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Sink: A Crash Course......(2008 Essay contest)
Sink: A Crash Course......(2008 Essay contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:14     View: 2197  

Everything but the Kitchen Sink: A Crash Course on All Things Teaching English in Korea          



Hwasu High School

Tara Beck



The mediocre teacher tells.  The good teacher explains.  The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires.

~ William Arthur Ward ~


In the next few pages, I have so much to share about what I have learned during my time in Korea, but the most important thing that I hope my reader will take away from me is the following advice: inspire students.  I expect the rolling eyes, the chastisement for my naivet?, and the immediate retort, “Yeah, right” in annoyance.  But I could not be more serious despite how contrite it might sound: Inspire students―so much easier said than done. 

Therefore, I am going to breakdown everything important I have learned during my experience of teaching English in Korea.  First, I will talk about immersion into Korean culture, then overcoming obstacles at school, and then offer my own critique of the Korean education of English.  Finally, I will offer concrete examples that inspire my students.     


Immersion into the Korean Culture


Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.

~ Jawaharlal Nehru ~


Understanding Korean culture helps us better understand where students and teachers are coming from.  The first and most important step is to stop comparing the native culture to the foreign one.  Next, learning Korean is helpful, but rudimentary language skills can only reveal so much about another nation’s culture.  Books like Ugly Americans, Ugly Koreans offer insight into the idiosyncratic cultural norms that go against the grain for both nations, but not everyone is apt to remember every thing in a book.

Thus, I recommend watching Korean movies and T.V. series. Such a small country has one of the largest film markets―after all there is a reason for hallyu.  Unfortunately, Korean movies and T.V. series are predictable and melodramatic, but fortunately they are not as bad as American daytime soap operas.  T.V. shows and movies reveal a great deal about the Korean mentality and culture by shedding light on the “Why do they do this or act like this?” question.    

For example, Hello My Teacher[1] can show the viewer little nuances of teenage life.  A potential viewer must watch the T.V. series with an analytical mindset.  For me, this show revealed the proximity between teachers and students (despite the corporal punishment), the quirks of student life, and the reasons why students behave a certain way or have a certain attitude.  In any case, watching Korean TV and films is a sure way to get interested in the Korean way of life.  I offer a list[2]―but not at all a comprehensive one of many TV shows and movies considered hallyu hits.[3]  Remember not to be dissuaded by the movie or TV show title―Peppermint Candy, for instance, is a Momentoesque movie chronicling the last 20 years of Korea’s road to democracy. 

My last piece of advice is geared toward Korean Americans―my fellow gyopos.  Many of my co-workers at Hwasu High School have remarked jokingly, but with all seriousness, that they find me more Korean then some of the Koreans in Korea.  On the other hand, when people saw how fiercely I supported the U.S. during the Beijing Olympics, they whispered, “얼굴만 [only in appearance].” 

However “Korean” I may or may not be, I still have difficulty when I encounter things so Korean and so against my American sensibility.  For the most part, I look past all these things.  However, the one thing I have learned in the past year that I wish someone had told me long before is, with regard to overcoming cultural barriers, just because I look Korean, know the language, and was brought up with the culture, does not mean I must assimilate.  One does not need to lose, hide, or tone down his or her American identity to fit in.  There is no inherent expectation to be Korean.


Conflict Management and Resolution


Teachers who inspire realize there will always be rocks in the road ahead of us.  They will be stumbling blocks or stepping stones;it all depends on how we use them. 

~ Author Unknown ~


I have had my fair share of conflicts at school: male students starting a fight in class, snide and disrespectful comments flown my way (this one is not fun to deal with since I maintain the fa?ade that I don’t know Korean), misunderstandings with my department head, fellow teachers taking advantage of me, unresponsive co-teachers who fall asleep right in front of the students or skip altogether because administrative work is more important, thirty students skipping class all at once…Any of this sound familiar?

My solution to all of these kinds of conflicts is very simple.  Talk to people, even if the discussion becomes heated.[4]  There is always a teacher who wants to help the native speaker teacher.  Fellow co-teachers and department heads genuinely want to see the native speaker teacher do well.  They certainly do not like to see how I struggle in any case.  My school treats me like a guest and when I voice my concerns and issues, they work to find solutions.  The implication is not that teachers acquiesce to my every whim, but that they want to help facilitate obstacles in and out of the classroom to ensure that my experience at their school is a good one. 

If a native speaker teacher is not lucky enough to have a teacher who can help, I suggest using the support network of other native speaker teachers who are more fortunate.  I have helped friends by creating an open dialogue between me, my fellow native speaker, the co-teacher in charge of me and the co-teacher in charge of the fellow friend in question.  In one phone call, my friend was able to rectify a mistake the school was making in regard to overtime payment.

Direct communication with students is more difficult as there is never any guarantee that they understand everything native speaker teachers say.  To overcome obstacles in the classroom with students, I offer some ideas which aid me.  Firstly, seating charts can help save lives―and I mean that almost literally.  I distribute seats by level, personality, and relationships.[5]  Seating arrangements are not easy to do alone, so I rely on the classroom leader and the Korean English co-teacher to help me. 

Secondly, I have a clear system of incentives and punishments for breaking classroom rules.  If students break the rules they will have to write lines multiple times and if they continue to behave badly, I send them to the Student Affairs Office.  Another thing that helps me is a minor “threat.”  I tell them, I will have a different teacher―one with a reputation for being scary and commanding―to teach them grammar and reading instead of English conversation with me.  This works miracles.

Thirdly, I have a system of points for candy in the classroom.  During the lesson, every time a group’s member participates I give that group a point.  In the middle of my PowerPoint presentations I will also have pop up questions and if they are quick to answer them, I award a point.  If the group members do not participate, I deduct points.  Which ever group receives the most points during the lesson is awarded candy.  Having this point system gives almost every class the feel of playing a game and encourages students to participate and speak as much as they can.    

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, if a native speaker teacher is encountering problems that cannot be remedied with candy, I think it helps to have the power to grade.  Therefore, if a native speaker teacher does not already have this ability, I think the school should implement a system where the native speaker teacher can exert some control and autonomy in the classroom. 

A portion of my students’ grades is attitude and behavior.  I have the liberty to award or deduct points from their attitude grade which deducts from their overall grade.  I also write midterm and final questions which force students to take my class seriously.  I also assign performance tests based on things I have taught.  After teaching a lesson on American idioms and slang, as a bigger development activity―a two month project―students wrote scripts using slang and idioms.  As a performance exam, students had to perform.  How is it not possible to enjoy planning, writing, practicing, acting, speaking and watching, for instance, a musical parody of고사 (Death Bell)―a horror movie about the deaths of high school students during final exams?  In this atmosphere, students cannot snooze away the hour if they want to pass the exam or performance exam or be awarded points. 


Improving English Education


Most teachers have little control over school policy or curriculum or choice of texts or special placement of students, but most have a great deal of autonomy inside the classroom.  To a degree shared by only a few other occupations, such as police work, public education rests precariously on the skill and virtue of the people at the bottom of the institutional pyramid.

 ~ Tracy Kidder ~


Since coming to Korea, I have become a teacher but my interest and one of my triple majors is political science and my further field of expertise―the field in which I have a Master’s―is policy analysis.  Therefore what I offer in the next couple of pages is not only insight into how I teach but also a critique and informal policy recommendation on Korea’s English Education system.

English must be taught as a tangible living language by both native speaker teachers and Korean English teachers.  Students must experience English to realize the applicability and presence of English in their lives.  Interest in English must be generated so that students see how they are connected to a borderless world and how they can be citizens of such a world.  However, I have come to notice that English is not taught in Korea to prepare students for a globalized world and this is a gaping flaw in Korea’s Education of English.  

Students lack motivation, ambition, or interest in learning English.  Students only learn what they must to pass the exam and are therefore bogged down by obscure vocabulary and grammar rules that even native speakers do not know. Korean English teachers write a grammar rule on the board, erase, and repeat.  Curriculum imprisons students and teachers.  If some aspect of language is not exam material, then there is no value in teaching it. An arbitrary test maker―whose whim is to decide whether or not to ask more questions on auxiliary verbs than prepositions―then dictates the merit of language.  When language is restricted and reduced to this level, language is not language.  In fact, in this system, English will never be a living language; Koreans will continue to read passages without seeing a story, will continue to know the meaning of a word without being able to say it, will continue to know obscure grammar rules without ever constructing a whole sentence―written or spoken.  This is not language.

Therefore, I maintain from this observation that English is not taught as a global language but it is used as a societal divider.  The “have-nots” of Korean society are faced with rigid tests and no margin for error.  They will never see the value of learning English with only exams to scare them into half-hearted study.  With the exception of a select few, most only study enough English to pass the test, get into college, and get a job where the students’ initial quasi-enthusiasm dissipates into nonexistence. 

The “haves” of Korean society send their students to private academies, native speaker tutors, or even abroad. The better jobs go to children of the “haves” who have had English at their disposal.  But once the interviews are over and the TOEIC/TOEFL scores are reported, these “haves” no longer need to use English in their careers and leave their English skills to gather dust.  Therefore, in the end, the “haves” and “have-nots” have no use for English beyond their academic career.  Given this situation, language is misused because it serves to establish inequality.   

Am I implying that English Education should be disbanded altogether?  Absolutely not.  It is a tool necessary to global communication. Korea’s employment of native speaker teachers is exceptional because, in the face of societal inequality, native speakers expose students to authentic English and bridge the division in society.  They bring English to life showing, not telling, the value of genuine English communication.  But language, whether it is English or Swahili, should never be a barrier to a better life and it cannot rest upon the shoulders of native teachers to alleviate inequality. 

President Lee Myung Bak attempts to alleviate inequality through the English Immersion Program. Constant exposure is the key to learning language but not as it is outlined in this initiative.  Teaching mathematics in English or history in English will not increase English fluency.  Students who cannot excel in English will struggle even more than before.  The reality is not everyone is preconditioned with a talent or interest in learning English and no amount of study can change that. The English Immersion Program will only serve to increase societal inequality. The allocation of resources needed to implement the English Immersion program is ill advised since the foundation for it does not exist.  Instead, the State should find solutions to fix the inherent flawed use of English and the subsequent inequality in society.

As a teacher, I can connect our worlds by choosing topics that have a direct link to them and the outside English-speaking world.  I can show them how their lives are better for knowing English.  As a policy analyst, I can offer a critique and the following informal recommendation:

I recommend a relaxation or abolition of English requirements unless it is absolutely necessary to a field of study or career. This will allow the chance for teachers and students to go beyond curriculum. English must start being taught with a new focus―to survive and communicate in a globalized world and to enjoy transnational mobility.  In this respect, Hwasu High School’s English Conversation is exemplar in the way that it separates itself from the regular English curriculum and employs a native speaker teacher, even allowing the native speaker teacher for more autonomy and responsibility. 

At Hwasu High School, English Conversation Class is a class devoted to second graders and meets three times a week.  One hour is devoted to the native speaker teacher who has the liberty to teach whatever he or she would like.  The other two hours are taught by the Korean English teacher using an English Conversation text book.  This class is separate of English Class which meets five times a week.   Such a program should be studied and standardized.

What I suggest entails the need for more native speakers or Korean English Teachers educated or trained abroad.  Curriculum must also be restructured and new textbooks must be written so that verbal expression is at the forefront of learning a language.  I do not know the feasibility of such a recommendation or the ramifications it will have on the Korean fabric of life.  However, this is a recommendation that merits further analysis from Korean policy analysts and policy makers.      


Some Concrete Examples


One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.  The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child. 

~ Carl Jung ~


The previous section highlights what I feel is the biggest challenge when it comes to teaching in Korea.  In this kind of environment, it is not easy to inspire students.  However, in nearly a year and a half, I feel that I have found several things that have worked for me to inspire students. 


Connect with their Interests


Something I have found that generates interest is to know what teenagers like in Korea.[6]  This helps bridge the gap between the foreign teacher and Korean teenage students.  Expressing interest in what they like can help form a connection.  Furthermore, knowing what is popular among one’s students can help bridge understanding.  For instance, by watching Infinite Challenge and One Night Two Days

I realized that my students would never quite appreciate American humor.  Lastly, knowing what the new trends are in music and television help when students are asked to exert their creativity.  In the aforementioned skits, students parodied Coffee Prince, Lovers in Paris, Winter Sonata, Death Bell, Woong’s Father, or sang songs from Wonder Girls, FT Island, and Lee Hyori.  Knowing of or having seen/heard all of these things, I was able to better understand students’ scripts and performances.

             Almost as important as knowing what is popular among Korean teens, I find it useful to know what is popular among American teens.  Knowing American teen interests, I am able to create a connection between Korean high schoolers and American high schoolers.  For example, one of my latest ambitious classes was “How to Realize the Importance of Dialogue through Popular American Literature and Cinema.”  This lesson was based on America’s number one hit among teenagers of 2007 and 2008, Twilight.  After this lesson, I had several students tell me that they were inspired to read the Twilight series.    


Spend time with them


Perhaps one might consider spending time with students as a waste of time or not a part of the job description.  However, I like to spend time with students outside of school.  I may be the only foreigner they ever meet or ever talk to and I want to leave them meaningful memories and a good impression of Americans.  Moreover, a couple of hours of doing something with them will form a relationship and they will in turn be inspired to learn more from you and do better in your class. 

Why not build a snow man on the school grounds and then get enmeshed in a snowball fight?  Why not agree to sing in the school festival with a class as back up dancers?  Why not go to a norae bang with students?  Why not write back a little note when they give you one?  Native speaker teachers can make their students’ day by simply taking a little time out of his or her schedule to interact with them on a more personal level.  In fact some of the best memories I take away with me are the moments I spent with students doing many of the things I suggested in this paragraph. 


Have lots of Ideas and Show Interesting Aspects of English


If you were to ask students about my class, it is hard. Some students may even declare “difficult,” “impossible,” or even throw in an adverb and say “very hard.” I throw challenges left and right at my students but my students are willing to rise to these challenges with me.  They may never have the opportunity to have insight into English only a native speaker can provide so I refuse to provide only as little as a text book. 

Students are bogged down in reading and grammar rules.  Therefore, I try to inspire students through interesting aspects that language has to offer.  For example, a lesson on expressions Americans grow up with as children is very interesting and not really found in text books―no one but a native speaker teacher can teach Korean students “Liar, Liar pants on fire.”  I also taught milder American slang like “to skip class” and they were able to employ these words quickly in communication with me. 

I come up with interesting topics but I also want to show how tangible and applicable English is.  For example, I gave students a US Customs Declarations form and then showed them the one I had to fill out when I went to Cambodia.  This form was only available in Cambodian and English.  I also told them an anecdote of a Korean family who sat next to me on the plane and asked me to help fill out their Declarations forms to travel to Cambodia.  In showing them, I want them to see how omnipresent English is.          

My one hour a week is not necessarily a blip on the radar for my students who are engaged in very stressful academic schedule. So, even though my lessons are difficult, I do not expect them to be overnight native speakers or to execute all my challenges flawlessly. However, I want to present them with a lot with the hope that even a phrase or two will catch their interest and stick. If I give them a list of twenty phrases, the intention is not for them to memorize them all. I want them to experience as much English as I can provide. 

In regards to after school classes and Winter/Summer classes, I find thinking about the lessons as a unit helps.  For example, during the winter I did a twenty hour unit on American advertising.  Students did listening activities with commercials, wrote slogans, and in the end, filmed their own commercial.  During summer classes, I did a twenty hour unit on American magazines in which students had to make a magazine mock up complete with a “Got Milk” ad, fake interviews, advertisements, and personality quizzes.


American culture and Korean culture


             I attempt to bridge cultures and show students that what they like is similar to what American teenagers like.  For a particularly hard lesson, I taught students how to express their opinions with more expressions than “I believe” or “I think.”  During this lesson,  we discussed how voting is one of the ultimate expressions of opinion.  Students were interested due to a speaking game but more importantly with the American/Korean connection.  They viewed’s “Yes We Can” and Wonder Girls’ commercial calling for free and fair elections in Korea. 

             Every class with students is an opportunity to show them a different world perspective and to make an impact on them.  So in many of my after school classes, I incorporate a lot of American culture.  For example, students and I have carved pumpkins on Halloween, made graham cracker houses and watched the animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas right before Christmas.   


Have lots of Games and Interactive Activities


I attempt to create a rich learning environment where students can have fun speaking English and laugh at their mistakes.  Interactive activities are meant to spark the students’ interest as well as energize the classroom atmosphere.  I challenge them to have fun despite the language barrier and to risk being silly in a foreign language so that they are not afraid to speak.  After all, being scared or shy is easily forgotten amidst fun and frivolity.

Board games are godsend during Summer/Winter Camps.  My students love Cranium, Taboo, Apples to Apples, and Pictionary.  I also design games such as Spoken Charades or Running Dictations using Shel Silverstein poetry.  Creating games for the class room based on game shows is also a hit―The Price is Right, Jeopardy and Star Golden Bell Speed English have worked very well for me.  Lateral thinking questions are also fun when students are detectives.  Another fun game is a spoken relay race of American tongue twisters where groups can battle each other. 

Students love American pop songs, but filling in the blanks can get old.  I cut out lyrics and have students, as a team, piece lyrics together as they listen to a song.  Another interesting activity is to teach a pop song that has been remade by Korean artists and have students connect the lyrical translations.  I also like working with movie trailers, animation shorts and viral videos.  In one particular after school class, I had students watch movie trailers and write a movie review.[7] 

I also like to use lots of animation shorts with a provoking or heart warming story to spark students’ imagination.  Particular ones that my students liked were “Replay,” “Living in the Dark,” “Kiwi,” and “Delivery”―many of these can be found on  Another activity that can be done with movie trailers and animation shorts is a “Create a dialogue for.”  I believe that by writing, students are forced to use as much as English as they know and these kinds of activities also promote creativity―all of which I believe is lacking in the Korean classroom.    


Final Words


A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. 

~ Henry Brooks Adams ~


In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day's work.  It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years. 

 ~ Jacques Barzun ~


One can only expect as much as one gives. In teaching, I give a lot but I do not expect the returns to be equal. Rather, I expect students to experience a lot.  There are days when teaching a class seems like pulling teeth and days when you are ready to throw in the towel, but for the students who I can see I am reaching, I persevere on.  The above two quotes are so true.  There are moments when I see the tangible benefits of my teaching.  It is not in the pay or vacation time, but the responses I see in my students.  For example, I had one co-teacher last year tell me that during the previous semester with a different native speaker teacher, one particular student was rude, misbehaved, and treated English Conversation Class as a joke.  Then she went on to say that when I arrived and showed him that I cared about him and revolutionized my class, that she saw a slow change in him.  He remains one of my favorite students today.  I also have students with whom I have built a personal rapport tell me often now in letters or conversation that they were never interested in America (or even abroad) or learning English until they met me.  For me, this is all it takes and all I need to restart the next day.  By inspiring them, the rejuvenate and inspire me as well. 









Appendix A: List of Korean Films and T.V. Shows





Old Boy                                                                          The Chaser

Sympathy of Lady Vengeance                                   The Host

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance                   A Tale of Two Sisters

Taegukki                                                                       The King and the Clown

My Wife is a Gangster                                                 Scandal in the Joseon Dynasty

May 18                                                                           My Boyfriend is Type B

Welcome to Dongmakgol                                           My Tutor Friend*

My Sassy Girl                                                               Peppermint Candy

Seven Days                                                                    Marrying the Mafia

The Good, The Bad, And the Weird                          Bungee Jumping of their Own



TV series:


Winter Sonata                           Autumn Fairy Tale Lovers in Paris       

New Heart                                  On Air                                         All In

Full House                                 Coffee Prince                             The Last Scandal

Dae Jang Geum                        Palace*                                      My Lovely Samsoon

Stairway to Heaven                 My Girl                                       Success Story of a Bright Girl*

Lovers                                         Delightful Girl*                        Rooftop Cat*

Romance*                                  When He was Cool*                Sharp 1, Sharp 2, Sharp 3*


[1] Also translated as Star Candy or Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy.  The show name in Korean is 건빵선생과 별사탕

[2] This list is included as Appendix A at the end of this essay.

[3] In fact, many of the movies are ones Hollywood has remade or is attempting to remake. 

[4] When students are starting flights, I go directly to the Student Affairs Office―the office where they dole out the punishments.  If my co-teacher does not show up or falls asleep, I arrange the class to be taught with another teacher the next time or have a department head talk to the teacher in question.

[5] Every table has at least two high level students, two medium level and two or three low levels.  Each group has a group leader, a paired friendship, and one or two outgoing friends. 

[6] At this moment, students love Big Bang and 2 PM and that after a long hiatus, Rain and TVXQ are back.  I know that girls are furious at Lee Hyori for the kiss between her and Top (of Big Bang) but they want to memorize every dance step from Wonder Girls.  I know which T.V. series are popular among Korean teens as well―East of Eden, Beethoven Virus, The World that They Live In, We are Married, Family Outing, and Infinite Challenge to name a few. 

[7] One particularly successful activity was an activity where I had translated the dialogue of a trailer, and then cut into strips.  As a team of students watched the movie trailer they had to translate what they heard in English and then piece the script together in Korean translations.

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