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Impressions of teaching Englishin small­town Korea
Impressions of teaching Englishin small­town Korea
  Date: 2009-07-18 23:44     View: 3011  


Impressions of teaching English in small­town Korea (2007 Essay contest)


                                                    Corne, Lucy

 Cheongyang Middle School (Chungnam)



When I embarked in my Korean adventure I wasn’t a rookie fresh out of university. I had five years’ teaching experience in Spain and travels across every continent under my belt. So it came as something of a surprise to find myself suffering from a prima facie case of culture shock on arrival. Now, we were launched right into the madness. On collecting us from a bus stop in late­night Daejeon our recruiter took us straight to a bar and primed us with rice wine, soju and beondegi ? the silkworm larvae favoured as a healthy snack by Korean kids. Of course, just because something is healthy doesn’t mean it tastes good…


We quickly learnt some of Korea’s most important cultural rules ? those surrounding the institution of drinking! Never had late night beers been so complicated, what with ensuring you keep other people’s drinks topped up, that they tend to yours and making sure your glass stays lower than that of your superiors during a toast. The first thing to strike me about Korea, other than the crazy amounts of neon lighting, is how much traditional culture they try to keep alive. There are so many customs to observe it can be a little daunting to a newcomer and getting the hang of the many cultural quirks is the most difficult part of fitting in, particularly with fellow teachers at school.

Of course, many of the rules are easy to remember ? I’m quite sure I’ll still be bowing to my elders long after I’ve left Korea and will never forget how to use chopsticks, though it took a few weeks and lots of laughter from colleagues and students before I could eat my school lunch confidently. However, while I work in an average state school, many aspects of daily life are quite different to what I remember form my long­gone school days. Every 45 minutes the start of a new class is heralded with a musical jingle far more soothing than the harsh fire station type bell common in British schools. More recently our new loudspeaker system belts out random extracts of classical music at the start and end of each period, inciting the students to leap out of their chairs and march around the classroom as class finishes!! Often, five minutes after the bell marks the start of the next lesson, you join the milling of teachers heading to class only to discover that for some reason that no­one can actually explain, your class has been swapped or cancelled. Sometimes the start times of every period have been mysteriously altered, other days lunch is ridiculously early. You really just have to go to work with an open mind, ready to teach all of your lessons in one day or sit for hours staring at your computer screen without a single class to take!


Another odd aspect of Korean life, particularly in a town as small as Cheongyang (population 12,000) is your new status as a celebrity! This starts at school where every student screams ‘hiiiiii’ and waves or kids follow you en masse around the town. At local festivals you’ll find yourself the centre of attention, with untold numbers of strangers wanting to use a whole roll of film to fill their photo albums with shots of foreign people they’ve never met! I have to admit that this is one of my favourite aspects of Korean life ? I can’t understand why celebrities complain about the paparazzi following them.


Back at school the biggest problem is undoubtedly the language barrier. I’ve found the staff at my school to be nothing but welcoming and although most only speak a few words of English, they’ll always give me a big smile and maybe a greeting in my mother tongue. In turn I’ve tried to learn a little Korean, but although I took classes for a while I haven’t managed to master much more than ‘hello’, ‘nice to meet you’, ‘delicious’, ‘I don’t like rice cake’ and ‘just a little for me please’ ? the essentials for surviving in an office where unusual foods are constantly circulating. However, not understanding the language can often make you feel rather lonely and left out. You always have your co teachers to talk to, but when a large group gathers to laugh and joke together, it can make you long for another native English speaker to gossip with. I tend to retreat to the safety of my laptop, plugging in the headphones for another dose of iTunes.


So once you’ve settled in and begun to understand the weird ways of Korean daily life, the real challenge begins ? teaching 30 or so kids to speak a language as foreign from their own as is possible. Now I’m a big fan of the EPIK programme and Korea’s aim to get a native teacher in every school across the country. English is now an essential language both for business and tourism and of course the best way to learn is from a native teacher. The budget for education in general in Korea and for native teachers specifically is quite astounding. I’m sure average state schools in England don’t have a huge screen TV in every classroom for example.


Of course the programme is not perfect, but I feel that with a few nips and tucks here and there, it could be altogether more effective. First of all, it’s great to give unqualified or inexperienced teachers a shot at a decent teaching job and I’m sure many teaching careers have been launched in South Korea. However, I feel that the orientation period could be used more effectively to give these new teachers a better grounding for their first year. I thoroughly enjoyed the orientation week, but found it most useful as a way to meet a great group of friends in a foreign land, rather than a solid foundation for a new career. I’m quite sure that had I been a newcomer to the world of ESL I would have felt equally as daunted at the end of the orientation week as when I left my home country. What really needs to be focused on are input sessions that bombard new teachers with ideas for activities and games. We only had one session that dealt with ‘how to teach’, but while this lecture was interesting and informative, for someone who hasn’t completed a TEFL course, nor ever taught a class, an hour of ideas is simply not enough. Perhaps the best way would be a sharing session, where experienced teachers could come forward with ideas for games, information swap activities, how to use movies and songs in class and just how to keep kids under control and get them speaking in English. I strongly feel that if new teachers had a better induction they could teach more effectively and the English education in Korea would improve.


Another area that clearly needs improvement is the material used in schools. In my opinion the books that a student has access to have a huge impact on their ability to learn a language. An EFL or ESL book should be themed, with each chapter dealing with one grammar point and perhaps one or two vocabulary areas. The book should make a logical progression, from present simple in chapter 1, through the various tenses and important grammar points. I have found the text books used in Korean middle schools to be confusing and cluttered, with no clear idea of what is being focused on in each chapter. On occasion my co­teacher has requested that I teach the ‘Talk and Talk’ section of the book in class and I find myself baffled as to how I am to teach these random snippets of conversations which often have no relevance to real life situations. It then occurs to me that if I as a teacher am that confused, then what chance do the students have of learning anything? I think it’s of the utmost importance that the Department of Education replaces the current textbooks with ones written by professional EFL teachers aimed at teenage learners, such as Reward (Macmillan), Inside Out (Macmillan) or the simply wonderful Milestones series (Oxford University Press).


I have found my co­teacher, principal and area supervisor to be highly accommodating with regard to materials and hopefully, when I move on to another country, they will realise that the extra money spent on resource books, photocopies, colour cartridges and laminating pretty much everything was a worthwhile expense. I hope to leave a decent bank of resources for future teachers at my school and I feel that some sort of system needs to be in place to ensure that this happens in every school. It seems a little bizarre that a teacher can arrive at a school that has hosted two or more native teachers but find not a single worksheet or flashcard. I wonder if it might be possible for EPIK to mass produce standard flashcards for certain vocabulary topics or get copies of certain resource books that would be ideal for middle school students, such as Reward Elementary Resource Pack (Macmillan), Elementary Grammar Games, Elementary Communication Games (both from Longman) and pretty much anything from the superb Timesavers series (Mary Glasgow Magazines).


Other than developing the materials I see two main ways that English education in Korea can be improved. First of all I strongly believe that placing students into level groups is essential for their success in learning a language. I understand that some people are opposed to the idea of categorising students according to their ability, claiming that it pigeon holes students and decreases the self confidence of those who have been placed in a lower level group. But what can be more detrimental to a student’s self confidence than sitting in a class where they can’t understand the instructions or the subject matter and never feel as though they can contribute to the lesson? I find in my classes that I have students who are keen to learn but simply aren’t gifted with languages, sitting next to students who have a natural and sometimes astounding aptitude for English. Invariably the brighter student will complete the work and the less able student either copies or leaves the more talented student to finish any pair work activities. I find mixed ability classes unfair to everyone ? the talented students, the less confident students and the teacher who has to struggle to essentially teach two or three classes in one. The stronger students often find the subject matter too easy and in turn get bored and disruptive. The weaker students don’t understand anything and likewise become restless, bored and unruly. In the end there might be a few students in the middle of the range who enjoy and understand the lesson.


I believe that the stronger students could really flourish if surrounded by other students that could challenge them. Likewise the lower level students, if in a class with other students of a similar ability, would learn a lot more. Many of these students need a basic grounding in English ? present simple (third person ‘s’), help with reading and spelling, basic vocabulary, pronunciation and even the construction of sentences and questions. Currently they are being pushed to finish books covering high level grammar such as conditionals, present perfect and relative clauses. As the saying goes, ‘don’t run before you’ve learned to walk’. Perhaps the Department of Education needs to consider using different level text books for different students, for what is more important ? that all students have a basic level of English and enjoy their classes or that everyone is seen to be studying high level grammar when in fact they are learning nothing?


My final point is one that, as well as improving the general level of English in Korean schools, would also assist native English teachers in what is often a very difficult task. The biggest problem that I have faced since arriving in Korea is discipline and obtaining or maintaining the students’ interest in class. Having tried games, songs, movies, role plays, drama and a wealth of other activities that I would imagine to be fun, I have found myself at a bit of a loss. Still in every class the students talk while I talk, many don’t pay attention at all and some never even attempt to fill in their worksheets. Of those that do, a meagre percentage actually keep the work they have completed with me ? most head straight for the bin as I leave the classroom. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how utterly disheartening this can be, when I have put so much effort into planning the class. My only suggestion for culling this apathy and disinterest is to make the students realise that classes with a native teacher are an important part of the curriculum and not an excuse to play and chat. In short, schools need to ensure that the material taught in the native English teacher’s classes is included in the end of term exams and that the NET will give a grade to each student. By including a couple of questions on the exam paper and giving each student a five­minute oral exam, perhaps they would realise that learning English from a native speaker is both a privilege and an important part of their education. When I was at school studying French, we would have two or three oral exams per semester and although I dreaded them, I found it made me study harder and listen to our native French teacher for pronunciation and intonation tips. It could only have a positive effect on Korean students’ English ability.


In conclusion, my experiences in Korea have been largely positive. My time here so far has opened my eyes to a culture as far from my own as I can imagine and I have had some very positive experiences with some students. With a few small but vital improvements English education in South Korea could improve considerably and ensure that South Koreans are worthy opponents for the many other nations trying to master the tricky but beautiful English language.


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