For the past 10 days or so I’ve been battling the cough/fever/fatigue/body ache virus that’s been making the rounds at my school (and probably all of Korea).

Last week I was supposed to begin the first round of speaking tests for my 2nd grade classes but Sunday night I felt so crappy, and had lost so much of my voice from coughing, that I decided there was no way I could force myself to do the speaking tests for the 2nd graders and teach my 1st grade classes too (that’s a LOT of speaking!).  I text messaged my co-teacher Sunday night saying that if I still felt the same way Monday morning at 6:45 I’d be taking a sick day.

Monday morning rolls around and I feel like death warmed over, and my voice was down to around 50% power . . . I text messaged my co-teacher and took a sick day.

Tuesday I forced myself to suck it up and soldier on into the school where I did two second grade classes (about 18 guys out of 38-40) worth of speaking tests, and taught my three 1st grade classes . . . it was a LONG day.

Wednesday, I pumped myself full of cough and cold meds and again soldiered on trying to ignore how crappy I felt, and did the tests and classes.  On top of that I stayed at the school for my after school program gifted class that runs from 6:30 to 7:30pm.  Oh my god was that a mistake.  A twelve hour day when you’re sick is NOT a good idea.

I text messaged my co-teacher Wednesday night, again saying that if I felt as crappy as I was and if my voice was as terrible as it was that I’d be taking another sick day. Thursday morning at 6:45am I texted her to say I wouldn’t be coming in.

I have been very happy with how my school, and my co-teacher, doesn’t harass me when I take a sick day.  They generally accept and trust my judgement about whether or not I am able to work when I’m sick, and they accept that I’m not Korean (meaning that Korean teachers usually go into school no matter what their condition is).  Also, I haven’t heard a single “You should go to the hospital.” from any of the co-teachers I work with–actually, I got a few text messages from the older ones after I sent them an apology text message saying I was sick and staying home where they suggested, and didn’t demand/command me (wow, impressive), that I should go to the hospital.  I now see this as a normal expression of concern in Korean culture but when I first got to Korea it used to bug me.

I ended up staying home on Friday too.  It was a little amusing to me Friday morning when I texted my co-teacher at 6:45am to say I wouldn’t be coming in again to see the first hints of alarm at my absence because there were now 3 days of speaking tests that would have to be made up, and the school schedule is already insanely full and figuring out when and how to make up the time was going to be difficult to figure out . . . but my throat felt like I’d sucked back a shaved-glass smoothie from hell, and my voice sounded like it too.  My co-teacher texted me her concerns, and I decided to actually call her so she could hear what I sounded like–if there had been even a glimmer of doubt as to why I couldn’t administer the speaking tests, and why I was staying home, it disappeared pretty fast!  She told me to get better soon, and that on Monday we’d figure out how to reschedule the tests.

Anyways, to get to my post about what Korean English co-teachers do when the native teacher is sick and not in class . . .

I really don’t understand why 99.9% of the co-teachers I’ve worked with, and 99.9% of the stories I’ve heard from other native teachers about their co-teachers, don’t use the lesson plan and materials that the native teacher makes if the native teacher is sick.

Actually, I do know the reasons but it still frustrates me.

Here are some of the many reasons,

1) The KET’s English language ability is “poor” (by “poor” I mean the literal performance ability, not the Korean cultural practice of being ‘humble’ about your abilities) and they cannot teach English in English.

2) The KET’s degree of participation while co-teaching a class is little to none, so they don’t know how to teach the lesson plan alone (even after having observed it several times).

3) The KET is shy and/or insecure about their English speaking ability and afraid/nervous about how students might react if they make a mistake, or say/do something wrong.

4) The KET often learns the language goals and content of the lesson DURING class along with the students, and has not mastered the content enough to teach it independently.

And the list goes on.  Some of the reasons are very legitimate and understandable, and others are not.

The thing that motivated me to write this blog is that the native teacher/Korean teacher Thursday and Friday classes are at the end of the week, so in terms of my co-teachers not having learned and mastered the lesson goals and content of the week’s lesson . . . that shouldn’t have been an issue because they’d already co-taught/observed the lesson at least twice with me. The power point for the lesson was on the English classroom computer; there were copies of the lesson worksheets on the desk ready for the classes; the co-teachers had taught the lesson with me at least a couple times already, and had had a chance to listen to me teach and explain the lesson content, and go over the worksheet exercises; the co-teachers had heard the classroom English expressions and procedure language, and observed how I taught each stage of the lesson and how much time it took . . . simply put, the co-teachers had pretty much gotten their ‘practice’ co-teaching sessions done with me, had had time to observe me teaching the lesson and voluntarily choose what they want to do in terms of specific co-teaching tasks, and had had time to learn, practice, and master the lesson content . . . so you would think that if the native teacher had to take a sick day that the co-teachers might be able to teach the class alone using the lesson plan for that week–but that’s not what happened.

Instead of teaching the lesson for OUR classes my co-teachers used the class time for regular textbook teaching.  Now normally I might not have any problem with this because in the past my classes in public schools have never been assigned a portion of the English class final grade, and have never been given testing points.  But this semester my classes are being tested, and are worth 10% of the final grade.  It doesn’t make any sense to me why a professionally trained and licensed Korean English teacher who has a good level of English language skills and understanding of the lesson goals, content, and communicative teaching procedure would choose not to teach the lesson without me.

Some people might try to explain this by saying maybe the co-teacher doesn’t fully understand all of the lesson’s language and culture content, or that they aren’t sure about how to pronounce some key words or expressions, and other things along those lines . . . but I would respond with the following comment.

When I’ve tried sending co-teachers my lesson plans and the materials I will be using in the coming weeks they rarely if ever ask me questions; they rarely if ever take a close look at the lesson plan, its goals, its content, the communicative procedure, and the division of teaching tasks between native teacher and co-teacher laid out on the lesson plan and materials; they rarely if ever bring a copy of the lesson plan and materials with them to the first class of the week even when I’ve sent them an email with digital file copies (or even placed a paper copy on each co-teacher’s desk); they rarely if ever talk to me before class or after class about anything in the lesson they don’t understand and need to master in order to c0-teach effectively with me . . .

So when I don’t criticize my co-teachers for all of those things, and let them slide, I really don’t think it’s too much to ask why they won’t teach the lesson we’ve already taught together several times if I’m not in the classroom.

I just paused while writing this to ask my primary co-teacher, who is also the head English teacher at my school, about this.  I told her everything I’ve mentioned here, and also said I felt that my co-teachers have excellent English language abilities, the communicative teaching method basics mastered, and the lesson goals and content mastered . . . and that I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t teach the lesson plan for our class time when I was sick and absent.  My co-teacher smiled, laughed a lot while I was describing all this (definitely signs of some nervousness, trying to show sympathy and understanding, and hoping that I wasn’t going to insist she do something about the issue), and then started explaining that Korean English teachers use the lecture style of teaching and that they don’t normally use communicative language teaching methods . . . her answer pretty much side-stepping my query.  Basically, from what I heard and the impression I got, there’s not even the slightest possibility that she would be interested in trying to help me lead and motivate the co-teachers to attempt to teach English in English through a communicative method with a lesson plan made by a native speaker . . . so if the head English teacher who has near native speaker level English, an excellent grasp of lot of western cultural ideas, and a kick ass ability to teach using communicative language teaching methods (we co-taught together last semester) is not willing to try and help me motivate my co-teachers to step up and teach alone when I’m sick . . . well, without support from her I don’t have much of a chance of this happening.

All of this being said, I think if I really pushed, and spent a lot of time and energy coaching and motivating and supporting my co-teachers to try to do this with a lesson that we had already taught a few times during the week, a lesson which they had had at least one or two classes in which to observe and learn all the things they need to, and then ask them to try doing it alone . . . that some of them, perhaps even all of them, might be willing to try it–but there are so many factors involved in this, and a lot of extra time and energy that would be required on my part if I wanted this to happen that I don’t know if I am even interested in trying.

There’s a favorite quote of mine that comes to mind from The Matrix,

Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

I guess I need to make myself more ‘bendy’ when it comes to how I think about co-teaching . . . but the double-standard that exists bothers me.  What I mean by this is that I imagine native teachers who teach with a Korean English teacher using the public school textbook are expected to teach the class from the textbook even if their co-teacher is sick, on a business trip, or whatever the case may be when the Korean co-teacher is not in the classroom.  The textbook material is extremely valuable in the minds of the co-teachers, and this comes from the fact that it is the primary testing material–unlike the lessons and content the native teacher produces and teaches.

And therein lies one of the issues surr0unding this problem, I think.  There is a lack of value and respect for the native teacher’s lessons and class time because traditionally it has not been given any test points at all, and even when it is given test points it can only be assigned 10% due to the fact that native teachers only see their classes once a week (although this can vary, and be for example once a MONTH in some cases).

Another major issue is the lack of a sense of SHARED ownership in the lesson planning, preparation for co-taught classes, equal or somewhat equal division of co-teaching tasks and work in the classroom during classes, and so on.  If co-teachers had a bigger personal stake in the classes they teach with native teachers I think it would go a LONG way to raising motivation levels and improving attitudes towards theses classes.  However, the scheduling difficulties and realities of school work culture make it very difficult for the native teacher to meet with all of the different co-teachers (anywhere from 2 to upwards of 12 (I know one native teacher who has 15 different co-teachers!)) to design and make lesson plans, discuss co-teaching methods and issues, and in general for the Korean English co-teachers to invest their time and energy into the classes . . . anyways, these are some of the things that need to be addressed, I think, if co-teaching is to work well for BOTH the native teacher and the Korean English teacher.

I’ll wrap this up by summarizing a conversation I had later this afternoon with one of the co-teachers who didn’t use the lesson materials for our class last Thursday and Friday.  I took a break from writing this blog to think about it more over the afternoon and to also see if I could find some answers . . .

After carefully and very diplomatically asking one of my co-teachers why she hadn’t taught the lesson last week when everything was laid out and ready to teach her reply was, “I thought it was your special program.  Only you should teach it.”  Wow . . . I really didn’t know how to respond to that.  Was this a case of a cover up story being used to save face and to try and avoid embarrassment because she knew she should have taught the lesson because the Thursday and Friday classes shouldn’t lose the class time with OUR tested lesson content–or was this a case of Korean cultural teacher boundaries causing my co-teacher to think she’d somehow make me upset because she was ‘stealing’ my special program (I’ll admit the power point I made was spectacular, lol, and that I spent a lot of time on the lesson and the students’ responses and high motivation levels were impressing the Korean English teachers, lol)?  I don’t know what to think.

I trust and like my co-teacher, but sometimes the rationalizations I am given when I ask questions about co-teaching issues/situations, and why something was done one way, or not done, I struggle to accept the answers.  I still, after five years in Korea, can’t bend my mind around always putting relationships before good teaching principles and actions in the classroom and school.  And I still haven’t been able to figure out how to easily trust what I’m told by co-teachers because there’s always this small voice in the back of my head saying, ‘She’s only saying that because she wants to protect your co-teaching relationship.  She’s really thinking/feeling something else.’  It’s unfortunate, but true.

There are no easy answers for what native teachers and Korean English teachers ‘should’ do when one of them is sick. There are just too many variables involved.  But I do think it is something that the native teacher and/or Korean English co-teacher should talk about what they hope for (as opposed to expect), and what they are willing and able to do when one of them is sick or absent from the classroom.

What do you think?