I’ve been back in the US for a week now. I’m still adjusting back to the time zone (oy, am I still adjusting) and it is a bit strange not to be constantly surrounded by fast-paced, still 99.9%-of-the-time unintelligible Korean. I most assuredly missed my soft, cozy, just-perfect-for-me bed and it is great to be back with my friends, getting back into the groove of my life in Lincoln, NE, land of easy access to French fries, not-so-spicy foods, and, most precious of all, Dr. Pepper. The moment in the San Francisco airport when I was able to turn my cellphone off WiFi-only was a shockingly amazing moment in my life.
Not that I don’t miss South Korea. In fact, my time in South Korea was one of the most amazing of my entire life. Getting a first-hand glimpse at education in another, non-English medium country, was an almost indescribable experience. I was able to actually see my own field of expertise in action, abroad.
When I first decided to major in Applied Linguistics, it was with the intention of eventually going abroad to teach—living, working, exploring abroad, globetrotting on my TEFL (and later TESL) credentials. Except, I fell into teaching in the US and, well, for a variety of reasons, haven’t really looked back. Well, that is a bit of a lie, were I wealthier, younger, or braver, I would happily be abroad right now—or, at least, be able to look back fondly on my time spent teaching abroad. You know, on those days when the “what-ifs” outsmart the “what-ises”. But, most of the time I am happy to do what I do, where I do it. In fact, I’m terribly passionate about the need for highly qualified ESL instruction here in the US for both adults and children. That is the niche that I happily fill.
But, I’ve always felt that my expertise was just a bit hampered by my lack of experience abroad. I know too many amazing teachers (and a few not so amazing ones) who fell into great US jobs in the TESL field based on their time spent abroad, even if they lacked the training and content knowledge I have honed. Not that I’m jealous—not at all. More that I am frustrated on occasion by a lack of consistency in training and qualifications for ESL, ESOL, and EFL educators, even when the “best practices” are so well-known.
Yet, now, now I have a better understanding of just what education—English education in particular—looks like another country. My expectations and fears were confirmed just as much as they were rejected. Having read significantly on the history of education in South Korea (and knowing several South Koreans and Korean Americans who were either educated in both South Korea and the US or who have experience teaching in South Korea), I was prepared for rote memorization, drill-and-kill instruction, and test mania that far outpaces the current test mania that is taking off in the US.
I observed some of that—yes, some of that. However, I also observed classrooms and schools that were colorful, shockingly well-resourced (we did see some of South Korea’s most sought-after schools, of course) classrooms, school buildings that ranged from outdated but sufficient to brand-spanking new, a shared school focus on students developing their artistic and athletic talents (no matter what those were) in addition to their academic ones, and a society that is increasingly (and sometimes laughably) integrating English in unique ways.
The English instruction I witnessed often featured technical bells-and-whistles, games, and colorful materials, with one school even featuring space for communicative dramatic play in English via mock storefront setups. The classrooms often featured two teachers, a native English speaker and a native Korean speaker, working together to provide instruction to students. The materials and curricula themselves appeared to be of high quality. No expense appeared to be spared in outfitting these schools with the resources to teach students English in the South Korean way.
While colorful and engaging, the observed lessons did often seem to feature right answers—right answers that might even lead to docking of answers that were just as communicatively correct as the sought for right ones. Very little true communicative practice was observed in the classrooms. One school was outright in its admission that English instruction was limited to test preparation, though the teachers, neither of whom were native English speakers (though both had high levels of technical proficiency), seemed almost regretful in that admission. The best communicative English—no, the most confident communicative English—we encountered was produced by those who had spent extensive amounts of time in English-medium countries or had otherwise been in situations where they were immersed in English on a daily basis, other speakers. Other speakers we encountered were tentative at best, nearly silent at worst. Intriguingly, I encountered more elderly South Koreans who were willing to give a go at communicating—even poorly, even only a few words—in English than young ones. In fact, on several memorable occasions, it was elderly South Koreans who actually went out of their way to greet us in English or to welcome us to their country or their city. This was in contrast to the young children or the students we encountered who were more likely to clam up or to the occasional adults we encountered who had far, far less proficiency (let alone fluency) than they assumed, leading to misunderstood questions, for example. I am not certain where this generational gap might come from, though I do wonder if the diminishing role of the US in South Korea since the 1980s has had an impact on the desire to speak at least a little English, if not had an impact on positive feelings towards Americans. Not that we weren’t received warmly.
Ok, nothing was truly ugly. In fact, our experiences were pretty much amazing all around. The people were warm and welcoming, the food was amazing (though spicy!), and we were truly given more access to schools and to South Koreans than I could have expected. But, one aspect of the English instruction we observed grated on my nerves. I have already written about this complaint, so I will not go into too much detail; however, in short, the lack of highly qualified, trained teachers of English and the use of native English speakers—as if just speaking the language is enough—is distressing to me. I understand why, but it still frustrates me because it would almost be preferable to me for the teachers of English to be less fluent if they were to be actual teachers. I would love to see South Korea work on two things. First, further developing a cadre of native South Korean teachers of English. Perhaps, providing government funds for those students and for current teachers of English to spend 1-2 years earning a master’s degree in education, teaching, or Applied Linguistics in an English-medium country; providing opportunities to demonstrate proficiency and fluency that go beyond test scores, perhaps fostering more speech and debate opportunities, English language drama and art programs, etc; and recruiting more foreign faculty for teacher education programs. Second, only recruiting EPIC teachers who are actual trained, certified teachers, not just native speakers.
I adored my time in South Korea and cannot wait for my next opportunity to travel abroad, let alone my next chance to visit South Korea. I hope on my next visit to be able to observe education in South Korea again. I wonder what changes and what similarities I will observe. I can’t wait!