (perhaps to show how professional and organized they are?) but I wonder how much of this pressure really exists. I also wonder if it is easy enough in most situations to call the schedule “tentative” or “subject to change” and roll with it from there. I honestly don’t know how much latitude most teachers have with this. I sometimes get the impression teachers think the syllabus is a legally binding contract and something they cannot deviate from. I do again realize that depending on the context there might be no wiggle room.

    why do i even write a syllabus

  3. Work with true or false statements about the details of the course
    This is something I have done many times. I just make a series of statements about the course and how it will be run. Students have to decide if the statement are true or false. Ss can discuss with a partner before the big reveal from the teacher. An additional wrinkle is to print out these statements on slips of paper and have students place the statements in piles for true of false. I might just give the answers or I might add some more details. I might give time for questions or emphasize that all the additional relevant information is, in fact, in the syllabus. The thing I like about this T/F business is that I can highlight the points I want Ss to see. I also think the chance to get it wrong and then find the right answer makes it more memorable.
  4. Assess syllabus knowledge
    Give a quiz in the second (or some other early) week of class. Ask SS about information found in the syllabus. You can tell students in advance you will do this. You can even count the score as part of Ss’ overall score. You don’t have to. Again, this is a way to focus students’ attention on what the instructor thinks is important and add a little more encouragement to engage with the syllabus.
  5. Ss create tasks for each other based on info in the syllabus
    This is a variation on .the above. They key point is that the syllabus (or parts of it) is in students’ hands and they are doing stuff with it. One nice move i have seen before involved teachers dividing the syllabus into sections and having students create worksheets for their classmates based on their section. An idea along the same lines is to simply jigsaw the syllabus and have students  explain their sections to each other. Of course you could mix and match with the above ideas, too.

You might be saying, “These are all ok, if not terribly new or exciting, ideas but I just don’t have time for this crap. I have things to cover and content to go over and I just can’t invest them time!” To this I’d say, “Fair enough, but surely if students not checking the syllabus is annoying enough you will want to do something!” I wonder if readers have any suggestions to make it more clear that the syllabus is a resource while helping students get the information they need about the course.

Korean University Jobs: A Golden Opportunity

My term here at a university in Korea just started yesterday after a nice vacation. While it can be an adjustment getting back into the swing of things I have to say I love my job and I am pretty happy to be back at work. Although, of course, there are some things I’d like to improve (who wouldn’t want more money?) I am extremely satisfied in my current working situation. I’d like to share a few reasons why.


Students’ glittering eyes
My students are extremely hard working but they are also fun, funny, interesting, curious, kind, and sincere. They are a pleasure to work with.They are filled with integrity, academic and otherwise. They are eager to improve and they work at it both in an out of class. They seem to generally and genuinely appreciate my teaching and feedback. We have lots of interesting talks on politics, culture, movies, and the minutia of the English language.

Lots of autonomy, respect, and support
i have lots of support from colleagues and admin but I don’t feel pressure of anyone looking over my shoulder. I make my own decisions without much concern about what non-students will think. Whenever I have a question there are people I can ask.

It’s never boring
For me, working with people, especially bright and interesting ones, with the autonomy described above is never boring. Like TV moms used to say, “Only boring people are bored.” There is always something new to try and new understandings to gain. Simply changing the order of activities in a lesson or topic we have seemingly “done” or “covered” numerous times can offer a fresh perspective. And since there is nothing telling me I need to “do” the travel unit in week 4 and present perfect continuous in week 8 I am free to make decisions based on what I think my learners need. I’d also suggest that maybe only becomes boring when we allow ourselves to stop caring and experimenting. While it may not be rocket surgery there are still plenty of puzzles and things to think about if we choose to be engaged.

Chances for Professional Development
This is something I have been able to take advantage of. I even wrote about the variety of professional development opportunities for English teachers in South Korea here. If we assume that uni instructors have more time then this is even more true.There are so many opportunities it would be a shame for anyone to let their brain or skills become atrophied.

Additionally, I *should also mention I have had opportunities to teach classes outside of my subject area and these were great chances for professional development. Teaching Business Management, Korean Studies and Korean Politics gave me a fresh perspective on teaching and learning and also gave me a chance to work with different types of students.

Opportunities for further income streams
I have heard tell of foreign instructors doing private lessons throughout the year. I have heard of some folks doing teacher training during vacations. I have heard of people doing presentations for money. I know lots of people who publish academic articles and receive money from their universities on a per article basis. Sometimes these payments are quite handsome. I have heard of people editing and doing all sorts of paid employment while working at a university in Korea. I have heard that this can be a nice way to make some additional revenue, especially for those instructors feeling bothered by a lack of raises.

Korean Perceptions of Foreign Professors
I am not one of those (loathsome?) individuals who is always shouting about how he is a professor. I am, however, on an E-1 (Professor) visa. This was seemingly quite impressive to the gentleman at immigration the other day. I mention this prestige factor simply to highlight my belief that Korean people tend to place a lot of prestige on those working in tertiary institutions regardless where the worker is from.

I haven’t really run into much, “You can’t teach X because you are a foreigner” stuff. In fact my experience has been more like, “You can teach Y so you can probably go ahead and teach X, too, right?” This has generally suited me just fine. I feel trusted and respected and this is a great feeling.

The End
I am not saying that I will stay in this job forever  or that I’d want to, or even could. I am just saying it is pretty nice for now. To each their own, though. My sincere hope is that didn’t sound super douchy or like I was bragging too much about the very fortunate position I am in as a foreign instructor at a university in South Korea. I worry that I might have generalized a bit about the context here and I would urge anyone writing about teaching Korea (or anywhere really) to avoid major generalizations about the context because it can obviously vary.  I feel like there is a lot more to consider with this topic but it requires a lot of time and nuance.

A Conversation with Michael Free

Over the last few months I have been sharing emails and Facebook messages with Michael Free and at some point we thought a semi-polished interview might be of interest to readers. It is my great pleasure to share our discussion here, starting after the pic. 


One of these Michaels is Michael Free.

Hi Michael thanks for taking the time to talk with me. You are finishing about 10 years in the EPIK program. How do you feel?
Tired. Over the past few weeks, I’ve primarily felt tired. There’s the usual fatigue that comes with the end of the term; the ‘I love my students but I need them to leave me alone for a while’ state teachers are all familiar with. However, there’s also the fact this is the end of my ninth year with EPIK, a long time to stay with one employer and a very long time to stay with EPIK. I almost said ‘one job,’ but I’ve worked in 4 different counties in over 20 schools, so it’s pretty hard to view it that way. Anyway, it’s been a long time, so there’s a deeper sense of fatigue. I also just recently completed my dissertation for my M. TEFL (with the University of Birmingham), so, altogether, I’m nearly completely wiped out. I must say, though, that I’m also feeling very excited. I’ve finished the M. TEFL, got a new job, and my wife just got promoted as well. So, things are looking good, I’d say.

Nice. Sounds great. I am happy to hear things seem to be working out well. What else) have you accomplished in your time in Korea?
I always feel self-conscious answering this type of question, but I’ll give it a shot. I’ve got some additional credentials (a TEYL certificate, lots of online PD, and now an M TEFL), lots of experience (over 20 schools, every public school grade except grade 3 of high school). I’ve also presented at conferences (both small and large), and helped organise PD events for teachers here in Gangwon with KOTESOL. Outside of teaching, I’ve also paid off my student loans, been able to visit other Asian countries, and married the Best Kindergarten Teacher in Korea (Full disclosure: I gave her that award).

Thanks for the response. I know it was sort of an awkward question. Again, it’s nice to hear how things have worked out for you. And you spent all 10 years in Gangwon? How do you think being there this impact your experience?
In very interesting, and mostly positive, ways. When I decided to move to Korea from Montreal, I deliberately chose a rural area. I wanted a complete shift of lifestyle — and I certainly got it! Going from 24/7 cosmopolitanism to life just south of the DMZ in a rural fishing village is pretty extreme.


A shot of the East Sea from the hills in Geojin-eup (pop. 8000).

For some urban dwellers this could be really jarring. I’ve met a few people who were, at least temporarily, overcome. It brings to mind the scene in Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard describes his boat-mate, Mr. Clean: “I think the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head.”


Lawrence Fishburne, as a zapped Mr. Clean

It was different for me, though, as I wasn’t drafted. I chose it. The light, space, and especially the time gave me a chance to clean house, figuratively and literally, which was what I was after. If I had moved to Seoul, on the other hand, I’m not sure I would have stayed in Korea as long (though you never know). As I settled in, it became clear that working in Gangwon was going to be a big challenge. Given the nature of the Korean educational system and the socio-economic situation here, teaching English, just trying to teach English, can be frustrating, even heartbreaking at times. I’m thinking here of the very rural schools, which is to say the majority of schools I’ve worked in. The students know, I’m quite convinced, they know what they’re up against. It can make for a rough ride, when you care about their development and future beyond today’s word list or (modified-from-its-original-bollox) textbook activity.

It sounds like you embraced the challenge. Why are you leaving?
Opportunity knocked, and I answered. I’ll be moving to Gangneung, where I’ll be a Visiting Professor at Gangneung-Wonju National University. A colleague, whom I now owe a dinner (he says it’s more than one), put me in touch with the people who were looking for his replacement. In typically Korean style, it all happened quickly, and, though there are some details left to work out, the job looks like it will provide me the opportunity to expand my ELT horizons and reconnect with university teaching. It will also give me some more time to focus on seriously learning Korean (dreadfully overdue), and perhaps do some research.

Great news. Gangueng is one of my favorite places in Korea, by the way. What advice would you give to new teachers starting with EPIK now?
Learn some Korean right away, because the effort will most likely endear you to your school. Get out and explore Korea (not just the foreigner hot spots) and make some friends in your community. Know whom to contact if you have questions or are having issues adjusting (sure, your friends from orientation can provide support, but typically they don’t know any more than you do). Try to nip problems in the bud. Also, get involved in some professional development. To be blunt:  If you arrive here with a 100-hour TESOL certificate, a Bachelor of Not-Education, and no teaching experience, you need professional development.  I’m not saying you should sign up for an advanced degree program immediately, but buy a book, attend a webinar or attend a KOTESOL meeting (Full disclosure, again: I’m currently the president of the Gangwon Chapter). Most of all, bear in mind that, whether you like it or not, you’re an ambassador for your country and your profession. I feel a bit like a Dutch uncle saying that, but it’s true (and it doesn’t matter that it’s not fair that you didn’t sign up to be an ambassador).

Oh, I almost forgot I was talking to the President of my KOTESOL chapter. And speaking of EPIK, you wrote a guest post on this a blog before about native teachers in Korean public schools …do you agree with what you wrote then? What changed since?
I do, indeed. In fact, what happened just after that post reinforced my central point about the lack of time to plan being the biggest issue for many of us. One week before the start of term — one week! — I was assigned a schedule that involved 5 schools (none of which I had worked at before), 9 grades, over a dozen different textbooks and even more co-teachers (the actual number was considerably less). The first two months in that schedule were hectic, to say the least. I had to try to get organised very quickly, and I didn’t know enough about the schools I was going into to be able to prepare as thoroughly as I would have liked. So, no, nothing has changed, at least for me.

What advice would you give those running EPIK? Why?
There are some specific suggestions that I can’t get into, even though your readers might find them interesting. I hope that’s not too much of a tease, but I’m bound by agreement to not discuss matters that contain confidential information. The advice I feel I can give is to urge, pressure, and exhort the key decision makers to listen. Not just to the ideas I’ve tried (and, apparently, often failed) to communicate to them during my time as a teacher and district coordinator, but to other teachers. The people they should listen to include not only senior EPIK teachers (a dwindling number), but some of the more experienced Korean English teachers. I had the opportunity to talk with quite a few Korean teachers during the course of my dissertation research. They are knowledgeable, passionate educators who know what needs to be done to improve not only EPIK, but English teaching in Korea in general. “Dear admin, please listen” is a typical refrain of teachers, I know, but I can’t help but join in the chorus. As to why, I have to return to planning, though on a larger scale. There needs to be a plan for EPIK, which should, ideally, be connected to a long-term vision. This should be rigorously related to the National Curriculum, and thoughtfully tailored to students’ needs.

You mentioned the dwindling number of senior EPIK teachers. I wonder what you think about this trend of reducing the number of EPIK teachers. Any thoughts on this?
I do have some, but, for the same reason I gave above, I have to refrain from getting into specifics. When I first arrived, the mantra was, for better or worse, “1 NEST in every school.” Now, due to economics and, to an extent, politics, this is impossible even in theory; there are just too many schools and too few bodies. I’m of the opinion that it is possible to have positive outcomes with fewer, but well-trained teachers. To use Apocalypse Now once again, Col. Kurtz, in one of his more lucid moments, said: “If I had [only] ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly.”


Col. Kurtz, with his copy of “Big Questions in ELT.”

If EPIK had a smaller number of qualified ELTs (not just men, obviously, and, perhaps less obviously to some, not merely ‘qualified’ by their citizenship), wow, what a difference they could make! But, again, for this to happen you need a plan, an organized system, in which these teachers can be allowed to perform. Just parachuting individual teachers into schools and letting things work on an ad hoc basis has, at best, provided mixed results. There have been small-scale improvements in the program, I should say, but there needs to be a reconsideration of some fundamentals in order for EPIK to really accomplish something significant. Maybe there will be a plan or a system in the future. It would certainly be welcome!

I suppose we should stop here. Thanks again for taking the time, Michael. Talk to you soon!
You’re quite welcome! Anytime!
I will just relax here and listen to “The End of the World” (as we know it) by REM because things are a-changin’.

Note: The photo of the Michaels was taken by Barb Sakamoto at the 2014 KOTESOL International Conference and is from her excellent set of the event on Flickr. The other photos were found on the internets (or taken) by Michael Free and were captioned by him.