A Response to “Native English speakers in Korean public schools were destined to fail”

[This is a guest post. Please see below for a bio and semi-recent pic of the author] 

Last month an anonymous writer provided a guest post on this blog about how Native English speakers in Korean public schools were destined to fail. The post garnered many comments on various social media, as well as a response on another blog. The original post was a brief summary of the writer’s experiences with working in a Korean public school. After reading all the reactions I decided to make Michael Griffin happy and finally write a guest blog post of my own (he has been begging me for over a year).

I feel I can bring another perspective to this issue, having worked as an academic coordinator for the Gangnam District for three years.  The Gangnam District is unique in that it hires its native English teachers (NETs) directly. Every other district in Seoul receives their teachers from the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.

As academic coordinator I was responsible for hiring, training, and observing NETs in elementary, middle, and high schools in the Gangnam District (over 60 schools in total). While I admit the Gangnam District program was heavily funded and the work conditions were probably different than in other areas of the country, I think sharing the reasons for the successes/failures of this program can add to the discussion of NETs in Korean schools.

Going back to the guest blog post, the anonymous writer shared how he/she worked in a private elementary school for two years and then decided to change to schools in order to experience working in a public school, in the writer’s case a middle school. I agree that there are some differences between public schools and private schools – such as where they receive the majority of their funding or the tenure of Korean teachers – but I argue that there is little to no difference in teaching contexts with respect to the job NETs do. During my time as an academic coordinator in Gangnam I observed teachers in both public and private schools and I saw no discernible difference between the two. What I did see was a massive difference in how NETs were being utilised in elementary schools compared to secondary schools. Other than a few exceptions, I felt the elementary schools were getting it right.

In elementary schools, the NETs were either teaching on their own, teaching together with a Korean co-teacher, or they split half the students and taught them in one classroom while their Korean co-teacher taught the other half in another classroom. All NETs were required to design lessons plans either using the national curriculum textbooks, using supplementary textbooks (for students with high English proficiency), or using their own ideas/materials. For those NETs who had co-teachers, many of them planned lessons together with their co-teacher, while a few would plan lessons on their own and then share them with their co-teacher.

The main reason why I felt elementary schools were getting it right was because for the most part NETs would see the same students more than once a week. I think the increased contact hours helped NETs to develop greater rapport with students and helped them build on students’ language skills from class to class. I think perhaps this setup was unique to Gangnam since the district was heavily funded and was able to place more than one NET at each school (a few schools even had three NETs).

In contrast, secondary schools only had one NET and schools wanted to give all students a chance to have a class with the NET, so the contact time with same students was at most once a week, with some NETs seeing the seeing students bi-weekly (or in some cases once a month!). This made it very difficult to develop rapport with students, or be able to identify students’ evolving needs and respond to them in a time-sensitive manner. By spreading the NETs so thinly across the whole school, it made it incredibly difficult to create any momentum of learning from class to class.

With respect to curriculum, most schools told NETs to do whatever they want. NETs are not given any guidelines or objectives for what they should cover in their classes. In secondary schools students normally had 3-4 English classes a week with their Korean English teacher and would follow a specific curriculum (textbook) and were tested on that. For many NETs who designed their own lessons, students knew they were not going to be tested on that content, which led to motivation issues. Many NETs were told to focus on students’ communicative skills, but these skills were rarely the focus of tests. A few teachers did find some success by taking it upon themselves to find out from Korean English teachers what was being covered in their classes and then designing lessons that included similar topics/vocabulary/grammar/structures.

In secondary schools co-teaching was non-existent. The Korean co-teacher and NET did not plan lessons together, and during class the Korean co-teacher had little to no involvement in the lesson; in many schools the NET would be in the classroom on their own. I think the main reason for this was due to the lack of adequate training on how to co-teach. Whenever there were co-teaching workshops organized by the education office the participants would either be only Korean teachers or only NETs, never the two together. It’s impossible to do effective co-teaching training when only half the co-teaching team is present.

Returning to the original guest blog post, I agree with the writer that throughout the country NETs in Korean public/private schools were destined to fail. The main reasons for this are the complete lack of planning and poor implementation from education offices. Throughout Korea schools are just given NETs without any guidelines or training on how to best integrate them into their English programs. Having worked for the Korean government for 5 years I saw this problem time and time again; the powers that be would think of some haphazard solution to a large problem, throw obscene amounts of money at it, but fail to make any concrete plans of how to implement it (the NEAT test being a more recent example).

I think the situation would be better if education offices throughout Korea adopted similar policies that were being used in Gangnam (keeping in mind that Gangnam does have more funding than most education offices). I think Gangnam NETs benefited from having orientation workshops that focused heavily on teaching practices rather than on Korean cultural experiences. While I think learning about Korean culture is important, I don’t believe that devoting 50% of the orientation schedule (as many education offices do) is the best way to help NETs prepare for working in a Korean private/public school. While trying on hanboks and making kimchi can be culturally enriching, I fail to see how this prepares NETs for the job they have been hired for.

Once NETs are teaching at their schools I think finding out the challenges that they are experiencing and designing workshops to address those challenges seems like a better idea than having workshops just for the sake of having workshops. Also, keeping the number of workshop participants low (30~40 teachers) can foster a better environment for sharing and learning than a workshop with 100-150 participants.

Probably the most helpful policy that could be adopted is having regular class observations where an observer communicates with the teacher about the lesson objective and teaching goals before the class, observes a real lesson that has been unrehearsed, and then spends time with the teacher to reflect on that lesson and offer constructive feedback if the teacher wants it. Similarly to workshops, I see little value in observing teachers for the sake of observing, with a gallery of teachers/administrators at the back of a room that is not normally used for English classes.

I think by having orientations that focused on teaching skills, regular workshops that tried to address NETs challenges, and regular class observations that included time for reflection allowed NETs in Gangnam to have more success teaching in their schools. I believe NETs all over Korea could have similar outcomes if their education offices implemented these training/professional development policies.

At the same time, with the current teaching environments I think NETs in elementary schools can achieve more in terms of student learning compared to secondary schools. I feel secondary school NETs are hindered by infrequent contact hours, unclear teaching goals from administrators, and a test-based curriculum that focuses on grammar and vocabulary and doesn’t require students to improve communication skills. To me, placing NETs in secondary schools makes little sense until there is a complete overhaul of the middle school and high school English curriculum (one can dream), or school/education offices start making better decisions on how to utilise them.

About the author: 

Manpal Sahota works as a TESOL Trainer in Daegu, South Korea. He has worked as a teacher and a teacher trainer in Korea for over 11 years. He is often saddened when he sees the potential for student learning being hindered because of administrative incompetence.



  1. Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

    Ye nice post Manpal, while I partially disagree on a small number of points it’s well written and I appreciate the experiences you bring to the table, mostly of which are, in my opinion, absolutely true. One of your points I would like to discuss (as you probably guesses) is regarding high school teachers. I completely agree that currently (well they’re all gone now so not currently I suppose) a lot of high school teachers aren’t a good return on the investment, not that they don’t work hard and try their best. Honestly, I think the reason is simply lack of qualifications/experience/training (as you say).

    Something I’m realising as time goes by and I continuously learn more, is how bad of a job I used to do despite doing my best. That’s not to say that elementary education as a whole doesn’t require the same level of skills/knowledge that high school does, in fact it could well involve more, just that as you point out high school teachers are literally told their’s your classroom, go teach these 40 zombified (I don’t mean that in an offensive way to Korean children at all, I am simply referring to the fact they are often exhausted beyond being able to pick their heads up off the table) students. An elementary teacher, (which I haven’t been so I’m basing this on what people have told me) on the other hand gets a lot more structure and guidance on what they are expected to be teaching.

    I do think though, in fact I know, that there are high school teachers who are doing a great job and more than returning the investment having designed a conversation course completely independent of the materials being used in the regular English class. Doing so provides the opportunity to work on international communication skills that are necessary for Korean students, yet completely ignored in the high school materials used. In a sense, it is an opportunity to fill in the gaps. However, there are also a lot who probably aren’t for the reasons you and I explain.

    My advice to the MoE and secondary school NETs would actually be to treat the NETs class as completely independent of the normal class materials (which I believe are inadequate) and develop a program to work on international communication skills and other necessary components of language use that are not covered in high school materials. Of course, that is no easy task.

  2. Manpal

    I’m surprised the get a reply from Alex Walsh.

    Seriously though, thank you for your comments. I agree with you that high school NETs should have classes that are independent from the regular curriculum. In fact, in my final year in Gangnam those high school NETs who were doing this told me that they experienced greater job satisfaction and student engagement. This was in contrast to my first year in Gangnam, where many high school NETs shared their frustrations due to the points I mentioned in my post.

    In truth, after my first year my colleague and I clandestinely changed our hiring requirements for high schools and starting recruiting teachers who could excel at working independently, were comfortable with designing their own year-long curriculum, and possessed other skills that would help them succeed in the high school environment (there is a unconcealed compliment there for you Walshy). We interviewed many teachers and it was always difficult to find teachers who possessed these qualities. We did find them I think they did (are doing) a great job in their schools. But I think there are not enough of them to go around in Korea, so overall I still think NETs will fail in high schools across the country (again, due to poor planning from education offices).

  3. Abdul Rahman

    Completely agree with issues on orientation, lack of observation and direction. Most of all, being spread too thinly.

  4. Pingback: Destined to Fail? Not always. (Well, maybe.) | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  5. Jared

    “Throughout Korea schools are just given NETs without any guidelines or training on how to best integrate them into their English programs.”

    That’s not entirely accurate. Agree that public school aren’t given info on “how to best integrate” NETs, but the MOE does provide a 300 page handbook for handling Native Speakers called “원어민 초청 활용: 이렇게 하세요.” (Using invited native speakers: Do it like this), available for download on Google.

    In addition to recommend things like recommending Korean how to promote cultural awareness (hanboks, kimchi eating) and how keep NETs from sexually assaulting students (advises against allowing NETs to be to friendly with kids), the handbook explains how to be sure to test foreign teachers for AIDS and drugs. The handbooks mentions it in several places because apparently where foreigners are concerned Koreans are scared they’ll give off AIDS.

    Does Gangnam take the same approach to screening for AIDS and drugs?

    • Jared

      Edit of penultimate paragraph:

      In addition to recommending things like how to promote Korean cultural awareness (hanboks, kimchi eating) and how keep NETs from sexually assaulting students (don’t allow NETs to be too friendly with kids), the handbook also explains how to be sure to test foreign teachers for AIDS and drugs. The handbooks mentions it in several places because apparently where foreigners are concerned Koreans are scared they’ll give off AIDS.

  6. Pingback: Rant about Education in France (Guest Post) | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  7. Pingback: A look back at 2013 on this blog | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s