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EPIK English Needs to Have a Sense of Purpose(2008 Essay Contest)
EPIK English Needs to Have a Sense of Purpose(2008 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:05     View: 2140  

EPIK English Needs to Have a Sense of Purpose


Hanseo Middle School

Yue Xi (Penny) Li


As I was sitting in the lecture hall of my orientation in the winter of 2008, the impressions of the profession that I was about to get into started to sink in.  The teaching methods sound very progressive and student oriented.  This reminds me of a television broadcast that I have once seen, which describes progressive teaching as a teaching method which allows the students themselves to feel the purpose of learning, which would then motivate them to take appropriate actions to acquire information and knowledge in order to satisfy their own desires, as opposed to merely push students to learn a specific aspect of knowledge just because the teacher says that it will be useful later in life.


             To create an environment for the students to seek that sense of purpose, I have participated in setting up a pen pal program with the JET schools in Japan with the privilege of freely planning my lessons in public schools under EPIK.  Within each letter exchange, students can freely choose what they wish to write about, the length of their writing, and what to leave out. (As shown by the attached sample letters)  Therefore, although all students are essentially working on the same task, each student’s actions are exactly fitting to their own interests and ability, which would ideally produce the maximum level of productivity.  Yet, as being said before, the most important function of this activity has to go back to its clear sense of purpose: students attend each English class to make constructive progress on their English skills, which would allow them to write letters to places where they cannot reach otherwise, which will get them a replied mail in return.  Perhaps not every student consciously recognizes this sequence that they are involved in; but the process has certainly turned an intangible and perhaps “too far to be real” purpose of learning into something that is tangible and obvious, which they can touch and feel.  English is often thought to be the language that connects people, so why not let students experience that connection themselves and feel the accomplishment even before becoming fully capable of utilizing the language?


             As wonderful as the above paragraph sounds, it has not come without me constantly bugging my co-teacher about getting the school to support this initiative by taking care of the mailing, which has not been an easy process to go through.  Yet, I was still determined to push for it, since “what kind of school program is it if the school does not support it?” I ask myself, “common sense?!”  Actually, I quickly realized similar kinds of inflexibilities existing in most of my 5 schools, which I think is mainly due to two reasons: first, it is a reality that Korean English teachers are very busy people and tend not to be interested in any extra business that is not part of their job description; and second, schools in Korea are workplaces with very clear hierarchical divides, so the Korean teachers, especially those who are new to the school are very reluctant to ask the principal for anything beyond their routine responsibilities, such as budget supports, which in their view would potentially risk their relationship with the principal and bring detrimental effects to the rest of their 5 year work life at the school.  It would now be pretty clear to see that there are existing personal purposes imbedded in the public school system, which are built over the career of the teachers; and that they can at times come in serious conflict with the purpose of learning that EPIK teachers are often seeking.


To effectively solve this problem, I really hope to see a fund set up exclusively for English classes at least in each EPIK teacher’s main school, which would be readily available for use by the initial EPIK teacher at the school, since resources are especially scarce upon their arrival as was the case for me.  If the hierarchy of power were to remain as they are now, it would take tremendous amounts of time and effort for the norms in the schools to change, and the loss of opportunity for the students in the mean time would be immense.  With a budget in place, EPIK teachers can be granted much more freedom in a timely manner as to what they can do in textbook and activity selections in their teaching careers.  As of now, this freedom is severely limited, since EPIK teachers are administratively treated and supervised by the principal just like any Korean teacher in the school, yet with a completely different goal of teaching to pursue.


In my case, the reward of gaining access to the school’s budget was way beyond the pen pal activity itself and was certainly worth the fight.  Students have not only become eager about their next letters, but also more interested in English classes, even some behavioral changes were notable.  They have become more disciplined and self-motivated at learning English.  Some students have intentionally started building a portfolio out of the materials that they have collected from English classes throughout the year, which was non-existent before.  I was certainly very glad to see the students taking the English learning process more seriously as the initial realization of progressive learning starts to come to live in my classrooms.


Yet, the level of changes differs greatly among schools with the views of the principals being almost always at the root of the cause.  Some principals are very eager for change, while others are often satisfied with the status quo.  With the power of deciding the use of the school’s budget in their hands, the initial difference in educational approaches could produce tremendous gap in the end results.


In my case, I was lucky enough to encounter a principal at one of my smallest elementary schools, who always gives full support for all my suggestions in English education, and would even print out and distribute my reflections on English teaching to the Korean teachers in his school.  Of course, pen pal at his school was a huge success.  Students not only wrote letters and exchanged their school lives, but also sent gifts with explanations of the Korean customs.  Though, he has later moved to another school, but his educational approach continues to benefit schools and students wherever he is.  Due to his sustained support for progressive teaching, I now have the chance to work with him again, since I was asked to squeeze in an afternoon each week at his new school after him realizing an absence of EPIK teacher there.  Will there soon be an expansion of the pen pal?  For sure!  It would even be possible to build the English styled teaching into other subject areas aimed towards a Total English School in the near future, as well as a student exchange program with the JET schools in Japan.  Why am I being so vigorous?  It is actually a fact that many rural Korean schools are facing declining student populations these days, so it’s the principal’s aim to hopefully reverse the fate for his new school, and it has now become my goal to help him with all that I’m capable of.


This sense of purpose, however, has not been with me since when I was first considering a year abroad teaching English.  As with many North American college students, I had to have a Plan B after graduation, in case I’m unable to find a job in my desired field of study, which has led me to obtain a TEFL certificate to increase my chances in joining the Teaching English Abroad profession.  At this point, my mindset was mainly fixed on having fun while teaching away from the university environment, with little to no consideration to the required skills in order to conduct the actual classes.  Despite the repeated stress in the certificate course about how being a native English speaker is not enough to be a good TESL teacher, it was still not until the time that I had to sit in lectures during orientation listening to the numerous teachers talking about their seemingly complex teaching strategies have I fully realized that.  I must admit that I was a little scared off by the information overload at the time as a fresh college graduate who did not major in English or Education, which has changed my original view of a fun teaching year to one single aim: get the year over, take the salary and go home fast.  But I’m thankful for those lectures now, from which concepts I can still remember, for giving me directions when I’m at a loss during the year.  My goal soon changed again, when I found out after settling down in Gangwon-do that I was the first EPIK teacher at all but one of my 5 schools, since this has meant that I actually had a chance to make a little history out of my time here.  So, more time in lesson planning and more attention to detail were some of the things to follow.  However, it wasn’t until when the pen pal was firmly set up and running at the end of my first semester here have I truly found the right track and a real sense of purpose, since it has given me the greatest encouragement as the first milestone on the road of accomplishing something solid as an EPIK teacher in Korea.


Pen pal is great, since it has brought the learning partnership between the teacher and the students to life, so what could be more motivational for the teacher than having the students find their own fittest paths on the road to reaching the ultimate goal of learning?  Yet, TEFL is a very special profession in that the learning process not only involves the teacher and the students, but perhaps more importantly the principal.  In the specific case of EPIK, I can say with confidence that the recruited teachers all have much more to give than merely teaching classes and it is up to the principals to discover and effectively utilize their talents toward the long-term goal of the school.  In my case, I was privileged to have gained networks of TEFL teachers in other countries, which has become a suitable potential solution to a principal’s aim to reverse the trend of declining students.  A sense of purpose is not only needed by the students, but also more importantly by the principal who is the soul and mastermind in determining the fate of a school, be it death or success.  The difference of the end result of the school with the principal explained above as compared to many other principals who do not have a clear direction of where the school is headed would be enough to demonstrate this point.  I firmly believe that the greatest challenge of EPIK currently lies in a lack of understanding of the program among the principals, whose schools are where EPIK teachers are placed.  This has left most principals at a loss of how best to utilize the EPIK teachers as resources, which has led to tremendous loss in time and money.  I sincerely hope as EPIK matures into a more organized program, a training course or routine conference could be set up for the principals of potential schools where EPIK teachers will be placed, which would be similar to our orientation, but is focused on how best to utilize EPIK teachers.


In conclusion, in order for a TEFL program such as EPIK to unleash its optimal amount of power to benefit a society such as Korea, an effective working triangle has to exist between the students, the teacher, and the principal.  When the principal creatively and effectively uses the EPIK teacher as a resource to benefit the students, a sense of motivation and purpose of learning would most certainly arise in the students’ learning process.  As students become more eager to learn, their motivation would be passed onto the teacher, which could stimulate more ideas for teaching, which would encourage further creative thinking among the students.  Ideally, a positive cycle would emerge, where the teacher and the students continuously inspire and nurture each other in achieving good for both, which is of course altogether impossible without the necessary support from the principal.  I personally have had the privilege to witness stories on both sides of this issue, which has thankfully gained myself a deeper understanding of this profession.  But, it definitely brings the upmost satisfaction when success is made and letters are received from students saying how anxiously they would wait for my class every week along with pictures drawn by special Ed students of me and her together in harmony.  Now, as I leave Korea, I feel very satisfied knowing that I have left my students an inheritable pen pal business, where they can constantly produce wealth from.  I also hope that this essay identifies some of the problems frequently encountered by EPIK teachers and the suggestions would shed a light on possible solutions.


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