Friday, December 09, 2011

SMOE to Phase Out Native English Teachers: Turnover, Gatekeepers, and Alternate Sources

Long post, so... SOUNDTRACK TIME!
Hit play and start reading: Suckers: "2 Eyes 2 C"

So SMOE is talking about getting rid of its high school English teachers, which has, of course, sparked outrage and shock in all the familiar places. Talking about education in Korea is always a sure way to get tongues (or keyboard fingers) wagging, and the K-blogosphere has been true to form, with every bit of grist flying off the mill in every direction (try here, for starters). Much of what's being said now has been said before (some just a few days before) so I'd like to tie together what happened on one blog post, with some of the talk about the new SMOE decision, and toss a few ideas out there for the sake of discussion.

The Context

On Tumblr, a blog post titled (at the time) "What do Koreans Really  Think About Native English Teachers" asked one Korean. A new title helps the post make more sense, but it kicked off a storm of 80+ comments: Girl and the World probably didn't expect this. She's been conscientious about responding to comments on and off her blog (here, for example), and clearly underestimated the hornet's nest she'd stirred up. So go easy on her.

I linked this comment on her piece, which tells a story I've heard too often: awesome, dedicated, well-liked teacher... leaving Korea. There are different reasons:  bureaucracy, coworker crap, people in the street giving the stank-eye, curriculum insultingly beneath their training, coteachers embarrassingly unprepared to work with an NET, age discrimination, gender discrimination, race discrimination, a terribly low ceiling for advancement and pay increase, and even education office foreigner-handlers treating them like backpackers, idiots and criminals... bottom line: great teachers are leaving Korea. Too many great teachers are leaving Korea. And Korean education policy makers need to figure out why, and stanch the bleeding.

The Tumblr link prompted a conversation between Burndog (Korea's most famous blogger, and an indefatigable dragon-slayer in his own right) and a few others, which you can read here, here, and here. (It's a little hard to keep track of Tumblr conversations if you're not used to the format. It might be hard or confusing for all you wordpress users. Hint: scroll down.)

The Commentary

This Chosun English article has been linked the most, and it cites the cost-benefit of NETs.   That article mentions a survey: "A survey conducted for us showed that Korean teachers with outstanding English and teaching skills are more effective in the long term." If that survey is this survey... "Parents prefer 'Capable Korean Teachers' over Native Speakers" Burndog rightfully points out, no shit, sherlock. Anybody'll take an awesome capable teacher, all things being equal... but are the Korean teachers who'd replace NET's the English teachers described in the survey? Not necessarily. I want to know the wording of their description of a Native Teacher. Meanwhile, this report on that same survey gives contradictory results  -- "60 percent of students were happy with native speakers' lessons, compared to 55.3 percent said for Korean English teachers" -- so while people would like to have those mythical high-fluency, well-trained, proficient and awesome Korean English teachers... that's not who they seem to be getting.

Forming educational policy based on surveys make me uncomfortable... especially surveys that have possibly loaded questions like "Would you rather have a capable, highly fluent Korean teacher or a  foreigner who knows fuck-all about teaching in your class?" -- which probably isn't exactly how the question was phrased, but I'd nevertheless appreciate some transparency on how that survey was worded, if SMOE is going to make a radical decision like phasing out native teachers in high schools, based on it.

And really, I'd rather educational policy were developed in consultation with education experts, through analysis and research, not through populism and polls of people who know nothing about pedagogy and language learning, or who are thinking about the College Entrance Exam rather than the global marketplace, when they state their preference for Korean teachers.

January Wedding: by The Avett Brothers. I like this one. It's sweet.

The Turnover

I want to highlight I'm No Picasso's post in response to Girl And The World's interview, because most of it totally fits this topic as well. The first seven paragraphs pertain more to the "Girl and the World"  interview, so if you're not invested in that, skip it. But once INP gets into it, she's makes her point beautifully, and I recommend you go read her whole post, "On Being a Foreign Teacher"

Here are some of her best parts, but you really should go read the whole thing:

But the part that I just really cannot abide is this notion that foreign English teachers are pointless. I am so sick of hearing that, from both sides. I'm so sick of hearing foreign English teachers talk about how they are made useless in their classrooms, and I'm sick of hearing it out of the Korean media...

Take any teacher in the world in their first year of real live classroom experience. No matter their qualifications or degrees or certificates. Observe the mistakes they make, and how utterly inefficient they are bound to be at times. Now, take a group of teachers who primarily exist within that realm, and judge them by that reputation. What does that end up looking like?

If fully qualified, 100% fluent Korean English teachers were rotated in and out as quickly as foreign English teachers are, the entire system would probably be in shambles.

And it would be so amazing if Korea could afford to just kick out every inefficient foreign teacher in the mix, and carry on with some kind of imaginary abundance of grade A educators. It would also be amazing to see a lot of the terrible Korean teachers I've worked with get the boot, as well. But it's not going to happen. Because this world has more students than it does good teachers.

...come sit in on my class sometime, and I'll show you what I really do. Until then, I don't want to hear what you have to say about it anymore.

If the average Native English teacher in Korea stays less than two years, it's no surprise Native English Teaching is a mess: the first two years, and especially the first year of teaching are where people take their lumps and learn from their mistakes. Obviously, if the system is not paying enough to hire teachers with experience away from their teaching jobs elsewhere, or keeping them here once they come, we're going to get that revolving door of incompetence, near-competence, finally-competent-but-about-to-leave-and-be-replaced-by-another-incompetent.

Would paying a little more and offering full teacher status, rather than assistant teacher status, and a little job security, and maybe opportunity for promotion, really ultimately cost the system more than the recruiting and training of a constant flow of new teachers does? Hard to say. Has that possibility even been looked into?

My Questions

From here we can talk in circles for a long time (and have), here are my questions, and then my solution:

I apologize for using "Korea" here as if all Koreans and Korean bureaucrats were a monolithic, one-minded mass.

1. What are Korea's goals for having Native Teachers in high school - or any - classrooms?
(note this quote: "Personally, I think Korean teachers are more helpful in preparing for exams" - if that's their purpose, fire whitey. They'll never compare with Koreans for teaching the test.)

2. Is Korea willing to pay market value for the competitive teachers they seem to want in classrooms, and complain about not having? Enough to lure them away from their teaching jobs in other countries? I bet Saudi Arabia has some great English teachers, and keeps them for as long as those teachers are willing to live overseas, because the pay is off the hook there. So far Korea seems content to settle for warm bodies who are willing to teach for the lowest of lowballs they can offer.

3. Who are the gatekeepers choosing cheaper, less experienced and qualified teachers? Who is holding them accountable, or why are they not being held accountable? As Teachacrajy says, on NET's being blamed for ruining Korean education with their unqualifiediness: "Who the hell hired us?"

Feist: Gatekeeper

4. If native teachers disappear from high schools, how will SMOE and the Seoul government help less-advantaged kids, who can't afford hagwons (which will doubtless pick up the slack here) get exposure to native speakers of English, and the benefits that come from exposure to other cultures? Because the underprivileged are going to be the ones missing out on the Native Teacher experience (if we agree that the native teacher experience is an inherently valuable experience).

I mean, if they don't care about those benefits, just be honest enough to admit it.

My general assessment: not enough culpability is put on the gatekeepers, and in general, with English native instructors in Korea, as with anything, you get what you pay for.

My Solution (Pie in the Sky)

And finally, my solution... hold onto your hat. And to qualify: I've never taught in a public school... so you're welcome to ignore everything I say. I'll even kick off the comments to that effect.

Yes, Korea should work to retain the kickass teachers that are in the system. And incentivize teaching in such a way that it's worth it for good teachers to stay -- that they can imagine having a career, and even a family, and have a respected role in Korean society, through teaching in public schools, as Korean teachers do. Make it rigorous to qualify for that stream (it is for Korean teachers)... but make it worth the rigors. Right now, many people find the just visa rigmarole too much trouble to bother staying longer, much less think of building a life here.

Expats and native speakers should be put in charge of the curriculum native teachers have to teach, and native teachers should be training the other native teachers. What they do shouldn't be on the CSAT test, and Native English class time should be sacrosanct: you can't steal the English class to practice the school concert or do extra test prep. That there's never again a "training seminar" where a Korean bureaucrat with poor pronunciation a manual out loud, word for word, to a room full of teachers who vary from completely new to years-veteran. That part of the curriculum should be kept separate from the test stuff the Korean English teacher is doing.

And (sorry, guys, but...) yeah. Get rid of the marginal teachers. The ones who were hired because SMOE, or GEPIK, or whoever, needs to fill a quota of warm bodies. Send them back home, or into the hagwon system. If they don't have training in English, Linguistics, TESL, or Education, if they can't even spell the word "pedagogy" and they've never taught a class before, if they can't pick an intransitive verb out of a list or spot a comma splice, they have no place in Korea's public schools sullying the reputation of the teachers who are good at what they do, and give a damn.

And to fill those spaces?

Bring in trained, native speaking TESL educators from the Phillipines, from India, from the Middle-East, from English speaking countries in Africa, and other non-first-world countries. The hagwons and the demanding moms will make sure that whitey always has his/her place in Korean English education, but the variety of skin colors and accents in public schools will give kids a perspective on English as a global language that nobody in Korea gets right now, without traveling abroad. They'll probably take less pay - maybe quite a bit less - than the marginal native teachers they're replacing, and still be doing way better than the job they'd have had in the Phillipines, or India, or Nigeria (all countries with generations of first-language native English speakers), as well as teaching better than some greenear with no background in language or education... and probably act a little less entitled to boot, which I'm sure would suit the school administrators just fine. Have them be trained and managed by the kickass teachers three paragraphs ago, who'd have the power to decide that this or that school doesn't get a native instructor next year, if they start pulling funny stuff on those teachers. Rotate teachers among schools, so that students get a year of an Indian accent, a year of a Scottish accent, and a year of a Farsi accent during middle school. And make the benefits, promotions and pay available to Western teachers for being awesome, and staying, available to those teachers, too. For the same pay, once you become a manager... the system will flood with EXTREMELY good educators from those countries, pitching for that kind of a position.

Kids get the qualified teachers they want, administrators save in the budget, Korean students get a totally new look at what it really means for English to be a world language, teachers get trained and managed by people who understand their issues, and have a reason to stay longer, so that native English classes aren't so often a gong-show of first-year mistakes. Everybody wins.

And to any Ministry of Education officials who read this: you have my permission to steal my idea and take credit for it, which, as we all know, is the last element missing from this plan, in order to actually get it implemented.


Roboseyo said...

Roboseyo, you have no idea what you're talking about. Why don't you herp derp back to Canada and flip burgers and birds for cookies and turds, and stay out of Korea's education system.

It's clear you have never worked in Korea's public school, because you completely forgot the following important details.

Anonymous in Daegu said...

Throughout this post you refer to public schools. Is this just a catch-all term for elementary, middle and high schools? I ask because private schools also receive large amounts of government funding, and native-speaking teachers are placed in private schools. In Daegu for example, every high school, public and private, has a government-supplied, government-funded native-speaking teacher (save for the physical education high school).

I'm no Picasso said...

You know, hilariously enough, every time something like this has been dispersed amongst the public via the media first, it sounds like a steaming pile of hysterical bullshit. But then when the MOE itself finally speaks out, what they have to say always seems more rational.

What we're hearing now is that all that's going to change for sure are the high school teachers, which we already knew several months ago (and, also, that the MOE may try to reshuffle those satisfactory high school foreign teachers around to fill in the MS/ES gaps). And that all the MOE is working toward is a focus on quality over quanitity. Which suits me, personally, just fine.

Now. Who knows how much of that is true and how much of it is in reaction to the stink that's resulted from all of this, but it sounds a lot better put that way, doesn't it?

You know these fucking "news" organizations, though. Sometimes i think they must file through literally dozens of Korean teachers to find the one who's going to give them the semi-negative quote about foreign teachers. Parents, as well. Maybe everyone's constantly lying to my face, but neither group seems to have any interest in seeing the foreign teachers go, as far as I've seen. And the number they did on that survey and the effect it's had is just incredible to me.

The timing of the "what Koreans really think" post hitting the community in English was just terrible. There was no way it wasn't going to hit a nerve.

The way the MOE is talking is like they are ultimately trying to find a way to do what I would like to see them do, which is to trim down the native speaking teachers to only those who really can do their jobs. How they're going to manage that..... well. It'll be an interesting two or three years.

Roboseyo said...

Good question, A in Daegu.

The original article was about SMOE, and as I mentioned in my disclaimer, I'm not enough of an expert in Korea's public school system to be able to break down how the case would be different for those different schools.

Perhaps you'd like to?

Anonymous said...

As mentioned over at Gusts of Popular feeling, you've got a "left wing" Seoul government that has decided to take away native speakers from the poor kids so they can give free lunches to the middle-class and rich ones.

It'd be funny if it wasn't so f'ed up.

And as you mention, the hagwon owners couldn't be any happier about all of this. Hell, they can probably start cutting salaries if there's a flood of NET's looking to stay in Korea.

"The way the MOE is talking is like they are ultimately trying to find a way to do what I would like to see them do, which is to trim down the native speaking teachers to only those who really can do their jobs."

Sure, and they've always thrown out this line of bullshit when everybody knows that given a choice between a first-year teacher and say, somebody with a decade of experience, an MA, and a TESOL cert, they'll go with the younger one because he or she is cheaper and/or more handsome/prettier.

To my mind, to really understand the Korean government's decision-making process, you have to wrap your mind around this chestnut -- NET's are a wholly political issue in Korea, and have nothing to do with education.

Dan said...

Rob, what you've referred to in your solution harkens back to some recent readings that I've been doing in my grad school program program on intercultural awareness/instruction:

Baker, W. (2011). From cultural awareness to intercultural awareness: Culture in ELT. ELT
Journal. doi:10.1093/elt/ccr017

Fantini, A. E. (2008). Implementing cultural and intercultural exploration. Essential Teacher,
5(3), 12-13.

Jenkins, S. (2008). Adopting an intercultural approach to teaching English as an international
language. Essential Teacher, 5(4), 19-21.

For completing my M.ED (TESOL) I'll receive zero benefit from the Jeollanamdo public schools, JLP, because they do not adjust the benefit scale even if you've completed a TESOL and M.Ed with your own money while working for them, as I have done.

While I agree with the idea of intercultural education for the purpose of teaching English as an International Lanaguage (Koreans are using English in interactions w/more than just native-English speakers), the lack of professional development and lack of extrinsic incentives for being a good teacher here are laughable.

J. Blake Coco said...

"Expats and native speakers should be put in charge of the curriculum native teachers have to teach, and native teachers should be training the other native teachers."

The first part of this proposal is laughable ... and scary. I doubt most NESTs could do better than the curriculum provided, especially on their first year or two of teaching.

The second part is exactly what happens in the TALK program and with great results. But, again, I don't think just anybody can train another in how to be a teacher.

To the "great-teachers are leaving Korea" crowd ... please, the percentage of "great" and "kick-ass" teachers in the SMOE or GEPIK or any other program is insanely small.

Of the many facts that get overlooked in these send-the-dirty-teachers-home crusades and the inevitable expat/teacher backlash is that great teachers don't come to Korea; they are made in Korea

Anybody with a mess of the right qualifications doesn't come here to work for peanuts and to be treated like crap for a year. If someone is, now, going to be leaving, it's not because of this. These people already had one foot out the door.

Kick-ass people come to Korea because they want to, heard it was cool, or had a friend talk them into it; they stay because they exist outside of their classrooms and find a way to make it work. Mostly importantly, they don't get on the net and whine about every logical and necessary cut in a crappy ESL program.

A lot of what is going around is hot-air hysteria and people angry that they might have to prove their teaching worth (unlike their perceived worth, education worth, criminal worth, and medical worth).

Roboseyo said...

I'd never recommend that, Coco. And you've done an artful job of misreading my post if that's what you think I suggest.

There are teachers in Korea's public education system who have advanced degrees, along with years of experience, teaching ESL in Korea, who'd do a really good job of designing a curriculum that suits the strengths of native teachers in Korea, and achieves Korea's goals for English education, in a way that's appropriate for the Korean system, and suitable for the classroom conditions NETs can reasonably expect at their school. Fortunately FOB chem majors aren't the only teachers working in Korea's public school system.

The rest of your comment, about great teachers being made in Korea... is bang-on. That's absolutely true... though there are teachers who'd stay longer, and continue their learning curve of awesome longer (even if not forever), if the conditions were more amenable.

Anonymous said...

"Anybody with a mess of the right qualifications doesn't come here to work for peanuts and to be treated like crap for a year."

Actually, this kind of describes me perfectly. I had a few years of teaching experience and a subject-appropriate M.A. The Catch-22 of getting a college gig in Korea is that you're in much better shape if you're already here (no need for airfare).

So I taught hagwon for a year and in the meantime networked myself into a college position.

Just sayin'. I wouldn't call myself a great teacher, but I am a pretty good one. I've learned a lot about the craft in Korea, but I wouldn't dismiss the college and high school teaching I did in America.

Everybody has a different story I guess.