As more than 500 students at Jungwon Middle School in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, gear up for another school year this week, their teacher Zenas Hubbard has cleaned out his classroom and already said goodbye.
“The last week of school was pretty sad,” said Hubbard, a native English teacher. “I threw out all of the puppets from summer camp that the students had made, cleaned out my desk, backed up my computer files and prepared some lessons for my new job.”
He is one of more than 300 teachers in Gyeonggi Province whose middle and high schools ended their native English teacher programs as of March. Hubbard, approaching his fourth year teaching in Korea, has transferred to an elementary school nearby.
“I really feel like I made a difference during my time there as a teacher,” he said. “(My co-teachers) wanted me to stay and were very disappointed to hear about the budget cuts. I was told that I taught them new ways to teach classes.”
This year’s budget for the Gyeonggi English Program in Korea, run by the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education, cuts all middle and high school teachers outside rural areas. Elementary school teachers were not directly affected.
The GPOE is following the example of Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, which last year either transferred middle and high school teachers to elementary schools or did not renew their contracts. Further cuts continue this year. If all goes to Seoul City’s December 2011 plan, native English teachers will be phased out of all schools by 2014.
Government officials said they still had no total headcount of native-speaking English teachers in public schools for this academic year.
However, provincial and metropolitan education offices told The Korea Herald that SMOE has planned for 686 teachers (down 65 from 2012), Gyeonggi Province 1,207 teachers (down 336), Busan 527 (down 62), Daegu 490 (down 22), Incheon 347 as of March (no change) ― but 50 will be cut over the year ― South Gyeongsang Province about 425 (down 8), Jeju 138 (down 6) and Ulsan 210 (down 4).
South Jeolla Province, North Chungcheong Province, Daejeon and Gwangju will experience no change in numbers from last year with 442, 351, 250 and 183 teachers, respectively. Sejong City, the administrative city which opened last year, will introduce six native teachers, according to the Ministry of Education. Other cities and provinces could not give a number by press time. The numbers may not include teachers funded independently of provincial governments.
Not meant to last
SMOE and GPOE emphasized that their programs, both started in 2005, were never meant to last.
The English Program in Korea ― similar to the programs run by Seoul and Gyeonggi and South Jeolla provinces, but run in the rest of Korea ― was started in 1995 to enhance English education, and promote cultural understanding. The NETs would work alongside and train English-proficient Korean teachers, who would eventually replace them.
Seoul said the phaseout was ahead of schedule. It placed NETs in all public schools by 2010, two years earlier than planned, and says its Korean staff’s skills have improved dramatically.
SMOE claimed that 95.6 percent of Korean English teachers had “teaching English in English capacity” by the end of 2011, and began to phase out NETs last year.
GEPIK officials said that while the reductions were planned out, the timing was not. However, they said it was entering the next phase ― handing the classes over to English-proficient Korean teachers.
But some exiting teachers suggest their schools are not ready for the switch.
“NETs provide a real value to English education that Korean English teachers are simply not able to provide yet,” said Hubbard, noting that speaking is where students need to improve the most. “I have worked with nothing but excellent Korean English teachers, but the accent problems and grammar errors when speaking can add up for the students.”
Another teacher, who asked not to be named, leaves his Gyeonggi Province high school this month after four years. He said that his co-teachers, principal and vice principal liked the material he taught and having a set time to practice English.
“While students do have English class with their Korean English teacher several times a week, they’ll be lucky if they ever speak a single English word in class,” he said.
He added that textbooks were full of awkward and unnatural dialogue, and students copied their Korean teachers’ sometimes incorrect usages.
“Students need a chance to use what they learn, otherwise they likely won’t retain it. This is why I think many students who have studied English for eight years still don’t know the difference between basic grammar patterns.”
Hubbard said that if Korea wanted to reinforce English proficiency, now was not the time to cut programs.
“If we want the next generation of educators to be able to replace NETs, then we have to make that investment now in educating this and the next generation with NETs from kindergarten through college in public institutions,” Hubbard said.
He said that the increasing importance of English meant a solid public education program was essential, especially for the 30 percent of pupils who did not attend after-school classes.
“That opportunity should be for every Korean, not just the wealthy who can send their kids to private academies,” he said.
Ryan Steinberg, a middle school teacher in Maseok, Gyeonggi Province, said the learning experience would also become narrower.
“I believe that students will miss out on learning more than just the syllabus, that English will be just another class they have to pass instead of looking forward to fun and educational lessons,” he said
“I have a great deal of students who come and talk to me before school, at lunchtime and after school. In those times, they are improving their English just by practicing it.”
The road ahead
Although the total teacher numbers have begun to fall, an EPIK official noted that the future of NET programs depends on budgets and policymakers.
“It’s not easy to find out (about the phaseouts) because it’s highly dependent on the budget,” said EPIK supervisor Jung Mi-reh. “At least the first budget for the spring semester is finalized, but I don’t know (how much the budget is for) the next semester or for 2014. They’re not fixed yet.”
And while some programs are winding down, others are being strengthened. The Daejeon Metropolitan Office of Education is working to improve NET standards by requiring 60 hours of training.
“For the upcoming years, DMOE is planning to keep the current budget for the guest English teachers and will hire a similar number of GETs (guest English teachers, or NETs) for our public school system,” a DMOE official said. “At this moment, we are not planning to cut budgets or phase out the GET program.”
Gwangju, which has held its number of NETs steady since 2010, aims to maintain its small program. “One of our core goals is to have as many NETs as we can,” a coordinator told The Korea Herald.
Ultimately, the Ministry of Education said the regional cuts did not mean the NET programs would end altogether.
“Currently, Seoul City is phasing out its native English assistant teacher program. However, each provincial and municipal office of education is responsible for preparing its budget for the native assistant English teacher program,” ministry official Ko Young-jong told The Korea Herald.
“English-speaking Korean teachers have been placed in schools beginning in 2009. This is not part of a plan to gradually phase out native English assistant teachers, but an effort to reduce the number of students per class, as the current size is too large to operate an English class focused on communication.
“As native teachers and Korean teachers are allocated for different purposes, it is our hope that both the programs will continue,” he said.
By Elaine Ramirez (firstname.lastname@example.org)