Ken May

The staff room

Inside a Korean hogwan


This week’s article provides a general outline of my work situation in Korea. It offers a brief glimpse inside the staff room of a typical Korean hagwon. It is based on my own experience, so please realize that other teachers will have different interpretations. The last thing I need is a bunch of oversensitive posters (from the Korean forum on www.eslcafé.com) sending me whining private messages that this article doesn’t accurately describe their own situation. I should also clarify that I am not complaining. I like my job and am thankful to have it. However, if a reader is wondering what to expect from a private school in Korea, before signing a new teaching contract, this summary illustrates with a helpful background.

It was five minutes before class. I rummaged through the bookshelves to find teaching material. Moments before, I was informed that a new class of teenagers was added to my schedule. The students were not at the basic conversation level, so I wanted to produce a handout as a helpful aid. It is very rare for a student to take notes or to copy down anything that I write on the whiteboard, thus it helps to provide them with this information in advance. I eventually stumbled across an exercise from Side By Side (on subject-verb-object word order) and rushed to Xerox multiple copies. Unfortunately, the copy machine was broken and needed an ink refill. I was out of luck. It was time to improvise once again. I took a few moments to gain composure then launched into the classroom empty handed. It was performance time. Luckily, I was equipped with a standard bag of tricks – conversation topics, games, back-up handouts, and group activities. There was enough material to milk out another fifty minutes of spontaneous classroom time.

Standard English lessons, even ones planned in advance, are vulnerable to abrupt changes at a Korean hagwon. Students suddenly enroll in or depart from the typical private school; language skills can greatly vary and fluctuate in each room; and children are often juggled around quicker than cells of reorganizing terrorists. Therefore, a teacher must think quickly and be able to alter lessons depending on shifting student needs. Sometimes I feel like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I nonchalantly reach into a hidden bag and pull out various tools, props, and resources to entertain them. Sometimes it works successfully and other times I race out of class afterward feeling like a bumbling fool. One day I can blow the minds of youths with a new twist on conversational skills, but the same lesson in a different class might result in spit wad fights and public wrestling. Roll the dice and see how it goes, then tweak and alter the lesson until it clicks into place.

To elaborate, an increasing number of my students are from middle school and high school. However, there is no English textbook used by them. The only required material is a book written in the Korean language. I am the only native English speaker at my school, therefore the resources most favored are written in the mother tongue of Korean teachers. I am giving full range to do whatever I want with these classes, and there is no coordination with other teachers on lesson plans. My job is to persuade these students into actually practicing English with me. This task is easier said than done. At this age students often feel that games are too childish. Pubescent hormones kick in and they become self-conscious about making social blunders. They can be defiant, rebellious, and outright rude (which is my karma coming back at me since I was the same way at their age). A good chunk of time is spent on begging students to close their comic books and to stop gossiping about the latest movie stars. Many students have no desire to apply English skills to their daily lives. Sometimes they debate how all this English conversation will help them improve test scores. Many would be happy to never write a single paragraph, as long as they improve their ability to fill in the bubbles of a multiple choice examination.

Preparing classroom material in this environment can be rather tricky. When possible I get them to talk about the things that are important to them – sports, music, comic books, computer games, movies, the opposite sex. However, when they refuse to speak in class I often use handouts to provoke them into dialogue. If I give them an assignment from a book they will diligently get to work, or at least cheat by copying from their neighbor, but when I coax them into uttering basic sentences they clam up – and, unfortunately, I can’t rely on the social lubrication of alcohol. For written material, I often thumb through dog-eared copies of Interchange and Side by Side, erase penciled-in answers, and resurrect these old reliable resources for use once again. I have my own personal copies of Leo Jones and Raymond Murphy textbooks for supplementary material. The other textbooks available at the school are Headway, Expressway, and Exploring English. However, to be honest, the majority of classroom time involves spontaneous efforts to cajole students into speaking. I am skilled at question and answer sessions. I can rapidly fire off open-ended questions to solicit response from teenager students. The textbooks only give me something to fall back upon.

The elementary students are much easier to teach (God! I never actually thought I would ever write that). Korean children can be wild. They have short attention spans and demented minds; the long term side effects from excessive television and Starcraft computer gaming. The children can be difficult because they have so much playfulness and a surplus of energy, but sometimes a quotient of cuteness kicks in so that it balances out [see my November submission, “Dong Chims and Dried Squid”, if you want perspective about hagwon children]. These classes are easier because they have specific books to work with, and I can coordinate lesson plans with Korean teachers. Teaching is predictable because it is so linear. If they studied page #10 yesterday, I know that I will teach page #11 today, and the Korean teacher can predict without flaw that page #12 will be her resposibility. There is no leaping ahead or back tracking. The Korean teachers design the quizzes and tests. I simply review material and chip away at the textbook page by page. Occasionally, I throw out a fun activity and material that isn’t in the textbook, however the school prefers that I stick with the 1-2 pages of scheduled material every day, regardless of what is on those pages. If that lesson is a sing-a-long I’ll skip it anyway. I got to have some sense of pride and limitations.

My hagwon uses the Let’s Go series. We have also adopted Fun Fun English for beginner phonics and Hip Hip Hooray for advanced elementary students. Back in 1999, we taught with the American English series, but it was dropped since the director felt that it lacked adequate pronunciation exercises. I don’t really have much say about teaching material. Basically, a book is chosen for whatever reason and I must adapt to teaching with it. It helps to be flexible. I know that some hagwons profit from selling textbooks to students, and perhaps this can be a persuasive factor in book selection, however I doubt that my director is guided by these kickbacks. She is a businesswoman, but she does have integrity and the desire to improve the English skills of our students. This desire for predictable structure, however, can be problematic. When the students finish Let’s Go One it is well established that their next book will be Let’s Go Two, and so forth. Some children grow impatient because their level is so much higher than other students, while others get bored because they have fallen so far behind. Eventually, they will have an outburst in class, so that they will be shuffled into a new group that is at a more appropriate level.

Other than books, the staff room has an adequate supply of props: flashcards, board games, and art supplies. For the most part, these are leftover from previous native English speaking teachers. I bought most of the flashcards back in 1999 and they are still there today. The next few generation of expatriate teachers added board games, crayons, and paint. Sometimes I invent new games or create fresh material from these hand-me-downs. There is only one computer in the staff room, and it lacks Internet access and a functioning printer. Therefore, it can be expensive to print material from English websites or my personal computer discs at the local Internet cafe. My school does not have access to television or the Internet. The director removed these props because they caused too much fighting among children. They argued about who would operate the mouse or have access to the remote control. There are still a few stray English videos gathering dust from these previous times. The prime teaching resource used by Korean teachers are cassette tapes. There are hundreds of cassette tapes available for students to listen to recorded English phrases. I have adjusted to the tedious process of pressing the fast forward and rewind buttons until the tape is at the right place. I yearn for English lessons recorded on compact disc. I would happily convert to any religious doctrine of your choice in trade for this modern technology. Also placed on my wish list are globes, maps of Korea, overhead projectors, and bilingual dictionaries.

The classroom, itself, is comprised of a white board and about a dozen chairs and tables. The topics studied are English, math, social science, Chinese calligraphy, and Korean literature. I teach anywhere from 2-12 students per class (with an average of about seven students). Pupils are aged anywhere from five to fifty years old. The majority of them are somewhere between ages 11-17. There are approximately 150 students at my school, but I only teach about 100 of them. I work between 25-30 hours per week and have never been required to work weekends or overtime. Each class period is only fifty minutes long, with a 5-10 minute break between classes. In winter the rooms can be cold, so we are given a space heater for warmth. The children open up windows anyway since they seemingly prefer to wear coats inside the room. All in all teaching is not that difficult. The day goes by quickly and my salary is high enough to make it worth it.

A total of seven teachers work at my school. All of them are Korean except for myself. Three of these teachers can speak English with me, but the others are too shy to do so. Staff meetings are held in the Korean language. I seldom understand what is discussed, but that is my fault for not learning to speak Korean fluently. If I want to learn about the meetings I will talk to the director afterward. Overall, the mood is very friendly. There aren’t any office politics that directly concern me. I am an outsider who actually enjoys his personal space. It doesn’t bother me that I am somewhat excluded at staff meetings. During the breaks between classes I can still enjoy social contact with the Korean teachers.

The truth is that the Korean teachers work much harder than me for a much lower salary. They are required to report to work early on Saturday morning, while I am sleeping off my hangover from the night before. They must worry about scheduling and administrative duties, while I merely focus on teaching. Sometimes they labor at janitorial work, while I seldom do anything more difficult than change the water cooler or move something heavy. I am provided with nicer housing than any of the Korean teachers. I live in a fully stocked, modern, two-bedroom apartment. It has a scenic view of a mountain range from the 15th floor. I have no roommates and will never be required to share housing. In contrast, many Korean teachers still live with their parents and struggle to make ends meet. If there is any animosity or resentment over these unbalanced work conditions it has not been reflected back at me. The Korean teachers realize that a native speaker provides a competitive edge. There are dozens of private schools in the remote area where I live. The Korean economy is in a slump, so my school needs all the help it can get. I am the only foreign teacher in the vicinity. My presence brings in a lot of business and adds to the reputation of the school. Therefore, the staff does appreciate my contributions and they also benefit by practicing English skills with me. I can help them with grammatical questions and proofread written work.

The one complaint that I have is that my school has a new anti-fraternization policy among employees. The teacher that I replaced had developed a romantic relationship which created a conflict of interest at the school. The resulting tension led to a negative environment and bad feelings. This was why I was asked to return to this academy as rapidly as possible. Conflicts also developed when two Korean teachers split from the school to open up their own hagwons – taking clients with him and pressing foreign teachers into recruitment. There is fear that fraternization will lead to unproductive discussion about the size of salary or individual treatment. In result, we are not allowed to meet outside of class. The employee bond is very important to me. I enjoy mixing with Koreans as much as possible. In the past, I had dinner with Korean teachers every week or visited karaoke clubs with male teachers. I developed close friendships which made me want to stay longer. Without this contact, I have less motive to develop Korean language skills. It is more difficult to interact with locals at a deeper level, since meeting them could prevent their enrollment as students. In result of this anti-fraternization policy, my social life is almost exclusively comprised of expatiates.
For a short time, my need to mix with Koreans was fulfilled by adult classes. I held lessons in my own home. I converted a spare bedroom into a temporary class. I put on a kettle for some tea and waited for adult students to arrive. Sometimes we did instructive activities together involving cooking lunch, dining in restaurants, and hiking across wonderful mountains. The students and I developed a close relationship. They often called me at night and we sometimes met outside of class. For a while students thrived in this environment. Unfortunately, I later learned that some of them no longer paid my school for these classes. Since lessons were in my home, students could meet without my director’s knowledge, and attend classes without me learning that I was giving freebies. One student used my material to teach her own private lessons. My director has always treated me with honesty and respect. I was not about to undercut her business with these accidental private lessons. The line was finally crossed when I was asked to record my voice on a cassette tape (which the non-paying student intended to use to make money from private lessons). I decided to draw the line. Adult students could no longer visit my home or meet outside of class. They were only allowed to attend lessons held inside the hagwon.

From time to time a teacher will meet with me in secret. It is actually very constructive to talk about our students and methods together. The Korean teachers seem to be curious about westerners. Many of them want to visit the expatriate clubs, which I encourage, but they are too worried to do it. They don’t want to get into trouble or lose their jobs. I understand their reluctance. At the same time, this round of teaching is missing something vital: that strong employee bond. Without this connection I will almost certainly move elsewhere when my contract has been completed. I am thankful for what my school offers me. I am treated well and my contract has been honored without flaw by my director. However, each teacher has a special requirement before signing on for a second or third year. For me, the deciding factor is always the situation of the staff room.




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