Tagged: Korea

A Conversation with Michael Free

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. 


One of these Michaels is Michael Free.

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.


A shot of the East Sea from the hills in Geojin-eup (pop. 8000).

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.”


Lawrence Fishburne, as a zapped Mr. Clean

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.”


Col. Kurtz, with his copy of “Big Questions in ELT.”

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. 


help with co-teaching

I would usually (if anything) put this sort of thing in the “Workshop materials” section of my blog (right there in the middle of the menu bar) but this time I figured I’d share it here. This main reason for this decision is my assumption more people would read it as a blog post instead of a page. Since I am doing this workshop tomorrow, I thought it would be fun to see if anyone had any advice or other problems to add. I will be sure to check for comments all day Sunday November 9th, 2014.  

I am not sure how much explanation is needed for these materials. Ha. I am not even sure exactly how (or even if!) I will use them but I imagine there is something about passing them around the room and changing roles as advice giver and advice receiver.  




1) Dear co-teaching experts,

I need your help. I really want to change up my co-teaching approaches and try something different but I am not sure how to talk to my co-teacher about this. I think she might be pretty stuck into doing things the same way every time. I think I’d just like to experiment a little bit and try some new strategies. What shall I do? Thanks in advance for your help.

Bored in Boringdong

2) Dear co-teaching experts,

Hi! I am experiencing a problem with my co-teacher and I just don’t know what to do. Sometimes, well actually it is quite often, when I ask a question in class my co-teacher answers it! I guess he thinks he is trying to help but it is not really helpful at all for me because things I expected to take 10 minutes end up taking 3 minutes and then I am suddenly stuck for materials and activities. Of course the timing is a problem but the other problem is that students are somewhat robbed of the experience of trying to answer my questions. I am trying to elicit answer and activate schemas and all the things I am supposed to do as a good teacher. I don’t feel comfortable to confront him about this because I think it might hurt his feelings or cause a loss of face. What can I do? Any advice is appreciated!

Scared in Sueseong

3) Hello co-teaching experts,

I didn’t know where else to turn. I am writing to you about a problem I am having with my co-taught classes. My co-teacher and I get along very well and we have a great relationship. There is just one problem. My co-teacher often corrects me and gives me unsolicited feedback in the middle of class. It is so embarrassing! I am not sure I can take another day of this and I am afraid I might snap and cause our good relationship to fall apart. Any advice is requested.

Frustrated in Daegu

4) Co-Teaching Experts,

Please help me. I have a very small problem and I thought you could offer some advice. My problem is that I’d really like to try one of the 6 fantastic models of co-teaching I learned in an amazing workshop recently but I really cannot decide the right one for the right situation? What criteria should I use? What types of lessons are these models appropriate for? How do I know which model will be best for me? Which one is the best? How will I know? Please share some ideas with me and help me set some criteria for these decisions.

Enthusiastic in Seo-district

5) Dear co-teaching experts,

I have a sensitive issue and I need some help. I feel that my co-teacher does not treat me with respect. I feel like he is the main teacher and I am just a helper. I’d like to have a bigger role and do more to help the students but he seems happy enough to do 95% of the work. I don’t know how to approach him or what strategies to use to start the conversation but I’d really love to see a change here and to make a more balanced and hopefully productive classroom teaching situation. Please advise.

6) Hi experts on co-teaching,

I have a problem and need your help devising a strategy. You see, I am supposed to work as a co-teacher but I simply don’t have time to plan things properly. Ideally, I’d like to do team teaching with my co-teacher but I know this requires a lot of time upfront. What are some ways to make the maximum effect with a minimum of planning time? Also, do you have any advice on how to let my co-teacher know how busy I am without making it seem like I am avoiding him? I’d like to be a better co-teacher but I just don’t have time. Is there anything I can do in this situation?

Busy in Bokgu

7) Dear co-teaching experts,

I have a question. I am supposed to do co-teaching but I just don’t see the point in it all. It seems like a lot of extra effort without much payoff. I thought since you are the co-teaching experts you could fill me in on the benefits of this. What are the benefits? I am specifically interested in hearing the benefits for the students but I’d also like to hear the benefits for me as a teacher. If possible if you could tell me the benefits for me in terms of professional development as a teacher that would be great too. I hope you can help me see the advantages of co-teaching because right now I cannot see them at all.

Skeptical in Seoul

8) Hello co-teaching experts,

Everything I read about co-teaching says that one of the most important things I need to do is develop rapport with my co-teacher. I know what this word means but I honesty have no idea about how to go about doing this. Do you have any suggestions for me? My co-teacher is a Korean teacher of English and I’d really like to know if there are any ways that are generally good. I, of course, realize that everyone is different but I’d just like some tips to get me started. I’d like to develop a good relationship but I don’t think I know where to start. Please tell me your best hints.

Thank you,
Seeking jeong in Jung-Gu

9) Dear co-teaching experts,

I keep seeing and hearing this word “rapport” in everything I read about co-teaching. I know what this word means but I honesty have no idea about how to go about doing this. Do you have any suggestions for me? My co-teacher is a foreigner. A native speaker from _____. I’d really like to know if there are any ways that are generally good to develop rapport with native speakers. I, of course, realize that everyone is different and we are all our own individuals but I’d just like some tips to get me started. I’d like to develop a good relationship but I don’t think I know where to start. Please tell me your best hints.

Thank you,
Looking for Rapport

10) Dear co-teaching experts,

How are you? Things with me are generally great. I love my job. The only problem is that I don’t really know how to work well with a co-teacher. She is a nice person and is a hard worker and she seems to be trying to be a good teacher. The problem is that I don’t know when to intervene and help. Sometimes I think I cause a problem by not helping when he seems to want or need it. Other times I help when he looks to need it but he gets upset with this. I am just trying to help him and the students. I think the problem is that I am very much accustomed to doing everything for the students so I always do the same thing even if there is another teacher in the room. I can’t figure out the right moments to help and the right moments to relax. I am not sure exactly what my question is, co-teaching experts. Please let me know what you think about this situation and what I can do and what I can do with my co-teacher to solve this problem.

Intervening in Ilsan

11) Dear co-teaching experts,

I heard in a recent workshop that “One Teach, One Observe” is a good way to co-teach. This sounds interesting to me and I can imagine it being valuable. The problem is that I don’t know what to look for in the observations, and I don’t know what to ask my co-teacher to observe when I am teaching. Do you have any suggestions for this to get us started? I am really at a loss. Books or any tips at all will be received gratefully.


The mystery of the continually late training course participants

I was so pissed off. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand it. How could they be so rude? There I was, busting my ass to make the sessions as good as I possibly could and there they were continually sauntering in late and turning 10 minute breaks into 20 minute bonding sessions. I sat there at the front of the room in despair, wondering what I was doing with my life.

I had recently returned to Korea to work on this teacher training course. I came from the US after spending a nice time with my family. In fact, I cut the family visit short to come train these teachers. These ungrateful teachers who didn’t respect me or the hard work I’d put and was putting into the sessions for them. It was all very defeating and frustrating.

It was defeating, frustrating, and confusing. Koreans are supposed to be diligent.Koreans are supposed to be value education. They are supposed to respect authority. How could they so easily and happily flout the rules like this?

It was all the more strange to me to see the participants be friendly, productive, active, eager (and all one would want from a group of teachers) during the sessions themselves. I’ll never forget a discussion I had with with one participant who remarked this was the best course she’d ever experienced and said it was much better than the one she’d taken last year. When I pushed for details I discovered her training course the previous year was more like simply English practice with an inexperienced teacher who happened to be white and a native speaker. I was pleased with her observation and disclosure but it didn’t help me solve the mystery of the continually late participants.

Their lateness ate away at me day by day. Standing at the front of the room ready to go but forced to watch people slowly file in was killing me. The waiting was the worst. It was slowly destroying my soul each minute. What about the children? Every minute we wasted was another missed opportunity for these teachers to capture my wisdom and then use it back at school with their students and peers. I was ready to change the world, only if they’d let me and only if they could be punctual.

I’d been planning this course for 6 months. I’d been teacher training for a whole 6 months. I had a CELTA! How could they disrespect me so blatantly? I couldn’t imagine it was anything but rudeness and arrogance. I questioned my choice to be there and wondered if maybe teacher training in Korea with in-service teachers was not for me.

I wasn’t sure what I could do to get out of this terrible situation that repeated itself thrice daily. I decide to suppress my rage and hurt and just talk to the participants. After all, they were teachers who have classes of their own. I thought maybe they could relate to what I was feeling. I tried not to blame. I calmly explained that I was ready to go on the hour and I’d really appreciate it if we could all start at the same time. I mentioned how I’d ensure there plenty of breaks but starting on time was important to me. I told them for me it was a matter of efficiency and I prefer not to keep people waiting or to wait myself when I am ready to go and I’d much prefer to follow the official starting times. The participants listened with interest. One person mentioned she had no idea I was ready to go at the scheduled times and another said she thought I preferred to start a bit later. Nobody seemed to have had any sense it was so important to me.

After this 2 minute talk everyone was on time every time.

Through this experience, I felt like I’d learned a few valuable lessons. As I am wont to do, I’ll let you,  dear reader, take and make your own lessons from this story if you wish. Thanks for reading. Recent experiences blogging tell me I should state I don’t actually believe much of what I wrote above and I don’t think I was very reasonable till end of the tale. Exaggerations might have occurred. A tongue might have been firmly  in cheek while writing certain parts of this.


As luck would have it, I have a presentation/workshop coming up this Friday. The title is Cultural Explorations for Teachers: Beyond Confucianism and Excuses and this story might even get mentioned. Details on the workshop and event are here.