Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My first Educational conflict in Korea...

So I've been at Cheongran All-Girls' High School for three days now. I haven't taught the last two days nor today since the schedule for my first grade advanced English students has not be finalized yet.

But already I've come into a very interesting conflict...Not only am I completely team-teaching (like literally back and forth with my CoTeacher for the entire 50 minute lessons), doing lessons solely from a textbook, and having very little opportunity to supplement the text with my own lessons, but I am in quite a quandry when it comes to sticking to my educational principles.

I am, it seems, not really needed for any speaking skills. Regardless of the entire purpose of having a native speaker (to get Koreans to actually SPEAK English with a live foreigner and to build confidence in that skill), I am needed only to provide the American cultural element to our lessons...Oh, and by "American cultural element" I mean a "fun video" at the end of every lesson. ><

(I should mention that I was already a little disappointed with the fact that I have to completely team teach anyway...and from a text. It seems there was a struggle to get a foreigner teacher into my school last for the first time last year. Most of the English teachers believed (and still do, in fact) that ETAs and EPIK teachers just play games and that this has no real benefit to their students' English ability. It is because of this misconception that I believe I am not trusted to teach any class on my own - since my students will obviously not benefit from such an instructor...sigh... There may also be some element of the Korean English Teacher being able to manage the classroom better. Basically, "foreign teachers cannot control their own classes and keep students on task" more or less. This last point hasn't been made explicit by my CoTeacher, but I think it may also play a part in the way she and others at my school view foreign english teachers. I should also point out that other ETAs around the country do not have this same situation at all. It varies TREMENDOUSLY! But for my own situation, I am kept under quite a tight leash.)

My main goals, the reason why I came to Korea to teach was because Koreans overall lack the ability to speak English with confidence and proficiency. They can read and memorize vocabulary like little English robots, but they do not know how to speak. My goal with my students was to encourage these skills through practice. My goal was to make them want to learn English and SPEAK English on their own. I wanted to instill in them a genuine personal interest in speaking a different language. I wanted to be a teacher that told them they could learn this difficult language. They could succeed and speak with a foreigner. I wanted to expand their conception of what it was possible for them to achieve. They could do it! In Korea, I might have been the first teacher to even say those kinds of things to them...I knew that I couldn't "get to" every student, but even one would have been enough.

But now it seems I may have to re-evaluate these goals. Or at the very least think of ways I can do these things outside of what is now a very controlled, text-based (ie: reading- and listening-based) lecture classroom...

CoTeacher came in today and told me that the Vice Principal (a lovely man by all accounts!) criticized them for the girls' English scores that came in today. Supposedly, they aren't so good. Basically, for me this means that we will be doing a lot more reading and listening than what we had initially planned. She says they need to improve their vocabulary, and that practicing speaking is good - but not as important. Classic teaching to the test basicallySo I tried to make a case for the inclusion of the vocab they need to know in speaking exercises and getting away from using the textbook all the time ...(since its obviously not making a difference).  And CT was like, "Well, really we blame the students. From this area, their quality is not so good."


That kind of thinking just totally flies in the face of what I fundamentally believe about education...I know deep down, that even though not every student is as good as the other, EVERYONE CAN LEARN! They just need to find their own motivation/style to learn and decide they want to learn on their own. So I tried to explain this idea and the whole "life-long learner" thing.

And she just nodded.

So... I suggested that I could find real articles or live interviews that discuss the topics we are learning and rephrase them for reading practice and make fill-in-the-blank worksheets for listening practice. I tried to explain the concept of getting away from the textbook as a motivation factor and creating excitement. Like, weren't we always like HOORAY! when the teacher said.."ok, let's close our texts and do something different." I told her in that moment we can be teaching exactly the same things as the textbook, but since we've just made a more exciting  environment, maybe the vocab and grammar and whatever the kids need to know, can stick! Also - emphasizing speaking the words can get students to remember too. Even our Korean Language teachers were always like, "Your brain likes your voice" during Orientation at Jungwon. I totally proscribe to this...

...Still she didn't buy it. "Well, the students are changing. They do not study as well. And they do not want to listen when we teach." Which of course I can see...Young koreans are becoming more and more like young americans in the classroom. But still, I just don't jive with that "blame the students" mentality. I told her, maybe to help the students, the teachers should try to change what they are doing and come up with new ideas. Which she agreed with...she said it earlier herself when she was explaining the initial problem. But, she seems to think that the only other way you can teach without a textbook = playing games. Which is to be avoided at all costs. UGH! so frustrating...

Anyway, its interesting at the very least to have my ideals about education come into direct conflict and try to work that out. I really just what's best for the students. But obviously, there are very different ideas about what exactly is "best" for students and how to get them to achieve that goal.

Married to text vs. let's try something new and engaging...We'll see which wins in the end! Or more likely, which kind of marriage of the two I will try to strike up in our classroom.

Comments on this appreciated!


  1. Hey Meredith! Mina here. I'm so bummed to hear about your situation. I thought to myself many times during orientation "meredith is going to make an awesome teacher". I can just see how well your energy and enthusiasm would go over in the classroom and i'm sorry to hear that they aren't letting you utilize that! It must be very frustrating, and they for sure don't know what kind of opportunity they are missing out on. That being said, I don't think a better person could have been put in a situation like this. I think your very drive and determination to give the students a fun and different experience makes you the most capable person for this job.
    I know in my case, I came to the realization today that some of my students just aren't going to be at a conversational level by the end of this year. But if I can make class fun, and if something sticks, then I will be happy. I should feel lucky that my school staff gives me a lot of creative control, but sometimes I wish I could help the students more directly with their upcoming exams...(I'm on the flipside of your situation where I don't want to become the "game teacher").
    Anyways, just wanted to say stick with it! I know you'll work it out, I'm sure about that. Good luck and keep in touch!

  2. Thanks, Mina! I'm positive I'll make it work too...I'm too optimistic to do the opposite. But I appreciate the feedback! Keep me in the loop on how you manage in your situation too! :)

  3. booooo korea.

    ps at least your not having earthquakes

  4. Meredith,

    That is really frustrating, especially after all the time you took to plan the way you wanted to instill those values for life-long-learning.

    My suggestion would be to start off going by the book, and then gradually slip in your more creative means for learning. Perhaps if you present your ideas (in collaboration with your coTeacher) in presentation form to someone with authority, like the principle or whoever is crazy about the scores, then perhaps you could get them to see why what you want to do is so important for confident and happy individuals. It's a nurturing approach that korean educators should consider as part-time care-takers of the young women of korea, after all!!

    Anyways, just be persistent and you will persevere. Don't give up or get down on it. Everyone knows that you of all people can achieve your hopes, so go get 'em.

    Talk to you soon
    hugs and snugs (even though you don't like those)

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  6. Meredith,

    You're situation is really shitty, to say the least. But I'm not surprised by a lot of what you're saying. Korea is NOT known for creative teaching methods; in fact East Asian countries, because of their Confucian tradition, have been criticized for not supporting creativity in their students by education researchers. Lots of factors play into this: the fact that Confucian principles of respect for elders and "teacher knows best" discourages students from questioning and voicing opinions in the classroom, the nation-wide curriculum that leaves little wiggle room for teachers to instruct outside the box, and the fact that East Asian countries have the largest systems of standardized examinations in the world means that basically all subjects are taught to tests. It doesn't help that often times, being a teacher that is "different" can get you into trouble with parents and administrators.... Korea is changing in the right direction, but the Confucian ideals are so engrained in their education and societal institutions, it's going to be a very gradual shift.

    There's a BIG however, though. Korean teachers are all about mentoring and often times teachers become much more a part of their students' lives beyond the classroom. The teacher/student relationship in Confucian ideology is considered an extension of the mother/child relationship. Try to get to know your students on a more personal level and from there, your students will probably develop a comfort with you, which will ultimately lead to more communication (in English) between you and your students and they will able to develop better speaking abilities.

    I'm not quite sure what to do about your co-teacher.... I had no idea that you wouldn't be teaching the class on your own. Sounds like a typical Korean teacher though. But I guess, given the information I gave you above, I'm not surprised that she is like that. East Asian education is almost completely opposite of American education. But from your facebook status, it seems you are making friends with Korean teachers; that will surely help! Hang in there, Meredith! I'm sure you'll succeed in achieving your goals!

    <3 Hanna

  7. Oh! And I'm not saying that the Korean education system is poor or anything like that! Far from it!. Besides some set backs like the ones you are observing in your experience, it's pretty damn amazing. It's HIGHLY supported by the government (Korean government spends a greater percentage of their GDP on education than any other country in the world). Also, Koreans, because of the social and family pressures to succeed, have an amazing work ethic. The criticism is that the Korean way of rote learning and memorization (teaching/studying/learning to a test) isn't enough for a high quality education; they need more encouragement to be creative and individualistic. That's what I meant by "Korea is moving the right direction."

  8. Meredith,

    I stumbled upon your blog because it turns out your new host sister is one of my Elementary school students and since she added me on Facebook, I wanted to see what she was all about and what do you know, I'm not her only foreigner friend! That being said, sorry for being a stalker, but I really have a knack for it, so I just embrace it.

    One thing I saw work in teaching situations and heard from other foreign teachers is a bit manipulative, but not to the extreme. I assume you co-teacher is older than you and ultimately has more years in education, correct? In this relationship, sometimes it's simply necessary to present situations as if they were the elder teacher's idea. Example: You take a look at the upcoming textbook material and develop a more educationally appealing way to present the material, maybe even create a nice PowerPoint or worksheet. Then in a conversation with your co-teacher simply state something along the lines of "I remember you said you wanted to try teaching this section in a slightly different way. One that would account for well researched teaching practices. I thought it was a great idea, so I made these materials! Will these work for our next class?"

    Depending on how true to her Korean roots the teacher is, she'll likely want to save face and agree that she in fact did have that great idea and who-would-have-thought you've just made the perfect materials to assist in presenting this idea, why not try it out!

    I had this happen w/ two co-teachers. One I had emailed a suggestion for splitting our planning responsibilities, two weeks later she presented the same idea to me as if it were her own. Another teacher finally suggested using some of the class-time to work with students in leveled groups after I'd suggested it two or three times, she just wanted to be the one who made the decision and appeared to have the good idea.

    Not sure it'll work in you situation, but it may be worth a shot!