Monday, March 26, 2012

ATEK is Dead; let's Bury it: What Next

This is part two of a two-post series about the demise of ATEK. Please read Part One first.

What next:

First thing:
I'm informed that all ATEK's e-mail addresses except the two still being used by the two active officers, have been deleted, so all e-mail records are deleted with them. If ATEK is to be retired, I think a fair thing to ask is that the ATEK website forums be closed, and all the website forum member data stored in the member IDs be deleted, so that I know the information I entered into ATEK's website or sent to the membership officer when I joined, won't appear elsewhere. I don't want to get random e-mails from god-knows-who saying "hey. You signed up for ATEK, so now I'm here to tell you about OUR English teacher thing." I'll sign up for THAT one if I'm interested. I haven't received any e-mails from ATEK in about a year, so it might be that the e-mail addresses have already been deleted. I'd be happy to have confirmation of this. The person who has been in charge of membership in ATEK over the last year and some is the single person involved with ATEK whom I respect the most for being honorable, honest, and ethical in the way he's carried out his ATEK duties, and his duty has, all this time, been to protect the private information of those who signed up for ATEK. If he confirms that ATEK has officially erased the member data he has, frankly, I trust him.

If another group wants to get started, I think it's best that they start with a blank slate anyway: I'd hate for them to inherit anything else along with ATEK's member data, but I fear that's exactly what would happen if a group decided to revive the idea of ATEK while using ATEK's member data. There's no need to keep that around anymore.

Second thing:
ATEK has to go. The name is toxic. The next organization needs a new name and a fresh start. Let's have no illusions about that.

Third thing:
As I wrote in 2009, in my "On Ugly English Teachers and Racist Korean Journalists"series, the English teaching community is fractured, disconnected, and a whole splayed out web of different needs, according to region, time in country, connection with Korea, type of school, nation of origin, and more. We are far, far less than the sum of our parts right now.

Yes, there are facebook groups, meetups and other informal organizations, and that's good; however, when some politician or journalist chooses the (still) politically easy road of scapegoating English teachers, there (still) isn't any group who can form an articulate, coherent response, and that hurts the English teachers ATEK was trying to represent... and all of us. I have very different ideas about expat community now than I did when I was writing about it so much in 2008 and 2009, but as long as there's no Korean language pushback when the Anti-English Spectrum, or any old Korean journalist or politician runs our name down, the situation won't change all that much. So, unless you like invasive drug and blood tests...

Something is needed.

Fourth thing: 

In the piece I linked just above, I wrote about how long-term expats seem to often go native, to stick to their own, perhaps tired of dealing with the turnover, which means the expats who have the time in country, understanding of the culture, and most of all, language skill, to really lead the charge, often end up looking out for their own instead.

And I'm sorry to say that with a wife and a kid, I now fall into that category. I wish well to anyone who wants to start something, I'll give you some advice on Skype or over the phone, but I won't be at the next KOTESOL conference signing people up for whatever somebody forms. I'm tired, and I already gave it a shot, and somebody has more energy and enthusiasm for it than I do. Somebody without a kid.

I've got a kid and grad school on the pipeline, and many of the friends of mine who were E-visa English teachers, whom I thought of while doing ATEK work, have repatriated, to be replaced by people I don't know, who are way younger than I am, with whom I don't always feel a great deal of connection, and frankly, toward whom I don't feel much obligation, when my baby's smiling at me from across the room. I've become one of the "gone native" expats I wrote about in 2009, and I don't identify myself as an English teacher anymore. The expats I connect with now are usually connections because of their blogs or their long-term status, not because of shared English-teacher status.

So... send me the e-mail, I'll link to the website and the press release, I'll even chat from time to time if you want to ask about how ATEK handled/mishandled a situation that's occurring in the new organization (if you ask nicely), and I'll send anybody who inquires along to you, but don't expect much more from me than that this time. I jumped with both feet, twice, for ATEK - once with Equal Checks, and then again as Communications Officer, and those stand as the two most stressful times in my whole life in Korea, so... I've paid my pound of flesh, and now I've got a family to look out for.

The English Teacher's organization that will succeed:

In looking at the nature of the native English teacher scene in Korea, and the ways ATEK failed and/or almost/could have succeeded, here are some features of the organization English teachers need, that will be able to successfully help English teachers:

1. It will not be one monolithic organization, but a series of affiliated organizations.
Public school teachers.
Elementary school teachers.
University teachers.
Teachers in Jeollado.
Teachers in Seoul.
Teachers from USA.
Teachers from Ireland.
Hagwon teachers in general.
Adult hagwon teachers.
Native English speaking teachers.
Long-term expats.
F-visa holders.
Non-native English teachers in public schools.
Non-native English teachers in hagwons.

and so forth.

People will be members of more than one of these groups (obviously) some may contribute to only one of them, some energetic, optimistic people, will probably help make decisions, or advise, for numerous groups. All groups should look with suspicion on anyone who tries to become an influential part of all of them.

A series of less rigid organizations will be better able to serve the information needs of the different subsets of teachers in Korea, it won't put too much pressure on one person, it will make it harder for English teacher-hate groups to target the leaders, it will make it harder for someone with ulterior motives to try and exploit too many people at once, there won't be any list of all the members in one place, and it will make it easier for each group to articulate the particular needs and concerns of those different subsets.

These affiliated organizations should be loosely enough linked enough that they can each act independently, but closely enough linked that when one group has a pressing need, the other groups can speak in support and solidarity, and keep members abreast of what's happening in other parts of the landscape. Also... closely enough linked to spot someone trying to exert too much influence in too many groups. Because that happens when volunteer groups are concerned.

2. Built for ease and speed of communication.
It might be as simple as a series of twitter accounts that all English teachers in Korea can follow: that would be enough to inform people about changes and concerns, to send people to the links and articles that might interest them, to alert people about petitions or changes in law, or to muster a few people with the Korean skill to translate a document or part of a document, in order to keep everyone informed.

3. Information exchange, not mobilization or representation, will be its main stock in trade
Let's be honest. There have been so many groups trying to create an "all-in-one Expat Korea source" that there's no need to create another. Except perhaps for this one, which is all you need. There are so many blogs and forums discussing English info, and the scene changes so frequently -- a blogger moves to a new host and all his old links go dead (I'm talking about you, Chris in South Korea); the laws change and a formerly dead-reliable page goes outdated; a recruiter closes his/her website; the laws change again, the most informative blogger repatriates -- that there's not really much point in trying to pull it all together in one place, because three months later everything's changed.

But the main thing these groups will do is get vital or useful information, tailored to the specific group, out to that group.

It will get information out proactively: "how to make sure you're covered by health insurance" is a much more important message to send out, than "raise funds for this guy who got hurt and doesn't have health insurance" -- we're responsible for ourselves.

4. But representation will be a limited part of it, and mobilization might be a VERY limited part of it
What kind of representation? Not the "ATEK is the only organization representing over 20 000 Native English teachers in South Korea" overstatement-type... but, for example, a set of Twitter accounts and blog connections, leading to a survey monkey survey that can help add a line like "80% of the 3000 English teachers surveyed strongly oppose this new law..." in a press release... that kind of representation, and the resources to GET that kind of representation, would be fantastic, and if it's links to surveys rather than all-in-one groups with membership lists, presuming to represent, the risk of vainglory goes WAY down.

5. Long-term Expats, F-Visa Holders and Koreans will Provide Much of Its Stability and Continuity, While Short-Term Expats will Provide (Either Some Or a Lot Of) Its Energy
Because it was easiest to verify membership with E-visa holders, ATEK put its main stock in the most transient of visa-holders. This led to a lack of institutional continuity that hurt ATEK a lot: loads of half-finished or barely-begun projects, tons of great ideas with no follow-through. Meanwhile, a few jobsworths (or maybe just one or two) made it unreasonably hard even for very willing non E-2 visa holders to get involved in meaningful ways. This was one of the biggest mistakes ATEK made. A successful expat organization will have long-term expats as the engine of its strength, and the long-term connections, both formal and informal, between them, will create a frame on which those with good ideas can hang their efforts.

6. It will not duplicate what other groups and websites already do, but send people to the places already providing information and services for English teachers, expats, and anyone.
'Nuff said.

So, if you have ideas about what an English teacher group needs or should be, weigh in in the comments. I can't think of much more boring than beating the dead ATEK horse, because that boat has sailed, but if people are interested in new organizations, in forming something more useful, feel free to put a link or an e-mail address in the comments, where people can reach you.


Roboseyo said...

From the beginning, and the reason I hopped on the early ATEK train, was that I felt we needed a Foreigner Anti-Defamation League of sorts. Like you said, someone to send Korean and English language press releases with data to back it up. An organization to be vigilant when the press, lawmakers, and hate groups create more negative stereotypes of voiceless foreigners. An organization that can legally use Korea's anti-defamation laws to publicly denounce entities that publicly harm foreigners so that the public is aware that xenophobia is immoral, sleazy, ignorant, and repulsive.

Roboseyo said...

I read this with great interest as I am doing my doctoral research on the management, leadership, benefits and "image" of ELT organisations in Korea. 

I can confirm that at least 2 ATEK emails remain active (Membership and one other) and the other person (no names here) suggested that ATEK has over 2000 members to me earlier this month (but refused to give me any more details when asked politely). 

I agree that we probably need a "federation" of organisations to meet our real needs best, but I am looking at "established" and "relatively new" organisations to see what each has to offer for its members and potential members. 

I would love to talk to you about your experiences with ATEK (and maybe one or two other people you suggest). 

Thanks for a very thought provoking article  

Roboseyo said...

I'll post a mea culpa here - for anyone reading that wondered what happened, the transition from Chris in South Korea to Travel Wire Asia was not a particularly smooth one. I hate to say that I'm just now realizing this - after the transition, I did a few random searches and everything seemed to be in order... In any case, I'll get on them to see what kind of patch-up job can be done. Everything is still up on, so Google cache is your best friend here...

At the risk of sounding like I have time to dedicate to the project (I really don't!), I could see a new organization taking the shape of the 'I Can Haz Cheezburger' network. I'm serious here, Rob - one well-known website where the flagship runs, with significant sidebars detailing the various departments. Twitter accounts are good for real-time updates, but the anti-defamation league stuff would require a front-person able to give quotes and stats - reliably - within 12-24 hours. 

To be frank, though, people are pretty tapped out. My girlfriend jokes about how I'm always needing another project when there's already a blog, a book, and at least two photographic endeavors on top of the teaching job. Having a kid and grad school is draining, I can imagine, and most anyone of a leadership nature probably has a few other things going on as well. 

The next question might be this: what model for outrage can be copied? Most foreigners aren't able to participate in protests, political speech, or anything that could be interpreted as such. The locals typically don't care, don't proactively look for information, or don't share our motivations - who is bound to listen and create change?

Roboseyo said...

When you always have the option of jumping on a plane and returning to your advanced western nation, there's little motivation to stay and fight and join groups that organize it. The 3D workers, on the other hand, are a model. They got their heads bashed in by Korean riot cops to get rights. But for many 3D workers, a night stick to the head is better than going back to Bangladesh.

Like Joe, based on his interview with one of the original spokespeople, it seemed a brilliant idea. They had big plans. Their plans got side tracked, I thought, when they latched onto the "checks for all". There seemed to be some expats there on spousal visas that didn't want those checks (for whatever reason).

Roboseyo said...

The same thing happened when Koreabeat moved over to "Asia Correspondent"

I wouldn't say PEOPLE are tapped out... though the people who have thought of putting something together for English teachers are now doing something for their schools, or along other venues, than some national organization, and the people who got involved in ATEK are generally tapped out, or have moved onto something less frustrating. I met some of the people who did stuff like that to help English teachers while I was in ATEK... but never had the time/support to coordinate them into something during my time with ATEK, because of inner politics, etc. Meanwhile, they've probably looked into ATEK and the bad press it gets, and decided to direct their energy elsewhere.

But I still pretty firmly believe that out of 20-30000 English teachers in Korea, there are enough out there with the energy and skills to develop or contribute to a useful set of teacher's organizations that are well designed to funnel their energy directly into results. If there are people with the time/energy to write ten pages of comments on Dave's about why each other are racist, or to write some of the excellent blogs that keep popping up, there are certainly people with the energy to contribute to something that would accomplish a tangible good. ATEK never quite managed to become that kind of organization for more than a short while at once.

As for outrage models... riot-gear-type action probably won't work or happen, and it certainly won't win us sympathy for all the first world college grads to put on red headbands and scream about being downtrodden: we're not a natural fit that for that narrative anyway, and the Korean media's narratives about English teachers have run pretty much completely counter to that, unlike migrant workers. But we're language teachers, right? At least a few of us must be good enough communicators to be able to put together a public relations campaign framed in terms that Koreans will be sympathetic toward, that would gain traction with a few politicians who see that working WITH English teachers to improve English education in Korea might work better than scapegoating them.

I've seen some presentations of those kinds... something like this, from ATEK's website...
the message is good, and WOULD find sympathetic recievers,, but the delivery system was lacking (lack of bilingual allies: cf: ATEK focusing on the most transient English teachers groups, with the lowest likelihood of being bilingual.)

Roboseyo said...

There were some personality issues, and the original spokesperson's communication style toward some of the people whose support he should have been courting was one of the first points where ATEK shot itself in the foot. And then those allegations... 

Whether the checks campaign would have worked out better if it had been better explained is a mystery we'll never know, by the time the whole thing was framed as a E-visa vs. F-visa issue, ATEK's undoing had begun...

but while ATEK DID focus more on E-visas, framing things as F vs. E visas wasn't ATEK's idea: it had been brought into the discussion by a journalist who had a pre-composed narrative he introduced to the discussion:

Roboseyo said...

Thorkor, send me an e-mail - I'd love to chat with you sometime. chrisinsouthkorea AT
From another angle here... Korean politics is nasty and messy, and few politicians step out of the party line for any group of people - especially if they're not their own constituents. Being that the vast majority of foreigners can neither vote nor participate in political activity, there's little need to court 'the foreigner vote' in the same way an American politician might court 'the Latino vote'.
If there's any one thing that Korea hates, however, it's looking bad in international press and  publications. It's bad for business, on one leve, but also distracts from the new whiz-bang thing put out by Korea, Inc. This hypothetical organization, as one of its goals, could raise the issues to publications that can't as easily be censored or muffled. Places like the Washington Post do occasional stories on Korean life, and I wonder about Canadian papers, English papers, South African magazines... We do come from several other countries, and a story affecting a Irish person getting screwed over is a natural fit for, say, the Irish Times. I could even see the New York Times doing a story about the group's foundation and successes a bit down the line.
But yes, bilingual and facts of the reliable nature are two essentials.

Roboseyo said...

Feel free to drop me a line - my roboseyo email address will do; you can find me on facebook as Roboseyo as well, but if it's part of a study, you might want to meet in person as well. Feel free to contact me and we can figure out some time to meet/talk/whatever.

Roboseyo said...

I'll be honest, Chris, that I don't think the fear of being embarrassed in the international press is a big enough one, or sustainable enough, or simply DIRECT enough, to cause an actual change in Korean policy. First of all, the only media outlets that really cause consternation are the papers of note in major US cities -- Chicago Tribune, LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post... that's probably about it... even if we had all the most connected expats in Korea calling in favors (and why would they for English teachers), I don't think they'd have enough favors to call in to cause enough sustained embarrassment to drive voters to push politicians... 

Rather than the rube goldberg "shame through international press" indirect route, I think the most powerful alliance English teachers could make is with parents of kids in the education system... who ARE stakeholders, and who vote, and who are just as interested as English teachers in their kids' safety and quality education.

Building that connection will require language talent, and a little coordination... but the areas where our interests converge are obvious, and if you think about it, efforts to build trust with the moms is a no-brainer.

Roboseyo said...

We've talked about this before. The best model for advocacy would be a Korean-language service, likely a Twitter, that discusses education from the perspective of foreign English teachers, not discrimination. Anything that's done in English won't be very effective: it'd be like Indian engineers in America advocating for changes in visa policy, but doing so entirely in Hindi.

I've gotten positive responses on Twitter when I've written about the absurdities of the E2 visa process and linked it to English education. This Tweet, which I wrote after getting the results of my third drug test in four years, got 31 retweets, which probably means that tens of thousands of people saw it:!/a_ahmad/status/164621760342409216 

There is a positive role that we can be playing in discourse about how to improve English-language education: get away from the grammar translation model, focus on more productive classes with writing or speaking components, create a clearly-defined role for native speakers in contrast to the current policy that starts and finishes with background and drug tests, and so on.

If anyone is interested in doing something along these lines, please contact me.

Roboseyo said...

I get what you're saying that you don't have time in your own life right now to take something like this on. Having been a nanny I understand what having a baby does to a family and people's outside interests.
However, I think it's unrealistic to expect those of us on E-2 visas who may only be in-country for 1-3 years to be the ones to pick up the slack. We have less invested in whether Korea is a good place to work for foreigners. Yes, I get upset when I hear about new ridiculous regulations. But if I turn around and realize that I've been here for 6 years (I'm starting my third now) someone better kidnap me back home. Korea isn't my country. Someday I'll return home. Which is not to say that I'm sitting on my ass. I put on Shakespeare plays - that's my thing to do while I'm here. But I can't get excited about creating a long-term organization to fight for foreigners' rights in Korea when another such organization just apparently failed. I think that people on the F-4 visas and long-term people are actually in the best position to advocate due to their greater stability in the country and understanding of Korea and how it operates. I'm only just now starting to understand how one really gets things done here.

Anyway, I appreciate your blog - and always read it. You're definitely already contributing in your own way. But sometimes the person with the most passion about an issue (and you seem to have a hell of a lot of passion about this one) is the right one to take it on, even if it's not something they think they want to do.

Roboseyo said...

I thought I was pretty clear that long-term expats, of whatever stripe, will need to be involved, JH77... but unfortunately youre   incorrect about my level of passion: while writing things on the internet comes pretty easily to me by now, the energy I had to invest in this effort has all been spent, and I'll be an observer from now on.

Roboseyo said...

Chris and Roboeyo,
Thanks for agreeing to let me meet with you in person. I will contact you both shortly to arrange times and places to meet you and talk about your ATEK experiences.

Having read all of the comments so far, it is pretty clear to me that no one organisation could meet the needs of all the concerned parties (as you mentioned in you original blogs) but there needs to be a clear separation between "professional" groups for educators, teachers, Professors, and so called ELT LTOs (or other professionals with a stake in the making the educational environment here better for all involved) and the social groups that serve to meet the more day to day social needs of Expats and other here in Korea. 

No one organisation should set itself up to do both of these (or pretend that it can do so). An umbrella group of loosely affiliated groups, as you mentioned, is the way to go based both on my experiences to date as well as my research thus far. 

These groups and their members would also have to respect and value the other groups and their members as well - and that seems to often be an even bigger issue at least with what I know of the various local groups and how they behave towards each other. 

Roboseyo said...

any new ATEK should not be involved in publicly visible movements, e.g. protests, rallies, solicitation of members, etc. rather a new organization should be an internet one, yes grassroots, but through the internet. and not for change, but for education and sharing of resources. i don't want to see another forum, another cluster of email addresses attached to egos. these things only helped build the ATEK wall bigger and bigger and succeeded only in dividing the community. 
i also don't want to hear about a teacher organization, as alienation of Korean and long-term NESTs was just a fraction of the problem. ATEK was paranoid from the beginning, insisting that you HAD to be a REAL teacher to make a contribution. it's sick that people still approach this as an expat teacher thing which needs some sort of organization to advocate its rights. that's just way, way, way wrong and selfish.

it would be more beneficial to all if a new organization sought to increase awareness about working here, yes that includes the kind of resource sharing and tweeting Roboseyo has mentioned, but also to begin to make inroads into the fragmentation of the education industry and to increase the communication between everyone who makes a living from it. keeping expats in the loop about a new immigration policy is just a tiny sliver of that. 

ATEK was so teacher focused and so "man is on our backs" about everything, what rose up and what most of us took part in was in fact a very exclusive little organization. 

another thing that is always lost in any 'what went wrong with ATEK' discussion, everyone forgets how naive we all were when ATEK started. everyone made mistakes because nothing like it had been done before. the ECFA campaign probably seemed like a good idea, but no one thought that a government answer would be to impose checks on all visas. the sheer ignorance of looking at the blowback from that perspective was probably the most damaging blow to ATEK. ATEK then didn't listen when a few people said "don't", instead (speaking heavily of TH here) they differed responsibility for such an outcome while claiming any change would benefit the community as a whole. 

i still see a division of people based on visa class. i get a lot of this from E2 holders who seem to think my life is gold roads and gingerbread houses. the ignorance of that assumption needs to be overcome as much as other forms of visa bias (particularly against F4 holders). then there's the ongoing disrespect of non-white, non-Western ESL teachers in this country, not just by native Koreans who think a white teacher is better, but by fellow ESL teachers. 

it's too easy to approach all this as an 'us' and 'them', that's what ATEK did in its founding and continued to for a long time. any new organization has to include everyone and not allow such divisions to form AND swiftly eject members who do draw that distinction. 

it's a daunting task and likely not a possible one except through strictly local movement (where one is in the company of trusted neighbors) or an  online movement (where labels are voluntary and anonymity affords one respect not rooted in identity).

i'm on the fence about how much i could give or even want to. i fought for over a year to join ATEK and was kept out by the "teacher only" clause. when i was finally let in, it was a mess fast becoming a quagmire and shortly a Titanic. the whole experience was fairly bitter. 

thinking about it this year, now, tonight, whatever i will do, it will be more backseat this time. a decentralized effort for a decentralized organization. 

Roboseyo said...

ATEK failed because I created the spark that killed it.