In Seoul Public English Education, Everybody Loses — Again

Thanks to The Marmot’s Hole for the translation of this article.  Apparently, “students and parents preferred Korean instructors fluent in English over native speakers.”

Let’s just sidestep the issue of public education policy being left to parent and student surveys, rather than language and education experts. I kind of understand the policy decision to de-emphasize native speaking teachers as a key toward English proficiency for Korean students. Native teachers are very expensive to bring over. However, they are not the real problem. The real problem is an English education policy that mismanages personnel and fails to respect students’ needs, forcing parents to spend ever more money on the diminishing returns of a farcical hagwon industry. (Do I sound jaded and cynical, or what?)

Let’s address the elephant in the room, first. It’s apparent before you arrive in Korea that the vast majority of people TEFLing here are grossly un-qualified. Most haven’t even got a fly-by-night TEFL certification or any experience remotely related to teaching, let alone experience managing groups of children. Forget all the AIDS fear, drug testing and worries about “corrupting the youth” — most Korean kids are taught by under-qualified individuals. Yes, that included me when I worked at Avalon. (For those scoring at home, I no longer teach EFL.)

However, the wholesale sacking of mostly unqualified native teachers isn’t going to fix the problems with public English education in Seoul.  From what I can tell of friends’ and colleagues’ “work” schedules, the public EFL curriculum is a non-priority at many schools. They often go weeks without seeing a single class while student assemblies, test days and other events crowd English classes off the regular schedule. A common complaint on Facebook is, “the internet ran out of things to entertain me at work today.”

When these teachers do see the kids, it’s in groups of 30 or 40 who come once a week. Not a chance for anyone to form a rapport or give kids enough reps to justify having a native teacher on hand.

My own students describe public-school English as a one-size-fits-all failure. They lump kids together by age, not ability. This means kids who lived in Canada and can read classic novels in English sit next to kids who can’t pronounce a “z” sound or remember the days of the week. How is this helpful to either student? And remember, this is Korea, where saving face is a paramount concern woven into the fabric of the culture. Some kids will just be left behind by their own ingrained desire to avoid embarrassment. This is a public education policy that fails to respect the socio-cultural reality of 99.9 percent of students.

Dropping native English speaking teachers wholesale is also poor management of personnel assets. Yes, most are unqualified. However, for the few who are qualified and passionate about teaching, the public school setting is the only place that gives them flexibility and planning time to apply themselves properly, as well as a pay scale that respects experience and credentials.

Hagwon hiring standards, on the other hand, are bizarrely low throughout most of the industry. Teachers are replaceable cogs in a preset curriculum cleverly designed to take parents’ money. In most, any actual learning is a happy coincidence. Seoul students will now be deprived of the only qualified, enthusiastic EFL teachers and lessons they can hope to encounter. Unless …

This policy might help the hagwon industry since parents who want native speakers will still be able to demand it with their pocketbooks. Those public teachers who are qualified and enthusiastic will likely gravitate to the industry if they want to continue living in Korea.

However, unlike hagwon teachers, public teachers are used to having the flexibility in their curriculum to design effective lessons based on professional best practices: Lesson plans that integrate reading, speaking, listening and writing skills; and games to reinforce those lessons, keep kids engaged and make them think dynamically in their new language.

Hagwon parents don’t get anything like that for their money, nor do they demand it. As I’ve previously written, they demand more homework and bigger vocabulary lists, not creative lessons and teachers who make the language fun. Those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teachers with any level of enthusiasm will become soulless TEFL zombies in most hagwons.

In the end, everybody loses. The education system will become even more dependent on hagwons and their flawed educational environments, good teachers will leave Korea or have their souls sucked out, bad teachers will proliferate the system even further, and the needs of children will continue to be ignored.  They’ll lose sleep and stress out over a bunch of classes that aren’t designed to teach them anything, for teachers who don’t care about them.

–Daniel Daugherty

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3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Employment Details, News

3 responses to “In Seoul Public English Education, Everybody Loses — Again

  1. ron

    I guess my hagwon isn’t typical, it’s nothing like this description you give. I haven’t taught at multiple hagwons though so I guess it’s hard to have a huge wealth of first hand information on the subject. Perhaps I’m quite lucky.

    • Daniel Daugherty

      I know there are exceptions in the hagwon world and I’m glad you’ve found one!

      For the most part, though, the actions and curricula of the big chains (Avalon, Chungdahm, Topia, Poly) provide a model for what the smaller ones do, punctuated by the demands of helitiger moms.

  2. Very interesting blog here. All I can say that on behalf of the many souless teachers that are here (wink wink), that it’s not too surprising to see this happen. I believe that one day too this will spill on over to the Hagwon system as well, as the English language (like manure) is spread everywhere across this country.

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