“Low-Quality English Teachers”

There’s a meme that’s floating about in Korea that “low quality English teachers” or “unqualified foreign English teachers” are multitude here. Well, and indeed, depending on what you consider a language teacher, and what you think the qualifications ought to be, they could be argued to be legion… but in Korea, “unqualified” or “low quality” is an ethical judgment: unqualified is often misused by Koreans discussing foreign teachers in English, as Matt points out here, and then misunderstood to mean something more like “dangerous” or “criminal” or “bad.”

Of course, the facts of life in Korean society include a degree of xenophobia, especially in the media but also in general exchanges. It doesn’t help that hate groups like AES (which, again, Matt’s about the best authority to talk about, see here for the most recent post on this hate group) are out there agitating against foreigners, and indeed, as Matt points out, building up a wide, unconscious assumption that foreigner=AIDS. (Even though, in fact, within Korea it’s Korean men who are the biggest victims of, or carriers of, HIV.)

Anyway, the thing I want to reiterate is that, as Matt notes in one of those links, the discussion of “unqualified” or monstrous hakwon teachers of Korean descent hasn’t been allowed to interrupted the xenophobic “unqualified English teacher” discourse on foreigners. This struck me when I heard a story Miss Jiwaku related from her own workplace, a hakwon in Shindorim, involving a teacher who is widely understood among her coworkers to be, well, a psycho.

Miss Jiwaku had first hand experience with the woman’s psychosis, of course: before she knew about the woman’s status, they had been chatting about the state of English education in Korea. Jihyun had confessed that she felt sorry for kids who had to go to hakwon, since it deprives them of free time and the chance to develop their identities, play with friends, enjoy life, and form some kind of relationship with parents. The teacher admonished her, bragging along the way that she’d taught at hakwons in the upper-class district of Gangnam (oooh!) and that nobody who’d taught there felt sorry for Gangnam kids. An hour later, as a kind of non-sequitur, the woman barged into Miss Jiwaku’s class and summoned her out into the hallway to scold her to “be professional, even if this is a part-time job for you!” Soon after, everyone warned her, “Yeah, just stay away from her, she’s a crazy bitch.”

And then she started hearing stories. in bits and pieces. One of the saddest was about some incident involving the whole class–except one kid–being given ramen by this teacher, who then mocked that kid in front of all the others, for having the temerity to cry about it.

Miss Jiwaku regarded this as insane to begin with, though having classroom experience she wondered if it wasn’t a brutal response to an actually questionable action. (That is, she wondered if the student had sworn at the teacher, or something. Not that this would have justified the teacher’s reaction to her, but she figured that was the kind of thing that had triggered it.) It wasn’t till she heard the psycho teacher relate it to the boss herself–explaining the wisdom of her action–that she saw how insane this woman really is. (The boss was trying to laugh, but there was a look of horror in her eyes.)

You see, it turns out that what had happened was, the teacher had told the kids, “You’re going to be doing exams, and maybe you’ll get hungry, so you should bring some food… some little boxed lunches or something.”

The kids eagerly began discussing what kinds of food they might bring, when one kid, mouth watering with anticipation, joked to the teacher that she just asked them to bring the food so that she could eat from their boxed lunches.

“How DARE you accuse me of that! How could you?” the teacher screamed at the kid, and at the end of class, she took the whole class out for ramen… except that one kid.

How clever. How wise. How infinite in… psychosis. Sure, lots of foreign hakwon teachers are idiots and losers… but if you look at it proportionally, doesn’t it stand to reason that most of the abuse of students would happen at the hands of Korean hakwon teachers? That is… unless you’re assuming that foreigners are somehow significantly more likely to be crazy than Koreans.

But then, wouldn’t that make you racist?

(Okay, not really; I see lots of pretty dysfunctional foreigners in Korea, and there’s something about Korea that seems to attract dysfunctional expats and helps them to stay. No, wait… I think it’s rather that the conditions in Korea–work conditions, living conditions, social conditions, and more–simply frustrate, and fairly soon drive away, most highly functional, qualified expats who end up here. What that says about me is beside the point… there are cool people who stick it out for whatever reason, too, including some of my best friends here. If you ask me, it’s more a case that the hakwon industry itself attracts disproportionately high numbers of screwed-up or dysfunctional Koreans and expats alike…)

As a bonus, Miss Jiwaku mentioned reading the AES website the other day and noticing that they’d posted a thread soliciting praise for “good expat teachers.” Unsurprisingly, the majority of the posts involved men who were somehow unlikely to date Korean women, such as “an old couple who are very nice” or “a Western guy who is dating a Western girl.” Nothing was said of their teaching ability, of course. Teaching skill isn’t what would make you qualified in any case–it’s who you sleep with, of course.

Then again, AES is a hate-group that did begin as a hissyfit over a net-publicized wet T-shirt contest involving Korean women and expat men, in some bar in Itaewon. Because some people have no life. If they were truly concerned about the quality of kids’ education in Korea, as their new rebranding name suggests (Citizens for Right English Education, sure) then they would be arguing what I’ve argued all along: that it’s time to burn down the hakwons, and let the children play.

3 thoughts on ““Low-Quality English Teachers”

  1. While I was reading your post, and after almost two years of teaching English in Korea, it occurred to me that a country probably gets the English teachers it deserves, much like it gets the politicians it deserves and so on.
    In my experience of Korea, the people who are serious about teaching and life in general, leave here after a while (a year or two). Not everyone (there are always notable exceptions)… but enough to make you wonder, if you are at all inclined to wondering.
    It really is interesting that this issue – of qualified and able teachers leaving the place as soon as they can or sooner – has never, as far as I know, received any seriously-minded, extensive media coverage in Korea.

  2. By some definitions, I might not be a ‘qualified’ teacher. My degree is in Business, and I spent zero time teaching ESL or kids before arriving in Korea. I have no teaching credentials, no fancy letters after my name, and no plans on getting either.

    With that said, my kids LOVE me. I make it a point to try and understand their lives and make things fun, not fret about theory. In most of my classes, there is ample time for a game of tossing balls, hangman, or a Youtube video.

    I’ve stopped worrying about being a ‘qualified’ teacher and simply being a teacher that works well with kids, fellow teachers, and the powers that be. Keep them happy, and the parents don’t come bothering you.

  3. Aliceinwonderland,

    Yeah, you managed to sum up one of my points: Korea gets the English teachers it deserves — not in terms of “just desserts” though it may work out to that, but rather in the sense of not really providing the working conditions, benefits, livability, or pay that would attract truly serious, truly qualified teachers in the numbers desired.

    The media will never cover that because, I suspect, most native Koreans will never quite understand what it means. I mean, if you’ve only ever known the working and living conditions of your own country, or your own area in your own country, how could you compare them unfavorably to another place?

    I agree there are exceptions; and I suspect most of those exceptions either really care about their students (usually at the college level), or have nothing else they feel they can do (confidence issues), or end up staying in Korea because of a relationship or study project.

    It’s interesting, though, that for a lot of the people I know who do stay here long-term, they are just as frustrated or disgusted with the system. I don’t know any Westerner who’s stayed in Korea a decade or more who hasn’t had to come to terms with just how awful a place it is for so many of those around him or her.


    I have an MA in English, though it’s focused in writing, and had experience teaching kids music as well as teaching four semesters’ worth of English Comp. classes at a university. Which, on paper, qualified me enough to start here. It didn’t prepare me for TEFL in Korea, but it did qualify me.

    However, if Korean parents and hakwons and schools were truly serious about getting their kids the best English education money can buy, I’m afraid you and even I would never have gotten our first jobs here. They would be demanding people who had experience and training and credentials and they would be renumerating them as befits such qualifications.

    However, that said, I think it’s a positive thing (if only slightly so) that Korean society retains any ambivalence about the importance of having the best English ever. If Korean society were pouring more energy and cash into English study, I’d be far more worried than I am.

    The problem with “keep them happy” is that you can make courses for kids that don’t involve pain, but for adult learning, language acquisition often involves pain: nerves, fear, embarrassment, anxiety, stress, frustration, and so on. It’s part of the work of learning a language, but students resent it, and wish that being in a room with whitey would make the language sort of naturally rub off on them.

    With university students, you have adults who are being graded, so you can actually assign homework, but they tend to moan and whine about it like little kids would. (Also, this resentment of “homework” is reinforced by other profs who tend to simply lecture and give multiple-choice exams periodically, instead of giving homework that is supposed to demonstrate mastery of content or skills being learned.)

    What am I prattling on about? I think it’s that people pay money to study in hakwons. Kids are happy to have fun and learn language, and can… and are willing to do a little homework, usually. Adults, on the other hand, tend to feel unwilling to do homework, and tend to prefer to fantasize that an hour a day, five days a week, will translate to massive gains in the English ability. They want all gain and no pain, and I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way for adult students. But a lot of teachers know that what matters is not whether students’ English performance improves, but whether they feel as if they are having a good time (because people pay money to have good times). A serious TEFL course would result in a precipitous decline in enrollment in most hakwons.

    Which is, in itself, a very demoralizing thing to realize, and probably sends a number of people packing as well. It’s not fun when your job is teaching something that most of your students don’t truly, actually want to learn, especially when they don’t quite grasp themselves how little they want to learn it.

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