I’ve been back teaching in a Korean public high school now since last fall/winter’s semester . . . and I’m revisiting a lot of issues that native English teachers face when working and teaching in public school jobs.

One of the biggest challenges a native teacher faces is being patient and flexible with Korean public school class schedule culture.

The first issue that native teachers run into is Korean teachers who make schedules have a hard time figuring out how to integrate the native teacher’s classes into the already insanely busy schedule.  I think there are now 4 English classes per week in high schools, and one of those classes is given to the native teacher.  It would appear to be easy to just pick 22 time slots and type in the native teacher’s name . . . but for some reason it never is.  Often native teachers simply sit at their desks in the teacher’s office twiddling their thumbs for days until a schedule is finally made that has their classes on it (though this can be a good thing as it gives them time to acclimatize to their schools and prep for classes).  For native teachers new to Korean public school culture it is a really big culture shock if they make the mistake of comparing scheduling culture in Korea to that of their home country.

The second issue is that in the spring/summer semester (which in Korea, is the beginning of the school year) the schedule is never made before the first day of classes . . . I’m not sure exactly when Canadian high schools have their class schedules planned and distributed to teachers but I know that it’s BEFORE THE FIRST DAY OF CLASSES.  It is now day NINE of the semester, nearly two weeks of classes have been completed, and there is no officially finished master schedule for the school’s classes (and I’ve heard the same thing from nearly every foreign teacher I know in Korea).

The third issue native teachers run into is that their classes can be canceled or ‘appropriated’ (the most diplomatic word I can think of, sigh) at any time by their Korean co-teachers.  There is a gross lack of respect and value for native teacher class times because native teacher speaking/conversation classes are generally not tested.  This results in the class time being seen as disposable in whatever manner is needed by the ‘higher priorities’ of whatever is going on in the school.  Often, in the week before midterm exams, or final exams, Korean English teachers will approach native teachers and ask them if they can use the native teacher class time for test review.  This is extremely disheartening to motivated and professional native English teachers because it makes everything they have prepared for the class a complete waste of time.  It makes native teachers question why they were hired if they’re not being used to teach students . . . Also, when native teachers attempt to teach classes in the week before midterms or finals classroom behavior management is nearly impossible; students do NOT want to spend time and energy in a class that cannot help them attain higher test scores, and since speaking is not a tested skill the native teacher’s class is actually, and sadly, a waste of their time and energy.   The lack of testing for my classes has led me to believe that I’m simply in the school as a walking propaganda poster that tells parents and students that ‘something’ is being done to help Koreans learn English.  It looks good on the surface, but underneath it’s almost completely meaningless.

(Some readers might be wondering why native teachers can’t do test review of relevant and tested content from public school textbooks . . . this is an issue that I won’t get into here, but suffice it to say that a number of (I don’t know how many, but I think it’s a majority) native teachers try to avoid using public school English textbooks because they are designed with Korean English teacher teaching methods and the public school testing format (rote memorization, multiple choice style testing) in mind.  Korean teachers generally teach through a grammar and translation-based lecture style which is something a native speaker cannot do.  Until you’ve actually sat down with a Korean public high school textbook and attempted to pull out vocabulary and language content to then make a conversation lesson based on that it’s hard to explain in terms other than . . . it’s like trying to take one color of toothpaste out of a swirl of colors,  and then fill up another tube with just that one color to use to brush your teeth.)

In regards to issue #3, my experience is radically changing . . . as this semester my speaking/conversation classes are finally being included as 10% of the English final grade, and there will be speaking tests for my classes.  You can read more about this in these two posts.

Thoughts on designing speaking tests and their relationship to native teacher respect and authority in Korean public schools

The relationship between the power of tests, corporal punishment as the primary classroom behavior management system, and respect for a native English teacher in Korean public schools….

As a result of the third issue native teachers have to produce their own personal ideas about how they value their classes, and cling to them like a life preserver.  They have to teach the Korean students to value things like learning for learning’s sake–a VERY difficult concept for Koreans in an education system where the only thing that counts is what your test scores are, and what your overall academic ranking is.  Native teachers have to teach their co-teachers to see their classes as valuable time where both the Korean English teacher and the students can get exposure to native speaker pronunciation, intonation, idiomatic expressions, etc, and learn about English culture from them too.  I’ve had a very small degree of success doing this, though, because of the realities of the EFL environment in Korea outside the English language classroom.  English conversation and speaking skills are only used in the following situations: job interviews, university entrance interviews, romance and dating, being friends with a foreign person, and a few other situations.   For most Korean high school boys it’s almost impossible for them to imagine using English outside of the classroom because of the small numbers of native English speakers in Korea, and the small number of situations where they MIGHT be required to use English.  As for Korean English teachers, the same thing applies.  If I had to make a guess I’d say about 40-50% of Korean English teachers speak English in an out of the language classroom situation in Korea–note: I have no research to back this up, it’s simply based on observation and conversations with several hundred Korean teachers over the past five years.

A fourth issue is the plain and simple fact that the school schedule has too many classes.  Korean teachers and students get burned out and exhausted by the mind boggling mass of class hours they have to study/prep for, attend, and then take tests for . . . I can’t imagine, as a native teacher, what this must be like for them.   I have a great deal of sympathy for the situation because it’s something that only the powers that be at the top of the system can change.  The grunts in the trenches just have to bow and say “Ne” (“Yes”) and do what they’re told.  Oh, and the school schedule doesn’t end when regular classes finish but continues on into the late afternoon and evening.  After school program classes run until 10pm at night.  Imagine having to be at school around 7am every day, and then work until 10pm at night . . .

Fifth, even after the school class schedule is finished being made days after the semester begins there is a blizzard of events that cancel classes from the schedule: national holidays, school birthdays, practice test days, school festival days, school field trips, medical health checks (a medical van/truck comes to the school and students line up outside to get checked), midterm and final exams, national test days, and more all cause classes to be canceled.  If a native teacher is lucky they have a co-teacher who keeps them informed about the million different things that can cause a class to be canceled.  If a native teacher has experience in Korea they know they should sit down with a calendar and write down as many of these dates as they can find out at the beginning of each semester.  And if a native teacher is really savvy they ask their co-teacher every morning when they arrive at school if there are any changes that day for the native teacher’s classes–but even after doing this every morning when you arrive at school you can still be told at the very last second, or even after the school chimes have rung sounding the start of a class, that you are teaching a class . . . a class that is at a different time than is on your schedule.

The sixth issue that generally appears after a native teacher has been in their school for a few weeks is the lack of a clear chain of command and communication between the teachers who make schedule changes, the co-teachers, and the native teacher.  Sometimes one Korean teacher will be in charge of making the schedule for one grade level, and a different co-teacher will be in charge of making the schedule for another grade, and then yet another teacher is in charge of putting all the class schedules together . . . this whirlpool of disorganization often births a chaotic eight-armed monster, and all too often its four left hands are not aware of what the four right hands are doing . . . all the while the native teacher is tossed about willy-nilly as all eight hands try to direct it to do what they want it to.

Even if a native teacher gets the emails and cell phone numbers of all their co-teachers, and tries to maintain daily contact with all parties involved in setting up schedules, and tries to act as a communication vehicle to keep everyone informed and acting as a team . . . it is likely that miscommunications will happen, and mistakes will be made because plans are made without consulting all the necessary parties, without sharing updates and changes, without sharing information, and the list goes on . . .

I don’t have much else to write about this because I experienced yet again nearly every scheduling issue I’ve described above for the Nth time this morning.  I personally visited each of my co-teachers several times every day of this week, emailed them, and called them–and yet I still had a co-teacher come to me 4 minutes after a class had begun to tell me I was supposed to be teaching . . . and then a blizzard of conversations happened with myself, several co-teachers, and it all headed nowhere really fast . . .

Only 18 weeks left in the semester . . . yikes, beginning a countdown like that in week 2 is usually not a good sign.

30 hours till the weekend . . . next week is a new week, and I’m hoping I can recharge myself and come back with my usual irrepressible attitude . . . wish me luck.


Update: Brian in Jeollanamdo pointed out a few things I forgot in a comment, and they’re big ones for native teachers that have to teach at MULTIPLE schools, and other things that should be added to this post.  See the comments for more info.