A letter to Korean English teachers

Hi there,

First of all, thanks for reading this. Hopefully I will make it worth taking the time out of your busy schedule. Secondly, I’d like to apologize. You see, I judged you before I ever even knew you.  I used to work in a language school attached to a university. I mostly had college students and I have to say that many were woefully unprepared for anything involving communication in English. I was shocked that students that received good test scores (and entered good universities) could not really utter a sentence in English. One day I was ranting about this and a friend of mine who was a teacher trainer got a bit angry and told me that I didn’t understand your situation or the reality that you face. Just two years later I started to work as a teacher trainer and I got to understand things a bit better. I certainly cannot say that I am an expert but I have logged many hours on and offline with Korean English teachers talking and thinking about teaching . Based on these conversations and my experiences training I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share with you. I should also apologize for giving you advice and suggestions that you might not want or need. Again, I am not really an expert. I am just a teacher who has observed a lot and thought a lot about these issues and has some thoughts to share. I am very sensitive to the idea of  “outsiders” coming in and giving all sorts of unwanted advice. My sincere intention is not to do that but just to give you some things to think about and share my perspective.

To begin, I wanted to talk about the whole “native speaker” thing. Look, most of you are not going to sound like me. Ever. This is totally fine. I don’t want to discourage you from studying or trying to improve. I just  think that speaking exactly like a “native speaker” is not a realistic or helpful goal. My thought is that if the majority of your students end up using English as well as you do you will have been a great success. This is to say that you are a great model. You have (to varying degrees) succeeded in learning English. How much better do you need to be at English to do your job better? How much better would you be at your job if you were suddenly a so-called “native speaker?” I really don’t know but I can tell you that one of the best lessons I have ever observed was from a teacher who was quite limited in her English. She set things up and let the students run with it. A good friend and fellow trainer once got me thinking by asking about the math abilities of the math teacher. Do they need to be award winners in algebra? I don’t think so. Do gym teachers all need to be former olympians or professional athletes? No, right? They just need to be good enough at their subject and good enough at teaching. But for some reason, it seems that English teachers here are often judged first by their accent and that their teaching really far down the list of what is evaluated. Not fair right? Well, perhaps the change has to start with you. What if you resisted the urge to judge other teachers by their speaking ability and accent?
(I have a whole lot to say about the whole “cult of the ‘native speaker’” thing and the problems that it causes but I will have to save that for another day.)

Another thing I have noticed is teachers often feeling bad  when they don’t teach communicatively. They don’t follow the “rules’ of CLT and feel guilty about this. Depending on your age, it is possible that you learned English entirely without CLT. So again, perhaps you are a good model. Listen, I am not necessarily a huge fan of Grammar Translation or AudioLingualism but it clearly works sometimes. Actually, that is not really my point. My point is that teaching is about decisions and you have to make the best decisions that you can based on your students and your classes and your experiences and your beliefs.  If you decide that a 45-minute lecture on the different uses of the present perfect is what you need to do** then I don’t think you need to feel bad about this decision. Your job as a teacher, in my view, is to make decisions. You will not always make the right decision and this is fine too. I think that if we keep learning from them it is great. So, what I am basically saying is that there is not much benefit in feeling guilty or beating yourself up for the decisions that you make.

I have friend that is a Korean English teacher and she once told me, “I really like the idea of doing a warmup activity but I just don’t have time for it.” I didn’t really know how to respond because, from my view, of course there is time if she really wants to make time. If she really believes that warmers are worthwhile and worth the time, I think she can make time. I don’t know her teaching situation exactly but I think that she takes attendance for a while at the start of class and I also think that she spends class time practicing for future “open classes.” Just cutting these two things would open up a whole range of possibilities. What I am saying is that instead of making excuses perhaps it is better to make tiny changes here and there, changes that are in accordance with your beliefs. If you actually think that warmers are a waste of time, then feel free not to do them but if you think they are useful don’t hide behind not enough time as an excuse for not doing them. I am, of course, not just talking about warmers here but anything that you say you want to do but make excuses about.

So far I have said, “I don’t think you need to worry about being a ‘native speaker’” and “I don’t think you need to beat yourself up for what you are not doing in class” and “I am not sure how helpful excuses are.”  Hopefully this sounds like a pretty positive message thus far. As I mention above, most of my experience with Korean teachers has been on training courses. One of the main things I have learned is that if course participants think “I am going to learn many things work in theory but not in practice” “Or I a not going to learn anything because the trainer doesn’t know my situation” they are always going to be right. If, however they think, “I am going to learn many things and I will have to choose which parts I can put into practice and how I will do so” they are also going to be right. I should also mention that if your training course “tells you the way” to teach they are probably full of shit not so good and you might consider asking for your money back, not  listening, complaining , or something else. What I want to say is to try and make the training course work for you rather than devoting your energy to working against it and finding reasons something won’t work.

I think this is getting a bit long so I will stop here. Perhaps the next time you find yourself making excuses about something you want to do in class but can’t you will think of this this letter. Perhaps you will think of this letter the next time you feel guilty for not using English more or better in your class. Perhaps you will think about how you can use new ideas rather than how they surely won’t be effective. Perhaps not. I don’t really now. I do know that I feel better after writing this. Thanks again for reading and comments of any sort are most welcome.

Sincerely yours,
Mike

**My firm belief is that a lecture about aspects of language to a room full of half-asleep students is not the best way to promote LEARNing but….I might be wrong.

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23 comments

  1. Suzanne

    You wrote, “What I want to say is to try and make the training course work for you rather than devoting your energy to working against it and finding reasons something won’t work.” That’s so true. You can also replace “training course” with “workshops” and “conferences” and the same idea applies. I think it’s best to go with the attitude that you can learn always learn something from someone. It doesn’t mean that you have to apply it to your teaching circumstances, or agree with the way the person does something, but at least it’s always good to be open to new ideas and perspectives of how to teach. I wish others, especially some of the teachers we used to train, have the same attitude.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks so much for the comments! I hope you will forgive me for the delay in responding (but I suspect you will know how it goes with the end of the term).

      I appreciate your point about workshops/conferences especially because I have been feeling as though I haven’t been getting so much out of them lately. I think that perspective and attitude are big parts of this! Thanks again for the comments and thanks for the reminder!

      I hope you are having a lovely and productive summer!

  2. Kristina

    Mike,
    Your perspective is insightful, your passion is evident and your pursuit is inspirational. As a teacher-trainer, I sincerely support your “advice” to Korean English Teachers, as a teacher’s (or anyone’s) LIFE is nothing but a series of choices. If one doesn’t work out quite the way you want it to, simply make a new choice. Nothing has to be judged or evaluated…just changed.
    P.S. I can’t tell you how many letters like this I have written (in my head, or in reality, but never sent). KUDOS to you for your courage and commitment to helping others!

  3. George Chilton

    Thanks Mike, great post, there is no “right way” of teaching or learning. “You have to make the best decisions that you can based on your students and your classes and your experiences and your beliefs”. Exactly 🙂

    • Torn Halves

      George, if there is no “right way” of teaching, is there also no “wrong way”? I think we can agree that there is no right way that is right now and will continue to the The Right Way for all time, but let’s not undermine our collective search to find the best way of teaching (accepting that the best will always be a subject of controversy and will need to be redefined into perpetuity). This discourse of “my decision” and “your decision” unwittingly lends support to the nihilistic commodification of education that I am sure the majority of thoughtful teachers are opposed to.

      • George Chilton

        Hi Tom,
        Thanks for your comment. I’m little taken-aback though – honestly how you managed to extrapolate that I don’t believe that there is a “wrong way” to teach, from my two line comment, is beyond me. In fact it’s a little illogical; in saying there’s no right way, it doesn’t naturally follow that I am also stating the opposite to be true.

        By painting my comments as thoughtless you make the assumption that I don’t care about pedagogical issues. In fact I was only saying I agreed with Mike, his post is awesome. I didn’t feel the need to give my opinions too much space here as it’s not my blog. But here we are. (Sorry Mike!)

        There is no right way to teach – how could there possibly be? That would suggest there is an obtainable system, a methodology or approach that is a catch-all for everyone. There are too many factors for this to be true. Even within the scope of my own classes – I’ve taught kids, teens, general English, BE, CAE, CPE and one-to-one teens and adults in Korea and Spain.

        As teachers, we have to take so many things into account – student age, background, objective, profession, also the environment in whoch we teach, a needs analysis, etc, etc. If there was a “right way” to teach, we wouldn’t need to consider these things.
        I was referring to the fact that there are a multitude of methodologies and approaches to teaching and that no one of them can be considered the correct one, and nor are they all in opposition to one another.

        Of course we need debate, disagreement and controversy – without these things we don’t develop new ideas – and that’s what being professional is all about. I enjoy teaching dogme and student-centred classes, but I also go back to more traditional textbook-based materials in exam classes. I don’t necessarily teach the key skills in the same way – I know what works for which classes.

        The approaches we take all also depend on the final objective of the class (an exam, conversation, work, travel), the students’ interests, etc. Of course, the common goal is always to learn – the way we get there might well differ, but they are valid. Audiolingualism, grammar translation, TPR, the silent way all have their pros and cons – not one of them is the right or wrong way. Let’s face it, they all work for somebody, right?

        You mention a collective search to find the ‘best way’ of teaching, we should be looking for the best ‘ways’ – plural. So I couldn’t disagree more – though of course professional development within teaching as a field should both be personal, professional and involve the examining bodies and educational authorities, we cannot ever come to one point where every teacher and every student is served equally well with one particular style of teaching. And besides, that would be deadly boring.

        As teachers we all bring our strengths and weaknesses to the classroom – it is up to us to leverage our strengths and personality traits in order to communicate our ideas as clearly as possible, create a good atmosphere, and ultimately give the students the best possible classroom experience.

        At the end of the day we all have the same objective – that the students learns and that we can measure that in some way.

        Of course, as teaching progresses – with new pedagogical theories, technological developments and dialogues we can see an evolution of ideas, but that is not to suggest that we are coming to a point where we can say “yes, this way is the right way to teach” at the expensive of all others – now that really would risk a commodification of education.
        George

      • mikecorea

        A very short (and very belated) note to say thanks for posting such an insightful response, George. I really appreciate it! No worries about the length, especially because it was enjoyable!
        (As you might have guessed by now I am not so much into “the best way” and your answer touched on a lot of my thoughts—just more eloquently)

        Cheers,
        Mike

      • Torn Halves

        George, please don’t take things so personally. I never used the word “you”. I did not make and am not interested in making any assumptions about what you care about. My concern is not with the emotional lives of teachers, in this case, but with the slow death of a discourse: the discourse of good and bad, of right and wrong (while at the same time not wishing in the slightest to turn the clock back – and thankfully it cannot be turned back).
        What disturbs me in this case is the trend evident here and elsewhere to insist that statements about the good and the bad must be expressed in terms of personal preferences (“This is what I prefer,” or: “This is what works for me”). This change is political insofar as it helps to change the cultural landscape in a way that favours a certain kind of economic development within which power and wealth accumulates in a certain kind of way.
        As a teacher I am concerned not just that my students learn, but that I contribute to the creation of a better society with a better culture, and that I do my nanoscopic bit to advance that mysterious thing called civilisation. It is because of that that I want to speak out when I see developments (especially in the field of education, where – more than anywhere else – our collective future is at stake) that arguably lend support to the forces of barbarism. I may be wrong. Perhaps I perceive a threat where there is only innocent change. I stand to be corrected.

  4. Torn Halves

    Mike, your post began with your shock at your students inability to communicate and then I expected you to develop a biting critique of a system that has students jumping through linguistic hoops in order to be given a piece of paper instead of enabled to acquire something that will genuinely enrich them as persons (the ability to actually communicate in the foreign language). Perhaps you have posted the critique of this commodification of education elsewhere. I’d love to read it.

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks for the comment. I appreciate it. Sorry for the delay in responding, my term was ending and things sort of got away from me.

      I think perhaps the “rants” part of my blog title might have mislead you to think I was going to attack the commodification of education. My simple answer is that I think that (to some extent) teachers–who I was writing to are bit players in this struggle and I think just letting them know that they have some choices and power to make decisions was my intention. Perhaps I will have another letter for the MOE (and the parents) another time. Thanks again for the comments!
      Cheers,
      Mike

  5. Julien Sanghyo Park

    I absolutely agree that “teaching is about decisions and you have to make the best decisions that you can based on your students and your classes and your experiences and your beliefs.”

    • mikecorea

      Thank you very much for the response. I appreciate it. I hope you will forgive for the extremely long delay between your comment and my reply. Oftentimes I think that teaching is all about decisions. I hope your summer is going well!

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