Peter from Oranckay recently commented, over at Marmot’s blog, about his approval of the now increasingly common term “unqualified foreign [English] teachers”. It’s a term that’s bandied about whenever troublesome foreign English teachers get arrested, advertise their sexual adventures with Korean girls online, and so on.

Oranckay’s (er, Peter’s) interpretation of the term is that “the implication is that there are those who are qualified,” he says, and I am not sure whether I’m in any position to disagree, not having the ability to read the articles using the term in the original Korean.

However, I would like to ask whether the implication is really, necessarily, there? Is it actually an adjective in itself, or more of an epithet? By epithet, I mean in the sense that in Homeric epics, we see descriptive formulae attached to names almost as if they were a title. We’re not supposed to be reminded that Achilles is the son of Peleus, swift-footed, and god-like, at least that’s not the function of an epithet the fifth time you hear (or read) it. There’s a point at which epithets become metadescriptive, not just an adjective but a kind of identifier of thematic meaning. And I suggest, in the repetitive use of these epithets, these words are not simply serving a purely adjectival function.

Okay, maybe I’m being eggheaded about this, but I feel I should point something out: as far as I know, despite the recurrent problems within the education system here that students often and vigorously discuss, I can’t recall any discussion of news reports of “unqualified Korean teachers” in the mainstream media here.

Let me explain what I mean by epithetical usage: when I occasionally see the term “unqualified foreign teachers” thrown around in English, by Koreans, the word “unqualified” seems to me to be used more as a kind of characterization-of-the-month than as an adjective; we all know, and agree, that it means something bad, but we don’t have any clear definition of what “qualified” means.

Does “qualified” mean a BA in any subject? (That’s what the legal qualification for teaching here basically is.) Does it mean ability to teach English? Does it mean experience teaching English? Does it mean extensive training and experience in teaching English as a foreign language? (In the latter case, good luck attracting many qualified teachers to the kinds of salaries offered.) Is the only real qualification the ability to speak English? (Which, sadly, seems the main qualification for being hired in Korea, once you have a BA in any subject.)

The closer you look, the term “unqualified” becomes more and more nebulous. After all, what are the connections between teachers’ qualifications and their sex lives? How can one link one’s qualifications with whether one has a substance abuse problem? Yes, yes, professionalism would dictate one doesn’t sleep with one’s students, and one is not drunk during work hours; however, the kinds of exposés we’ve seen online seem to suggest one’s qualifications determine the nature of one’s after-hours private life. I’m sure some bigots would like for “qualified” to mean celibate, only willing to sleep with other foreigners, as well as devoted to standards of alcohol abstinence almost unseen among average Koreans.

This, of course, is patently ridiculous, but also unrealistic.

And finally—and this is the question I’m not supposed to ask—how many Korean teachers are “qualified”?

I know, I know, I’m a guest here in this country, and I need to be respectful, and focus on my own work and doing a good job. Well, I am respectful; when I meet Korean teachers with integrity and skill, I respect them and try to learn from them, as I do with my officemate Chullsung. And I do try to do a good job. I walk into classrooms and I pour out my energy to classes with varying degrees of success. But here’s the thing: I meet students who have spent six or seven years—or more!—studying English in middle school, in high school, some of them with private tutors and in hakwons on top of that, and even (many of them) with a year of University English under their belts… and the vast majority of them cannot put together a simple grammatical question using the verb “be” or “do”.

I know, I know: one can’t blame all teachers for the failings of many students. Teachers can lead horses to water but they can’t force them to drink. So I’ll overlook the fact that the vast majority of students I’ve met, after six or more years of English classes, finished school unable to speak a single sentence in proper English… okay, aside from “My name is…”

I’ll turn to my experiences with teachers. I’ve known a few… nothing like a representative sample, but I’ve known plenty of young people working in hakwons who were teaching English, but who struggled to converse with me about even basic things. Who hired them to teach a language they readily admit they cannot speak?

And I think of teachers at summer training courses where I’ve worked, huge groups of them numbering around a hundred, and remember how those under thirty tended to do a good job at trying and participating, while many (though of course not all!) of the older ones simply sat through the class, not participating at all, even when I spoonfed them the content they were supposed to practice… and the older one who did try, bless them, they had good attitudes, still couldn’t handle much at all in English.

And most disturbingly, I’ll turn to the story a friend of mine told me, after she started teaching in a high school in Pyeongtaek. She said she was shunned by the other English teachers… because she can actually speak English. She was hassled for her “arrogance” because she was actually attending an English hakwon in a neighbouring city and practicing her English in a freetalking class. She was picked on by an older teacher who resented her English ability and insulted her publicly many times. She was even told, in no uncertain terms, that since she liked English so much, when the school hired a foreigner, she would be the only person to deal with her or him… none of the other teachers wanted the embarrassment of speaking English to a foreigner.

And bear in mind, these are the other English teachers at her high school. Pretty much everyone knows that they’re unqualified to teach English, that their students don’t learn how to use the language at all; in fact, according to my friend, on some level they explicitly know they’re not qualified, which is why they’re so nasty to younger new teachers who dare to have some actual proficiency in the language.

I should qualify (argh! no pun intended) everything I’ve said so far. Most of the teachers and students I’m talking about are from smaller cities or towns. It’s not so surprising that plenty of English teachers in the countryside can’t actually speak English. I’m sure anyone who had to teach French in Northern Saskatchewan was far from fluent.

But given the ubiquity of English education in this country, even within public schools; given its (sadly inflated) importance to the academic and professional life of young people living here, via University Entrance Exams and TOEIC scores, I am absolutely stunned by the fact that, at least apparently, the Korean media finds the story of “unqualified foreign teachers” in private institutions like hakwons rate as more of an issue than the problem of “unqualified” Korean teachers of English in the public school system.

Certainly there are plenty of both, but the difference is that while the former result in a shortchanging of education for the relatively smaller segment of the population that can afford hakwons for their kids, the latter seriously shortchanges all (or, at least, significantly more) students in the public school system. It’s sad that xenophobia is used to pump up a relatively peripheral issue when something much more pressing is quite obvious to anyone who’s looked into the problem.

But of course, the fact that I even say something like this is anathema, it’s heresy. If I say this, I must also be one of those “unqualified” foreigners. But the funny thing is, it’s rather routine for my young Korean friends to complain about the education system here, and especially to complain about their English-language education. Many complain that they never learned much in English class, and the few who have nice things to say about their teachers, usually speak of those nice teachers as if they were swimming against the general current of the school program/system.

If what I’ve said were to come from a Korean’s lips, one could not dismiss it so easily. And I have heard things remarkably similar from from many Koreans I know. The difference is, they’re not willing to question the qualifications of a whole class of Korean teachers publicly, because of the loss of face. If a white teacher suffers a loss of face in the media, I suppose it’s less of an issue; we tend to whine a bit and then ignore it, and perhaps less damage is done.

So I’m not so sure I find this “unqualified” term such a positive thing. It depends, I suppose, on how judiciously it is being applied now, and will be applied in the future. Perhaps Peter at Oranckay, should he happen upon this post, can enlighten me further, at least in terms of its present usage.

6 thoughts on ““Unqualified”

  1. Re: the Homeric nicknames/epithets, I seem to recall that those were a poetic device – that each hero had a stock assortment of epithets that could be fitted in to a verse during a recitation to properly complete the meter of the line.

    Still, a fascinating post, even for someone that’s never likely to wind up teaching English in Korea (or in the US, for that matter).

  2. Adam,

    The theory that they were *just* this goes back pretty far, maybe to the twenties I think… but I’ve read that more recent scholarship suggests more about the epithets we see in Homer. Apparently, they were also used by other authors and kind of took on a “reality” as associated with the character in question; that while the anglicized versions may not have made sense in all contexts, the original Greek made at least some more sense in terms of the “problematic” epithets, and that the production of the Homeric epics was in fact somewhat less machanistically approached than the older theory about epithets suggests.

    Here’s a link to a one article about some of the above. Please note that I necessarily agree to all the “new scholarship” about Homer, but I do think the epithets served more of a function than just helping with metre. One function, I think, was associative — a heroic-sounding epithet on a guy who just murdered someone reminds us he’s generally heroic, or even heroicizes his actions.

    This has interesting implications if my suggestion about the “epithetic” nature of “unqualified” is, even to some degree, true.


  3. You are right, of course, about many of the things you say here, and you say them well, Gord. But I don’t think it’s in any way unclear what ‘qualified’ means, when we use that word to describe a teacher of English as a second language. (Note that I say this as someone who considers himself qualified, after an 18-month post-grad certification in teaching, many moons ago, and more than a decade of classroom teaching and training under my belt, for what it’s worth.)

    A qualified teacher is someone who has received training in teaching, who has demonstrated to their own teachers that they have understood and mastered the skills of pedagogy to whatever degree was required by their training, and who has a level of experience in the field commensurate with the position they seek.

    That’s not to say that someone without training and experience cannot be a good teacher — we’ve all met ‘natural teachers’ who are better in the classroom than some others with degrees and resume bullet points out the yingyang. A good teacher depends almost as much on their personality as they do on their bag of tricks, their mastery of the subject matter, and their basic skills.

    But it seems disengenuous to pretend that you don’t really know what ‘qualified’ means, at least in terms of foreign teachers here.

    That there are so many clueless hakwon-jockeys barely keeping their head above the kiddiescrum water, filling the pockets of the greedy scum that run most of the businesses before they burn out and bail, well, that’s a natural consequence of the decisions (or lack thereof) from the laughably lax Korean government standards about what constitutes a ‘foreign language teacher’. But that’s another discussion entirely.

    My two bits.

  4. Stavros,

    Thanks for your kind words. I am flattered.

    I entirely agree that there are hordes of unqualified foreign teachers here in Korea. Hell, I’m not entirely sure, by your standards, that I would count as “qualified” since I have no formal training in teaching itself, only tons of experience. (Then again, I suspect most professors in the West wouldn’t qualify by these standards, either, since they’re mainly trained in their subject, and not in teaching itself.)

    I even agree that the problem of unqualified teachers is indeed a problem here. I think plenty of kids and parents are getting screwed by a hakwon system that is completely unregulated and, after all, motivated by profits and not by actual learning.

    In a discussion between myself and other teachers, I think the meaning of “qualified” would be pretty clear. Someone who knows what the hell he or she is doing.

    However, I was disputing the meaning of the use of the word “qualified” as it appears in the Korean media. I suspect the Korean media means something rather different when I run across translated articles about “unqualified foreign teachers”.

    My impression is that it’s euphemistic for “moral”, “non-fornicating”, “polite”, “well-behaved”, and so on. (Especially since the term seemed to start popping up a lot after the whole stupid English Spectrum scandal.)

    I suspect if actual qualifications were an issue, the qualifications of the much more important public school teachers would be discussed in the media as much as it is in private here.

    But do I also agree that the hakwon industry needs to be reformed—probably by the government? Yes. Do I agree that “qualifications” are currently set too low? Yes. Do I believe it’s unlikely to happen? Yes, because upping the requirements would mean having to increase pay rates which would mean either hakwon owners making less money, or the fees going up, which would mean much less enrolment. And that would be disastrous for the industry, and I think the government knows that.

    Which, yes, is another discussion entirely. Oh, and one I’m not ready for today!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *