Category: Rants

They dare ask for help

“This is why we can’t have nice things” wrote a friend as he linked to yet another of those Facebook posts. Maybe you know the ones. The type where the author offers a friendly greeting to the English education focused group and states  how she is teaching a new class this term. She mentions having no experience teaching this sort of class and asks the group for help. This type of post is commonplace here in Korea especially in late February and late August just before the start of a new term.

I didn’t take the time to ask my friend what bothers him so about these requests for help but I have a few ideas and guesses. First is the idea of foreign English teaching folks at Korean universities not being qualified to teach the classes they are teaching. (Side note: I am always leery when using this word “qualified” because I never seem to know what it means to different people or even myself. ) It could be about these instructors not being experienced enough in the areas they are teaching. From there I wonder if he is concerned about the negative impact on the students or the the oft-maligned reputation of foreign (particularly English) instructors in Korea. Or maybe both. Or perhaps he thinks uni instructors should be clever, resourceful, talented and with it enough to find their own materials and ideas without relying on such help from such groups. Another thought is about the timing of such requests. Maybe my friend believes instructors should be more prepared and on the ball and tackle these issues as soon as possible instead of waiting till immediately before classes start.

I suppose should just ask my friend what he meant by this.

UPDATE: 
I sent my friend the above. Let’s see what he says whilst I write the rest of the post and then I can address his points.

 

welcome aboar

 

I don’t want to speak for my friend or put words in his mouth but I get the sense he is focusing his disdain thoughts on the teachers but not so much on the admin and those in charge of making such scheduling decisions. I’d also question how it comes to be that these teachers are placed in such situations. I think the administrations need to fall under this scrutiny. On a larger scale I think there is something to consider as related to idea teachers *should know how to teach. I am a bit torn here because I have recently been in situations where I was teaching outside of my comfort zone and area of expertise  stuff I know a bit about. I think this is inevitable if you teach long enough and I even think it is desirable and useful in terms of development.  You got to start somewhere, homes. Also, if admin asks you to teach a course I feel it is usually a good idea to agree to do it, right?

As related to the update above, my friend got back to me immediately and we had an interesting chat on Facebook about this as well as some related issues like the global perception of English teachers in Korea. “Hi, nice to meet you all. I have never kissed anyone before. Any tips on threesomes?” was his quip in reference to his perceptions of the teachers making the kinds of posts we are talking about. My takeaway from this, aside from my loud laughter in a public space, was the idea teachers need to walk before they can run. Yet, I am still thinking teachers need to continually gain new experiences if they want to keep improving.

Adding to my list of issues he has with these type of Facebook posts my friend added, “It’s also about the screening process for job candidates.” I think this is a good point and I think there is a lot to it as well.  Before reading this I was thinking more in terms of what to do with instructors who have already been hired but I think this is a key. If you know potential hirees will be teaching academic writing it might behoove you to hire teachers who can do this.

Sorry, but I can’t help but keep coming back to issues related to race and native speakers. If people are hired mostly based on factors other than teaching skills it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if their teaching is not up to snuff. 

My friend added to the list of his problems with these types of posts by saying “And what about the lack of training and professional development for new hires? The should pay me to come in and talk to them for a few hours.” [Those interested in hiring my friend for a workshop, presentation, or seminar series can send me an email and I will get you in touch! I will even waive my customary 10% finder’s fee if you mention this blog post.] He went on to talk about the perceptions of teachers and professionals in this field and country and what goes into hiring them.

I like this idea about training and development and I believe there is more to consider here. I wonder what sort of training and development would be most beneficial to help these teachers in need. My intention in writing this post was to somewhat defend or at least try to understand these instructors but one part of me can’t help but wonder if they are asking the wrong questions and just looking for quick fixes. Asking for materials this time will give materials this time but I am not sure it how helpful it will be next time when another new class is suddenly and inevitably thrown in their direction. I think what I am suggesting is more skills and training in curriculum development could be beneficial across the board in such situations. Or there could be something about knowing exactly what you don’t know and relating this to what you need to know in order to teach as well as possible. 

Thinking more deeply about this I get the sense my friend sees such posts on Facebook groups as symbolizing a lack of professionalism. Maybe as a foreign university instructor in Korea he doesn’t want to lumped in together with people teaching classes they are seemingly not capable of teaching? For whatever reason this connection doesn’t really bug me at all. I don’t feel my professional reputation is at stake when people in the country I happen to live in are asking for help and advice teaching classes they have not taught before. Longtime readers of this blog will know I think about accountants and plumbers a lot. Would an accountant care if a firm across town hired someone not quite ready for the job? Would a plumber be overly concerned with rivals doing jobs they’d not yet performed?  Maybe so, and maybe these comparisons are far from apt as I am really just wondering aloud here.

Regarding this Facebook posting phenomena, there might be more than meets the eye. Perhaps rather than a lack of professionalism these posts show a lack of suitable and helpful networks and communities of practice rather than a lack of professionalism. I mean, I think more experienced teachers might have their go-to people for certain issues and wouldn’t feel the need to publicly seek out help from virtual strangers. Pun intended. Perhaps these posts are examples of teachers just looking for a pat on the back and an empathetic note saying, “I have been there too, you will be fine, I am sure.” Maybe they are looking to make connections with educators in similar (and new to them) contexts. Maybe they feel relatively confident but write the posts in a humble manner so as to garner as many responses as possible. I realize these maybes are not super likely but I also think they, along with other maybes, could be worth considering.

I know as well as anyone that certain things are going to bother each of us and this is something which doesn’t annoy me or even appear on my annoyance radar. For what it is worth, I have enjoyed writing this post and thinking about this topic. Special thanks to my friend for getting this conversation started and for keeping it going throughout the process of writing this post. I will give the last word to my potentially grumpy friend, “I am all for teachers posting and trying to get better, it’s when they post in the hope of becoming adequate that I become grumpy.” Thoughts, rebuttals, agreements, disagreements and requests for help very welcome.

Yeajin’s EFL World

I’d like to tell you about one student of mine, just #onestudent. She is a 22 year old first semester student in the Graduate School of International Studies at the university I am currently employed at in the modern capital of South Korea, Seoul.

The student, Yeajin, told me she is enjoying most of her classes and her life in graduate school. She said some classes are challenging but the workload is manageable. She is not really sure what she wants to do when she finishes grad school but is thinking about working in an NGO or government agency. From my observations she is a very polite and sweet young woman. She seems hardworking and curious. My impression is that she is bright and thoughtful.  She is not extremely outgoing or outspoken but will freely share her thoughts when asked. She is a pleasure to teach. I might be kidding myself but it seems to me that she looks more and more comfortable speaking at length in English every week I see her.

I am not about to take any of the credit for this, though. She is working hard and she has so much English around her and she uses English every day in her life and in other courses. She is taking courses like Global Economics and East Asian Security in English. In her coursework she has classmates from all over the world. She is enrolled in my course called International Discussion, which is a spoken fluency focused course talking about issues of concern to students like Yeajin and her classmates. As above, I think she is making great progress each week. I also think she started out in a good place for these improvements.

I am not an expert on such things but in terms of speaking I think she’d be in the 6.5-7.5 range on IELTS. I am pretty sure her TOEIC score will be above 900 soon if it is not already. I guess she’d have to be nearing in on C1. I think her TOEFL score is just on the verge of being high enough for her to able to study in US university without restrictions. I don’t mean to imply that these mean much of anything (or convey much of anything for that matter) but just want to give you, dear reader, an idea of this student’s level. She can handle complicated discussions and makes her points clearly. Her pace when speaking is not so fast but she is very good when she gets going.  It does not require “undue effort” from a listener to follow what she is saying. Mistakes are minor and outright errors are rare. In short, it is easy to understand what she is saying. She is a strong user of English.

I am not sure if anything I have said here sounds very much out of the ordinary or is very exciting. Maybe her English abilities sound right in line with expectations for a student in an English medium graduate program. You might even be wondering why I told you all this, and I am not 100% sure either.

I guess this is where I should mention that Yeajin has never left Korea and is from the most sparsely populated and rural province.

I would say she is higher than her average peer in the grad school in terms of communicative competence even though she is in her first semester. In the first few weeks I found myself wondering exactly why she was so strong at English. So, I asked her. I might have said something like, “Sorry for this strange and direct question but why are you so good at English?” She seemed a bit surprised but calmly answered that she has always liked English and that she reads in English a fair amount (outside and previously to grad school work) and watches lots of TV and movies from the US. She also said some of her high school classes (like science and history) were in English as her school was designated as an international/foreign language school (this not the type with mostly international students, as more than 85% of her high school classmates were Korean). Accordingly, she had more hours of English than the average high school student. Now, she has lots of non-Korean classmates and has weekly private lessons focused on TOEFL with a native (please note the lack of scare quotes here) English speaking teacher.

Another reason I shared this is because I am sick of people talking about how there is such a massive dearth of English in Korea apart from the occasional English class. I am, of course willing to admit that Yeajin is not a typical student but I am not sure if the experts realize that students like her exist. Please kindly note the lack of  scare quotes on the word experts. This is the result of a long and contentious internal monologue.

Where were we? Oh yes, EFL. Korea is an EFL situation. It seems to me so many people harp on about Korea being an EFL country or an outer circle situation they fail to see the whole nuanced picture. There is English out there. Just as an example, the young lady next to me in this coffee shop in Itaewon as I write this has just read more than half of a graded reader in the time it took me to aggressively but gently tap out these words. In past rants posts I have expressed my confusion about terms like ESL and EFL and have also offered up some newer categories that might be more accurate and telling. What is my point? Maybe something about relying on labels like EFL too much. Yeah, that and not assuming students need to go abroad to improve their English or to have access to English.

English Teaching Knowledge

There are a good many ideas out there about what it takes to be a good English teacher and I’d like to share some of them here.
How can anyone just point out the important factors in teaching English in just a few hundred words?
I’m not sure if this can be done as I intended it to be but I will try.
Student-centered learning is key. Many T’s are all about the TTT (teacher talking time) which should be reduced. Aim for 20%.
I+1  is also an incredibly important factor. We need to make sure all our lessons are pitched at this level.
Students work better when their affective filters are reduced. This is something teachers need to be concerned with.
Teachers also need to be sure they are empowering students. Students work better and learn more when they are empowered.
Of course, just doing the above is not enough. Lessons need to be planned appropriately. Proper scaffolding at each stage!
The stages of the lesson need to follow the correct frameworks and have the interaction appropriately planned for each section.
All the above is important but doesn’t really mean anything if we are not eliciting creativity from students, which we should do.
Let’s be clear, in the 21st century it is the responsibility of teachers of all subjects to foster creativity in all students.
But we need to be sure to consider students’ different learning styles and multiple intelligences or it will all be for naught.
Unless we create lessons that match the unique needs of all our learners we will be wasting our time and theirs.
Learners are all different. Our lessons need to match their styles and intelligences plus wants and needs and moods and more.
Learner’s needs must be considered and we must also ensure that we are developing their critical thinking skills. This is a must.
Students need to be given tools to succeed in the modern era. We should remember most of our students are digital natives.
However we do it, as teachers we need to be sure that we do and remember everything listed above and make them a priority.
I hope and believe I have offered some useful ideas and starting points here. 
T
hough, if all the above fails you can just flip the classroom or employ gamification.