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?