On being a (foreign) teacher.

You know. I saw this first thing this morning when I woke up and logged on to my computer. And it kind of followed me around for the rest of the day. I made a brief response over on Tumblr, and have been thinking about what, if anything, I wanted to say about it here.... if it was even worth it to try to say anything about it here.

It's been an emotionally exhausting day (and, kind of, week) at work. Not because of my students' behavior (although I am doing the first real full listening and speaking spontaneous response class with my first graders this week, and that is definitely exhausting -- balancing the yanking of English out of them with the controlling of their Korean chatter, when they're not used to this format at all), but because of a number of horrible things that have gone on, including one third grader kicking one of my English teacher coworkers, the ongoing standoff between HT and the other English teachers, a couple of our students getting caught on CCTV blatantly stealing entire cartons of cigarettes from an old grandfather's store in the neighborhood, and our next year's student body president finding his mother dead in his apartment's bathroom this morning.

Horrific. And, on the other hand, the students have been mostly really great with their classwork this week, although I know it is by far the most challenging and difficult class they've had with me to date. Both in terms of their English and in terms of their behavior. And I've just been very happy with and proud of them.

And I saw that post and I just thought.... you know what? Fuck it. And fuck you, basically. I'm living here in the real world as an actual person and I don't have time for your fresh-out-of-university idiotic pondering of things you don't have the first clue about. I don't have to deal with your opinion of me or my life as a foreigner or my job as a teacher. You apparently don't even know how to digest statistics in a newspaper article correctly, so I'm not that worried about it. You're not the critical thinking type. It's fine. There are millions of your ilk back in my home country running their mouths about Korean immigrants, as well. And I wish we could just stick all of you and all of them in one country together, so that the rest of us could occupy the other country in peace. But life's not perfect, eh?

But I couldn't just blow it off. It was grinding away at the back of my mind all day.

I'm not even going to get into the drunken behavior/in-it-for-the-money arguments, because I don't really take issue with those. I am of the opinion that yes, a lot of foreign teachers in this country would do well to remember that they are teachers. And I'm never going to argue that people acting like dicks should be acting like dicks. You're a teacher -- don't act like a dick. You're an adult -- don't act like a dick. Koreans shouldn't act like dicks. Foreigners shouldn't act like dicks. Right? Sorted.

As for the money thing, well.... fucking duh. Most people in this world do their jobs for money. And most people in this world take higher paying jobs if they have the chance. What is the big bad point there? I must be missing something. But I'm pretty sure my Korean coworkers do their jobs because they want to have money as well. So?

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 --- funnily enough, almost never directly from a Korean, despite the fact that this article is supposed to represent what Koreans "really" think of us -- about how foreign teachers don't do any good.

Did you have a foreign English teacher who was a shitty teacher and impossible to understand? Who didn't care about their job and in whose class you felt you didn't learn a single thing? I'm sorry. Have you ever had a crappy Korean teacher who didn't care about their job, was impossible to understand and from whom you felt you learned nothing? I bet you have. I bet you've even had more than one. I know I had my fair share of crappy teachers growing up, and I know some of my students have felt that way about many of my coworkers, as well.

Like, for example, the one that one of them kicked this week. Who is a very nice lady. Or the other English teacher who the students decided to draw caricatures of for their English assignment last week, knowing full well they would be presenting them to the class (for which I obviously punished them, cutting them off at the pass before they could manage to show everyone else). Or the one to whose class students sometimes wander in up to fifteen minutes late, 75% of the class with no pen and no book. Or the one who the students literally shouted at for coming in the front classroom door during the middle of my lecture this week and interrupting.

Why are the students so angry at these teachers? Because they feel like they're not learning anything from them. That's the bottom line. My old co-teacher and I were discussing this rash of bad behavior at lunch yesterday, and that's the conclusion we came to. Because it goes beyond just misbehaving because they're not afraid -- it's just a touch vicious. There's an element of revenge in it. And it relates to the fact that they know the teacher is not doing what the teacher is supposed to be able to do, and they resent it.

Am I going to now talk about how useless Korean English teachers are? No. Because I'm not a fucking idiot. The truth of the matter is, teaching is not something that any person can do. It's also not something that taking a degree or any number of training courses can necessarily prepare you for. It's something else entirely -- it's so many other things, entirely.

It's knowing how to balance being in control with being patient. It's learning how to accommodate as many personality types as exist in the world, and all of the pitfalls and individual needs that come along with them. It's also learning how to control and influence a group mentality. It's knowing how to communicate, in a million different ways. It's knowing how to forgive and let shit go, and how to be firm even in the face of real tears. It's about developing a skin so thick that nothing can ever penetrate it, while also keeping yourself from becoming jaded or resentful.

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. That's the God's-honest the way that I see it. And that comes from my actual experience of having seen, at this point, dozens of first time teachers walk into the classroom for the first time, and the chaos that ensues for the rest of the school year. And from my own experience of having gone through it.

I'm the first one to stand up and say that the foreign English teacher evaluations should be strengthened. 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. That's the sad truth of the matter. And that truth is just not helped by the turnover rate, in the case of foreign English teachers in Korea.

I'm not going to try to explain what I do in my classroom, or justify myself as a teacher. Because I am not my own student, and I understand that that argument may not hold much weight, in the public view. But I will tell you this:

Even though I had been studying Korean for months and months, and even though I lived in a situation where I was surrounded by the language, by the time I came around to taking my very first Korean class, I was functionally absolutely useless with the language. I could barely understand a word, let alone a sentence. I was at a lower level than most of my students are in English.

And guess what? My Korean class was taught exclusively in Korean. Was it a struggle? You fucking bet it was. It made my head pound and it completely stressed me out. And for the first few weeks, I had to fight with all of my mental strength just to stay afloat. But you know what? I fucking learned. I learned more in those three months than I have in a year of self-study. How did that happen? Because Korean is easier to learn in Korean than English is? No. Because I had an amazing teacher. A teacher who knew how to read our reactions, bring things down to our level, phrase and rephrase, adjust and make us understand exactly what she was saying, even if we didn't actually have a single clue what she was literally saying. My teacher was about 24 years old. I didn't know much about her, but I wouldn't be shocked to hear that she wasn't a certified teacher. My best guess is that she had two things: a. the natural ability to communicate well with others and b. a lot of experience.

You can judge foreign English teachers for not being good at their jobs. For being lazy. For just not caring. But until you've given a good foreign English teacher a chance, it's probably best not to judge the entire practice. Maybe it doesn't work for everyone -- there's rarely a single teaching method which does. But I know for a fact, from firsthand experience, that it does work for some. Because it worked for me. And I bet if we all pooled our resources, we could find a number of our students for whom it has worked, as well.

I'm tired of trying to justify my presence in this country as a teacher in words. I'm tired of having the skill set I've been working my ass off for years to develop shat all over by casual observers or people for whom the system hasn't worked, one way or another, because sometimes all systems fail. If you really want to know, 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. Your opinion doesn't matter. Sometimes it's best to know when that's the case.


Moon Jinyi said...

Can I just hug you for a minute? *hugs super duper duper tight*. I've been reading your blog quietly for over a year now. You're an amazing teacher and your passion is inspiring. Keep rocking. <3

Anonymous said...

Here is another hug! I also have been reading your blog quietly for quite some time and I have nothing but respect for what you strive to achieve, as both a teacher and a person. I don't teach English in Korea, but I am here as a graduate student and the things you mentioned can totally be applied to my situation. Thank you so much for this post!

Lee said...

Well said. *I'm a long-time reader of your blog, although not very talkative. Keep fighting the good fight.

Anonymous said...

Just found you, thanks to Rob's Twitter feed.

Great write-up. We could stand to use a lot more balanced folks like you. Keep it up.

Sorry to hear about the horrific week though, especially in regard to the student finding his dead mother. No kid should have to go through that.

Erik said...

Native English-speaking teachers in Korea have an image problem and it isn't entirely their fault. Media helps drive public perception and for many years coverage of these teachers has mostly been negative. Not being organized (please don't bring up ATEK) the teachers don't have a voice. There's no one to refute allegations. There's no one to publicize the good things that these teachers do. The situation is rather dire.

My professional recommendation would be for a few native English-speaking teachers to try to befriend reporters at all of the first and second-tier newspapers. Take them out for drinks. Get to know them as people. That way when the stories get written, and the reporter asks: "Does anyone know one of these unqualified bastards? I need a quote for my story." A reporter across the room will speak up and say, "Ah, one of my drinking buddies is a native English-speaking teacher. He's not a bastard, really. You should talk to him."

It won't fix the problem over night, but making inroads into the Korean media and, thereby, being represented by the major force shaping public perception, will be a good start.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

This is a fantastic post, and I've been posting links to it everywhere I have time to do. Thanks for writing this... it redeems the headache of having read that original post, and all the stereotypes therein, to see this.

Hope your week turns around.

(word verification:
goadeamm - when you REALLY want to give emphasis)

Gomushin Girl said...

Amen. I've spent part of my day today reading a lot of fail and a lot of wrong, but this was a magnificent example of right.

And my best to your students and teachers, may things start to look up a bit.

karisuma gyaru said...

well said! *stands up and claps*

you've just hit all the right points and i agree with you on everything. man, there are shit teachers all over the world! and people in their home country who get into teaching for all the wrong reasons and should not be allowed to teach... but such is life... :(

in other matters, i'm sorry that you've had such a horrible week. and man, that poor kid...

you're such a strong person! i really admire you!!

I'm no Picasso said...

You guys are awesome and all I really have to say is that I'll definitely accept all the hugs and the encouragement. It's easy for people to casually kick this topic around when they're not personally invested in it. But it actually hurts a lot to have people call what you do for a living pointless and useless. Luckily, we have the chance to show our students and the parents of our students and our coworkers that we're not pointless every day.

Erik -- It certainly wouldn't hurt, would it? But it would be even nicer to become fluent enough in Korean to submit our own columns explaining what we do and why we're important, and defending our own reputation. More motivation to keep working on that, I guess.

All we can do otherwise is keeping doing things the right way and hope people take notice of that when they encounter us.

Charles said...

Unfortunately, you a fighting two huge biases you're a teacher and you're a foreigner. Too many people think that everybody can teach or that they can teach better than the teachers do. Yet there always seems to be a shortage of teachers. (And I'm not including "qualified" teachers.) In addition, the critics are easily critical, but rarely present solutions.

As a foreigner you will be one of "them." Foreign is different, and different can be uncertain, scary, threatening. Foreign can also be new, entertaining, helpful.

If the excessive number of foreign born English teachers is so bad then where is the glut of unemployed native-Korean teachers with proficiency in English?

I won't say a native English speaker is automatically going to be a better English teacher. You have to know English. You have to know how (or learn) to teach. You have to learn Korean language. You have to learn Korean customs and norms. But, if your students want to be better English SPEAKERS you can help in ways that a native-Korean speaker can't. You know the nuance of English speech. You know the syntax errors. You know the subtle differences in pronunciation. You can hear those variances and correct them. You can help to reduce the accent that Koreans know they have and are often (overly) worried about exposing. You can be that little bit extra that helps your students increase not only their knowledge of the language but also the mastery of it.

I've read reports that show that most teachers stop teaching after only a few years. The reason most often cited is "burnout". But I think burnout could be translated to "not what I thought" or "not what I want to do for the rest of my life." So, the fact that you continue with your career is a testament to how much you feel it benefits you as much as you feel it benefits others. And, the fact that you are teaching in a foreign country that does not learn English first, to me, further demonstrates your dedication and how important you feel it is.

Charles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles said...

Oh, and I found this thesis about teaching career paths (in the USA)

the link got truncated last time, so I chopped it up myself.

Kurosawafan said...

Really well-written article. I lived in Korea in the 90's as a college student. I glanced some of what was being taught in English departments in the public schools. It was pure nonsense and easily explained the complete lack of hardly any English speakers at the time.

Having come back 2 years ago, I was impressed at the progress they had made in this area. However, it sounds like what has happened is the media is once again shaping the point of view of the Korean public.

Having lived in several countries I can honestly say the the Korean media is among the best in the world. Not at reporting the news, but in their ability to make people believe absurd and obscure situations are the norm. Whether its all teachers being drunken rapists, eating a bite of an American steak - causing you to instantly die, or the IMF causing the real-estate collapse in the late 90's, the Korean people unfortunately sway with almost every ridiculous idea they print.

What good will come of this? If someone puts a little sugar in their gas tank - they don't learn anything. If they put a lot in their gas tank, they may lose a lot initially, but they are ultimately richer in the understanding of what NOT to do. One can only hope they at least walk away with that knowledge.

Esti said...

Thank you thank you thank you for this post!
I've gotten to your blog via Rob (oseyo) :)
I've been glued to my laptop since. My eyes actually hurt. Thank you for writing frankly, passionately and

Nathan said...

Fighting the good fight there; best of luck to you :)