Why my son won’t be going to that language school

The following is an original work of fiction. It is loosely based on a true story.
Further notes and thoughts can be found below.

I was ready to enroll my son in the new hagwon down the street. I’d heard good things about it through the local “ajumma network.” For example, I heard all three owners have PHDs! One of them even went to Yonsei. Since I always try to put my children’s’ education first I was excited about this chance and this new place for them to improve their English. People told me this academy has an innovative and different curriculum and I was eager to send my little angel, Byoungho, there.

From the grapevine I got the impression this school is not just another cowboy outfit set up to simply make profits and then disappear. Other moms told me this place cares about the children, which is of course different from a lot of places. Reputation is very important here in this town and nation.  Word of mouth is the best way to hear about potential educational opportunities for our children. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there is also an element of competition too, we mothers want to do our best for our kids but we also want to make sure we are not being overshadowed and outdone by other moms. Some people might say this is Korean nature but I think it is more like human nature. “Keeping up with the Kims” is always a consideration, so we need to stay constantly alert to trends and keep up with changes in the education field.

Prior to enrollment we had a conference with the directors who also happen to be the owners. I assumed it was just about marketing and was a chance for the owner to meet the parents and give a brief orientation of the school. They seemed nice, knowledgeable and reasonable.  It also seemed like the stories about them truly caring about children were true.

The meeting started off well enough but I was completely surprised by its result. In the end, the directors suggested maybe Byoungho shouldn’t attend classes there. At first they were telling me this and that about storybooks and communication and a positive learning environment and everything was fine. I was half listening because I was already set to enroll my son there. It sounded great. While listening to their talk on something about student-centeredness and individualized attention I suddenly remembered a rumor I’d heard about this particular cram school. Someone told me they hired non-native speakers. Not just non-native teachers but teachers that are not even white. I heard the main teacher there was a Filipina! Can you believe it? Everyone knows America is the center of business and English. Why would we want a teacher from somewhere else?  I asked the directors about this and without apology they confirmed this rumor to be true.

The nasty rumor was true, and what was worse they were not even apologetic about it. They told me that if I had a problem with their teachers maybe I didn’t need to spend my hard-earned money there. They said they were happy to live without my business if I was not happy with how they run it. I was speechless and I didn’t have much to say. Aren’t my 10,000 won notes green? Don’t they want my cash? They were very polite about this situation and they were firm in not taking my money if I was unhappy about the first language or skin color of the teacher. Now I need to find a new school. What if every school were like this?


Notes and thoughts:

As you might guess, I was not trying to make this mom a sympathetic figure or appear to be on her side. I also didn’t want to go too far over the top and make her too ridiculous or too much of a fanatic or caricature. I was just trying to tell what I think is an interesting story from a different perspective. As I said above it is based on a true story I heard recently. I have written a few times about  “native speakers” (yep, sticking with the scare quotes) in Korea (here is one example) and wrote something related to race and hiring here. I have been thinking for a long time that students don’t give a care about the skin color or first language of their teachers. In this case maybe the mom cared and the kid probably missed out on opportunities as a result.

I thought this could be an interesting text to use with English language students in Korea. I think there is something interesting (authentic-ish?) language there. I also think it is clearly focused on the Korean context, which might attract some interest. Aside from the potential (and potentially uncomfortable) conversations that could stem from this) I also thought it might be cool to have students write up the same story from a few different perspectives (one of the directors, the teacher, or Byoungho). I thank you for reading and I welcome any comments on anything. If you happen to use this with students I will gladly buy you a beer or coffee or lemonade or any drink that is not whiskey.




  1. Chewie (Gangwon Dispatches)

    Quality post. I think it address some prevalent issues in Korea right now. First would be “native speaker”-ism. As I have just visited the Philippines, I can say that I had no trouble communicating with anyone in English. Furthermore, English and Tagalog are the languages of the country. English is everywhere there. Let’s remember that America occupied the country in the early 20th century and that the country is quite Westernized. Not only that, but don’t many Koreans go to the Philippines with the express purpose of learning English?

    Second, your vignette gets into something I’ve been wondering about, which is moms (parents) and their children’s education. That is, how much do they know? And is money everything? Why does nationality matter over qualifications?

    Again, thanks for posting this. I like how it shows the mom’s cognitive dissonance: On the one hand, she’s angry that the school thinks her son should go elsewhere and on the other, she wouldn’t want her son learning from a Filipino speaker of English.

  2. marekkiczkowiak

    Hi Michael,
    Another thought-provoking post. Shocking. Wonder what the children thought. Probably didn’t care that much where their teacher was from as long as they had fun in the class and would learn something useful. In my opinion, in case of YL, it is definitely the parents who perpetuate the racism towards NNESTs and non-white NESTs. It is shocking that such blatant racism is still happening in the 21st century.
    I was wondering if I can use this story (perhaps slightly changed to fit a more broader context) during my talk at TESOL France. I think it could generate some great discussion.
    If you have time to use this story as a springboard for another article for TEFL Equity Advocates, please do let me know. Definitely an issue that needs to be addressed.

    • kevchanwow

      Howdy Mike,

      I worked in a language school for a while, which was also an international centre, and the fact that it was a not for profit with a mission statement of, “helping foster international bonds of friendship,” didn’t stop the chairman (a very small small man with a big head) from refusing to interview all Asian candidates for teaching positions. And his reasoning, when I could stomach listening to it, was the imaginary mothers and fathers who said things like the character in this post. So I wonder, how many real parents would say something like this if the school shows results (i.e. children who enjoy and improve at English), and how much of the impasse is just the people doing the hiring who have an overly active imagination in which people are both simpler and meaner than they are in real life.

      Thanks for giving me something to think about.


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