Tagged: advice

A letter to Korean English teachers

Hi there,

First of all, thanks for reading this. Hopefully I will make it worth taking the time out of your busy schedule. Secondly, I’d like to apologize. You see, I judged you before I ever even knew you.  I used to work in a language school attached to a university. I mostly had college students and I have to say that many were woefully unprepared for anything involving communication in English. I was shocked that students that received good test scores (and entered good universities) could not really utter a sentence in English. One day I was ranting about this and a friend of mine who was a teacher trainer got a bit angry and told me that I didn’t understand your situation or the reality that you face. Just two years later I started to work as a teacher trainer and I got to understand things a bit better. I certainly cannot say that I am an expert but I have logged many hours on and offline with Korean English teachers talking and thinking about teaching . Based on these conversations and my experiences training I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share with you. I should also apologize for giving you advice and suggestions that you might not want or need. Again, I am not really an expert. I am just a teacher who has observed a lot and thought a lot about these issues and has some thoughts to share. I am very sensitive to the idea of  “outsiders” coming in and giving all sorts of unwanted advice. My sincere intention is not to do that but just to give you some things to think about and share my perspective.

To begin, I wanted to talk about the whole “native speaker” thing. Look, most of you are not going to sound like me. Ever. This is totally fine. I don’t want to discourage you from studying or trying to improve. I just  think that speaking exactly like a “native speaker” is not a realistic or helpful goal. My thought is that if the majority of your students end up using English as well as you do you will have been a great success. This is to say that you are a great model. You have (to varying degrees) succeeded in learning English. How much better do you need to be at English to do your job better? How much better would you be at your job if you were suddenly a so-called “native speaker?” I really don’t know but I can tell you that one of the best lessons I have ever observed was from a teacher who was quite limited in her English. She set things up and let the students run with it. A good friend and fellow trainer once got me thinking by asking about the math abilities of the math teacher. Do they need to be award winners in algebra? I don’t think so. Do gym teachers all need to be former olympians or professional athletes? No, right? They just need to be good enough at their subject and good enough at teaching. But for some reason, it seems that English teachers here are often judged first by their accent and that their teaching really far down the list of what is evaluated. Not fair right? Well, perhaps the change has to start with you. What if you resisted the urge to judge other teachers by their speaking ability and accent?
(I have a whole lot to say about the whole “cult of the ‘native speaker’” thing and the problems that it causes but I will have to save that for another day.)

Another thing I have noticed is teachers often feeling bad  when they don’t teach communicatively. They don’t follow the “rules’ of CLT and feel guilty about this. Depending on your age, it is possible that you learned English entirely without CLT. So again, perhaps you are a good model. Listen, I am not necessarily a huge fan of Grammar Translation or AudioLingualism but it clearly works sometimes. Actually, that is not really my point. My point is that teaching is about decisions and you have to make the best decisions that you can based on your students and your classes and your experiences and your beliefs.  If you decide that a 45-minute lecture on the different uses of the present perfect is what you need to do** then I don’t think you need to feel bad about this decision. Your job as a teacher, in my view, is to make decisions. You will not always make the right decision and this is fine too. I think that if we keep learning from them it is great. So, what I am basically saying is that there is not much benefit in feeling guilty or beating yourself up for the decisions that you make.

I have friend that is a Korean English teacher and she once told me, “I really like the idea of doing a warmup activity but I just don’t have time for it.” I didn’t really know how to respond because, from my view, of course there is time if she really wants to make time. If she really believes that warmers are worthwhile and worth the time, I think she can make time. I don’t know her teaching situation exactly but I think that she takes attendance for a while at the start of class and I also think that she spends class time practicing for future “open classes.” Just cutting these two things would open up a whole range of possibilities. What I am saying is that instead of making excuses perhaps it is better to make tiny changes here and there, changes that are in accordance with your beliefs. If you actually think that warmers are a waste of time, then feel free not to do them but if you think they are useful don’t hide behind not enough time as an excuse for not doing them. I am, of course, not just talking about warmers here but anything that you say you want to do but make excuses about.

So far I have said, “I don’t think you need to worry about being a ‘native speaker’” and “I don’t think you need to beat yourself up for what you are not doing in class” and “I am not sure how helpful excuses are.”  Hopefully this sounds like a pretty positive message thus far. As I mention above, most of my experience with Korean teachers has been on training courses. One of the main things I have learned is that if course participants think “I am going to learn many things work in theory but not in practice” “Or I a not going to learn anything because the trainer doesn’t know my situation” they are always going to be right. If, however they think, “I am going to learn many things and I will have to choose which parts I can put into practice and how I will do so” they are also going to be right. I should also mention that if your training course “tells you the way” to teach they are probably full of shit not so good and you might consider asking for your money back, not  listening, complaining , or something else. What I want to say is to try and make the training course work for you rather than devoting your energy to working against it and finding reasons something won’t work.

I think this is getting a bit long so I will stop here. Perhaps the next time you find yourself making excuses about something you want to do in class but can’t you will think of this this letter. Perhaps you will think of this letter the next time you feel guilty for not using English more or better in your class. Perhaps you will think about how you can use new ideas rather than how they surely won’t be effective. Perhaps not. I don’t really now. I do know that I feel better after writing this. Thanks again for reading and comments of any sort are most welcome.

Sincerely yours,

**My firm belief is that a lecture about aspects of language to a room full of half-asleep students is not the best way to promote LEARNing but….I might be wrong.