Native English speakers in Korean public schools were destined to fail

[It is my great pleasure to have the 3rd guest post on the blog. The author is presently an instructor at a university in Seoul and would prefer to remain nameless. I truly appreciate the author taking his/her time to share these thoughts here. ] 

The gradual removal of native English speakers from public schools in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, with Busan and Incheon announcing their own cuts this year, should not come as a surprise to anyone who has kept up with the situation. To take just one example, Brian Deutsch summed up the problems with the placement of native speakers three or four years ago on his now-defunct blog. However, given that many of those who read this are not particularly involved with primary and secondary education, while still others do not even live in Korea, I would like to offer a summary of why the placement of native speakers was a failure and why the future looks no better for Korean students.

The Korean government went out and hired native speakers who would be, in essence, highly-paid assistant teachers. At best, these teachers do half the work of a Korean counterpart while at worst, they would probably create more work than they actually do themselves. Though there are exceptions to this statement, I consider my own experience in a middle school in Suwon, about 30 km south of Seoul, to be fairly representative of native speakers in Korean public schools. I had taught at a private elementary school in Seoul for two years, leaving mainly because I wanted to move to a middle or high school.

I consider my year in a Korean public school to have been a professional vacation. I made more money than I had in the past doing between a third to one half of the work I used to do. At the private elementary school, I taught my own English classes, teaching six separate classes three times a week and teaching two periods of an after school class every day. In doing so, I was responsible for filing weekly lesson plans, mounds of ongoing paperwork indicating what I would teach and how I would assess students, assigning and marking homework, as well as regular tests.

In the public education system, I taught slightly fewer classes that were of virtually no consequence. I consider my greatest accomplishment as a teacher to be the fact that I managed to get rooms of between 36 and 39 teenagers to complete the tasks I assigned, even though any similarity between my classes and the material that appeared on tests was purely coincidental. In addition to teaching essentially meaningless classes, I taught a haphazardly scheduled after-school conversation class. There was no paperwork, no homework, no assignments and no marking. I was almost always busy at work, however, as I managed to squeeze coursework for a master’s degree in education, as well as a volunteer position as a translator, into my forty weekly hours of work.

This arrangement was and remains typical for native speakers, who were hired to do next to nothing, even when they possessed some combination of experience, Korean-language ability and home-country teaching certification. While my English ability as a native speaker was used to judge the English essay and English speech contests, as well as to edit exams and arbitrate contentious questions, I had no say, for example, in assessments. I can accept that given that I lacked both the experience and the qualifications of my Korean colleagues, but what good are the experience and qualifications when they produce a speaking assessment that consists of memorizing and translating proverbs and expressions into English? What about writing tests that require students to reproduce a chapter from a Mark Twain novel from memory?

When I found out that my position and hundreds of others like it were no longer going to be funded, I was not surprised. I often marveled at the fact that I was often paid to do nothing. My classes were frequently cancelled to let students cram for an upcoming test or to administer the above-mentioned speaking or writing assessments. In many ways, the most important task I had was to show up for work every day, particularly during school vacation periods, which were slightly longer than the vacation given to me by my contract. As long as I showed up for work every day, everything was fine, but given that showing up to work was the only thing that mattered, it was no surprise that positions of this sort were eliminated.

As mentioned above, useful native speakers tend to do about half the work of their Korean counterparts, who deal with paperwork, tests, homework, phone calls from parents, report cards and so much more. I would classify myself as a useful native speaker in that I could teach a class by myself, without the assistance of a Korean teacher to discipline students or translate my instructions (though I can speak Korean well enough to interact in a workplace, I seldom used it in class, to the point that about half of my students had no idea that I understood just about everything they said). I was also useful because I did not need a co-worker to assist me with the mundane details of my life, such as taking me to the bank, dentist or handling problems with my apartment or landlord. In the case of teachers who needed a “co-teacher,” a euphemistic term for someone who was actually your immediate supervisor, to help them with a wide range of tasks, I suspect that they might well have created more work for others than they did themselves.

It’s not necessarily true that English education will suffer just because native English speakers are leaving the public school system, but it’s also not true that well-qualified Korean English teachers with a high degree of proficiency will soon do what their predecessors, as well as foreigners who spoke English as their mother tongue, could not do. Most of the English teachers at the middle school where I worked had a very high degree of English proficiency, but their lessons did not reflect this proficiency. Instead, English class was about memorizing words and passages, being able to translate them into Korean, and to reproduce all of this on demand. A complex mixture of parental involvement, shoddy textbooks and a view that English, like math or science, must always have a right or wrong answer ensures that no matter how qualified or well-trained teachers might be, it is in nobody’s interest to change the practices that dominate English education at the present.


  1. Josette

    Boom! I’m sorry for not producing a better comment. This post is directly connected to a personal rant I had with my teacher-trainees today. Korean English education system, good luck.

  2. Jonny Lewington

    Intersting experiences. Working in London, we often see the fallback of the Korean education system – we often get learners who can’t pronounce anything clearly, have no concept of collocation, and who are addicted to translating every word they read. And, of course, they want to know ‘when I can make the IELTS exam’?

    I’ve seen similar things happen in Vietnam, although recently I think things there are improving a lot. A lot of research and stuff is being done by Chinese scholars in Western universities (often funded by the Vietnamese government), which is filtering through slowly to the education system in Vietnam, where most Vietnamese English teachers are now much more aware of communicative approaches. Maybe a similar thing will happen in Korea soon. But obviously, its a slow process.

  3. Rob Dickey

    Proverbially, ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head.’ (hmmm, perhaps that’s not really a proverb, but most high school students study that phrase.)

    Foreigners (sic: ‘native-speakers, though some actually weren’t) were in schools under the classic Korean strategy ‘Look like you are working on the problem even if you have no clue.’

    Young Korean teachers of English who actually would like to teach through communicative approaches are soon battered down by authorities who demand classic ‘teach to the test’ designs. Looking at it from the perspective of student career development, who DOESN’T want their kids to enter the ‘best’ universities, where students have a hope for ‘successful’ careers?

    So it’s all about the REAL test (univ admissions), and while national standing on international English exams (e.g., IELTS) may shame the nation, really, isn’t this kid’s personal life more important?

  4. ratnavathy

    Hello Mike!

    Very interesting read indeed. If I’d have been in that situation (of a native speaker teacher working in a public school), I think I’d have gone bonkers with literally nothing to do in my hands.

    My question is, why doesn’t the Korean government see the need for change in their style of ELT? With such advanced technology that they have (compared to Malaysia), I’m sure they’ve got enough exposure via internet to the changes and trend in current day teaching (compared to their traditional method).

    Just a thought in my mind. Enjoyed reading your posts, as always 🙂


  5. Christopher Miller (@Christo63789662)

    One thing not mentioned in this blog is the value in exposing students to diversity through the EPIK program. I believe that is one of the stated objectives of the EPIK program. If not in the education sector (i.e. hagwon or public school) or foreign travel, where else will most students get exposure to foreigners of any variety? This is necessary for a country that is expanding it’s role internationally and is becoming more diverse within it’s own borders. While I can’t disagree with any decision to phase-down, maybe phase out the EPIK program, I think there was some value to the program.

  6. Rich

    Yup, spot on. The final line about how English is always supposed to have a right answer is especially telling of the problems with English education here.

    Your article reminds me of my very first job when I was here for the first time in Korea (this is my second), waaaay back in ’96. Part of our “make the foreigners do something meaningful” task was to edit middle school textbooks for the Gyeonggi-do Education Ministry. Naturally, we found a host of problems, made note of them, and brought them up to our Korean supervisor at the stated time. And he simply said, “Oh, don’t worry about all that. The students don’t know the difference anyway”…

  7. Original Poster

    Here’s my response to the criticism I’ve seen online in various places. First of all, I think that if I had written using my real name, I probably would have garnered a better response, since few of those who know me (and a few of those who have responded to my post in various places know me online, albeit not offline) would consider me to be a lazy teacher that treats their job as a holiday. That also would not be the response of my co-workers at the middle school where I worked either. However, not using my real name allowed me to say what I really thought, and not knowing who I am allowed you to say what you really thought.

    Second, I made the mistake of writing off the top of my head without giving a better background. My main point, which I still stand by, is that native speakers in public schools were destined to fail because nothing is asked of them and they don’t do anything. Yes, it’s true that I could have done more, but everyone can always do more. The job, as it is defined, is for an assistant teacher and I was vaguely considered somebody who taught the speaking portion of the middle school textbook, though I stretched that to include writing, so that most classes involved a group writing or speaking activity, such as a dialogue or a written answer that was presented in front of the class, time permitting. I wasn’t somebody who showed movies, watched TV, left early, or so on. I was good at my job, and if you saw me teach, you would agree.

    Here’s what I said I didn’t do: 1) assign and mark homework 2) do paperwork, lesson plans included (planning for a lesson and making a lesson plan are two completely different tasks) 3) make and grade tests. Let’s start with homework. Some of you do give homework, and in retrospect, I could have as well, likely as an optional task for those who wanted to do it. However, this would not have been the regular homework I was used to giving and assigning (for your information, I had 1,500 students at this middle school).

    I filed the odd form for my after-school class, but there was no paperwork to do as an assistant teacher who, in theory, is teaching in tandem with a Korean teacher that files paperwork of this sort. As my class was on the schedule as belonging to a Korean teacher, I was freed from this burden. I apologize to my fellow teachers, my coworkers, my former students and to the taxpayers for not being able to do more of this paperwork. As far as tests went, I asked before the first-semester mid-term if I should make questions for the midterm along with the other English teachers, who were taken aback before asking me to make three questions for a 30-question test, none of which were actually used. When I asked about the first-semester final, I was told that I didn’t have to make test questions.

    Those who think I could have just gone about the school making work for myself or creating situations for students likely work in different environments from myself, which I would describe as atypical. You are obviously highly motivated and skilled teachers working in an unusual environment. I would also consider myself motivated and skilled, and while I was treated very well by my school in every way, they had a role for me, which was a contracted assistant teacher who taught some classes and helped out with a few things outside of class. I know enough about working in Korea to know that, as the youngest member of my department and as one of the youngest (if not the youngest) teachers in a school with almost 100 teachers, I was not in a position to tell my older co-workers, department heads or vice-principal what to do. If I had suggested, for example, that I could make and deliver the speaking assessments done each semester, I would effectively be telling my co-workers that their assessments were ridiculous.

    Finally, referring to my year in a public middle school as a “professional vacation” made some people angry, some of them teaching presently at Korean public schools and others who are not in the system. I stand by this statement as well, though I obviously didn’t really explain what I meant by this statement, and not knowing who I was, you took it at face value. What I meant by the term was that I held a very undemanding position. The actual teaching is very difficult. Getting Korean teenagers to listen, study and work in a language they barely understand is not easy. However, I was teaching in a vacuum, in a class without goals, grades or a textbook. In his response, Alex said that

    Could I have gone out and done more? Sure, but I’ve worked in Korea long enough to know that the work culture does not accept such initiative from low-level employees. There are teachers in public schools who are the exceptions to the rule, ones who have days full of work. Most teachers, however, do not, partly because they lack the skills and qualifications and partly because the job simply does not demand it. What I wrote may have been insulting to those who have jobs of the first kind, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are thousands of teachers in public schools, tens of thousands such teachers if you include their predecessors, who simply have very undemanding jobs and that there is very little that can be done to change it, because those in charge do not want it to change.

  8. Original Poster

    Hi Alex,

    I’m going to respond to your post here, if that’s okay. I don’t see why I should apologize to the taxpayers of Gyeonggi for taking a job that the government gave me and then doing that job. I was no different from any other person in the world who had an easy job and knew it. I took the job because I wanted to work in a middle school, and I enjoyed it in many ways.

    In response to your criticisms:

    1) “Why is a native speaker, employed to be a teacher, doing half the work of their Korean counterpart? Are you seriously telling me that a responsible adult cannot figure out for themselves how they should be spending that time effectively?”

    I was doing half the work of my Korean counterparts because my job required me to do half the work that they did. I taught the same two lesson ten times every week while my co-workers taught six different lessons. I also ran a “Lunchtime English Club”, met with students who had trouble with my classes, and sometimes prepared for an after-school class (the schedule was perpetually changing). Beyond that, I sometimes edited tests and judged the odd event. My counterparts did all that and also marked quizzes, assessments, and tests. They met and spoke with parents, made report cards, inputted grades, had department meetings, meetings with other teachers in their grade, attended seminars, and so on.

    Are you seriously telling me that a responsible adult who has a job that asks them to do very little does what’s asked of them, does it well and then goes out of their way, potentially offending more senior co-workers, just to do as much work as those who do more work with the same position but in a different situation?

    2) “Or perhaps you weren’t responsible enough, in which case I am hardly surprised about the power relationship you had with your co-teacher.”

    What power relationship did I have with my co-teacher? You don’t know what that relationship was because I didn’t mention it. My relationship with my co-teachers, speaking in the broader sense as other English teachers at my school, was cordial, polite and friendly. They asked me to do proofread tests or help them better teach the odd grammatical point, but our professional interactions seldom went beyond that. Since you’re resorting to insults such as wondering whether I was irresponsible, I would point out that I taught all my classes myself, with a “co-teacher” who was either not there or stood at the back of the classroom, with roughly the same number of disciplinary issues as any other teacher at my school, if not fewer. If you’re referring to the fact that my school didn’t ask me to do much outside of class, I’d suspect that it was because the other English teachers thought they could manage things just fine, leaving me as the odd man out.

    3) “I beg you to find me one other teacher in the world who doesn’t dream of not having to deal with the paper work your average public school teacher does, and how did the majority of NETs spend that time? Watching TV shows or who knows what else.”

    I’m sure other teachers might dream of not having to deal with paperwork, as do I. What’s your point? I know I had an easy job. The majority of NETs may spend that time watching TV shows and the forebodingly-described “who knows what else”, sure, but doesn’t that reflect more on you than me since you still work in that position and I don’t? I never watched TV at work, nor did I sleep, listen to music, watch movies, play games, or even once set foot inside the well-used teacher’s lounge next to my office. It’s not exactly as though I had my feet up on my desk smoking cigars, I used most of my free time engaging in what could be reasonably described as professional development, completing a distance master’s degree in education, just like you are doing these days.

    4) “At one point you state that the Korean education system is failing because it is purely exam based, and then you state that your classes were meaningless because they weren’t on the exam?”

    This is a fair point, but, yes, I would say that both statements are true. I taught in a system where the only thing that counts is the test. If something isn’t on the test, it’s meaningless. My class was meaningless, often cancelled, because it had nothing to do with tests. The over-reliance on tests, as well as teaching to the test, are problems with the Korean education system. Classes that have nothing to do with tests are flawed.

    5) “You also point out that you had much less work to do than in your previous job in an academy, that you were paid to do nothing. No teacher is paid to do nothing, YOU CHOOSE TO DO NOTHING because you were provided with a level of freedom which you took advantage of. As public school teacher there is always something that can be done and needs doing, unless of course your students can use the English language perfectly, which I am guessing they can’t? Why was their no homework, no assignments, no marking? Did you set them homework, give your students assignments or ask them to produce work that needed marking?”

    My students could not use English perfectly. What should I have done? Should I have stood at the entrance to the school each morning and handed out a worksheet and then stood by the gate at 4 pm everyday to collect it? You’re right that I could have given homework in my classes, though I saw half of my students every other week, though I don’t know that they needed more English homework or homework of any sort. Giving work that needed marking (such as marking in-class work), however, was something I didn’t do because I taught 1,000 students in a particular semester.

    6) “Why didn’t you offer to observe your co-teachers classes and help them to make their classes more communicative oriented?”

    Could you let me know how you think that conversation would go between myself and, say, my department head, a serious older man who started teaching about five years before my parents even met? What about my self-assured co-teachers who had studied overseas, passed the required exams here, attended regular seminars and had ten years of experience? It would be presumptuous and insulting for a teacher with no formal teaching qualifications in any country and just three years of experience to go ahead and observe the classes of more senior colleagues with the idea of teaching them to teach.

    7) “Unfortunately, the main reason the Korean NET program was doomed to failure was because of native English speakers like yourself (not teachers), who considered their employment a year long ‘professional vacation’. You’re right, they probably won’t miss you and neither should they.”

    In this one post alone, you’ve referred to me as irresponsible, told me that I “chose to do nothing” (I sure hope that you never sit at your desk for more than three consecutive second without accomplishing something, because then you also “choose to do nothing”), that I was a native speaker and not a teacher on the basis of reading one blog post that apparently didn’t meet the standards you, someone with “almost four years” of EFL teaching experience and no formal teaching qualifications, set for being a teacher, that no one did or should miss me from previous jobs. I can’t tell, however, if I should also apologize to taxpayers.

    If blog posts are the way to judge someone’s suitability for the job they have, you must be an absolute delight as a teacher and co-worker, adhering strictly to the highest standard of professionalism.

    • mikecorea

      I’d love it if we could call this the end of name calling and personal and semi personal attacks?

      Id also like to point out the op is anonymous because he/she didn’t want to publicly slag off former co teachers.

  9. Henry Bridge

    As an EFL teacher who worked in Korea for three years, I found this blog very interesting, particularly the debate in the comments section. Perhaps I can offer my own thoughts.
    First of all, the main problem as I see it with the NET system in Korea is that so many of the native speakers simply are not good teachers. This is not intended as a slight on those that are – I know several dedicated, hardworking teachers who are an asset to their schools in Korea as they would be anywhere in the world. But a large proportion come to Korea straight out of university with no teaching experience or qualifications whatsoever, and for whatever reason, a lot of them don’t stay in Korea more than a year or two anyway. The result is, I think, that schools have become accustomed to ‘minding’ their NETs, and know that they generally cannot rely on them too much or trust them with much responsibility. Think about it: in the wider world, there are very few jobs where you’ll be given authority or responsibility on your first day.
    I started teaching in a middle school near Seoul after two years of working in hagwons, and having just completed my CELTA. At the start, it was assumed that I would basically need my hand held through pretty much everything I did. My co-teacher was very maternal, I cannot think of a better word, and would drop by my office regularly to check I knew what to teach, what to do, etc. In class, all my co-teachers initially took the role of teaching the class, and having me on hand to model the language for the students. I can only assume that most of the NETs they had had before had fitted right in to that pattern of working. It wasn’t for me, though: it took a few weeks to assert myself and convince them that I was actually a capable teacher, able to plan and deliver a lesson on my own without assistance. By halfway through my year, my co-teacher would be the one sitting mutely at the back, doing very little!*
    One incident I recall completely sums up the situation for me. One week, my co-teacher told me that I would have to attend a (completely unnecessary) orientation and training seminar the following week. Also, the week after were the end of term tests, so I would have no classes. Surely, I asked her, it would make more sense to do the orientation the following week, as I would not have classes then anyway? She looked surprised. “Really? Normally the native teachers prefer it this way.”
    In the end, it’s a simple matter of incentives. Korean teachers are generally not going to entrust NETs with extra work and responsibilities, because they carry the can if anything goes wrong, and in their own experience, whatever their personal relationship with the native teacher, most NETs are not reliable teachers. For the native teachers, if you follow me, it’s hard work to work hard. Small wonder that many of them coast, especially when, like EPIK, there are so few opportunities or incentives to reward good teachers, and assessment is based on your colleagues’ opinions of you: who would go to the trouble of looking for extra work? It’s a credit that some teachers still do.
    Ultimately, Korean English education is getting bad value for money everywhere – the NET system in public schools is no different. And while the Korean government cannot dictate what private schools and universities, and parents, spend their money on, they can, and should, question whether the NET system in general is value for money. I’d have to say it’s not.

    *I exaggerate; in fact, my co-teachers would generally be helping me with things like monitoring, distributing worksheets – very useful and necessary in a large class.

  10. Hartley Hare

    This post is incredible. It mirrors word for word my experience over five years on the JET programme in Japan. The similarities are astounding.

    So I guess we’ll see native speakers in Japan phased out. Wouldn’t make any difference until the test mentality throughout Japanese education changes.

  11. David Deubelbeiss

    All I really want to say is that – “all language teachers fail”. I’m not being philosophical or pedantic when I say this rather illuminating a wider truth about teaching a language in a classroom and expecting students to become fluent.

    That said, failure is a very subjective term. I wish it had been defined better and then I might be able to respond properly. I consider my own time in Korea teacher training and working with both foreign and Korean teachers as “a beautiful failure”.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks, as always for reading and stopping by, David! As you know, I didn’t write the original post. Would, “The experiment of hiring “native” English teachers to work in Korean public schools has been a big waste of money” be enough of a definition?

      Success can be hard to define as well. I sincerely wonder what the expectations of the programs were at the start. My sense is that there was not much clarity on that… resulting in some of the issues that are still being talked about.

      You wrote teachers are all destined to fail, “Teaching a language in a classroom and expecting students to become fluent.” I am assuming you are using fluent in the regular (and not TESOL field) meaning. I am not sure that this is the expectation of all/most teachers.

      That said, I love how you consider your time in Korea teacher training and working with both foreign and Korean teachers as “a beautiful failure”. I think it is a great way to think about it.

  12. Jeremy M. Kritt

    This was a very interesting blog post. I lived in South Korea from 2004 to 2009. During that time, I taught at a hogwon, public schools, and two universities. The public school part of my career in Korea stretched across four schools. Three of those schools were in Seoul (on the same contract), and one was in Gyeoggido in the GEPIK program. It is interesting to note that I was part of the experimental group before SMOE started mass hiring for their program.

    You make many valid points. I personally experienced many of the things you wrote about; however, I think that many NETs in Korean public schools do not understand the bigger picture at the policy level. The MOE based their decision to invite NETs on many faulty premises such as native-speakerism (, but the larger point, and an often under appreciated one, was their willingness to experiment with different models of English language education. It is very easy to criticize the Korean government, but to introduce large numbers of foreigners in their public school system was an innovative initiative that deserves some credit. There were many unknowns when they started, and many NETs and KETs had/have many unrealistic expectations about the nature of change in education. Those unrealistic expectations are in large part due to the lack of knowledge of educational theory and practice.

    Many good things came out of their experiment such as increased awareness and funding for teacher training directed at Korean teachers who are fully invested in the Korean education system. I also think that there are more realistic expectations about what a native-speaker can and cannot contribute to Korean English language education in the public school context. These are just some examples that are, in my humble opinion, often overlooked by many foreign English teachers in the country who frequently have a very arrogant attitude of superiority toward Koreans.

    In my opinion, I think that the greatest contribution that foreign English language teachers can make in the public school context in Korea is to provide a point of contact for intercultural encounter and communication. Basing the presence of foreign NETs on that premise is more solid than merely looking at SLA as the main objective unless Korea wants to adopt a bilingual education model which seems very unlikely.

    Lastly, I would like to also point out that having foreign NETs in Korean public schools is part of a larger process of intercultural/international and internal/domestic dialogue in which Koreans are trying to figure out the role English will have in Korean society in the future. What I am trying to say is that there are larger movements at work. In that light, the phasing out of foreign NETs is not a failure. It is just one step of an unfolding process where policy and practice are moving forward to find a solution that meets the interests of Korean society (not our imposed vision of what WE — that is foreigners — think Korean society should be). This experience has helped the Koreans in the development of an ongoing dynamic language policy.

  13. geoffjordan

    Good on you for inviting this guest post. I’m surprised, tho I shouldn’t be, by some of the responses. Your guest gives an honest, very personal, but IMHO very moving review of the local situation. I found the post extremely interesting and a valuable insight into what’s going on there. It’s not often you read such a frank, personal account. The post is one of the best I’ve read in a long while. Truly thought-provoking. .

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  20. mikecorea

    Just as a quick note here. I deleted some comments at the request of one poster, which might make some of the comments look a bit out of place.

  21. Patrick Brennan

    As a NETS* in Korea I agree 100% with the writer. Sadly Korean mentality will not allow any one weather Korean or foreign to improve the English program.

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