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EPIK Teachers' Essays
EPIK Teachers' Essays
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:02     View: 3787  

(2007 Essay contest)


Clarissa McHale (Claire)

Palryong Middle School, Changwon



In early September my school’s music teacher discovered that I had studied piano and asked me to play in the upcoming school festival. I agreed, neglecting to tell her that I had not actually touched an instrument in ten years. After school I bought a keyboard, lugged it home, and painfullyclanged through what was supposed to be the Beatles’ song "Let It Be." In short I demonstrated the musical ability of a giggling two-year-old child banging random keys. I quickly realized that such a performance would cost me my dignity and probably the entire audience’s as well. Therefore I took drastic action: I practiced at least one hour every night until the festival. On October 31st, I sat down at a grand piano in Changwon’s KBS Hall, and played in front of 1300 people. All 1200 of my students hummed, sang along, and roared with applause when the song was over, not just because they like me or the Beatles, but because I did a good job….thanks to sixty days of rehearsal.


This experience reaffirmed an old belief of mine which I often reiterate to my students. Learning to speak a second language is similar to learning to play an instrument. Both require time and active practice. A person can’t learn to play a guitar just by reading sheet music or watching Paul McCartney perform. The only way to gain ability and confidence is to continually exercise the skill. True, novice musicians make many mistakes but as they practice more and more they get better and better even though it might take years. When it comes to studying English conversation though, it seems that many of our Korean students are not getting much practice, for a variety of reasons that will be addressed in this essay. Some of these reasons have roots in Korean customs. Others stem from a lack of organization and communication between co-teachers due to the cultural and language barriers they often face within their daily interactions. While NETs (Native English Teachers) and KTs (Korean Teachers) need to take steps to promote a classroom culture where students are actively building and exercising the English language, we need support from our larger school communities, our provincial offices of education, and the national government bodies through training, structural reforms, and enforcement of reforms. Based on my observations, research, and exchanges with students, NETs, and KTs, I hope today to offer some insight and suggestions regarding the state of English education in Korea.

Often times NETs are on anisland in the dark. Several presentations by EPIK employees at the August 2007 EPIK Orientation emphasized that the NET’s main duty is to teach ESL conversation while our Korean co-teacher teaches grammar and context. NETs know their students have studied English since third grade. They know their students study English alone with the KT one to three class periods a week depending on the grade level. Most often though they have no idea what the students are specifically learning in their Korean counterpart’s class. Most NETs do not know the curriculum requirements their co-teachers follow nor have they ever seen their students’ textbooks. We simply show up one day a week as an isolated entity with our own lesson entirely separate from whatever it is our classes do the rest of the time. This can detract from continuity as NETs might introduce new vocabulary to students that will not be reinforced for the rest of the week. Walter Foreman, an English professor and PhD. candidate at Korea National University, writes, "Learners will need to hear key words many times before they can establish a connection between form and meaning……Future lessons should recycle previously taught vocabulary and structures." (39) It is challenging though to build on lessons that are spaced one or sometimes two weeks apart.

Likewise KTs may be frustrated with the gap in their regular English class because their lessons are all specifically aimed at preparing students for provincial and national exams. On November 2, 2007 Gyeongsangnamdo NETs and their main KTs attended demonstration lessons at the Gyeongsangnamdoteacher training center in Changwon. During this program, a KT commented, "We have this whole book that we are supposed to get through in a set period of time. How are we supposed to do that when we have one less class a week?" I probably know fifty NETs personally but I only know one who actually incorporates the students’textbooks into his lessons. The obvious solution to creating greater continuity in the students’ English class would be, "Plan with your co-teacher and discuss lesson ideas with them."In fact NIIED’s (National Institute for International Education Development) August 2007 publication "How to Teach English In Korea"contains approximately sixty pages on the subject of "co-teaching" and emphasizes the importance of planning WITH your co-teacher. Realistically though KTs are very busy and may be very anxious and hesitant to discuss lessons with their NET because they do not possess the confidence or English conversational skills to communicate with their native speaking co-teacher or they worry about "losing face" if they should disagree with a NET on the presented lesson plan. Also one NET might have four to even fourteen co-teachers. Even at the November 2nd Gyeongsangnamdo training program, all three demonstrating teams stated that they typically discuss the lesson plan on their way to class Monday morning and that is it.

Now I do not wish to add stress to Korean teachers’ schedules. If planning is a priority among both KTs and NETs one idea is to use any designated teacher workshop periods for such discussions(if a NET’s schedule contains teacher workshops). An easier solution might be for KTs to provide their foreign co-teacher with a copy of the student textbook on arrival to shed some light on what the students are studying. This does not sentence a NET to teach from the text. Two year EPIK veteran Amy Yang and her Korean co-teacher Huh Mee-young state that this practice "can become monotonous to your students and that their motivation for learning will drop considerably. Also some of the lesson materials in the books are not really realistic and students would be incapable of using these lessons in real life."(109) However NETs can supplement their KTs class through creating engaging activities based on topics the students have studied, therefore, giving students the opportunity to practice what they know. For example, I noticed my 1st year students looking at a chapter in their books about clothing so I planned to have a fashion show. I brought in a giant suitcase of clothes and accessories ranging from glamorous dresses to zany sunglasses. Each student had a partner. One student was a model and his partner was the announcer. They had time to prepare an outfit and a script describing the model and his clothes. Here are some samples of their work: "Mr. Kim is looking lovely today. He is wearing a pink evening dress and high heels. He is wearing a red hat. He became a woman." "Miss Lee is very beautiful. She is wearing a mink coat and sunglasses. She has on a white hat. Wow! Beautiful! She is a rich woman." The last ten minutes of the class we had the fashion show. My co-teachers and I laid down two reddish yoga mats as our catwalk. The models walked and posed while the announcers talked about them using a microphone and amp. And of course we had someone take photos which I put on the classroom computers the next week.

This is a typical lesson for me; I like to keep my students active. After all it would be a bad conversation class if no one was talking. Language acquisition research, along with common sense, suggests "Language learning occurs best when learners are engaged in communicative acts." (Mangubhai 13) This doesn’t mean drilling students on grammar or pre-written form focused dialogues that may be irrelevant to real life situations. Rather teachers need to design and implement tasks where students actually need to communicate with each other in the target language in order to complete the task. These activities must offer enough structure to guide students but also enough leeway to allow students to incorporate their own emotions and creativity through spontaneous speech…..the very substance of proficient oral communication. This is obviously a challenge in the average Korean middle school classroom of 40 students and two (or sometimes one) teacher. A forty person conversation in a foreign language usually yields four results: 1. Two or three students dominate the talk time. 2. The teacher takes up much more class time evaluating students’ responses. 3. The majority of the class is too shy to speak on the spot or speak at all(unless they are speaking in Korean). 4. Many students feel uninvolved and bored.


Student centered methodology recommends an alternative structure which utilizes small group work to complete tasks. Small groups provide each student with more opportunities to talk in a more relaxed environment where they can freely experiment with the language without fear of being corrected in front of the entire class.

If employed well, this strategy can be advantageous to Korea’s mixed level classes putting higher level, intermediate level, and lower level students in situations where they must cooperate and collaborate to complete their work. It also aids the teachers in classroom management. If a teacher divides a class of 40 students into groups of five or four students, the teacher no longer has to worry about 40 students. Instead the teacher now manages eight or ten groups, or if there is an active co-teacher present, each teacher manages five or four groups. Thus, it is much easier to monitor students’ progress, behavior, and usage of the target language, as the students keep each other accountable as well.

However tasks or games must be well planned, because in the current Korean classroom there is no guarantee students will simply obediently participate in class even in small group settings with less inhibitions. Historically Korea’s educational culture is teacher centered, molding students into a passive learning style which, as I have already argued, is not conducive to gaining verbal communication skills in a foreign language. As NETs we may be introducing students to an entirely new learning style. We want to make sure then that the activities we use are level appropriate, an idea that goes back to my first point of knowing what is going on in your students’other English classes. If a NET uses tasks and topics that are too complicated or unfamiliar to the students, they may either do nothing or spend group time speaking completely in Korean. If activities are too easy they will simply be bored.

There is a common English saying: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink." Teachers can give their students tools and opportunities to speak, but sometimes students still might not participate because they do not care about learning English. Jacqueline Norris-Holt states it "cannot be disputed….that motivation is an important variable when examining successful second language acquisition." (9) Motivating students can be a particular problem in mono-cultural Korea where realistically people can survive easily only speaking Korean. True our students may feel a need to perform well on English exams particularly on the biggest exam of all, the college admissions test, which seems to determine a great deal of their future. However these exams are multiple choice, based on their curriculum, and do not measure their communication proficiency. If a student does not believe a teacher’s conversation class contributes to their test scores, then they may see it simply as a waste of time. There are a few ways to perhaps motivate Korean students. The first idea is in the teachers’ hands. Teachers can spend extra time to design engaging lesson plans that give your students something to talk about. This involves choosing topics your students are interested in and using physical items, whether drawings or props, to draw them into the lesson. Last week I taught about body parts and injuries. I used make-up and bandages to show my students several injuries and then distributed the make-up and bandages amongst my students so that they could give themselves injuries. The students then talked with a partner about how they got hurt. After ten minutes of practice, I invited volunteers to the front of the class to tell everyone the story of how they broke their arm or got a black eye or got a cut and students voted for their favorite story. "A bird ate my eyes" won unanimously in one of my boys’ classes.


A second plan to increase motivation in the classroom lies more in nationwide reform. Chris Crowley, a Namhae NET and founder of two international schools in Thailand, stated at the November 2nd Gyeongsangnamdo training program, "Children will learn English for one of two reasons: They want to or they have to."As I already noted Korean children don’t really HAVE to learn English because communication in their every day lives in Korea does not require it and they can succeed in both the Korean testing system and college admissions system without spoken English language proficiency. Yonsei University professor Jeffrey Miller writes, "One would think that once these books have been read, TOEIC tests taken, and language courses passed that the level of English proficiency would be quite high. Sadly this is far from the truth with the continued misuse of English whether on a personal or professional level."(3) Jin H. Choi, Gwangju Jeonam Middle School NET and also an August 2007 EPIK orientation presenter, explained that she had set up a system with her Korean co-teachers where students’participation in her class counted as 30% of their overall English grade. This is a common western practice and worked as a key motivator in any class, language or otherwise, that I had growing up. When I first met my co-teacher, I asked him if I could do this but he just smiled and said, "Maybe the students will like you better than the last English teacher because you are a girl and you are younger." Since I don’t speak Korean and I was just getting to know him I figured I should leave it at that. A few weeks ago though the same co-teacher asked me how the American school system deals with discipline problems. I explained our grades mainly determine our future opportunities but in America our grades comprise of more than tests; participation and classroom decorum play a major role. Let’s say a student’s grade is determined 25% by his test scores, 25% by quiz scores, 25% by papers and projects, and 25% by participation. If he earns a 100% on his tests, quizzes, and papers, but is constantly acting out in class to the point where he gets a 0% participation grade, his overall grade for the class is 75%. This practice is not meant to add anxiety to the English classroom. In fact it might do the opposite. Participation is not about how often a student is correct; it is about how much effort a student puts forth and that is entirely in the student’s control. I do not reward my students for using perfect grammar but for trying to speak their ideas in English. Yes they will make many mistakes, much like the novice musician, but the more they practice, the more they will gain a feel for the instrument that is the English language, and then they will be able to play better and better over the course of time.

If the Ministry of Education(MOE) actually wants to increase its students’ English language proficiency, I seriously recommend a nationwide implementation and enforcement of participation in English conversation class as part of a student’s overall grade. What if a student does not care about his grades though? After all, since 1994 MOE reforms, most colleges count the Korean CSAT, that big test high school seniors get to take once in their lifetime on one designated date, as 40% of the admission criteria. With this in mind most schools focus solely on preparing students for this test, which brings us back to Korea’s test-centered passive learning educational structure. This system has been met withsome public criticism the past few years which MOE seems to know since it made several attempts in the late 1990s to reform CSAT content.( +HIGHER-EDUCATION.html) This has not stopped Time Magazine from publishing investigative articles that address the problems of such an exam-centric education system: Students cram for tests, take the tests, and forget what they memorized shortly afterwards. Students fail to develop creativity and problem solving skills that are necessary later on in a competitive business and technological era. Korean parents attempt to give birth in America so that their children will go to American schools rather than face "cram hell."(Chisu Ko 1) In short, the most effective route to revamping Korean students’attitudes toward English through introducing student centered methods and participation grades might call for an entire shift in Korean educational priorities from standardized test preparation and towards a grading system that reflects critical thinking ability, character development, and student centered work.


If NETs and KTs are to create more active, organized, and intellectually stimulating classes, we need help. We need a designated space. Some schools, like Seokjeon Middle School in Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, have already taken this step through the construction of an English Zone, which includes a classroom and four situational rooms: a department store, a restaurant, a hospital, and a hotel. Seokjeon Middle School NET, Benjamin J. Sluder claimed he enjoyed using this space because it encouraged and gave his students many opportunities to practice everyday conversations.(Sluder 73) Many times these English zones do not share a wall with another classroom, which is a very good idea. At the November 2nd Gyeongsangnamdo Teacher Training Program, presenter and NET Glen Oxford expressed that he did not get many opportunities to allow his students to free talk in English because forty students speaking created a high volume of noise and the math or science teacher in the adjacent classroom would complain. Once again, to speak the language, Korean students must practice the language and since I don’t see our class numbers shrinking anytime soon we need to be able to utilize a space where we can do this without disturbing our fellow teachers. Another wonderful thing about having a classroom dedicated solely to English is that it allows us to create an atmosphere through interior decoration and seating arrangement (whether posters or work that the students have created) that can subconsciously stimulate learning and reinforce students’ English identities. (Pearson Education, Inc. 1) It also gives us a space where we can display our students’ work. Students love looking at things that either they have created or other students have created. It gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment. For instance a bunch of my students made English comic books. They did some very nice work but sadly I have no where to show it off! Finally, having a designated room gives the NET and KT more control over organization of class materials and the students themselves. I probably spend at least five minutes each class hanging up materials for the students and writing items and guidelines on the board. If I could set it up in one classroom, this would give me five more minutes each week to focus on the students’ conversations and work. In regards to student organization, a set room allows KTs and NETs to give the students assigned seating as oppose to walking into a homeroom where the students change seats every week or two. By giving the KT and NET more control over the seating, the teacher can place the students in groups of mixed ability so that the high-level, intermediate-level, and low-level students are all equally dispersed throughout the classroom. If you have ever tried to rearrange your Korean students’seats in their normal classroom, it results in five to ten minutes of chaos as students scramble to find chairs and have great difficulty coming to any sort of order. If you try and break your students into groups according to their normal classroom seats, you might be disappointed to find that all your high level English students sit together in the first row. Meanwhile all your low level students somehow sit together in the fourth row and neither understand the assignment nor care. Also when teachers determine a semi-permanent seating arrangement, they can more easily learn the students’names (if they are always in the same seat) and get to know their pupils. This enables the teacher to build personal trusting relationships with students which psychologically drives the student to be more accountable in his/her behavior and work.(Dr. Nicholas Hobbs The Twelve Principles of Reeducation)

There are other steps that NETs can take on their own to form better relationships with students. We live in our students’ culture and can easily find out more about the things they are interested in. Listen to some of the bands the students like whether it be F.T. Island, Super Junior, or Buzz. Watch some of the television shows the students watch like "Coffee Prince" or "Infinite Challenge." Then incorporate these things into lesson plans. The students will want to talk about their favorite shows and bands and they will be very excited that their teacher knows something about boxer Choi Hong-man or President Roh. Use familiar faces in any materials you might make for class. For instance, last week I was showing my classes different cold symptoms such as "cough," "sore throat," and "vomiting." To illustrate each symptom, I drew several posters of Simpsons characters who appeared to be sick. Marge was holding her head as stars and birds encircled it. Maggie Simpson was coughing. Bart was running to the bathroom because he had diarrhea. I had no problem getting my students’ attention as they all cheered "Oh Simpsons!"

 I also highly recommend studying a bit of Korean or at least recalling any second language learning experience in order to understand what Korean students are going through as they endeavor to learn English. If students realize that their teacher can sympathize with them, they will feel more at ease in the classroom. Furthermore personal knowledge of the Korean language can help the NET realize why some students have trouble with certain English sounds, concepts, or speaking patterns. This might also be an area where EPIK can offer some training either at the nationwide orientation or on the provincial level.


Indeed further training for both NETs and KTs is essential to our students’ development. The October 18, 2007 issue of The Economist reports, "Studies in Tennessee and Dallas have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, they end up in the top 10% of student performers; if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom." (1)Obviously Korea wants to have both high quality foreign teachers and Korean teachers. This involves teaching teachers up to date methodology as well as offering courses that improve language skills. Korean university education departments seem to be realizing this these days. My boyfriend’s Korean co-teacher is twenty-four-years-old and graduated from a university in Jinju about one year ago. He was trained to use student centered methods and task-based learning. However most Korean English teachers are older and have neither been trained nor exposed to these new effective ideas. Also their English skills may be rusty because they do not have consistent opportunities to practice English, which inhibits building cooperative relationships with their foreign co-teachers. Although EPIK employs random foreign teachers to organize teacher camps over vacations (I am one of these teachers) they might want to look into other resources in our country. Yonsei University professor Jeffrey Miller notes that there are many excellent up to date TESOL certificate and training courses at Korean universities such as his own that can be extended to evenings or weekends for easy teacher access. (Miller 2) EPIK could consider sending NETs to some of these training courses as well to build confidence and knowledge, since quite frankly many NETs have never taught before or majored in education. After all according to EPIK’s website, NETs only need to meet the following main requirements: 1. The candidate must "bea citizen of a country where English is the primary language and resided for at least 10 years or more in the country where English is the primary language." 2. The candidate must "hold at least a Bachelor's degree." There are a few other eligibility requirements regarding good physical and mental health, a willingness to adapt to Korean culture, and possessing a good command of the English language, but these are very general. Perhaps Korea’s eligibility requirements are so slim because the demand for English teachers is so high.

However hiring people who have little experience teaching or working with children might mean hiring less affective teachers and receiving poor press from media giants like KBS and The Korea Times who more than once have painted many NETs in an unflattering light. For example on Sept. 18, 2007 The Korea Times ran a report on Lee Kyungsook’s belief that over 32% of public school foreign teachers were "unqualified"because they did not hold a TESOL or CELTA certificate. The article neglected to mention that this is not a required qualification by the Korean government. It might not be such a bad idea though to incorporate this into our training(if needed). This way MOE gains more qualified teachers and hopefully both parties receive better press.

NETs can benefit from more training and general education about Korean culture as well. While many of us attended a very informative orientation sponsored by EPIK at Korea National University, we would benefit from an additional orientation on the provincial level, seeing that so many educational items can vary from province to province and situation to situation in Korea. Gangwon-do Provincial NET coordinator, Alex Larsen, told participants at the August 2007 EPIK Orientation, that in his province, new NETs do not teach for the first week. Rather they observe Korean classrooms and get an idea of what the Korean educational culture is like and what is expected of them. In my province my boyfriend and I just walked into a classroom our first day on the job and taught… a very silent and shy audience I might add.

Provincial offices can revise some of their training methods too. When Gyeongsangnamdo teachers attended our province’s November 2, 2007 demonstration lessons, many of us noticed that something big was missing: THE STUDENTS! Instead the demonstrating teachers used us as the students. This is not very helpful because 1. We are adults, will behave for the teacher, and politely follow the teacher’s instructions. 2. We all hopefully have much greater command of the English language than our ten-year-old or fifteen-year-old Korean students and can easily understand what the teacher is telling us. Instead we need to see teaching in its natural environment with actual students where the teachers must overcome cultural and language barriers! We need to see teachers exercising classroom management skills! The students are the biggest part of the class. Without them we wouldn’t be here. Our greatest challenge as NETs and KTs is reaching them and motivating them, but our provincial training program unfortunately did not address that. Another issue it neglected is that we have several co-teachers. Only one of our Korean co-teachers attended with us. How then can such programs benefit our other three or four or more co-teachers that we work with if they are not present? This is something to consider for the future.

Parallel to the inorganic demonstration lessons are open classes. Open classes are supposed to be an opportunity for provincial education officials to evaluate NET and KT English classes so that they can get an idea of what is occurring within class. The NET and KT both know the date ahead of time and usually what happens according to several posts on the popular discussion forums of and my boyfriend’s own experience is that the teachers and students rehearse the class the day beforehand. I already know the approximate date of my open class and that it will be in my school’s English Zone room, which seems slightly fake to me because I never actually get to teach any of my regular classes in the English Zone room. If Korean officials honestly want to know what goes in an English classroom I recommend surprise observations so that they will have an honest experience. If the NET and KT are putting in a great effort then the officials will see this. Perhaps the educational officials will visit and find there is no KT present or active in the classroom, a common problem for many NETs. If education officials attend a rehearsed performance however, they are only seeing a prefabricated fa?ade, which neither our students, nor our teachers, nor the state of Korean English education can benefit from in the long run.

I am very fortunate. I have four co-teachers who are always present for class. Three of my co-teachers are what I would consider pretty ideal: they help me explain any directions to students, they will model dialogues with me (if I ask), and they actively engage students in the work. I don’t think my co-teachers understand everything I say to them but I do know that they understand me when I thank them profusely during and after every class. Smiling is an international language. Also I will be getting them some lovely Christmas presents as a token of my appreciation. Sometimes I wonder though if my presence makes their lives harder. I wonder if they are simply being so wonderful and supportive of my lessons because they are saving face and rooted in Confucian manners. Honestly I do not think I will ever know the answer, no matter how good my Korean gets over the next few months.        

I hope though that NETs, KTs, and the MOE all share a goal of improving our students’ English speaking capabilities. I have noted some well regarded methodologies concerning the teaching and learning of English as a language, with a focus on structuring classes so that students can practice English as a means of communication as opposed to a subject with grammar drills and multiple choice questions. Creating this environment successfully requires creativity and collaboration on the part of teachers and our educational superiors. It requires renovating a history of passive test centered learning and providing more practical training for NETs and KTs. It requires resources and structures that spark motivation. It will take time and effort like learning the piano or the violin, but if we can work together to provide our students with an environment conducive to practice, they will be able to play their English instruments better and better.




“Creating an Effective Classroom Environment.” Teacher Vision Website. Pearson Education, Inc. 2007.


Education Encylcopedia Website “South Korea Higher Education.” Net Industries. 2007.<­Korea­HIGHER­EDUCATION.html>


How to Teach English in Korea. August 2007. pp. 27­41. The National Institute for International Education.


“How to Be Top” The Economist 18 October 2007.



Ko, Chisu. “International Delivery.” Time. 2006.



Mangubhai, Francis. “What do we know about learning and teaching second languages: Implications for teaching.” Asian EFL Journal September 2006. Vol. 8 Issue 3. Article 3. pp. 1­33. <http://www.asian­efl­>


Miller, Jeffrey. “What’s wrong with English Education in Korea?” The Korea Times 7 December 2006 <>


Norris­Holt, Jacqueline. “Motivation as a Contributing Factor in Second Language Acquisition.” The Internet TESL Journal June 2001. Vol. VII, No. 6.



Park Si­soo, “32% of Native English Speakers Found Unqualified.” The Korea Times. 16 Sep. 2007.

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“Re­education Principles” The Wright School homepage 2006. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Service.<> Clarissa McHale (Claire)

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