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The future of teaching English in Korea, part 2: Current and future trends

Students walking away
blue dot
Jan 14 2014

This is the second and final part of my look at the future of teaching English in Korea. Part 1, looking at how competitive it has become to find a public school job in Korea, is here.

One of the things that started me thinking about these posts was this article on the “Golden Age” of teaching English in Korea. The other inspiration was my own effort to find something a little more permanent for myself in Korea; something beyond the endless series of one-year contracts and one-room apartments offered by the public school system.

The “Golden Age” of teaching English in Korea

I wasn’t around for that supposed Golden Age of 2005, but even so, I’ve seen many of the changes mentioned in that article since I was first in Korea in 2009. I particularly noticed a change between when I went home in 2010 and came back again a year later. In my first year in Korea, it felt to me as if the life of a foreigner in Korea was a privileged one. Within the school system, I seemed to live an almost unaccountable existence. Anything I did was alright with everyone; I didn’t have to come to school if the students were on vacation, or a field trip, or had tests. Outside of school, too, my friends and I seemed to be treated as often as not with a sort of deferential awe. It was generally believed that if we went to a restaurant, we would be seated at the front windows so everyone could see that foreigners approved of the place. Korean-American friends I knew made it a point to talk in English when about to enter clubs, in the belief it would get them free entry.

When I came back again a year later, Korea felt different. There was still some of that deferential awe – there is still some of it – but there was also a lot more indifference, and occasionally a feeling of slight hostility. And I was never sure why that was, and had even half-concluded that it was a change in my own perceptions, rather than a change in Korea. However reading that post by Jason Ryan, seeing him and others in the comments section who had also perceived similar changes, made me feel that it probably was a change in an external reality, and not merely my own internal reaction to Korea.

If there was such a change, I can’t consider it a bad thing. We are not intrinsically better than anyone else and shouldn’t be treated as such. I think it is just that over time, Koreans were exposed to a lot more foreigners. Some of them were polite and kind, some of them were drunken louts. None of them were gods. Just the same, I won’t deny that it was pleasant to live that charmed, barely accountable existence.

And here is the reason I am talking about all this: I think the Korean government’s attitudes towards native English teachers have followed a similar path to that of the public’s. They began believing native speakers were some sort of elevated, magical beings who would dispense fluency like blessings; but then it turned out the English teachers were mortals, like everyone else.

Some history – what are all the English teachers doing here?

I could write a lot more about this, and quote a lot of sources and the like, but I might save that for another time. This is the quick version of how there came to be so many English teachers in Korea, and how Koreans became obsessed with learning English. If you’re interested in exploring these issues in more depth, I recommend Jeon’s Globalization and Native English Speakers in English Program in Korea (journal access required).

Simply – after the Korean War, Korea’s economy was a mess. It developed rapidly from that point, due, in part, to a series of government-directed 5 year plans focusing on areas of the economy in which Korea could enjoy a competitive advantage. In the beginning, this advantage came from a supply of cheap labour; the first of the economic plans, for instance, focussed on the textile industry.

By the mid 1990s, Korea was a developed country. At that point, the government could no longer just pick an export industry and throw cheap labor at it. So, with the maturation of the Korean economy, the government’s emphasis shifted towards making Korea a globalized, competitive country. In 1995 this policy shift was announced under the slogan 세게화, meaning “globalization”. EPIK began in the same year.

One thing to note is that the public had become accustomed to accepting these government-set directions. Now, that being the case, a few things happen when you decide to promote knowledge of English as a means to becoming a globalized country. One is that you define English, by implication, as a monolithic, external thing, which native speakers own and which you need to acquire access to, rather than as a global lingua franca which everyone owns equally. This means that you need  to acquire some of those native speakers, who are positioned as being intrinsically superior. Another thing that happens when you position English as a necessary requirement for being a “global citizen”, and emphasize it in the education system and in university entrance exams, is that it becomes a measure of class. If you’ve ever seen a Korean drama, you may have noticed that rich, sophisticated characters are invariably shown at some point as being fluent in English.

This resulted in a gap between the wealthy, whose kids had access to those privileged native speakers, and the less-wealthy – the so-called “English Divide” in Korea. So, in 2005 – note that this coincides with the peak of the “Golden Age” of teaching English in Korea – the Ministry of Education announced a “Five Year Plan for English Education Revitalization”, which included a “one native English-speaking teacher per school policy”.

Now the problem is obvious: just being a native speaker with a Bachelor’s degree does not, in fact, make you a great English teacher, or even a competent one. Throw in dropkicks only in Korea to travel, drink, and earn money, cultural differences in educational philosophies, and cultural differences generally, and this Great Experiment was always bound to disappoint.

Jeon puts it this way:

the South Korean government adopted the ideologies of English as a global language and the native English speaker as the ideal language teacher… The ideology of the native English speaker as the ideal teacher, readily adopted by the Korean government and people does not, however, grant native English teachers legitimacy as teachers in their everyday interactions with local Korean teachers of English and Korean students.

I think that what has happened in Korea, with both the Korean government and the Korean public, is simply a recognition of what should be obvious – native speakers are not divine beings with the power to dispense fluency and class. They’re mortals, with all the normal human failings. An accommodation to this was inevitable.

The reality

Let’s make an arbitrary division of what is, in reality, a continuous spectrum, and say that there are three types of native teachers in Korea:

1. The misfits, douchebags, and don’t-give-a-crap types who basically exploit the system and give everyone a bad name. I think everyone agrees that Korea would be better off without these people, but I suppose it’s not always easy to spot them in a Skype interview.

2. Teachers who “do their best” – They may have little experience or qualifications, but they do their best to construct entertaining lessons and relate to, and help, their students. I suspect that this is by far the largest of these three categories.

3. The “real teachers” – these may or may not have specific language-teaching qualifications, but they certainly have some experience teaching English as a foreign language – nobody is great in their first year. These are the teachers who really know their way around a language classroom. A quick rule-of-thumb for what makes these teachers different from those in category two: these teachers can effectively teach a class on a point of English grammar while keeping control of a class, without a co-teacher present.

The third category – the “real teachers” – would seem to be the most desirable. I’ve known a few of these sorts of teachers, both in real life and online, and they tend to have a couple of things in common. The first is that they were “made in Korea” – they didn’t come to Korea with those skills and qualifications, they developed into the job. The other common theme with these teachers is that they have plans to move on – they are studying for their Master’s, they are planning to study Korean at a university, they are planning to go home and get a teaching job there, or some other more ambitious job…

Because there is no job for them here. The job is for “assistant teachers”, and there is nowhere for them to go in the school system. The pay scale maxes out after five years, and there is no higher position for them to be promoted to. They might wish there was, because they usually enjoy their jobs, but it’s not likely to happen. Korean teachers have jobs for life, which are very difficult to get and start off with very low pay; a system where the foreign teacher can side-step into this is not likely to happen (the same is true for the Korean contract teachers). The Korean government can’t limit themselves to that sort of professional teacher, either. There aren’t enough of them and they would cost too much. This is why those teachers are generally made here – and why they move on.

What does that leave? Those teachers in the middle. The ones who do their best, who the kids can practice their English on. And there’s nothing wrong with those sorts of teachers. Hell, that’s what most people imagine when they think of teaching English overseas: a transitory, not-too-demanding job you can do for a year or two after university. And those sorts of teachers can be effective. They can offer excellent pronunciation to kids who are at an age when they can still learn excellent pronunciation just by listening to it. They can use English naturally, which again is useful for kids who are still at an age capable of absorbing a language partially just by listening to it. They can be a fun, approachable figure who can make practicing English seem worthwhile. Teaching grammar and writing skills? They’re not so good at that.

In short, they’re good in elementary schools. And that, I’m sure, is why the Offices of Education are cutting middle and high school positions.

The future of teaching English in Korea

When I began these posts, I expected to confirm the conventional wisdom: that the public school programs are in terminal decline, jobs are becoming far more competitive, and that teaching English in Korea was inevitably on the way out. What I discovered was more nuanced than that.

What follows is more speculative. These are my best guesses for the future of teaching English in Korea:

I think there will be jobs for native English teachers in Korea for a long while to come. There are jobs for native English teachers in every developed or developing country. English as a global lingua franca will eventually fade, but those sorts of changes don’t happen quickly; look how long Latin held on after the fall of the Roman Empire. Things change more quickly these days, but even so, I wouldn’t expect English as a mark of status to disappear in Korea anytime soon; those sorts of social changes take time.

What has faded is the idea of English native speakers as special beings. And so salaries have declined towards something resembling a natural market price. EPIK, GEPIK and the other public school programs have also contracted. The programs have become more regimented, less people are hired, and positions are becoming limited to elementary schools, where native speakers with little training can make the most difference.

But despite what you read, particularly from recruiters whose interests lie in making public school jobs seem as competitive as possible, I don’t think it has become extraordinarily difficult for qualified people to find public school positions, and with the improvements in the unemployment rate in the United States, I suspect we’re not far off some sort of equilibrium between demand for English teachers in Korea, and supply of people who want and are qualified to do it. The primary motivation for people who want to teach overseas is rarely money; it is a desire to live abroad for a time. But in this, too, Korea has to compete with other countries, and as a desirable destination for people who want to teach overseas, Korea will probably never match Japan or Thailand in the public consciousness, just as it is a less desirable tourist destination. And salaries for China are fast catching up to Korea’s, with a much lower cost-of-living.

There has long been a tension between demand from parents for their children to learn English from native speakers, and a desire to reduce costs, or reduce the difficulties of employing natives, or protect Korean children from the mostly imaginary dangers of foreigners. It is also worth remembering that these budget decisions are made by individual offices of education, who represent different political parties and different electorates. While one province may wish to cut native speaking teachers, another is likely to be promising a native speaker in every school. The general trend is probably towards less positions, but that is not to say that there can’t be reversals of that trend, even if only local and temporary ones.

Excluding some sort of major moral panic, I expect the public school programs to follow the pattern of Japan’s JET program, which has declined from a peak of employing about 6,000 people, to currently employing about 4,000. Like JET, I expect the bar for entry to continue to go up a little, but not to the point where the jobs become unobtainable for reasonably qualified people who wish to teach overseas for a year or two; actually, I’m pretty sure this will always make up the majority of those who come to teach English in Korea.

For those who wish to stay in Korea, the possibilities are more tenuous. There are university positions for those qualified, and they’re not as hard to get as you sometimes hear them made out to be. They’re probably more stable than public school positions, but the wages there, too, are stagnant, and the truly good jobs in Korean universities – with tenure and high salaries – are probably no easier to get than they are in Western countries.

Put simply – there are still plenty of jobs in Korea teaching English, and I think there will be for a long time to come. But the “Golden Age” isn’t going to come back; nor are we likely to experience a subsequent silver age with less positions, but with highly qualified teachers who are paid accordingly. For the most part, Korea will remain a place to come and teach for a couple of years before people start their “real” careers.

If you want to stay here and make a life and living from it, you’re on your own. I’m still trying to figure that one out for myself.

Waegukin wrote these 2581 words on January 14th, 2014 | Posted in Teaching |


5 comments on “The future of teaching English in Korea, part 2: Current and future trends”

  1. Silver says:

    Thank you for this article! I have to admit, I was a bit worried about how everyone said the teaching positions were becoming scarce. I’m still about 3 years away from completing my degree, with a TESOL minor and certification. But it looks like I’ll be alright.

    It is something to think about, how you said most good teachers are looking to move on eventually. Even though I want to stay in Korea as long as possible, it’s not something I plan on doing forever. I already have plans for after a while, to either get a job as a translator or go back and get a master’s degree.

  2. The Waegukin says:

    Sounds like you have a plan, which is the main thing. I think the idea that some people have that they are wasting time by teaching overseas for a couple of years is incorrect – having lived and taught abroad for a year or two looks great on a resume. The only problem comes when people are content to do it for a really long time, without a plan to advance or get qualified to do something else.

  3. Erik says:

    안녕! I just read through you article and it was very informative. I’m just now starting on my 4th year in Korea. The first two I spent in a Hagwon, which I loved, and now I’m starting my 2nd year in a Girl’s Middle school, which I enjoy as well.

    I plan on staying in Korea for quite some time. Getting a uni. job would be nice, but it really isn’t my ‘main’ goal. I thoroughly enjoy teaching younger students and I am content with my pay. And, I’m always apt to go back to a hagwon, if need be.

    I taught in the states, have an Education degree with a focus on literacy, so, living and teaching in Korea is my cup of tea.

    Your comment, “For the most part, Korea will remain a place to come and teach for a couple of years before people start their “real” careers.”, rings true, I think, for many who come to Korea.

    But, for myself, and a friend who teaches in a public Elementary school, is married with twins, and plans to stay in Korea to raise his family …. we are in the midst of our “careers” and love it …. 😉

  4. Hayley says:

    I appreciate your views within this blog, and they have been helpful to me in understanding what I “hopefully” will be getting myself into in the near future.

    I guess my own worry is that I am of mixed-Australian/Filipino heritage, and in my early 30’s. I made the decision to go back and teach English in Asia later in life (after a brief stint in Japan 10 years ago). I just hope that all my hard work in obtaining my Bachelors over the past 6 years just to do this again will pay off.

  5. KCIRE says:

    One thing to also consider is the declining student population in South Korea. By 2015 and up to 2020, 40% of Korean schools will be closed because of low student population. To battle this, Korean Education system has started to recruit international student. All English universities are popping up everywhere with an all English Curriculum. Korea is trying to not only keep Korean students with money from studying abroad but also attempting to recruit neighboring countries to an all English education with a diverse foreign faculty. Now with that said, the position of Foreign educators specially those that teach subjects other than English will be in higher demand, thus making foreign educators who are fluent in English but can teach content materials more valuable.

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