Do students want foreign teachers?

Found at Simon’s ever-worthwhile Asia By Blog roundup: Scott Sommers has written an article about his perception that Taiwanese students don’t particularly want foreign teachers. There are some points in the comments section relating to the parallels in Korea, especially posts by our famous Blinger. I disagree with some of what Blinger says, such as the terribly superficial judgment on how real professors and teachers ought to dress, and I can say from experience that it seems to me professor who wear ties can, at least in some places, expect just as much ridiculous treatment from the Korean administration as those who dress as they please.

When I went to university, I certainly had profs who dressed in suits. I also had profs who dressed in jeans and lumberjack shirts. I found that dress consistently indicated absolutely nothing about the quality of the teaching. The cues were how the prof lectured, whether he or she offered office hours, how willing he or she was to explain things a second time, and how well they grasped the materials. Professors in sunglasses and army boots sometimes excelled. Professors in suits sometimes were nightmarishly mediocre or outright awful.

As for foreign professors not being taken seriously, there’s a corollary to that where foreign professors look around and see a lot of grounds for not taking Korean academia seriously. It’s well-known that at a lot of universities, a cash payout is involved in getting certain postgraduate degrees; that a lot of Korean professors’ classes are canceled far more often, and on flimsier grounds, than those of foreign professors (a constant annoyance in fact, since I’m pushed to hold classes on says when every other prof in my students’ courseload has canceled classes, meaning I teach to classes of three or four people and yet get in trouble if I cancel class). I’ve been told by the odd student whose name I manage to remember in my 10-course load that their Korean profs, with courseloads normally less than half the size of mine, never know them by name.

The teaching materials I see left on desks sometimes perplex me: how could this be useful in teaching English conversation? The vast majority of students come out of their freshman classes with nearly no ability to converse, beyond parroting dialogues from the book. I’ve met people whose English ability left me begging their pardon repeatedly, who are English teachers. I’ve also seen Korean teachers of English whose English is excellent (though not spoken exactly like a native) marginalized merely because they’re not foreigners.

I have to ask, in the end, should I not be taken seriously because I don’t wear a suit? If I wear a suit, then will the quality of my teaching matter? If I wear, say, semi-dressy clothes but don’t tuck in m shirt, does that warrant, say, a half-way fair (and half-way bigoted) evaluation of my work, then? Would it be judged on a scale related to the other professors at my university? Because I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t, and in response I feel very little inclination to go out of my way to wear a tie, especially in classrooms which, until recently, didn’t even have air conditioning (or heaters that worked more than half of the time).

I don’t mean this above as a criticism of my university, by the way, as much as a criticism of the attitude, “Well, if you approach things on ‘their’ terms, you’ll be more respected.” Of course there are excellent Korean professors: I’ve met one or two in my time here. There are excellent foreign English teachers and professors too. But the foreigners are never judged on the same scale as the native teachers, and slapping on a suit won’t change that. Students, Administration, other Faculty, they all see a panoply of things, good and bad, that aren’t actually there. Foreignness clouds all of these perceptions to some degree, and manner of dress, manner of speech (even in Korean) and just about anything else you do will not change that.

But all of this, of course, is a detour from the question of the significance of what students say when asked whether they prefer foreign teachers.

I think it’d be unsurprising if a majority of students preferred not to have foreign teachers, but I think their reasons for that might not be good reasons… ie. not questions of their perception of how best to learn. Some students figure Korean teachers will give them an easy ride when foreigners actually demand more. Some students find working with a foreign teacher “harder”, which it undoubtably is, though harder classes sometimes result in more learning, don’t they? I have seen a number of students so academically juvenile that they whine and gripe at even being assigned homework at all, let alone more than one page of homework, and I seriously doubt such a student can reasonably be thought to make declarations of preference based on the academic benefits of this or that sort of teacher.

And finally, I think, as I mentioned above, that so many misconceptions cling to Foreignness, and I think nobody (not even foreigners, who see Foreignness in their Korean colleagues) look past it to judge the quality of individual teachers and their methods.

7 thoughts on “Do students want foreign teachers?

  1. Gord,
    Thanks for the praise, though I would hardly consider myself famous in the Korean blog arena or any arena for that matter.

    I would like to clarify what I said because you do make a number of valid points. The first point that I agree with 100% is that manner of dress does not indicate quality of teaching. However, one does not see Korean professors dressing down so it seems to me that in order to get respect from professors and administration it would be good to dress accordingly – in this case I feel that When in Rome.,. is applicable. I say this not only based on my feelings but after having consulted with my wife and other Koreans I know. If I was teaching in Canada, I would dress differently than I do here in order to better fit in.

    While I do wear a tie every day to class (suits most days), I do not expect my colleagues to dress like that. However I do expect them to dress well. But unfortunately most don’t even press their shirts – if they bother to wear something other than a tee – and usually wear jeans with holes and sneakers. This hardly fits the image of what a teacher should look like and I feel it does negatively affect the way foreigner instructors are percieved. You say that nothing we (foriegners) do will change the way we are percieved, I disagree. I think you are taking a fatalistic view of this. However for a change in perception to take place, the majority (85-90%) of foreigners would have to change their demeanor and appearance. That I do not believe will happen, but I will continue to do my part. I guess that for me it comes down to taking pride in my work and my appearance and how I feel that a teacher should dress in the classroom.

    About cancelling classes at my university we are not supposed but it does happen and as long as students don’t complain everyone is happy. Yes it is crappy that Korean profs have a smaller course load and are not expected to remember student names. Kudos to you for doing that, I try but can never remember more that 4-5 students in one class. One of my weaknesses is that I find it difficult to remember anyones name. (it took me 3 months to remember the pastors name at my church)

    I also agree with your thoughts about the reasons students may or may not prefer foreign instructors to Korean instructors. I have met my share of excellent Korean English teachers and excellent foreign English teachers, but very rarely are any judged on the same scale. It is a sad state when quality judgements are based on skin color rather than on teaching ability.

  2. Thanks for the link. Given the interest this has generated, I plan to post more on this in the next few days. I’d like to point out that it is not just my “perception” that university students are indifferent to who teaches them English. I have surveyed thousands of students on this issue and found that they overwhelmingly state they have no preference. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t very distinct patterns in this preference, but it does mean that the rationale for using foreign teachers can not be based in student demand.

  3. Scott: sorry, sorry, you’re correct. It was more than a perception, more like a conclusion you’d come to. Quickly written, sloppily worded, I suppose. I do tend to be of the very orthodox “Many students have no idea what’s good for them” mentality, in part because I didn’t fully know what was good for me in my early studies either, and because I find a lot of my college students have academic maturity close to what I had in middle school or early high school. You’re certainly right as far as the root of demand for foreign teachers, in any case. Sometimes, I think it’s because we’re good advertising, since it seems as if the programs many of us expats in Asia teach in are often constructed in such a way as to be as un-conducive to learning as possible. I believe the desire for an appearance of quality foreign language instruction, the demands of parents, and a bit of “keeping up with the Joneses” is involved.

    I also might have asked whether you considered the possibility that a foreigner asking the question might affect the outcome of the survey, but I imagine probably it wouldn’t be any more in favour of foreigners if a local teacher asked instead of you, so never mind that question.

    Blinger: Aw, I think you’re pretty well known. Anyway, yeah, I don’t disagree with most of what you say here; I agree it probably pays (marginally) to be willing to dress like a Korean professor might, in order to win a little more respect. Of course, that respect will be on the grounds of how you look, and that, to me, is sad enough that I would rather not bother to participate. I’m not being so much fatalistic as realistic. In North America it’s the same way: we tend to look down on people who don’t become a lot like us. We’re less extreme and less straightforward about it, I think, these days, but most human cultures are rather deeply bigoted.

    As for classroom stuff: I never wear a tie but I also never wear a T-shirt. I do wear sport shoes with my dress-casual slacks, because I cycle to school and this sort of shoe has no laces to get tangled in the gears. Students’ names are a challenge to me, and there are some classes where I only know a couple of names… and there are some classes whose effort at English is so poor I can’t justify my own effort in memorizing all their names. But in some classes I know everyone’s name, somehow. But names are always hard. Yes, even English names: I hear you on that.

    I’m not bitching about courseloads, by the way. I signed my contract and I work the hours I signed up to work. (And more, though that doesn’t get recognized, not even in the smallest way possible.) I’m just noting that there are certainly double-standards about work hours and conditions and so on, and they are very clearly related to race. Sometimes we get treated specially in a nice way, but not always. And when it really matters, we usually don’t: the law is not on our side most of the time, and even when it is, it often enough gets ignored with impunity. Such as the illegal clause in the contract that many of my co-workers signed (being given it at the end of the semester, just before their leaving on long-planned holidays), which one laywer informed me was the worst penalty for clause for non-completion of contract that he’d seen in several countries!

    By the way, you work with people who make over three million and wear jeans with holes? That’s just silly! Nobody I work with would ever dress that way, and we make significantly less than that. *sigh* Significantly less.

  4. Actually, I did address the question you asked. In fact, I did it a number of different ways. The initial study took place during the administration of our school’s English Proficiency Test for freshman students, so respondents were unaware that the researcher was a foreigner. During the retest of this study, I had local lab teachers, as well as foreign classroom teachers, distribute the questionnaires. I found no significant differences. I have asked the question several different ways and got the same results. Most of these questionnaires were NOT anonymous, so I did a study to examine whether this affected results. In a single class, I distributed anonymous and non-anonymous surveys. The total study had over 700 respondents distributed across the 4 years of study at my school. I found NO statistically significant differences between groups. I am satisfied that these conclusions will hold up under any examination.

    If my travel grant is accepted, I will be presented the detailed results of this study at Asia TEFL 2004 in Seoul on November 5-7.

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