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Do we need so many public NETs?

As Gyeonggi Province cuts foreign teacher numbers ...

A native English teacher at the National Institute for International Education in Seoul. (Yonhap News)
A native English teacher at the National Institute for International Education in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

The future of NETs in Korea

There are currently about 30,000 native English teachers in South Korea, a majority of whom work at private schools, or “hagwon.” Since 1995, English Program in Korea, sponsored by the Ministry for Education, has placed thousands of NETs in public schools. Last year, the program allocated a little more than 1,000 public school teaching jobs to native English speakers.

But at the start of this year came changes in the official approach to English education. Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education announced it would reduce the number of public school NETs for 2011 by 200, in keeping with a steep cut in the budget for hiring foreign teachers. Nor was this year to be an anomaly: The office added it would gradually reduce the number of teachers allocated through its Gyeonggi English Program in Korea over the coming years. No precise figures were given for the number of posts to be cut.

Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education also cut its budget for hiring foreign teachers, though, as of yet, there has been no reduction in the number of teaching places in the city. With fewer foreign teachers in these districts’ schools, educational authorities plan to make up the numbers with more Korean English teachers ― meaning more opportunities for prospective Korean teachers, and new fears over job security for foreign teachers.

Yes: A plentiful supply of NETs is a must

By Corinne Gilroy 
Corinne Gilroy
Corinne Gilroy

Imagine this: a friend has told you he plans to get in shape by exercising and improving his diet. You congratulate your friend for his decision and pledge your support.

A month later, you meet up with your friend again, only to find him frustrated, depressed and still out of shape. He has low energy, and hasn’t lost any weight.

Concerned, you ask him to describe his new routine. He says he exercises once a week for 45 minutes, and only allows himself to eat junk food six days a week.

He feels like he’s at the end of the line, but asks for your advice anyhow. You take a moment to consider his situation, and then offer the following pearls of wisdom: “If exercise really worked, one day a week would make a difference, and you would be feeling better by now. Maybe this is all a big waste of time and money; perhaps you’re better off quitting.”

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s clear that this imaginary friend is confusing the faults in his routine for some inherent problem with exercise and diet.

And yet, in a different guise, this is one of the most common arguments leveled against Korea’s Native English Teacher program.

Critics claim that since one 45-minute conversation class per week isn’t achieving measurable academic outcomes for many students, the program should be downsized or eliminated.

I argue, rather, that current pitfalls in the NET program merit increased investment, as well as a better recognition of the complex impact NETs have on students and faculty.

In 2008, I moved to Suwon to become Gokban Middle School’s first NET. I remained at the same school for my entire two-year stay in Korea.

Like most NETs, I became discouraged by only seeing each class once per week. Most of my students forgot my lessons from one week to the next, and few had the chance to speak up in a meaningful way.

Sometimes I felt tasked with the impossible. How was I supposed to provide quality English conversation practice to 800 students of varying ability?

Yet in other ways, I feel I made a positive impact on my school. This was certainly true regarding my co-teachers.

Our advanced teacher’s class, for example, was incredibly fruitful. I answered my co-teachers’ grammar and usage questions, while they filled me in on Korean culture and cooking.

I helped to write and edit our English exams, and stepped in as the tie-breaker whenever a student challenged a teacher’s decision to deduct points.

Whenever I had the chance to work closely with small groups of students (during camps, special projects, etc.), the untapped potential of the NET program really became apparent. My students opened up, and then, quite suddenly, learning happened.

As an NET, I felt fully capable of acting as a language consultant, a role model, a motivator, a cultural ambassador and a tutor.

But from the first day of my job until the last, those 22 rapid-fire classes of 40 students remained my albatross ― my mission impossible.

Why the impasse? Because I was hired to do what only a team of 6-8 NETs could have done successfully: teach 800 kids per week.

If I had taught five 20-student classes per day, and met with those same students five days a week, their English skills really would have improved. But in order for that teaching plan to work, the NET program would either need a tenfold budget increase, or a policy of excluding most students.

The former option may pinch Korea’s public pocketbook, but the other goes against the country’s most basic educational values: equal opportunity, objectivity, and continuous improvement.

In other words, one NET in every school is a good start ― a good cross-cultural opportunity for students, and a great opportunity for Korean English teachers ― but it is simply not enough.

If Korea is serious about making quality English conversation classes available to students from all economic backgrounds, then a comprehensive publicly funded program ― one that includes a plentiful supply of native speakers ― is the only responsible choice.

Perhaps a directed tax on hagwon is in order: Let the demand for English education create the supply of English educators; let private concerns build the public good.

The government of Korea and its provincial education offices must either admit that English is an elective open only to the privileged, or encourage the public system of taxation and service do what it designed to do: lift all boats.

Corinne Gilroy was an English teacher at Gokban Middle School in Suwon from 2008-2010. She currently resides in her native Canada. ― Ed.

No: It’s the curriculum that’s the problem

By William Stuchell
William Stuchell
William Stuchell

In Gyeonggi, an experiment is taking place. The government is trying to gauge the impact of foreign teachers in public schools. It is doing this by discontinuing over five hundred teaching positions for foreigners.

Foreign teachers are an important part of English education in Korea. However, given the lack of an effective curriculum, poor structuring of classes, and a complete lack of effective training, our ability to make a significant difference to the education of our students is severely limited.

Whether Gyeonggi hires one foreigner for every public school or relies solely on Korean teachers, test scores will not dramatically change. One reason for this is a deeply flawed curriculum which marginalizes comprehension in favor of memorized dialogs. In public school education the focus is strictly based around conversation and basic vocabulary.

Recently the Superintendent of Education for Chungnam passed a decree that students must focus on memorizing the dialogues within their textbooks. In America we call this “teaching to the test.” Teaching to the test does not inspire students to become lifelong learners, or enhance their ability to actively comprehend a foreign language. It may temporarily raise their test scores, but in the end it does far more damage than good.

A second issue is the structure of our classes. Language education generally has students that fall into three distinct categories: beginning, intermediate, and advanced. All students start at a beginning level and once they have proven they are capable of moving up, they advance to the next level. However in Korea, this is not the case. First and foremost, the students are not divided by their ability level. They stay together as one class and learn together. No consideration is given for different ability levels, and a student who does not know the English alphabet may be studying next to a student who is fluent. In this environment teachers must ignore the students who have fallen behind. Teachers must constantly aim for the mid-level students, otherwise they risk losing the entire class to boredom and general malaise.

If this wasn’t enough, teachers must deal with the fact that regardless of whether a student comprehends the material, next year they will move up a grade and be forced to learn a higher-level curriculum. These students not only get left behind, but they become forgotten. Basing the class on ability level will help change this. In this environment, changing who is teaching the students will have little to no impact on the overall education level or the test scores.

Finally, an effective training program needs to be implemented for new foreign teachers. Far too many teachers arrive in Korea with little to no teaching experience. Given the steep learning curve associated with a teachers’ first few years in a classroom, foreign teachers find themselves ill prepared for the rigors of teaching in Korea, let alone being able to deal with the culture shock associated with living in a different country. This is further exacerbated by teaching in an entirely different culture’s educational system. Given these issues, a comprehensive training program needs to be implemented for foreign teachers. Instead of being thrown into a classroom to sink or swim, teachers need to be placed in the best possible situation to succeed.

Unfortunately, given the current education environment public school teachers find themselves in, it is hard to actively make a difference. Without changes to the curriculum, better and more comprehensive training, and a better structure to our classes, we will constantly find our impact on the English learning program to be minimal.

In the current environment, the government is constantly asking why it is not getting better results from all the money being spent. Quite simply, it need to look no further than the mirror. If changes are made to education our role will become much more pivotal in the classroom setting and the progress we make with our students will be noticeable in their test scores and overall English proficiency. If the government decides to plod along with a system that is based on education principles set in the 1960s then it will continue to waste its money.

William Stuchell is in his third year of teaching at a public elementary school in Chungnam. Before that he worked as a substitute teacher, tutor, and coach in San Diego, California. ― Ed.