It’s not me, it’s you (Or: Why I’m no longer involved with #KOTESOL)

June  27th, 2014–
I wrote this about a year ago and finally decided to share it now (with some minor edits mostly just to account for the passage of time) after some encouragement and pushing from a few people who read it when I first wrote it. Considering the post was written so long ago perhaps things in the organization have already changed for the better. I’d be very happy if this were the case. 

Before I start, I’d like to be clear what this post/page is not.

  • It is not an attack on any specific individual or even specific group of people.
  • It is not a campaign speech/post or request to be more involved or anything like that. I have no interest in getting more involved with KOTESOL. That is sort of my point. I want no involvement, not more.
  • It is not a request for pity.
  • It is not a ploy for attention.
  • It’s not really sour grapes. I am happy enough with how things went and I happily left on my own terms.
  • It is not really an invitation to argue.
    (Though other view points are most certainly welcome, this post is ultimately about me and my decision)
  • It is not a compilation of solutions to the problems that I believe I have encountered.
  • It is not (intended as) any sort of final bridge burning (though I realize perhaps some feathers might be ruffled)

Hello, my name is Mike and from early 2011 to 2013 I  was heavily involved with KOTESOL. I mean really heavily. I was an Associate Editor of The English Connection (TEC) quarterly magazine as well as a co-facilitator (and co-founder) of the Reflective Practice Special Interest Group (RP-SIG). In calendar year 2013 I relinquished both roles and it would not be an exaggeration to say I felt a burden was lifted off my shoulders both times I stepped aside and stepped further away from KOTESOL.

Before I dig into the reasons related to the decision to not be involved in KOTESOL I must mention that I am grateful for the opportunities and the faith that people showed in me. I should also mention that the people I directly worked with in the roles I mentioned were lovely and great to work with. I am most certainly not talking about them. I am talking more about the overall culture of the organization. Back to the opportunities, these were great opportunities and I learned a lot and had new experiences and perhaps even more importantly I got to meet great and inspiring people. I must also mention that there are lots of people that proving me wrong by being innovative, passionate and professional. Yet, even at the end of my time in these roles the feeling was much more one of relief than any other emotion.

If I had to choose the biggest relief, it is that I no longer have to spend my time choosing words carefully on emails to people that often haven’t done the same. To me it is sort of asymmetrical warfare to force myself to (ahem mostly) mind my manners when writing to someone who hasn’t, can’t, or chooses not to. I can’t say that I have always modeled communication I would be proud of but I can say that I usually tried. It often took a lot out of me and forced me to spend emotional energy and time on responding and I think this energy could have been better spent elsewhere. I mentioned what I saw as the communication problems on the KOTESOL Facebook page here so I won’t rehash it here and now but perhaps this lack of communication skills on the Facebook page is endemic to the organization as a whole.

Another thing that comes to mind when I think about my decision is how I am not entirely sure how closely my goals and beliefs align with those of KOTESOL. Actually to be fair, I am not so sure that KOTESOL as an organization  is totally sure of its goals and vision. Perhaps that is part of the problem. It is one thing to say the mission statement is, “To promote scholarship, disseminate information, and facilitate cross-cultural understanding among persons concerned with teaching and learning of English in Korea” and quite another to articulate how best to go about doing so. I can’t say for sure but it seems to me that there is no clear agreement on what this mission means or entails and I think this leads to a lot of problems.

Anyone vaguely familiar with KOTESOL will know that there has been a lot of infighting and political imbroglios over the last few years. I think working with others with a lack of clarity in terms of rules, roles and expectation can be tricky. I also have a theory that teachers are not always the easiest to deal with, as they are the masters’ of their own domains (this is not a Seinfeld reference) in their classes and it can be tough to give up that autonomy for the sake of a group. I might be talking nonsense here but this is a thought that comes to mind. One thing to consider is that such teaching organizations seem to work in other countries which might make my point moot. I don’t know. Is there something about Korea and teachers in Korea that make it so?

Related to the mission I can’t help but wonder if maybe the ideas behind KOTESOL are a bit outdated and antiquated. I don’t know. It was started in what was pretty much a pre-internet era, an era were the myth of the native speaker was alive and well. I am not certain the organization has changed with the times.

Maybe it doesn’t want to or maybe it can’t.

This is where you might be thinking to yourself that I’m being too critical and that KOTESOL is a success. You might point to the numbers or members or the number of people that attend the International Conference each year. Those might be valid stats and valid points but this post is about why I am no longer involved. I mostly just felt it was a toxic environment that I didn’t want to shorten my life by becoming more involved with. I think I have already addressed the communication practices that I found annoying and stressful.

What else is there to say?

A word that always comes to mind when I think about KOTESOL is fiefdoms. Petty fiefdoms. Petty fiefdoms where people are more interested in their fiefdom and their control of their aspect of things rather than the greater good for the organization (let alone the field or students) as a whole. It is possible that I misread this but it seemed to me that people were often making decisions with their role or their future in the organization, instead of what is actually good or right for the organization in mind.

Related to the fiefdoms aspect might be cliquishness. A dear friend once remarked to me that if you want to present or be involved with KOTESOL you need to learn “the secret handshake.” While I am not sure such a handshake exists I know there is a bit of an “old boy network” in terms of who gets offered to do what. I think there is an element of reason here as it truly does make sense to work with people you know and trust. I think this makes sense to a point and then it stops making sense as the choices and networks become all the more incestuous and innovation suffers.

I am loathe to use the word “professionalism” because I don’t really know what it means to you or me or anyone. So, let’s just say that I was amazed at people not doing the basic things to what I would consider a reasonable level. Yes it is volunteer organization. I get that. I fully understand. I don’t think that is a reasonable shield at all times. People obviously think they are getting something out of volunteering (like a title or a line on their resume) so if they can’t do what they said they were going to do, what they volunteered to do, it is probably time to step aside. If not enough people volunteer then the organization needs to take a look at how things are going and what is truly essential. From my perspective it doesn’t mean that the same people should volunteer/run for numerous posts and do less than they promised to do. Call me old-fashioned or overly critical but I think people should at least do what they say they are going to do. I don’t think that is too much to ask.

I don’t know, maybe it is just me. Maybe things have changed (there are tons of professional development opportunities around online), or maybe I have changed (want to try new things) but I still can’t shake the feeling the issue is not me. Lack of communication skills, an unclear or backward looking mindset, the prevalence of fiefdoms, and a lack of people doing what they promised is enough for me to want some distance. I wrote above that I want no involvement in the organization. Of course I reserve the right to change my mind, but this would likely only happen if I were to somehow witness a less broken (fixed?) organization. I won’t be holding my breath, but will rather be focusing my finite energies on other things. Thanks for reading and I hope this was more than just a bit of cathartic writing for me and that you were able to take something away from it (other than me being a sensitive uppity cynic).



Postscript: I will becoming a member in the next month or so, mostly because I must in order to present at the upcoming KOTESOL International Conference in early October this year. On a semi-related note, I feel a bit hypocritical to mention the “secret handshake” when I have undoubtedly benefited from it. 



  1. Rob Dickey

    Unfortunately there is more than a grain of truth in this post (and we all know that a mere grain of sand in a shoe can be irritating, creating blisters, damagingg shoes, etc. But I digress.)

    I have been accused of being an ultimate insider in KOTESOL in the past, though not so inside now (my choice).

    I would like to address only one of the issues here. Because I agree, but with an explanation.

    (and besids, it’labeled not a discussion piece)

    Communications and Manners.

    Many folks get to KOTESOL tasks (including emails to others) only at the end of long days. Patience and decorum are at an ebb. When explaining the Why for the Nteenth time, positivity can lapse. That’s not fair to those who ask questions or make suggestions with earnestness and sincerity. It’s just fact. Decorum takes more time and braincells.

    I think there aren’t enough ‘Thank yous’ and ‘Well dones’ offered to make up for the late night curt ‘We tried that befores’ and ‘This was discussed several times befores’.

    The problem won’t go away, but KOTESOL (including myself when I’m involed) can do better.

  2. mikecorea

    Thanks very much for the comments Rob. I enjoyed them and found them insightful. I think part of what I was getting at in the post is that maybe people in Kotesol underrate the importance of decorum?

    Thinking back to the conference last year, a friend felt snapped at (by yes, a volunteer) when he was asking a question about where to go (when it was quite obviously confusing) and thought “screw this place I don’t need to spend my hard earned money to come here and be snapped at”

    Personally I have received some emails and thought the sender failed at everything except ticking me off.

    I think your explanation is valid. I really do. Yet I still think part of doing such work with humans (even when not paid to do so) necessarily requires not alienating others by being a total jerk. I think it is part of the job.

    I find myself wondering how many people have been alienated by not adhering to this principle. Maybe by valuing efficiency or something else over communication and support lots of potential members and leaders have decided it not the right place for them.

    I thank you very much for reading and commenting. Very much appreciated.

  3. Pingback: My late and short K0TESOL post | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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