How schools fail to teach English

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How schools fail to teach English

Driven by a powerful desire to learn English, believing that the language will bring them success in the job market, Koreans will try just about anything.
That includes sending their small children abroad for years, apart from their families, just so long as they are in an English-speaking environment. They happily spend fortunes on private tutoring in English. They stop foreigners on the street to engage them in conversation in search of an ad hoc free lesson. On top of all that, policymakers propose building English-only enclaves in major cities where Koreans will only be permitted to speak English.
To meet the demand, Korea’s Ministry of Education did the logical thing: It set out to put hundreds of native English speakers in public school classrooms. But the effort, for many reasons, has met with failure.
The shortcomings of the Ministry of Education’s English Program in Korea (EPIK) stand out when compared to a similar teaching program say in Japan or Hong Kong. It also stacks up poorly against other programs in Korea such as the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program, run by the Korean-American Educational Commission, a branch of the U.S. Embassy that administers the Korean Fulbright program.
The Fulbright effort began in 1992 and now employs around 60 teachers who are placed in Korea’s public school classrooms to co-teach with Korean teachers.
While much smaller in scale, Fulbright’s program differs from EPIK mainly in the way it supports its teachers. “We have a headquarters staff that pays attention, EPIK does not,” said Horace H. Underwood, executive director of the Korean-American Educational Commission.
In terms of recruitment, the name Fulbright carries a lot of weight in attracting applicants, Mr. Underwood said. “You recruit among graduating seniors a group of ‘elite’ self-selected people,” he said. “They are flexible, adaptable, competent, willing to get along ... and often multinational and traveled as well.”
Fulbright also provides a six-week orientation program at Gangwon National University in Chuncheon where new teachers learn the basics of Korean language and customs, participate in teacher training with veteran English Teaching Assistants and receive practical training in daily skills like ordering food and catching a bus.
“All the horrible adjustment stuff is done before they get to their schools,” Mr. Underwood said.
During the orientation session, Mr. Underwood said, the teaching assistants also have ample opportunity to network and bond. They are provided with cell phones so that they can stay in contact with the Fulbright office and with one another. “Their support system is each other,” he said.
Another important goal of the Fulbright program is cultural exchange. The teaching assistants are all placed in schools outside of the capital where they are the only native-speaking English teacher, and first-year teachers are placed in mandatory homestays.
The program is not without its problems. Mr. Underwood says that on average he will remove one teaching assistant per year from their school, and about 40 percent of them will have to change homestays, usually because of sexual harassment on the part of the school or homestay family.
The difference, Mr. Underwood says, is the extensive support network and cross-cultural experience in the Fulbright office, which is “actively involved” in advocating for the teaching assistants throughout their stay in Korea.
“Start with good people, train them well, pay attention, what’s not to work?” said Mr. Underwood.
He says Fulbright was approached by EPIK representatives to advise them on how they could improve, but even armed with his simple formula for success, the representatives were unable to convince upper-level officials of the need for more resources.
When asked his opinion on why EPIK has not followed suit, Mr. Underwood suggests that there is an unwillingness on the part of the Korean government to acknowledge the expense of these programs.
“The political will to come up with the resources is not there,” he says. “Central government is not internationalized, they just don’t get it.”
Oh Seung-hyun, the official EPIK representative at the Ministry of Education and Human Resources, said that as of last year, EPIK’s funding from the national treasury, amounting to 10 percent of EPIK’s total budget, was cut. “That’s why we cannot help being conscious about money,” he said.
Part of Fulbright’s ongoing support network is a series of meetings and teaching workshops for the teaching assistants throughout the year. The JET program in Japan offers similar workshops that are attended by both Japanese and foreign co-teachers.
William, who asked that his real name not be used, is a teacher with EPIK who had also spent three years with the JET program. During his time in Japan, William had regular meetings with JET personnel who oversaw the teachers in each province. “There’s nothing like that with EPIK,” he said. When Korean teacher liaisons and supervisors at his provincial office of education meet in Korea, William said; “We’re left behind.”
Mr. Oh said the burden of oversight rests in the provinces. “Each [provincial] education office is supposed to be in charge of taking care of EPIK teachers,” said Mr. Oh, “but it depends on the condition of each assigned council. It’s possible there are councils that don’t pay enough attention.”
“To call it a program is what gets me,” said William of EPIK, saying that in reality it is little more than another “headhunting” business, a broker. “It’s not a program. There’s no central control, no chain of command, no one to turn to if you have a problem. For the most part, they don’t want to hear problems.”
Noting the Korean program’s lack of a cultural exchange focus when compared to Fulbright and JET, William added, “They have to change their whole philosophy to really make it a program.”

by Kirsten Jerch

JoongAng Daily staff writer Chun Su-jin contributed to this report.
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