Why Korean teachers teach English in Korean
I recently read an interesting article by Sang-Keun Shin with the great title “It Cannot Be Done Alone”: The Socialization of Novice English Teachers in South Korea (abstract here, but you need a subscription or university access to read the full text).
The article looks at why young Korean English teachers, many of whom speak English very well and who have been trained in Teaching English in English (TEE, or TETE), nonetheless switch to teaching English in Korean once they get into Korean middle- and high-school classrooms.
The push to have Korean teachers teach English in English began with the revised seventh national curriculum in 2008, which emphasized learner-centered instruction, task-based lessons, and TEE. The Ministry of Education sees it as a path towards Korean teachers being able to teach without assistance from native speakers. As a native teacher in Korea, I’d previously only come across Teaching English in English in the context of foreign English teachers being phased out of Korean schools, such as in this article from the Korea Times:
“It is practically impossible to maintain the current number of assistant teachers, as the city council has already cut the budget. Moreover, the number of young Korean teachers who’ve studied abroad have increased and the certification for Teaching English in English (TEE) is now widespread, so the quality of the English classes will not drop,” said an official.
Perhaps this is why native teachers tend to be pretty hostile towards TEE. Some quotes from eslcafe.com:
“I have to laugh a bit about the TEE theory. While it’s nice – in theory, I wish I had a 1000 Won note for every time I’ve heard a KT give instructions in English that I can’t understand. Or as my KT requests of me, ‘can you check the pronounce?'”
“The younger Korean teachers do have many more among them who can use English well enough to do TEE than in the past – if they wanted to. If they had the desire to do it and the discipline to follow through —- but they don’t. Few of them do.
“The bulk of them still won’t teach English in English — especially at the high school level.”
– or perhaps its just because, by universal agreement, TEE doesn’t get implemented in classrooms. The Korean teachers may be trained in teaching in English, and their English may be good enough to actually do it. But once they get into classrooms, they teach English in Korean.
Shin’s study began with 21 new English teachers selected for their near-native English ability. Of those, three were eliminated because they said they taught in English more than 40% of the time*. *Although truthfully that doesn’t seem like very much at all, to me… 3 others were excluded for other unimportant reasons. The following table lists how long it took for the remaining 16 to give up on the idea of TEE:
What I found most interesting about the article, however, were the reasons given for not teaching English in English. Contrary to the perceptions of native teachers, it has nothing to do with it being “too hard”, or their English not being good enough. It has everything to do with school culture and the Confucian hierarchy. None of the teachers cited a lack of English proficiency as a reason.
Some of the critical incidents quoted in the article are heartbreaking. A common problem mentioned was that students were so encultured into a drill-and-memorize method of learning that they complained when their teacher tried to introduce new methods:
A few students came to see me after class and asked if we could stop doing group work. They thought the progress of the class was too slow and wondered if these activities were even relevant to the exam. (Critical incident, Hyang)
In March and April, I taught almost completely in English. In reading instruction, I focused on grasping the meaning of the text. I devised questions in English and fostered cooperative learning. Then, I heard that the students were saying that there was nothing left inside their heads after my class. And they were quoted as asking to please, please,
just make them underline words, study phrases, and memorize vocabulary.
(Critical incident, Sue)
While teaching reading, speaking, and grammar, I at least tried group work. For some reason, certain classes really did not like group work at all and asked for just lecture-based teaching. They did not want to move around and asked to stay in their seats. I was completely deflated. Now I understand why the students acted that way, but at the time it was really hard. (Interview, Hye)
Many teachers describe incidents of hostility from principals and senior teachers:
One day the senior teacher came over to my desk and told me that, after exams, students might complain if my material is different from the other classes. When she asked me, “Do you have enough time to cover the course materials?” the insinuation was “You’d better stop.”
(Critical incident, Soyoung)
Not a single teacher was practicing TETE. I realized teaching in English would be nothing less than a declaration of war, like saying “I’m different from you people” and “I’m good at English.” At first I did it surreptitiously. But the students were unenthusiastic and uneasy and I felt awkward around the other teachers. I started wondering “What have I gotten myself into?,” and could not keep it up for long.
During speaking instruction, I had an activity where students moved around the classroom interviewing each other. After class, the vice-principal summoned me. I was told I should teach quietly, and that other teachers’ classes had been disrupted. I was almost in tears with chagrin, being regarded as a dumb novice. (Critical incident, Eun)
This last incident strikes a chord with me, because I once saw an almost identical incident happen to my co-teacher. She was an excellent teacher, and had prepared a terrific open class which focussed briefly on revision, before getting the students to make a dialogue by filling in the blanks (controlled practice), then finishing with a twenty minute freeform role-play where the entire class had the chance to simultaneously activate their English in a natural context. It was a perfect lesson and my CELTA teachers would have loved it – but halfway through it the principal started glowering and complained to the head teacher. I never found out why, exactly – the head teacher, a kind woman, refused to pass on the criticism – but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was for the same reasons outlined here.
Finally, a comment from one teacher about how different standards are applied to the native speakers:
Unless you’re really prepared to be a lone wolf and have very thick skin, teaching in English is difficult to do. At my school, it seems like the native-speaker English teacher is the only one who can do whatever he wants in class. Everybody thinks, “Oh, he is a native speaker, anything goes….” Sometimes I even envy him. (Interview, Minah)
That English education in Korea has a problem due to a culture of teacher-centric teaching and teaching for grammar and vocabulary-based tests is not a revelation. It is probably the single most common observation native teachers make about English education in Korea. And it usually comes with that attitude of smug superiority that I find so grating when I listen to (most) foreigners talking about Korean culture.
Instead, the thing I took away from this article was different. To me it is a reminder of something like what Liz at I’m No Picasso wrote about in one of my favourite blog posts of hers: your co-teachers have problems you don’t know about, and are also affected by the ignorance and high-handed attitudes of the school hierarchy. “They’re dealing with a lot. And I feel like we really owe it to them to be as understanding in return as we can manage. But you can’t do that without knowing and understanding all of the things they’re up against, as well as a few things they don’t always know how to explain to us properly, because they’ve never experienced our point of view.”
In short, if your co-teacher uses a lot of Korean in class, take a moment before making a snide crack about how they can’t even teach in English – the reasons may be more complex than you have imagined.