17 October 2008

Teaching English in Korea

I have been waiting a while to write this post. I wanted to see how things shook out and to let time mellow my perspective. Let me say first: I am not an expert on teaching in Korea. There are people who have been here for many years and if I were to seek out advice on the subject I would search out someone with far more experience than me. I will even put you in touch with them if you want. That said, what follows are merely my perspectives on the topic.

If I had it all to do over again I don't think I would teach at a hagwan. Not if I really wanted to teach and I think I do. A hagwan is a business, and as such has a responsibility to its clients to provide them with what they want. There are two ideas at work in this business/education dynamic. I am not an economist, but I am familiar with the principle that it is more important to provide a customer with what they really want, not what they say they want or mistakenly believe they want. This is one thing. The other thing to consider is who the customer is. This is really where the complication begins because at a hagwan there are two sets of customers with conflicting desires. The children are the front line clients, the ones who directly receive the services we provide, and they want one thing: fun. This is fine. They are kids. The parents want their children to learn English. Or this is what they say they want. But Korean parents, and Korean society in general, have a belief that childhood is a time for happiness. They take this seriously, and if a kid says she isn't enjoying her classes they pay attention. Korean children, in the company of their parents, are generally allowed to run amok. I like this approach to childhood. I am actually very good at providing the children with this service: I can have fun and run amok with the best of them. I can also teach English. I am rather good at it and have been doing it for some time.

The problem is doing both: even an unbalanced blend seems impossible at times. Because when you have a classroom full of kids laughing and talking and having fun, discussing the quirks of English articles is not going to work. They won't even hear you. Learning English, at least at the third and fourth year level, is hard. It involves memorization of a massive vocabulary, the comprehension of a syntax completely different (in the case of Korean and Japanese) from their native form, and, in addition, the mastery, or at least comprehension, of the base material (for example, I have two classes that use science textbooks to learn ESL, so those kids have to get the taxonomy of invertebrates [not a simple thing] while trying to learn English).

The classes in the morning, 7-year-old first and second year ESL students, are easy to entertain and it is possible to use stealth education techniques. The 9- and 10-year-old third and fourth year students in the late afternoon aren't bad either. They are trained as learners by now and wouldn't be here if they didn't want to be.

It is the four classes at the beginning of the afternoon that are a bitch. These are older (8-9) kids who are just coming to English for the first time. Some of them are second year and didn't get anything the first year and are sinking. Some of them are really bright 9-year-olds and reading about Herbert Hippo and Tess Tiger going on a picnic is not ever going to stimulate them to learn or behave. So I end up with half of the class really struggling and needing what amounts to individual attention as challenged learners and the other half needing individual attention as disciplinary problems arise because they are bored out of their minds. And if that isn't bad enough (and it is), there are the parents who want to know why their genius child is bored or standing in the corner or can't speak one sentence of English after two years of expensive lessons or has homework every night or comes home and says he hates English class and never, ever wants to go back because it isn't "fun."

So this job is really frustrating sometimes. Sometimes I wish I would have taken the advice of my recruiter and taught at the university level, four classes a week and two months vacation. I imagine: no unrealistic parents, no unmotivated learners, no ddongchim in my hemorrhoid, no smart-asses. There are also times when I am having a bad day and I feel a little hand slip into mine and a little black pair of Asian eyes looks up into mine and they say "Why are you sad?" And the funny thing is, at that point I have to say I don't know.