Silly judgments may cause chafing

Note: This blog post is (mostly) a response to another post I saw recently. I’d prefer not to link to it. Some of the quotes, most of the venom, and indeed the whole reason for posting this) are based on the post. Skillful googlers will be able to find the original, though I don’t recommend it.

I have been thinking about hiring practices in South Korea for nearly 15 years. It all started when I put my name out there as a soon to be recent graduate and suddenly the phone in my uni apartment was ringing off the hook. Sorry Corinne! A 22 year old with next to no experience was a very hot commodity for employment in the private academy (hogwon) industry at that time. Perhaps it would be better to say, a White foreigner. A White foreigner who would soon have his very own BA in History.

That was a while back. I decided to work at the place I chose at first because the “recruiter” was actually a teacher that worked there and he was very straightforward about the good and not so good things about the job. Thanks Ruy. I have always appreciated his honesty in that regard. I worked at that hogwon for just over a year and it was a great learning experience.

My next job (which I detailed the process of obtaining here) was at a technical college. Perhaps some would say that I “crawled out from under a hagwon stone and into a job” I was “never qualified or experienced enough to do.” I am not really sure of this.  While I obviously had a lot to learn (and still do) I think I met my duties (and went beyond them) and met the requirements and expectations of my employers. Did it matter that I had only been teaching for about a year? Not really. Did it matter that I thought Interchange was a great book? Probably not so much. Was it helpful that I realized I probably didn’t deserve such a job? I think so. I think I was eager to do a good job for a variety of reasons, including the realization that I was extremely lucky to have such a job. I was starting to become aware of the reasons such positions were open to people like me.

I have met a lot of foreigners in Korea who seem to think they deserve certain things in terms of employment. This sense of entitlement tends to grate but I actually can empathize at times. They did fly halfway around the world to be here for a start. I can understand how it might be easy for a White foreigner in Korea to “believe they sweet.” From there, it might then be very easy to believe that all that they achieved (whatever that might be) is due to skill, effort, qualifications, knowledge and ability while most others owe their relative position to the messed up Korean system. Or something like that. Not sure. What I am sure about is how I have, at times been shocked with what codes to me as a sense of entitlement from many of  the (yes, largely White) foreign teachers I talk to here in South Korea.

Another thing that often surprises me is the sort of bullshit hierarchies that develop in the minds of foreign teachers. Public school teachers looking down on hogwon teachers. University professors instructors looking down on them. It’s all pretty senseless to me. Here I wrote about some things I learned from a then-hogwon teacher I’d like to keep in mind forever. And  here I  wrote about the pissing contests that seem to go on when teachers get together.

Considering those posts, I worried I might not have much to say on this topic but I am just getting warmed up. Maybe a simple place to re-start is that not every foreign teacher in Korea wants to teach in a university. Teaching in a university is not the end all and be all for everyone. People take and keep specific jobs for a variety of reasons. Once we have that out of the way then maybe it becomes a bit easier to consider this subject.

Anyway, whenever I think about hiring practices of unis in Korea I am reminded of a conversation I had with a dear and wise friend a long time ago. Our conversation started with how a mutual friend/acquaintance had just been hired by a prestigious university in Korea with just a few years experience at high schools and hogwons. We noted with interest that the friend “only” had a BA and how plenty of people with MAs had applied for his position, which was teaching conversational English to Korean university students. I guess it struck as an interesting phenomena, where what we thought would be useful qualifications were largely irrelevant. After considering this situation for a while I blurted out that maybe the uni was getting exactly what they needed and wanted. I assume they  wanted an energetic, positive and friendly, “native speaker’ (read: White person) and they surely got one. Who were we to judge them or the system? Wasn’t everyone getting what they wanted? Did the students need some stuffy English expert diagramming sentences on the board all day? I don’t think so. Of course I realize there is a lot of room for difference between the fun, inexperienced teacher and the boring crusty one. The friend in question has been at that job for probably 5 years now and by all accounts the admin and students are very happy. What is the problem with this exactly? How much better of a teacher would he be if he were magically plugged into the Matrix to gain Michael Swan-like grammatical knowledge? How much better would he be if he suddenly gained Michael Hallidian systemic functional grammar skillz? I am really not sure how much impact would have been felt by his students.

There is a lot of talk on the internets about changes in the university hiring practices in South Korea. This is welcomed by some, for good reasons and occasionally on grounds that are not entirely clear to me. I certainly don’t want to say the current system is perfect or that there is any godly reason to force every Korean university student to take a conversational class with a “native speaker” in order to graduate. I am not sure there is enough makgeolli in the world to make me say such a thing. At the same time, I don’t feel the need to denigrate folks who don’t have MAs in the field or those that do but choose not to work in universities. Or anyone really. I think it is quite possible to talk/write/think rationally about these things without putting people down. Perhaps I am wrong, Maybe the problem is that I didn’t spring fully formed from my mother’s womb as an experienced, knowledgeable, qualified teacher and thus deserve any criticism or backhanded remarks thrown at me.

So, with the proposed changes, perhaps the aforementioned friend (I actually have no idea at all–this is pure conjecture) will not be hired and will be replaced with an MA holder. This course of action would probably meet the requirements of the new system and would probably make the uni look better in international rankings. I am not convinced it will be better for students.  Who knows? What about the context knowledge my friend has built up? What about the hard-earned experience gained from a job he was “not qualified to do?.” I am also not convinced “Holding a higher degree is about both subject knowledge and basic respect for the students you are paid to teach.” Actually, I am not sure if this quote means those without higher degrees are disrespectful to there students will their willful lack of a higher degree. I guess I just think people are hired to do the jobs they are hired to do and I am not in the business of blaming people for getting jobs they might at first glance be qualified to do. I also think teachers can develop and grow into positions and that an MA is no guarantee of such growth. Again, I am not convinced that having an MA makes anyone a better teacher. In fact, for about 5 years to my non-MA-having eyes those who had MAs in the field generally seemed much more clueless than those who didn’t. But that is a different story for another day.

Some might welcome the proposed changes on the grounds they will be the “the first step towards making EFL a quasi-professional discipline.” Isn’t it already? If the field is not seen as such why not? Might I humbly suggest talking about fellow teachers with all experience levels and backgrounds in a positive and professional way as another first step?


  1. SophiaSophia

    Especially the last sentence. And bonus points for mad SFG ‘skillz’. And more bonus points for the mental image of Keanu Reeves saying “I know Michael Swan!” This post deserves some more discerning comments, but am just too tired tonight – sorry, have a ton of work to finish. Basically, I thought it was a good post with an important point 😀

    • mikecorea

      A belated response to your comments here! Thanks so much.
      Your comments came at a wonderful time for me, as I was in that strange zone of wavering if I was too harsh or not harsh enough and your comments helped me rest a bit easier. So thanks for that and thanks for reading.

  2. kevchanwow

    OK, you have made a very good point. And you also have me feeling a little hot under the collar. What is with these snooty people who would look down on their fellow teachers? You know, like the kind of person who might write a blog post that I do indeed regret having searched for and read. If they were here as I was typing this, I might have to visit some mad SFG skillz right on their nozes! And while we aren’t friends or anything, I bet if I asked Michael Swan what he thought about it all, he would join in and start beating them on the head with a copy of “Practical English Usage.” OK, I gotta go cool off. But just so everyone knows, I don’t condone violence. But I don’t condone being a jerk either. The only way to build up our profession is by building up each other, and that means reaching out to help, not kicking someone when they are in need.

    Thanks Mike.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments and laughs. Just for the record, we here at ELT RRR do not promote or condone violence either. Yet, I wouldn’t mind seeing Michael Swan getting a little aggressive with Practical English Usage on the original writer. That is a fantastic image.

      Regarding the original post (you can’t say i didn’t warn you!) with a bit of distance I just think they were trying to be a bit controversial and maybe didn’t think things through as much as they could have. Or maybe I am just being generous now that I have some time and distance.

  3. Micaela

    Excellent post. Sadly, these sort of hierarchies are part of human nature. It would be wonderful if we could all just work side by side and not worry about who has which degree and who studied where. IMO the most important thing is to strive to be the best teacher you can every single day. That takes knowledge and technique but also motivation.

    I hope there comes a day when EFL really is considered a professional field. Your suggested first step would definitely help get us in the right direction. 😉

    • mikecorea

      Thanks so much for the comments (and sorry for the delay in responding.
      It is always so interesting to see how things are similar/different between Spain and Korea.

      I have to say that your point about human nature gave me a slight painful feeling!
      I can’t really disagree with you but I guess I really wish this were not the case.

      I waver between optimistic and cynical (hey wait a minute these are not exactly opposites!) but I truly don’t think people like the author of the piece I was responding to intend to sound like judgmental jerks (now I am name calling…shame on me) I just think it is easy to fall into this line of thinking. I dunno.

      I also have some thoughts about teaching (or specifically teaching English) as a career sort of being looked down on so people feel the need to separate themselves from the “backpackers” or whatever and I think I can understand this inclination but I don’t think it really does much to promote the field or anything. I hope I am making sense here!

      Anyway, I appreciate your comments and they got me thinking more and more about this stuff.

  4. Conor

    I fall and have fallen into many of the categories described here. I’ve seen some great teachers as well who fit all the cases you’ve described, and some awful teachers too. It’s unfortunate that there’s inconsistency, but the least you can hope for is a logical explanation to the reasoning behind hires, but chance would be a fine thing.

    Also the professor tag is kind of embarrassing.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Conor,

      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      (and sorry for the delay in responding!)
      I appreciate the comments, especially from a fine writer such as yourself.

      I liked your point about falling into the categories listed in my post. I think that is part (just part) of what grated me in the original post…the assumption (or at least that is how I read it) that everyone who doesn’t have the same background is somehow inferior. Nonsense. I am not going to deny that there are are likely a lot of folks or more specifically foreign native teachers in Korea that are not good at their jobs. I am also sure the same is true for Ireland and the US (and anywhere).

      I was just about to say something about the value of experience in Korea (as compared to more formal qualifications) but then I was reminded of some really bitter folks.

      You mentioned logical reasoning behind hires. That would be a great start. I often think it is much more simple than we might think. Someone who often doesn’t know/care much about education is tasked with making hiring decisions and then takes the most logical (to them) shortcuts they can take). Too simple? Too cynical?>

      Thanks again for the comments. See you around.

  5. The nerd

    “So, with the proposed changes, perhaps the aforementioned friend (I actually have no idea at all–this is pure conjecture) will not be hired and will be replaced with a WHITE MA holder”

    There…fixed it for you 😉

    • mikecorea

      Hah thanks for the fix. I guess i missed that one when I went back and put “White” into many locations. I wonder if you read the post this was based on? Again I don’t recommend it but it was interesting in many ways.

      • The nerd

        Read it a few months back.

        It truly was an interesting read….I hope the writer finds a mind-soothing hobby before he/she explodes at a KOTESOL conference.

        Can’t say the article affected me much. I do not teach at a university and (hopefully) do not plan to for the foreseeable future.

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