Over the last few months I have been sharing emails and Facebook messages with Michael Free and at some point we thought a
semi-polished interview might be of interest to readers. It is my great pleasure to share our discussion here, starting after the pic.
Hi Michael thanks for taking the time to talk with me. You are finishing about 10 years in the EPIK program. How do you feel?
Tired. Over the past few weeks, I’ve primarily felt tired. There’s the usual fatigue that comes with the end of the term; the ‘I love my students but I need them to leave me alone for a while’ state teachers are all familiar with. However, there’s also the fact this is the end of my ninth year with EPIK, a long time to stay with one employer and a very long time to stay with EPIK. I almost said ‘one job,’ but I’ve worked in 4 different counties in over 20 schools, so it’s pretty hard to view it that way. Anyway, it’s been a long time, so there’s a deeper sense of fatigue. I also just recently completed my dissertation for my M. TEFL (with the University of Birmingham), so, altogether, I’m nearly completely wiped out. I must say, though, that I’m also feeling very excited. I’ve finished the M. TEFL, got a new job, and my wife just got promoted as well. So, things are looking good, I’d say.
Nice. Sounds great. I am happy to hear things seem to be working out well. What else) have you accomplished in your time in Korea?
I always feel self-conscious answering this type of question, but I’ll give it a shot. I’ve got some additional credentials (a TEYL certificate, lots of online PD, and now an M TEFL), lots of experience (over 20 schools, every public school grade except grade 3 of high school). I’ve also presented at conferences (both small and large), and helped organise PD events for teachers here in Gangwon with KOTESOL. Outside of teaching, I’ve also paid off my student loans, been able to visit other Asian countries, and married the Best Kindergarten Teacher in Korea (Full disclosure: I gave her that award).
Thanks for the response. I know it was sort of an awkward question. Again, it’s nice to hear how things have worked out for you. And you spent all 10 years in Gangwon? How do you think being there this impact your experience?
In very interesting, and mostly positive, ways. When I decided to move to Korea from Montreal, I deliberately chose a rural area. I wanted a complete shift of lifestyle — and I certainly got it! Going from 24/7 cosmopolitanism to life just south of the DMZ in a rural fishing village is pretty extreme.
For some urban dwellers this could be really jarring. I’ve met a few people who were, at least temporarily, overcome. It brings to mind the scene in Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard describes his boat-mate, Mr. Clean: “I think the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head.”
It was different for me, though, as I wasn’t drafted. I chose it. The light, space, and especially the time gave me a chance to clean house, figuratively and literally, which was what I was after. If I had moved to Seoul, on the other hand, I’m not sure I would have stayed in Korea as long (though you never know). As I settled in, it became clear that working in Gangwon was going to be a big challenge. Given the nature of the Korean educational system and the socio-economic situation here, teaching English, just trying to teach English, can be frustrating, even heartbreaking at times. I’m thinking here of the very rural schools, which is to say the majority of schools I’ve worked in. The students know, I’m quite convinced, they know what they’re up against. It can make for a rough ride, when you care about their development and future beyond today’s word list or (modified-from-its-original-bollox) textbook activity.
It sounds like you embraced the challenge. Why are you leaving?
Opportunity knocked, and I answered. I’ll be moving to Gangneung, where I’ll be a Visiting Professor at Gangneung-Wonju National University. A colleague, whom I now owe a dinner (he says it’s more than one), put me in touch with the people who were looking for his replacement. In typically Korean style, it all happened quickly, and, though there are some details left to work out, the job looks like it will provide me the opportunity to expand my ELT horizons and reconnect with university teaching. It will also give me some more time to focus on seriously learning Korean (dreadfully overdue), and perhaps do some research.
Great news. Gangueng is one of my favorite places in Korea, by the way. What advice would you give to new teachers starting with EPIK now?
Learn some Korean right away, because the effort will most likely endear you to your school. Get out and explore Korea (not just the foreigner hot spots) and make some friends in your community. Know whom to contact if you have questions or are having issues adjusting (sure, your friends from orientation can provide support, but typically they don’t know any more than you do). Try to nip problems in the bud. Also, get involved in some professional development. To be blunt: If you arrive here with a 100-hour TESOL certificate, a Bachelor of Not-Education, and no teaching experience, you need professional development. I’m not saying you should sign up for an advanced degree program immediately, but buy a book, attend a webinar or attend a KOTESOL meeting (Full disclosure, again: I’m currently the president of the Gangwon Chapter). Most of all, bear in mind that, whether you like it or not, you’re an ambassador for your country and your profession. I feel a bit like a Dutch uncle saying that, but it’s true (and it doesn’t matter that it’s not fair that you didn’t sign up to be an ambassador).
Oh, I almost forgot I was talking to the President of my KOTESOL chapter. And speaking of EPIK, you wrote a guest post on this a blog before about native teachers in Korean public schools …do you agree with what you wrote then? What changed since?
I do, indeed. In fact, what happened just after that post reinforced my central point about the lack of time to plan being the biggest issue for many of us. One week before the start of term — one week! — I was assigned a schedule that involved 5 schools (none of which I had worked at before), 9 grades, over a dozen different textbooks and even more co-teachers (the actual number was considerably less). The first two months in that schedule were hectic, to say the least. I had to try to get organised very quickly, and I didn’t know enough about the schools I was going into to be able to prepare as thoroughly as I would have liked. So, no, nothing has changed, at least for me.
What advice would you give those running EPIK? Why?
There are some specific suggestions that I can’t get into, even though your readers might find them interesting. I hope that’s not too much of a tease, but I’m bound by agreement to not discuss matters that contain confidential information. The advice I feel I can give is to urge, pressure, and exhort the key decision makers to listen. Not just to the ideas I’ve tried (and, apparently, often failed) to communicate to them during my time as a teacher and district coordinator, but to other teachers. The people they should listen to include not only senior EPIK teachers (a dwindling number), but some of the more experienced Korean English teachers. I had the opportunity to talk with quite a few Korean teachers during the course of my dissertation research. They are knowledgeable, passionate educators who know what needs to be done to improve not only EPIK, but English teaching in Korea in general. “Dear admin, please listen” is a typical refrain of teachers, I know, but I can’t help but join in the chorus. As to why, I have to return to planning, though on a larger scale. There needs to be a plan for EPIK, which should, ideally, be connected to a long-term vision. This should be rigorously related to the National Curriculum, and thoughtfully tailored to students’ needs.
You mentioned the dwindling number of senior EPIK teachers. I wonder what you think about this trend of reducing the number of EPIK teachers. Any thoughts on this?
I do have some, but, for the same reason I gave above, I have to refrain from getting into specifics. When I first arrived, the mantra was, for better or worse, “1 NEST in every school.” Now, due to economics and, to an extent, politics, this is impossible even in theory; there are just too many schools and too few bodies. I’m of the opinion that it is possible to have positive outcomes with fewer, but well-trained teachers. To use Apocalypse Now once again, Col. Kurtz, in one of his more lucid moments, said: “If I had [only] ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly.”
If EPIK had a smaller number of qualified ELTs (not just men, obviously, and, perhaps less obviously to some, not merely ‘qualified’ by their citizenship), wow, what a difference they could make! But, again, for this to happen you need a plan, an organized system, in which these teachers can be allowed to perform. Just parachuting individual teachers into schools and letting things work on an ad hoc basis has, at best, provided mixed results. There have been small-scale improvements in the program, I should say, but there needs to be a reconsideration of some fundamentals in order for EPIK to really accomplish something significant. Maybe there will be a plan or a system in the future. It would certainly be welcome!
I suppose we should stop here. Thanks again for taking the time, Michael. Talk to you soon!
You’re quite welcome! Anytime!
I will just relax here and listen to “The End of the World” (as we know it) by REM because things are a-changin’.
Note: The photo of the Michaels was taken by Barb Sakamoto at the 2014 KOTESOL International Conference and is from her excellent set of the event on Flickr. The other photos were found on the internets (or taken) by Michael Free and were captioned by him.