[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.