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Overcoming the Cultural Barriers ......(2008 Essay Contest)
Overcoming the Cultural Barriers ......(2008 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:08     View: 3399  

Overcoming the Cultural Barriers in Korean Education and defining the Role of the GET




Guam Middle School for Boys

           Victoria Helen Erasmus



“Expect the unexpected.”

This was the advice I was given as a first time Guest English Teacher in Korea. Language and cultural barriers will exist. There will be moments of great satisfaction as well as frustration. At times, you’ll feel like you are getting nowhere. These have all come to fruition in my own experience in Korea. The irony is this: Those times of despair are not only a test of character, but are vital in paving the way to change and finding a better way of doing things.


Being in this profession we can agree that Education is about change. It’s the nature of the field which is why, year after year, it headlines the papers, ‘think tanks’ revise curricula, and new books appear on the shelf. It is an exciting and dynamic experience to be a part of and fresh challenges are presented in cross-cultural teaching environments.


South Korea interested me from earlier this year. The NUT (National Union of Teachers) in the UK held a conference where the Directorate of Education for the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), Michael Davidson, presented a talk. Using the statistics from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) the performance of 15 year olds in key subject areas were compared and contrasted across the globe. South Korea topped the table or weren’t far behind other leading countries in Education such as Finland. It shows South Korea’s remarkable progress in Education from the 1960s especially in the field of science and mathematics. Learning is an integral part of Korean Culture and much can be learnt from this rapidly-progressing country which has made its mark in the international community.


I teach at Guam Middle School for Boys and started my contract in September this year. Previous to this, I taught for nearly 5 years in the United Kingdom as a High School English language and literature teacher. I am hoping that by penning my experiences of working within EPIK, it will help with the integration of GET’s in adjusting to their school environment and Korean customs, and that new strategies will be put into place in improving the English Program.




Integrating and Adjusting to Korean customs


No amount of research could have fully prepared me for that initial week in South Korea. Although it helped, it did not prevent it from being an assault on the senses. Knowing about Korea and living in Korea are two very different things. Everything from the food, the neon lights, the billboards, the driving, the language, the Hangul alphabet, certainly confirmed that ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’ has rather become ‘Dynamic Korea’.


Adjusting to Korean customs has provided me with several anecdotes and indeed the most important survival tip I received was to be flexible, expect the unexpected and have a sense of humor as faux pars are inevitable. I recall a most prestigious occasion in my first week when I was invited to lunch by the Principal and Vice Principal of the school. Desperate to bridge the language and cultural barrier between us I felt that toasting to their health would be fitting. I knew only one word for this occasion and called out, “Kombae!” to a somewhat stunned audience. My first lesson in one of the basic tenets of Confucianism and the concept of one’s Kibun had begun. My social mishap could have brewed ill-feelings, but Koreans are a very understanding people and my superiors realized my motivation, despite it appearing rude and disrespectful.


Most GET’s would find adjusting to these Korean customs of protocol and extreme etiquette as difficult. Hierarchy exists in every workplace, however in a society whose cornerstones rest on Confucianism, it is ever more stringent. I found it difficult to establish my status in relation to those around me, and yet at the same time, hated to think that I was any ‘higher’ than some of my Korean colleagues. I am still not certain of where I stand in this hierarchical ladder and realize I would offend some fellow work colleagues if I treated them all as equals. It is a fine line. Humbly assuming the lowest rung seems to be the best way forward in this situation. However in saying that, knowing when to bow, when to start eating, how to pour a drink, when to share a glass, how to make a toast (!) and how to receive gifts, is all part of the cultural experience and after a certain amount of observation,  relatively easy to adjust to.


So, how do we make this transition easier for GET’s? Recruiters should be made to stress and I repeat, STRESS the importance of the vast difference in culture, pointedly direct their recruits to several websites (such as the EPIK website), or issue them with a PDF document of ‘How to Survive in Korea’. After discussions with other foreign teachers at public schools, I discovered that some arrived with no notion of how severely different things would be, and as a result felt extreme frustration and unhappiness. I was fortunate in that my recruiter provided me with ample material as well as a recommendation of books. However, as I mentioned above, knowing about the culture and living the culture are two different things. On arrival one undergoes such culture shock that previous readings can fly out the window. Perhaps EPIK could investigate providing GET’s with a small handbook with the “DO’s and DON’T’s” of Korean customs? How to survive on that first day or first week? Ultimately, any foreigner who wishes to gain from this experience must simply be open-minded, non-judgmental and willing to learn. As a rule, one can never go wrong by erring on the side of extreme politeness, and realizing that a smile can go a long way.


Another part of Korean Culture which has struck me is their loyalty to their workplace and manager. Koreans have a tremendously strong work ethic which attributes to their rapid progress as a country in the past 15 years. Personally, adjusting to this has not been an arduous task, the reason being this: I have been made to feel valued. My efforts in trying to create exciting, interactive and accessible resources, the time I have put into researching new ideas, has been regularly acknowledged by my Vice Principal. Coming from a workplace where this was not the case, I feel greatly spurred on to do more. Everybody wants to feel valued and appreciated; everybody wants to feel counted; nobody wants to feel like a mere number. The positive feedback is what has made my experience so enjoyable and I only hope that the other Korean teachers are similarly acknowledged for both the minor and major contributions they make to their teaching. It boosts morale, self-confidence and productivity.


Overcoming Cultural Barriers and Conflicts with Korean Teachers and Students, and defining the role of the GET.


Being the only foreign teacher in a public school can be a most overwhelming experience. One is given a certain ‘celebrity status’ by the students and staff, often asked to give a short speech and ushered around to meet dignitaries. It is fair to say that as a GET you are seen as a valuable commodity. I found this quite flattering in one sense, but also difficult in establishing my role in the school. Was I seen as a bona fide teacher by my fellow Korean staff? What role should I be assuming ? the fun, crazy, informal English teacher, or the slightly more traditional teacher that I might have been at previous schools in the UK?


Korea has a long history of passive learning and my present teaching style and methodology differs greatly from this. Role-play, card games and interactive activities form the structure of my lessons and although I see them as productive methods of language-learning, some may be skeptical of my pedagogy. Some may view them as ‘fun, frivolous games’ and not necessarily serious learning. It took a while to ascertain where my co-teachers stood on this, and I am happy to say that all of them value the slightly theatrical style. Culturally, it seems that ‘Fun’ and ‘Education’ do not sit side by side ? it is merely an observation and I could very well be wrong. Perhaps this is more a global issue than a Korean one.  However, I have noticed that many of the classes work with minimal noise, compared with my relatively ‘noisy’ and boisterous lessons. Do they see this as productive learning or discard it as ‘entertainment’ with no real educational value?


It is difficult for a GET to establish their role. They don’t have half the responsibility weighing on their fellow Korean teachers, they are not held accountable if the curriculum is not completed, nor are they responsible for the students’ grades. It is a unique position to be in which allows much flexibility in lesson planning but which also attributes to the difficulty in defining their role as a respected teacher.


This quest in defining the role of the GET begins in the classroom with the co-teacher. This is a relatively new experience for me. I have taught alongside Support Teachers who play a vital role in assisting students but a subsidiary role in frontline teaching. Team-teaching with another qualified teacher was something I was not accustomed to. No guidelines were given and I assume my co-teachers would have seen it as unprofessional and offensive (thereby damaging my Kibun) by instructing me how to do it. This fumbling in the dark caused some stress on my part. With hindsight, I realize that this is equally a new experience for the Korean teachers. None of us knew how to fully benefit from having two qualified teachers in the same room, one a native speaker of English. This filtered down to other areas of teaching, such as discipline. Every teacher has a different discipline style to create a particular atmosphere and culturally, our discipline strategies vary slightly. Which of us was to act the disciplinarian? Who should have a stronger presence? Would it undermine the authority of the other? It was an issue we skirted about. The students sensed this uncertainty and were equally confused as to who they should be listening to.


I have found the NIIED publication of “How to teach in Korea 2” (October 2007) an invaluable resource and stumbled upon it in my co-teacher’s shelf. As you are aware, it gives insight into the difficulties both the native and Korean teacher of English experience and offers sound solutions. Having instant access to this material would have saved a lot of frustration and difficulties on my part as I realized that the problems I was experiencing were all ‘normal’ and ‘expected’. I was also delighted with the strategies it offers in overcoming these problems.

Detailed planning and communication has definitely helped in this regard. Sometimes it is not feasible, but going through the lesson plan with the co-teacher and asking for their input has helped immensely. It gives me a chance to adjust my lesson plan accordingly, and for the co teacher involved to question some of the content so they are not ‘put on the spot’. We have also started doing more team-teaching where the co-teacher leads part of the lesson. Since doing this, issues of discipline have diminished and the class environment improved. It is a work in progress.


How the students have responded to the more active learning has also been interesting. Passive learning (ie ‘serious’ learning) is what they are accustomed to and in the beginning a handful would ‘switch off’ during my lesson, or relax to the point of putting their head on the desk despite the activities! Their reluctance to speak English and low self-confidence in the language has definitely affected their attitude towards it. Many a time I have heard them exclaim, “I no like English. No speak English”, and yet their written work is up to standard. This is no surprise when the emphasis and assessment focus is on reading and writing, not speaking and listening. Unless one uses it, it is like learning a dead language, such as Latin! The motivation for learning the language is gradually lessened as it is seen as merely a ‘paper ?language’ on paper, and not real and dynamic.


Students in Korea are most definitely exam-driven using summative assessment. Unfortunately, this has led to a culture where the belief is, “If it’s not part of the exam, we don’t have to do it”. This emphasis on the curriculum is a problem UK teachers are experiencing too. If they deviate from it, many of the students feel the material as not as important and problems ensue.

 As a result, my lesson planning runs concurrent with the textbook. This is a tip I read from the NIIED publication mentioned above. Together with the materials from the textbook, as well as resources from numerous ESL websites and books, the lessons are always related to the topic they are doing, but there is flexibility to include other activities in the lesson too. 


How can we improve the English Program in Korea?


I have heard about various programs such as the TALK program recently created and am sure there are many more. Masan Middle School seems to be the forerunner in the English Program in the area and I realize a great deal of funding has been injected to install software and build the facilities. I am aware that the government intends to provide all Middle Schools with an English Only classroom to help promote and boost the image of the language. I find it an extremely exciting initiative and look forward to being a part of it.


Running after-school English Programs and having extra-curricular activities is a necessity in raising the profile of English in a school. This is where the GET can most effectively be used.  English Conversation classes should also be made available to Korean teachers who wish to attend and I realize this IS the case in many schools. Many of the Korean teachers are reluctant to use their English (having not had the opportunity to practice it), and this attitude filters down to the students.


Workshops for both Korean and Guest English Teachers are a must and I understand these do take place. Both teachers need to be introduced to more dynamic and innovative ways of teaching English as a team.


The extra-curricular activities, the workshops and the presentations are taking place ? there simply needs to be more. However, I would like to raise some issues, the like of which, I’m sure having been considered in the past.


Setting versus Mixed Ability


There are many different schools of thought regarding setting. I am not advocating for ‘streaming’ to take place, but rather a more subject-specific way of differentiating the more able students to those who need more intensive help. I strongly feel that the English Program will greatly benefit from this. No matter how good the teacher, nor how much they differentiate the work, it is very difficult to meet all the needs of every student when their abilities are so diverse. Practically, it would require a complete overhaul of timetable setting. Culturally, it could be met with adversity. Pitching lessons for ‘middle ground’ ability results in the more able students getting frustrated and the lower abilities feeling utterly lost. It is an issue I am sure EPIK has been considering, but one I feel should most urgently be seen to.


Intensive language-learning environments


The most effective language-learning takes place in small groups. In this environment, the student has more opportunity to practice the language and the teacher can more readily correct them and help them improve. One can be fairly limited in suitable, engaging activities when there are +35 students per class.  This is obvious. How can we overcome this?


Within the lesson, the GET and the Korean teacher could divide the class into two and each work with half the class. In terms of noise levels and availability of space, on a practical level, this is fairly difficult.


Earlier on I was describing the difficulty in the GET defining his/her role in the school. Perhaps an entirely new role should be created? In my experience, most foreign teachers take every class in the school over a span of one or two weeks. What if the GET rather extracted no more than 12 students (same ability) from a class and worked with them intensely for that lesson? It would mean they see them fewer times a month, however, the learning taking place would equate to several whole-class lesson times.


Teaching in South Korea has been a most challenging and wonderful experience. I have been here but 3 months and am excited about the many months to follow. Excited about how I can improve my own teaching and see the students become more confident in using the English language; excited about finding new strategies in working with the co teachers; excited about what I can learn from my school in South Korea and help build my own professional development. Not a day has past where I have regretted climbing on that plane heading for Masan. In some ways, every expectation has been met.

And in many ways, the ‘unexpected’ is what has made it all the more worthwhile.

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