Steve Schertzer

When in Rome

Definitely don't do as the Romans do

In my last opinion piece for, ("The TEFL Industry: A Stinking, Rotting, Putrid Corpse", January, 2009), I wrote about how many of the foreign English teachers and supervisors are ruining the TEFL industry with their crude and, sometimes, illegal behaviour. Specifically I focused on John Wrenshall, a supervisor and teacher I worked with at a Bangkok language school, who was recently indicted for allegedly pimping young boys to foreign sex tourists while living and working in Thailand. I would now like to turn my attention, (and perhaps my wrath as well), to the Board of Education, specifically, the BoE here in Busan, South Korea, with which I have been associated for the last three years.

With the school year just beginning, at least the public schools here in South Korea, this is as good an opportunity as ever to discuss the teacher-training workshop that is offered twice a year to native English speakers by the various Offices of Education. I've had the misfortune of attending two of them in my three years with the program, both presented in the exact same fashion.

Along with about 40 other English teachers, I was forced to attend an "In-Service Training For Native English Teachers." At least that's what it was called. Subtitled, "A Workshop Designed to Improve the Effectiveness of ELT in Busan Schools", it took place from September 22 through the 26th, 2008. I am all for teacher training workshops, and I wouldn't have minded attending had I gotten something positive and educational from it. If I would have learned a thing or two about teaching or classroom management, then I would have left happy. It's not as if I have nothing to learn about how to become a better teacher; I do. In fact, I have a lot to learn. But those running the show, had nothing to teach. Nothing new. Nothing effective. Nothing that would have taken the students to higher levels. Nothing that would have allowed the students or teachers to reach their true potential.

The titles of their lectures in the booklet handed to each teacher did sound promising.

*** Effective Co-teaching Skills.

(The problem was that there were no Korean co-teachers participating in the workshop.
Only us native teachers. So I suppose at weeks end we all went back to the same problems that existed prior to the workshop: Less than helpful and antagonistic co-teachers who offer little or no support in the classroom. So much for problem solving.)

*** A Class Demonstration, (by a native teacher named Jennifer.)

(The problem here was that, although the demo class was fast-paced, it focused too much of activities and games and was deemed by the Municipal Office of Education as something not to emulate. So much for a positive demonstration of how an English class should be taught.)

*** A Speaking and Listening Lecture, (by a native teacher named David.)

(The problem here was that the whole exercise was all, and I mean ALL, about playing games. If games are to be played in the classroom, it is to reinforce what was previously taught. And nothing was taught. David came into the classroom and demonstrated his teaching technique by immediately going into game mode. That was bad enough. But with each question answered, he ended up throwing candies or sweets to his "students." That's right, actually throwing them causing quite a commotion. I can only imagine doing this to 12 year olds fresh out of elementary school.)

Maybe I'm "Old School" but, to me, the classroom is a sacred place of learning. Any attempt to turn the classroom into a zoo or a game show studio for the teachers own perverse pleasure, and that of their co-teachers and school administrators, should be met with extreme resistance. A teacher has the responsibility of upholding the sanctity of the classroom.

*** Busan English Education and the Roles of the EPIK Teacher. (This also included a discussion of the contract.)

(Never mind that the contract is vague and full of double-speak as to make your tax return form look easy by comparison. Never mind that it was written with absolutely no consultation from the English teachers, and is open to personal interpretation and abuse. Never mind that your Korean co-teachers, and the BoE, can use the contract as a form of blackmail in an attempt to get the foreign teacher to do as they please. The role of the EPIK teacher, at least to the socially and educationally underdeveloped mind of the Koreans in charge, is twofold:

1) To have the foreign English teachers focus on trivial matters in the classroom, such as playing games and speaking about where they are from, rather than doing any actual teaching. This makes the Korean co-teachers look better in the classroom than they would otherwise be, and reinforces the Korean stereotype of foreigners as little more than EFL monkeys, war hungry GI's, and a form of cheap labour.

2) To assist the Korean co-teachers in placing face over form. The foreign teacher merely has to look good in the classroom, not necessarily be good or do good. The doing good that any foreign teacher manages to do stems from not ruffling any cultural or educational feathers and making the Koreans in charge look good, thus maintaining the status quo. Very little, if anything, is ever taught or learnt.

There were other teacher/demonstrators, Korean and foreign, who did little more than hand out photocopies of more games and mindless activities designed to keep the kids in your classroom happy, but almost nothing on how to properly and effectively teach Korean students how to listen, speak, read, and write in English. Nothing on classroom management. Only edutainment for edutainment's sake. The BoE's message to the foreign teachers: "Play games, have fun, throw candies, and don't worry about any real teaching. You're on your own." That's unacceptable and irresponsible.

But the highlight of the week occurred early on when some idiot from the Office of Education, (and there are many of those), stood in front of the native teachers and invoked that all too common refrain, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." She was, of course, referring to those newbie English teachers who remain unaware of how to conduct themselves when living and working in a foreign land.

Never mind that the Romans threw the Christians to the lions, regardless of whether the lions were hungry. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Forget the fact that in Ancient Rome virgins were snatched from the streets and taken to the emperor's chambers for deflowering, or that senator's wives were forced to participate in orgies and saw their husbands murdered in front of them. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Crucifixion, live burnings, beheadings, and tying people's arms and legs to the wheels of chariots as they rode off in opposite directions were just a few of the things that the Romans did. Nero roamed the streets at night dressed as an ordinary citizen and slashed the throats of his own people just for the fun of it. He once fell in love with a young boy, and when the boy did not return Nero's advances, he had him castrated.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do? Well, contemporary South Korea is certainly not as brutal and vicious as the Romans once were, (North Korea is a different story), so let's keep it in perspective, shall we? Would it be okay if I drink three bottles of soju tonight and then puke my guts out on the street? On in an elevator? Because that's what many Koreans do. Would it be acceptable to my co-teachers, school principal, and the BoE if I come to class tomorrow morning so hungover that I have trouble standing up for longer than 30 seconds at a time? Because that's what many Koreans do. Would it be perfectly fine if I cheated on my spouse, or had sex with a middle-school girl in exchange for an MP3 player or the latest cellphone? Because that's what many Korean men do. It's called "Wonjo Gojae" or, literally, the "sex trade", and it's been going on in this part of the world for centuries.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Actually Nero didn't fiddle. He sang. And that's what the good people at the BoE are doing. They're singing while the Korean educational system burns. After patting themselves on the back for a job well done, these incompetent bureaucrats have the gall to congregate at the local "Noraebang" or singing room to belt out the latest Wondergirls ditty.

Not that the foreign teachers are any more competent. While schools and classrooms burn, we're expected to do little more than play games and throw candies at the kids. One participant in the workshop, a woman named Wendy, complained about the lack of vacation time in the contract. At one point she said, "I'm not here to teach. I'm came here to travel." A native speaker of English who didn't come here to teach? How weird is that? Don't worry Miss Wendy, and all the other foreign clowns who didn't come here to teach. Because you don't have to teach. Just play games, have fun, throw candies, make your co-teachers look good, don't challenge authority, and most of all, learn to kiss ass. The sooner you do all that, the happier everyone here in edutainment Lala-land will be.

So keep singing, you brainless and incompetent bunch of boobs at the BoE. Keep telling your teachers to focus on tests and exams while passing kids, who can't even spell their own name in English, to the next grade. Keep telling us foreign clowns to throw candies at the students instead of demanding that we teach them to read and write at the appropriate level. Keep on hiring new teachers who are too afraid to correct their students because we are not supposed to single them out and embarrass them. Keep employing teachers who can barely speak the language they are supposed to be teaching. And last, but certainly not least, keep failing students of all ages, from kindergarden to university with your lack of vision, your lack of objectives and a clear mission, your lack of leadership, and your half-brained stupid ideas that keep children from developing their full potential. Because, in the end, it's not your ass that gets thrown onto the street. Your jobs at the BoE are perfectly safe behind this educational shell game of yours; perfectly secure behind your wall of secrecy, incompetence, inefficiency, and irresponsibility.

Beheadings, religious persecution, young girls having acid thrown in their face if they dare to attend school, and schools being burned to the ground. Rome? Greece? Europe in the middle-ages? No. Parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan right now. Swat Valley. Google it. Taliban. Google that too.

UNICEF claims that there are 72 million children in the world of primary school age not in school as of 2005. Their website ( goes on to say that, "As high as this number seems, surveys show that it underestimates the actual number of children who, though enrolled, are not attending school." The actual figure may be close to a staggering 100 million.

To put this figure into perspective, 72 million is the combined population of North and South Korea. If we were to take these 72 million children who are not going to school and call it a country, say "Noschoolistan", it would be the world's 18th largest by population. (Remember, the actual figure is higher.)

Africa is especially hard hit by school age children not in school, particularly Nigeria, where, "The highest estimate of the number of primary school age children who are not in school is 8 million, suggesting that around 40 percent are not attending primary school and 60 percent are not attending secondary school, with markedly lower rates of participation in the northern states, particularly amongst girls." (Chris Ochayi, "The Vanguard." Thursday, September 11, 2008. )

Southeast Asia is another region hard hit by the reality of children not attending school. Thailand and the Philippines are two countries in the region where many parents find it extremely difficult to fund their children's education, especially after primary school when public funds tend to dry up.

The National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) in the Philippines says that "The number of Filipino children who did not have access to primary education worsened to 16.8 percent of the school-age population in the school year ending 2007 from 15.6 percent the previous year because of the rising cost of living." (Michelle Remo and Beverly T. Natividad, "Philippine Daily Inquirer." July 15, 2008. )

The article goes on to say that "The number of Filipino youths aged 12 to 15 who were not able to attend high school stood at 41.4 of the population, translating to a net enrolment ration of 58.5 percent." ("Philippine Daily Inquirer." July 15, 2008.)

We all know what happens to children who are not in school. Many end up as child soldiers, fighting in a war that they should be reading about years later in history books. From Myanmar to Sierra Leone, thousands of them end up with no limbs and no future. Millions more children end up on the streets begging for money and selling their bodies to paedophiles. I've seen many of these children in Thailand. Cambodia, and the Philippines. And if these children are not on the streets, then they can be found in sweatshops toiling for 12 or 14 hours a day for slave wages.

Females are particularly vulnerable to a lack of formal education. Bangkok, Manila, Pattaya, Angeles City, Phenom Penh, and Ho Chi Min City are full of Asian girls and women who sell their bodies and souls to Western and Asian sex tourists because their families lack the money, resources, and perhaps the will to send their daughters to school. To many Asian parents, children are little more than commodities bought and sold on the open market. Their daughters are worth more to the family working in Pattaya or Angeles City than they would be if they were enrolled and attending university. A tragedy on so many levels.

I can go on with more examples from the developing world, but the world's hatred for children, whether their own or the children of others, is certainly not new and may be the subject for another blog entry. We all get the picture. Except perhaps those education officials, administrators, and teachers who remain oblivious to these tragedies and harsh realities that they refuse to acknowledge.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do? Korean men are famous for flocking to Pattaya and Angeles City and paying top dollar, (or Baht, or Peso, or Won), for the pleasure of having sex with a virgin. Upwards of one thousand U.S. dollars, I'm told. Quite a throwback to the times of Nero and Caligula. Korean camera crews, complete with actors and actresses, routinely go to the Philippines to shoot their soft-core porn movies, with an emphasis on soft. When in Rome, do as the Romans do?

If I am being told to do little more than play games with my students and throw candies at them, then it can't be all that bad here. At least not anymore. It has been little more than two generations since South Korea was itself mired in abject poverty. Its third-world status comparable to what is now Bangladesh. How soon these people forget.

No, the children here are not languishing in sweatshops sewing buttons on dress shirts that will be worn by Wall Street swindlers. They are not having their arms and legs hacked off by communist rebels. They are not having acid thrown in their face by religious fanatics who believe that girls should not be going to school. But they are being deprived of a decent education. They are having their dreams shattered. They are being prevented from reaching their full potential.

Seventy-two million children not in school. That's a huge tragedy. But what about the tens of millions of others who are in school and not getting a damn thing out of it? Except for playing games and having candies thrown at them by people who are behaving more like trained clowns and monkeys rather than well-trained and licensed teachers.

For the record, in the three years that I have been a teacher in Korean public schools, I have never thrown candies at my students. I have given them some by politely handing it to them. I have rarely played games. I don't talk down to them. And, unlike many of the Korean teachers, I don't treat my students like babies. Any attempt by the Board of Education, or the school principal, or my co-teachers to begin treating them this way will be met with stiff resistance and an extreme resolve in knowing what I'm doing is right. My students will be taught, not bought.

It throwing acid in the face of a girl who is on her way to school is the height of human brutality, then throwing candies at the face of any student in the classroom is the height of irresponsibility. As teachers, children are on loan to us. As teachers, we are responsible for our students from the time they enter the classroom to the time they leave it.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do? Hell no! When in Rome, DON'T do as the Romans do. When in Korea, (or anywhere else, for that matter), don't throw candies at your students; teach them to listen and speak coherently. Don't just play games with them; teach them to read and write properly. When in Rome, rise above the Romans. When in Rome, show the Romans a better way. And then do it. Full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes! Because those tens of millions of children around the world, who are fortunate enough to attend school, deserve teachers and administrators who genuinely care about the students and their progress.


Steve, why must it take you over 3,000 words to make a simple point? Please, edit your thoughts and write concisely, rather than in a near stream of consciousness. (For example, readers don't need ten -yes, ten - references to candy being thrown to get your point. Two, at most, would suffice. Frankly, carrying on for over 3,000 words comes across as a tad narcissistic, and your readers don't need to be lectured. Even Frank Rich of The NY Times rarely exceeds 1,500 words, and his op-eds are longer than any other in the Times. Suggestion: (1) shoot for 500 words, and (2) balance the negative with the some positive.

You have taught in Thailand, Mexico, Korea, and perhaps other countries. Everywhere you go, you seem to feel that 99.99 percent of what you encounter in the teaching profession is horrendously negative. Is there nowhere on earth where you have experienced enough good to instill even an ounce of genuine optimism in your spirit? Think about your students: do you really think they are not picking up on the deep disgust you feel for your chosen profession?

Please...lighten up. Enough is enough.

By Mike, Thailand (17th January 2010)

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