You don’t always get what you pay forIdentifying oneself as an English teacher has a loaded meaning in Korea. The title may fail to evoke images of diligence or hard work, but to paint all teachers with the same brush is decidedly unfair to those that do good work. And they do exist.
Indulging the stereotype for a moment, however, it’s worth asking why these supposedly undesirable elements end up here in the first place. Has the insatiable desire on the part of Korean parents to finance any and all types of English education trumped common sense?
Take the story of little Stephanie, a compact 3-year-old dragged to my former hagwon, or private school, by her mother. A mother who wanted us to teach her daughter using textbooks and pencils. This in addition to a demand that we send twice-weekly progress reports on the state of Stephanie’s English.
One can’t fault her for trying to do the best for her child. But how could she be so blind? She came to watch the first class, scrutinizing the situation carefully while Stephanie cowered in fear as the large white men tried to coax a name out of her. It was an opportune time for most rational people to remove their baby and go home. Yet Stephanie’s mother proceeded to pay our school enough tuition on a monthly basis to send Stephanie to any university in Canada.
You can admire a young mother’s determination up to a point, beyond which there is no choice but to conclude she is no longer in full control of her mental faculties.
One day, Stephanie was the only one who showed up for my class. Since she usually just squealed and giggled under the desk, I thought some quality one-on-one time would result in progress. I spent 10 minutes trying to get her to write an uppercase B, at which point I reached for the alphabet bingo. With her trying to eat the pieces and refusing to wait till I’d called letters before covering them, it wasn’t to be our day.
I looked her square in the eye and asked when she was going to start adopting some responsibility in her life?
With a youthful enthusiasm, she shrieked, “Mine!” and lunged at my coffee, spilling it all over the table. The report that went home that day affirmed Stephanie’s complete mastery of the possessive pronoun.
Until Korean parents stop financing a system in which unqualified practitioners get paid handsomely for a service they rarely end up delivering, being an English teacher in Korea will carry the same dubious meaning.
by Grant Surridge