I have tried to keep this analysis as objective as possible, however I feel it is important for you to bear in mind that many of the ideas I discuss are based on my experiences and those of people who I know, I therefore do not claim that what I discuss in this article is generalizable to the whole of, or even the majority of, NETs experiences in Korea.
Historical & Cultural Influences
To discuss the current state of English language teaching in Korea it is important to understand the historical and cultural background from which it developed. I am going to try and cover the main points here as briefly as possible. You see, the modern Korean education system can still be considered in its infancy, as finding its way and its place in a culture that has changed beyond all recognition in the past 50 years. As late as 1945 Korea had no formal public education system. Its education had, for the past 3000 years, been based on Confucian and Buddhist teaching spreading south from China. This was, of course, before the oppressive regime of the Japanese denied many Korean children education (Thomas & Postlewhaite, 1983). Following its liberation, Korea introduced a public education system based on a Western model and, by the 1990’s, had reached a high school graduation rate of 90% as well as almost completely eradicating illiteracy.
Confucian teaching has, however, (and quite understandably) maintained a strong influence on everyday life and the education system. I mention this because it seems as if many NETs, coming from their Western idealized background, expect Korea to have, in a period of 50 years, completely eradicated these 3000 years of cultural influence. At the same time as this educational transformation, Korea also developed from an impoverished nation to what can now be considered an economic heavy weight on a global scale (Park, 2009). As such, in 1995 the Korean government decreed that there was a need to increase the English language communicative proficiency of the nation, and in doing so also decided to adopt the communicative language teaching methodologies current being utilized in Europe and north America (Li, 1998). To help with this transformation, the English Programme in Korea (EPIK) was created, with the objective of placing native speaking teachers in Korean public schools to help promote cultural understanding and increase the authenticity of language use (Song, 2012).
Teacher Centered Learning
I have tried to keep a very complex background as concise as possible, but I feel it is important to be aware of this background if we are to discuss many of the problems NETs face. One of the main criticisms levied against English education in Korea, and one of the main problems NETs encounter, can be seen as a direct influence of this cultural background. That is, both teachers and students find it difficult to move past the heavily teacher centered ‘hierarchical’ learning environment (Hu, 2002) that evolved from it. Although, in my experience, there are noticeable changes in attitude being made, most classes are still teacher centered, and students understandably struggle when a NET suddenly expects them to be able to deal with a communicative, student centered, approach. It is simply a method of teaching they are not accustomed to and is in direct contrast to Korea’s cultural background. However, I think it is important to reiterate that changes are happening, teachers are trying to adapt to a student centered approach, but, understandably, it is difficult when there is 3000 years of culture having an opposing influence on you.
Knowledge Based Learning
The second problem many NETs struggle to overcome is the influence of the University Entrance Exam which has had a strong washback effect over the entire educational system. This exam is a multiple choice ‘right or wrong’ selection of extreme significance (Choi, 2008). As such, English education in Korea is also seen as being able to be taught on the principles of ‘right or wrong’. For a NET to explain that often, in the English language, something could be right, or it could be wrong, as language is fluid and constantly changing, they are often met with a complete lack of understanding, only to be asked again which answer is correct.
This knowledge based view of learning is again strongly influenced by the historical background mentioned above, and is in direct contrast to the communicative approaches being advocated by the Ministry of Education. However, again it appears to me that there are signs of this way of thinking about language, and the corresponding examination system, changing, but it is important to remember we are talking about 15 years Vs 3000 years of influence.
Korean students, being so competitively exam focused, were often found to be unmotivated by the idea of an English class that would not be in their University Entrance Examination, students often entered the classroom with the attitude that the class was unimportant as it was not on the exam (Jeon, 2009). This, coupled with the clash of teaching methods described above, caused NETs serious problems in the classroom. This was magnified by the fact that, as I describe in more detail below, NETs sometimes did not possess the knowledge or skills to overcome these issues, not that this was necessarily through any fault of their own, it was simply that many did not possess the experience or qualifications necessary for this combination of issues.
Influence of NETs
There are also structural issueswith the EPIK program itself that have held it back. The first of these is that EPIK set itself the goal of hiring a huge number of NETs in a very short space of time, and while a large number of NETs arrived in Korea with the attitude of working hard for a year and making their time here as effective as possible, a number also came with the attitude that their time here would be a working holiday. Of course, it is possible to argue this could have been avoided if they had only hired teachers with basic qualifications (which they now do) or checked resumes more thoroughly. The effect of this was that there were a number of unprofessional and/or unqualified NETs employed into the public education system (Jeon, 2009). While many NETs were doing fantastic work in their schools, the media were, of course, focusing on those that did not take their job so seriously, creating a climate whereby all NETs were, by some, stereotyped as unprofessional and a waste of money.
The influence NETs could have was very limited. They were often not allowed to contribute to the exam system or to teach by themselves and were simply left to their own devices. While many teachers were left with the overwhelming workload of preparing 22 different communicative based lesson plans a week (22 classes a week is the stipulated amount of classes a NET should have) others were left to teach only two different lessons a week as their main formal responsibility and had little formal guidance as to what they should fill the other 15 hours a week with.
This combination of factors meant that a number of teachers didn’t use time outside of classes effectively or appropriately as they were not formally required to do so. There was also little communication from the central organizers as to what should be done with this time. This meant that, for those that came with the intention of treating the time as a working holiday, it was a golden opportunity to get paid to do very little. On the other side of spectrum, for those that NETs that came highly motivated, it was a change to engage in many activities, to experiment, to learn about their trade or to form creative ways of engaging with their students in a way they may not have had the chance to in a normal public school teaching role.
I feel there is a general misunderstanding as to what we mean by using this time effectively, you see while Korean teachers had mountains of paperwork and other formal requirements, NETs didn’t. A NETs role was simply not that of the average public school teacher. For me, simply speaking to students around the school can be considered a useful way to spend this time. In fact, this may be the only chance a student gets to speak one on one with a non-Korean before entering university. Even having a conversation with a co-teacher is an effective use of this time, it is a chance to build up the confidence of Korean teachers, for them to practice expressions they are unsure about or for them to ask you questions about English they are unsure about. While this certainly isn’t formally considered work, it is certainly not being paid to do nothing.
One cannot deny that a reasonable number of NETs did spend this time doing nothing, but I want to make it absolutely clear that I believe this was their choice. As I’m sure any serious public school teacher anywhere in the world would agree, there is almost always something that can be done, be it speaking with students, engaging in reflective practice, grading assignments, developing the syllabus and materials or in this case simply communicating with students and co-teachers. While some NETs did chose to do very little, there were also many NETs in Korea who would still be working long after the final bell rings, as, to overcome the challenges described earlier, a huge amount of effort, knowledge and time is required outside of the classroom. In fact, to overcome these challenges, being an effective NET in a Korean public school can, in my opinion, be considered one of the most challenging teaching jobs around, especially for those asked to teach in many different schools and, often, many different levels. These are people I'm sure would not consider themselves paid to do nothing.
The final issue I wish to discuss is that of co-teaching. Personally, I am convinced that co-teaching can be an extremely effective method of teaching, yet many NETs in Korea complain of the inefficiency, ineffectiveness and inadequacies of this method. I am certain they are correct and not just complaining for the sake of it (mostly). So at what point does a potentially effective method of teaching become ineffective? I believe a major reason is the lack of guidelines and training in how to co-teach effectively. In three years I have been to several development workshops provided by the MoE, yet I have never been to one with my co-teacher. There is also the fact that Korean teachers are, like most public school teachers, overworked. They are, therefore, often happy to sit back and take a rest or catch up on other duties, and understandably so given that they also are probably not aware as to how effective co-teaching can be. These highly qualified and trained co-teachers were also given the (in my opinion) demeaning role of having to help the NETs with their day to day life such as getting internet installed, helping when things go wrong, ordering internet shopping items etc,. This meant that, while co-teachers were often not provided with adequate training and support, they were also understandably begrudged about their role as a co-teacher. Of course, this was not always the case, many co-teachers (if not the majority) loved working with their NET, but it was an issue that often surfaced and could have easily been dealt with and overcome.
The EPIK was not doomed to failure from the start, but there have certainly been a combination of factors that have made it less effective than it perhaps should have been. Some are the result of 3000 years of cultural influence, some are the fault of the way the program was administered, some were the fault of unprofessional NETs seeing their time in Korea as a working holiday, some were due to a lack of utilization of the large amount of professional NETs here to do their absolute best, and some were simply the result of an educational system that was not prepared to absorb 20,000 NETs into its core. But, overall, I also believe there are a huge number of hardworking NETs who will reflect on their time in Korean public schools with a sense of pride for what they achieved and the influence they had while teaching in Korean public schools, who see their time as anything but a failure.
If you feel there is an issue I've missed, or something I have not presented fairly, I really would love for you to let me know. I will happily add any missing perspectives or information to the post.
Choi, I. C. (2008). The impact of EFL testing on EFL education in Korea. Language Testing, 25(1), 39-62.
Jeon, M. (2009). Globalization and native English speakers in English Programme in Korea (EPIK). Language, Culture and Curriculum, 22(3), 231-243.
Li, D. (1998). “It's always more difficult than you plan and imagine”: Teachers' perceived difficulties in introducing the communicative approach in South Korea. Tesol Quarterly, 32(4), 677-703.
Park, J. K. (2009). ‘English fever’ in South Korea: its history and symptoms. English Today, 25(01), 50-57.
Song, J. J. (2012). South Korea: language policy and planning in the making. Current Issues in Language Planning, 13(1), 1-68
Thomas, R. M. & Postlethwaite, N.T. (Eds.). (1983). Schooling in East Asia. Oxford: Pergamon Press.