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.
Hello and welcome.
How are you?
I am fine thank you.
Ok, please get comfortable.
Close your eyes.
Shit, wait, not yet. Open your eyes and read this. Keep your eyes open and read and then close them when I ask you to.
Oh gosh. This is complicated.
Let’s try this again, When I say “go” close your eyes and try to remember the last few suggestions you received. These can be related to teaching or general. Go!
(This is where you remember the suggestions you have received most recently.)
Are you back?
What were the suggestions?
Did you follow them?
Why? Why not?
If you are like me (and I suspect like many (most?) people) you probably didn’t follow them. Again, if you are like me you might have thanked the person but figured they didn’t really know the whole situation and thought about doing something else. Maybe you thought it was a good idea but immediately found problems with it and decided you probably wouldn’t be implementing it anytime soon. Maybe you didn’t even think you were talking about a problem that needed solving and were slightly taken aback at the unrequested suggestions.
Maybe you loved the suggestions and they changed your life. If so, my experience is different.
If you did follow the suggestions, I am guessing it is because you had already decided it was a problem or an issue worth solving and the suggestion fit nicely into that. I am guessing that you were already at a stage where you were ready for suggestions. Perhaps you were stuck and had gone as far along on this issue as you could without help from another.
Sometimes I find myself sharing what I think is a story or an interesting aspect of teaching or my context and the person I am talking to jumps in and just solves the problem for me. I (generally) do appreciate the help and care that it implies but in such situation I am typically not actually actively seeking out solutions. I am just sharing. Or maybe even venting. People venting tend not to want solutions, in my experience. I think they just want to be heard and understood. So, in these situations when I am just sharing or venting I find suggestions to be particularly grating. Again, maybe I am alone in this or maybe I am hyper aware of suggestions so they impact me more than they do others.
I have a friend and colleague who makes this distinction between seeking suggestions and venting very clear. If venting she will say, “I am just venting.” If she is listening to someone talk and it sounds like venting she will often clarify if it is venting or if it is a time for potential solutions. I love this question and I love the clarity that comes with it. I have not really employed this strategy very much but I think I’d like to. I can say that I am a much different (and probably better) listener when it’s clear I am just listening and connecting and not participating in a problem solving situation. Specifically, sometimes I find myself waiting to impart my ideas, drop knowledge bombs and dispense suggestions instead of fully listening. But, when I know this is not the time for this I can be a much more attentive listener.
I think I have been blessed working with colleagues like the one mentioned above. I must also give credit to another colleague who helped me see that my litany of suggestions and improvements for his sessions were not necessarily what he was looking for all the time. It has been very helpful for me and I have learned a great deal. I also think it sometimes makes such communication with people who don’t follow this line of thinking more difficult and surprising. I’d rather not give examples examples where I felt wronged or overly suggested upon so I will just make one up. Here I go…This one time, I was telling a teaching friend about a student that I have and how it was a challenge for me to work with her. It was a stressful experience for me and I don’t think I had handled things with this student very well. I acted a lot more emotionally than I would have liked. I know that my actions and reactions were not perfect. Anyway, before hearing the full story my friend had a list of things I could and *should have done. I was fully ready to admit that I hadn’t handled things well but I wasn’t really interested in hearing what I’d done wrong (partially because I was already aware of it). I was also not really interested in hearing ways to manage and repair things with that student either. I guess I was just hoping to be heard and empathized with. When I got criticism and suggestions for future actions I didn’t get any of what I was looking for and more than enough of what I was not looking for. Frustration set in and I thought to myself, “This conversation is not going well for me” and wondered how I could avoid such situations with this friend in the future.
I don’t think it is really fair of me to blame my friend who was giving out the suggestions. I think he was sincerely just trying to help. Maybe he was trying to help in accordance with the way he thought he was helped in the past. He was also doing what is pretty much a normal thing in the world. Hear a problem, share a solution. I think this is pretty normal in the world and surely in the teaching world. I certainly don’t want to blame my friend for operating in what is a completely normal and usual way. If anything, I am more tempted to think about ways to “own” such conversations in the future and be clear about when and if I am seeking suggestions (and when I am not). Also, unfortunately, I wondered if it was worth it to share such things with this friend and thought I would be careful about sharing things that could be construed as a request for suggestions.
It seems to me that the type of suggestions we typically get might be along the lines of “What I would do if I were the teacher” or What you *should be doing.” No thanks. Subconscious or not, I think these are the suggestions that are more likely to be disregarded by the listener. Personally, as a listener, I am much more comfortable hearing about what another teacher does and their impressions of it, rather than as a suggestion or a template for me to use.
The other thing that comes to mind when I think about suggestions for teachers is that it sort of cuts out the reflective process. Jumping straight to an action point without a clear picture of what happened or potential interpretations of it or other analysis on the issue strikes me as a very quick jump and sort of circumvents reflection. Also, I feel like if I come up with an action plan I am much more likely to follow this than someone foisted on me by another.
Personally, (in addition to the aforementioned venting or trying to connect) I might share some story or challenge related to teaching to get a fresh perspective on it, but that doesn’t mean I am looking for “the answer” from my interlocutor on that particular day. It might be arrogance on my part but I think I am much more likely to find a suitable answer or plan on my own but I do welcome people helping me sort through my thoughts on the issue. I wonder if this is just me or if others feel the same way.
I’ll not add suggestions here in this post to deal with this problem of suggestions but I will share my hope that readers are a bit more aware of the next few suggestions they give out.
Thanks as always for reading and any comments are welcome.
After some vague and cryptic comments in this blog about my thoughts on “native speakers” a few people asked me what I really meant or think about this and wondered what the situation is in Korea. Thanks for the questions! I thought I’d start by sharing some (mostly) true stories that highlight some of the issues. Readers familiar with the ELT world in South Korea might not find them new or super interesting but hopefully they will give us something to think about while painting a picture for those that might be unfamiliar.
In my first job at a language school in Korea I was given the task of finding new teachers for the school. At first I found an African-American woman that was extremely qualified and very interested in coming to the school. She really impressed me in emails and I was certain she would be a good fit. My director said we should find someone else without giving me much of a reason. The next person I found was a recent graduate that happened to be Vietnamese-American. She gave me the impression that she was really intelligent, caring and adaptable (qualities I deemed essential for the position) but she was also promptly rejected. When pushed, the director admitted that both rejections were because of race. I stopped trying to help him out and those that were eventually hired (a white Canadian couple hired through a recruiter) were generally disastrous for both the business and the students. You might say that this story is more about race and racism but I would say that race is inherently tied into ideas of “native speakers.”
In my work as a teacher trainer I have worked with some amazing Korean English teachers. I will always remember the conversation I had in 2009 with Ms. Park (not her real name). She is a dynamic, reflective, bright, hardworking, and insightful teacher. She is an extremely strong English speaker who has no problem conveying extremely complicated thoughts in English and she is also adept with classroom English. One day during a break we were talking about the importance of speaking English as related to being a good teacher and she shared a story with me. She told me that, despite all the effort and improvement she made with her English, she simply acts as a disciplinarian in the classes that she shares with the “native speaker” at her school. She said she never plans lessons or does much of anything except make sure that the students are listening when the “native speaker” teaches. This is a woman with an MA in the field, excellent English skills, 15 years’ experience, and a desire to teach and improve who has been relegated to this role.
A Canadian friend of mine has an MA in Applied Linguistics and is quite the language and grammar nerd. I think he might even do grammar exercises for fun. I know that he has a lot more patience for grammar books and such things than I do. Anyway, he teaches in a high school and has been told numerous times that he is only permitted to teach conversation. It seems that his main role is to to show up and be a “native speaker ” and by doing so to get students accustomed to interacting with “native speakers.” All his training, expertise and nerdiness are wasted by the perception that he cannot teach grammar because he is a “native speaker.” Similar stories of “native teachers” only being allowed to play games or forced to act as human tape recorders abound.
Back when I first came to Korea there was a dude in the city I lived in. Not only was he sort of a jerk but he was also sort of a “fraud” as a “native speaker.” His English was generally ok but he often made simple mistakes while communicating in English. He was a white guy with an American passport that was born in a country that rhymes with Bechoslovakia. He lived there till he was about 12 and some tricky English points never fully seeped in. Anyway, because he had the American passport he was hired as a “native speaker.” I don’t mean to suggest that people who don’t speak English perfectly can’t be great teachers (see Story 2 above). My sense at the time was that he was not a very good teacher mostly based on the condescending way he talked about co-teachers and what I perceived as a lack of desire to improve as a teacher or help students improve. I fully believe that his students were disadvantaged by the fact that they were given such a teacher.
From my view, all these stories are symptoms of the policies for and perceptions about “native speakers” in South Korea. The official immigration policy in South Korea for “native speakers” is that in order to be hired as a “native” English teacher one must have a BA and have a passport from one of the 7
so-called listed English Speaking countries. It is, of course, very easy to bash government policies but I also think that “native speakerism” and the “cult of the native speaker” are also to blame for the above stories. Many parents and students believe that the best and only way to improve is to have a “native speaking” teacher. Many language schools believe that the best way to make money is by having (white) “native speakers.” Many teachers believe that just being a “native speaker” is enough to justify their place in the classroom.
I realize that this is an emotionally charged and potentially controversial issue. I also realize that this is pretty much a simplification of very many complicated issues. I welcome any polite and respectful disagreements and comments.
Update 1 (of many?) I fully realize that it might be strange for a white American male who was hired one month out of college with just a BA in History to be railing against a system that makes such things possible.
(Thanks to the anonymous friend that reminded me I wanted to be sure to mention something about this.
Update 1a A good friend and colleague suggested that Update 1 is useless and detracts from my points…because just because I happen to be what I happen to be doesn’t limit my ability to raise questions or make points. I thank this person for this insight and will keep it mind.
Update 2 It seems that this is a common thing in places other than just South Korea. Please see the comments for more on this.