Destined to Fail? Not always. (Well, maybe.)

[From Mike Griffin: I am hono(u)red to have another guest poster here on the blog. This post is another in the series of related posts about “native speakers” in Korean public schools. I enjoyed this post and I hope you will as well. A biography of the author, Michael Free, can be found below the piece itself. Thanks for reading!]

“Destined to fail.” I’ve heard this description more than a few times during my time in Korea. Certainly well before the post that again revived the discussion, and inspired Michael Griffin to ask a few people to write guest entries for this blog. I’m happy he included me among them and pleased to oblige. I’ve worked in Korea for seven years now, all of which have been in the public school system in Gangwon province: Three counties, over a dozen schools, virtually every grade level, and more than half the time as a District Coordinator for EPIK. That is to say, I think I have enough experience and perspective to contribute something to the discussion.

When Michael and I first talked, we thought that this contribution would emerge from my experience as a District Coordinator. As it turns out, Manpal Sahota’s first-rate post made that idea redundant. So instead, I’m going to write about creating success within the public school system, the extent to which I’ve found it possible, and speculate as to whether or not this will be possible given recent changes.

I should mention: This is my first ever blog entry, so please be gentle.

With relation to the EPIK, the “destined to fail” discussion has a few recurring themes. For some, the culprit is recruitment practices, in which Native Speakerism drives the hiring of employees based primarily on their nationality (as opposed to their work experience or educational background). For others it’s co-teaching, the realities of which do not always mirror the ‘successes’ of well-orchestrated demonstration classes. No matter where the discussion starts, though, it eventually comes to rest on the pervasive problem of planning. “The complete lack of planning and poor implementation,” Manpal writes, agreeing with the original poster (you can add my agreement, as well). The result: the instruction we frequently hear, in various guises, is to “do whatever.”

This “do whatever” directive has been an overall failure in a couple of respects. If you take the National Curriculum’s ostensible goal of developing the communicative competence of Korean public school students, it hasn’t worked. You can consult the relevant test results if you like, or simply ask someone who teaches “Freshman English” at a university about the communicative skills of students — especially those who have not had the benefit of private academies. Alternately, you can evaluate it vis-à-vis the actual goal of preparing students for those awful written tests they have to take in order to prepare them for The Test (the 수능). Frequently, there is no connection whatever between EPIK classes and these tests. When there is, it is a token few questions culled from an entire term of EPIK  lessons that that get tacked on the end of the “real” test.  In terms of either of these goals, it’s exceedingly difficult to make a case for success. 

On the other hand, the permission to “do whatever” has given teachers the space to create success on a local level. In my experience this has been especially, but not exclusively, in cases where the school is supportive or the EPIK teacher is an experienced professional (or better yet, both). This success may be related to the goals mentioned above or some other set of aims.   Many elementary programs use EPIK classes to address curricular content, while others use that time to generate enthusiasm for English education.  Some middle school programs mirror the core English textbook, other eschew it entirely. Other schools mix it up. These goals may be lofty (“Improved test scores for everyone!”), or may seem exceedingly modest (“let’s try to convey that English class doesn’t have to be a horrible experience.”). What they seem to have in common, though, is a conscious and conscientious effort to determine goals that are achievable, and a plan for how to achieve them. Teaching at 10 different grades levels, obviously my goals are pretty variegated, but there I do have some core objectives. These include: giving students a space to creatively express themselves, learning about cool stuff from other cultures and how to tell people about cool Korean stuff, as well as practicing and learning how to use English. More germane, for present purposes and for my particular situation, is the issue of planning. I’ll tell you more in a moment. But first, we have to break for a commercial:

I’ve always liked this commercial. Dad, euphoric, tosses stuff willy-nilly into a shopping cart. Meanwhile, the kids have the long faces of, well, kids going back to school. As the background music tells us, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  I’m like many teachers, in that the beginning of the school year really is the most wonderful time. The kids are excited, and you’ve had a chance to rest, recharge, and plan.

Planning is key. I can’t overstate it. Presently, I work, mostly on my own, at three different schools with every grade from kindergarten to the end of middle school. So when I start a new term, I need to have a solid idea of the sequence of lessons, the topics, and what I’m going to need to prepare. I don’t actually prepare every single thing, but I lay out what has to be done. If I can’t do that, I’m done for. If you work in this country, you’ll know why. If you don’t, let me tell you: in “Dynamic Korea” everything is always in flux. Classes change from morning to afternoon and back again constantly (no problem, I’m accustomed to that); you’ll show up and they’ll be no one at school aside from the janitor (again, no problem) or you’ll be asked why you haven’t worn something suitable for the surprise visit from the superintendent (Ack! My hair!);  or you’re starting a new class for which we need a semester schedule by the end of the day (Seriously? Not cool, but I can deal with it because everything else is planned). This crucial planning is done in the breaks between terms.

In order to create this plan, I need certain information: schools and grades are essential, as are names of the English textbooks currently used. That’s not as much as I would like, but it’s enough for me to make up a schematic of how the term is going to work. The more schools and grades there are, the more important it is that I have this information. The trouble is, in recent semesters, this information has been arriving later and later, and has been far too tentative for my liking. The only thing that is insisted upon is that it will be 22 contact hours (this is the new mantra, it seems).  Additionally, past breaks have been long enough that you can have a vacation and plan, but without feeling like you’ve never left work at all. In the future, vacation time is going to shrink considerably, and there’s talk of replacing preparation days (what some people refer to as ‘desk-warming’) with as-many-camps-as-we-can. Luckily, I have a good stretch of time this summer, because I’m at six schools come fall, teaching every grade level. As the time I’m writing this, it’s not been determined how the time will be allocated. So I can’t really plan, and this schedule absolutely requires it: 22 hours, 6 schools, 9 grades, and no plan? Even with modest goals, I can’t be optimistic. The most wonderful time of the year is turning into the most stressful time of the year. This may, in turn, affect the whole term.

Here’s the upshot: in past years, I’ve had the necessary time and information to plan and that has resulted in success (in my view, and, I think, in the views of my students). In more recent semesters, planning time has begun to shrink (more contact hours, and now shorter vacations), information is coming later (at the beginning of the new term, instead of the end of the previous one), and the necessity for planning is increasing (more schools, more grades). The future seems to be one where I run from school to school, classroom to classroom, without being given the necessary time to properly prepare. If that’s the case, then I will be destined to fail.

P.S. “So, why stay?” you might ask. To which I would reply: I’ve focused on one key issue here, which may leave you with the impression that I’m dissatisfied. I am distressed with the lack of planning time, and there are other aspects of the job that could do with some improvement (e.g., an actual curriculum, more opportunities for professional development, etc.). But there are also positive things about this job: the co-workers at the various schools I go to are great to work with. My students, scallywags though they may be, are good kids who occasionally amaze me (though they could do with a little less sugar, some days). There may come a time when I leave this job. But I doubt that I’ll leave the profession. Once I get in the classroom, beyond the bureaucracy, into the messy, wonderful, complicated business of teaching, I’m happy. That is, unless I come into a goodly sum of money. In that case, I will be destined to fail — at poker.

About the author:

Michael Freebird

Michael Free, before coming to Korea, was a teacher of music history and theory, writer and editor, as well as a practicing musician in Canada. During  his years teaching EFL in Korea he has worked in rural schools in Geoseong  County, Sokcho, and, most recently, Hongcheon County as a teacher in EPIK  (English Program in Korea). He is presently the Hongcheon District Coordinator  for that program. In Hongcheon he divides his time between three schools:  Duchon Elementary School, Cheoljeong Elementary School, and Duchon  Middle School. In the present academic semester he is teaching classes at  Elementary and Middle school (all grades). He has been an active member of  KOTESOL for six years and is the current vice-president of the Gangwon  Chapter. His interests include humanist education, skills development in ‘ conversational English,’ issues in team teaching, and phonology. He can be  reached at michaelfree63@gmail.com.

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6 comments

  1. ljiljana havran

    Hello Michael Free,

    I enjoyed reading this blog post very much and I think you are a great teacher (I like your intelligent reflection on teaching and your professional biography as well). I find your picture of “Dynamic Korea” very clearly depicted and your core objectives excellent, especially the first one: giving students a space to creatively express themselves.

    I agree with you that planning is the most important part, and understand you completely when you said that you are not dissatisfied, but distressed with the lack of planning time, lack of opportunities for professional development, actual curriculum…

    All you said about the National Curriculum’s ostensible goal of developing the communicative competence of Korean public school students and the system of testing Ss struck a chord with me since the situation in my country (Serbia) is quite similar to that in S.Korea. Our school system leaves a lot to be desired as well (a lot of confusion, very slow and mostly formal changes and not the real qualitative improvements based on research and good planning).

    Thanks so much for the post 🙂

    All the best,
    Ljiljana Havran

    • Michael

      Hello Ljiljana Havran,

      Thank you for your kind reply! It’s interesting to know that Serbia is having some of the same issues as we do here in S. Korea. Usually, when teachers here compare our situation to other countries we end up talking about Japan or China, perhaps Singapore (we can dream!), but only rarely do we end up in Europe. So, it seems that the top-down ‘changes’ (which often never happen) made by policy makers have the same problems reaching the classroom in Serbia as they do here (and elsewhere, I believe). *Sigh!* There are indications that this is changing, but it’s a slow, difficult process. Moreover, until the testing here is put in a better context (i.e., it’s not all about the grade, and the tests are better-constructed), improvement is going to be a hard thing to achieve.

      Thanks for reading, and best wishes for your teaching!

      Michael

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