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English teacher training program faces resistance

Teaching English in English program faces criticism for low participation, murky evaluations

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Published : 2013-05-08 20:31
Updated : 2013-05-09 13:20

This is the second in a follow-up series to one which was published in the Expat Living section on March 6 and 13 and covered the ongoing native English teacher phaseouts in certain regions. This three-part series further assesses the native English teacher program as well as the Teaching English in English initiative for Korean teachers of English in primary and secondary public schools. ― Ed.


One trainer likened it to boot camp. Arduous 9-to-5 classes with only a break for lunch, five days a week, while living in dorms away from the rest of civilization. No alcohol, no socializing with instructors. Study all day, work all night, and speak only one language: English.

This is one of Korea’s Teaching English in English programs, a globally practiced EFL teaching method adopted by the government to boost the abilities of Korean English teachers. Successful participants in the rigorous six-month training get points for promotion, a one-month overseas study program, domestic study support for up to a year and other benefits.

The program copies the standards of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, which seeks to eventually certify all its English teachers with the aim of improving students’ practical communication skills.

So far, more than 1,300 of Seoul’s English teachers are certified, officials said, and more than 1,500 teachers have completed regional programs nationwide.

Yet education experts, TEE trainers and trainees themselves question how much that certification really means in changing the way a classroom is run. The program has been met with heavy resistance and low participation, and evaluators see dubious certification standards.

“Despite (a) tremendous investment and effort, TEE has not met expectations, following in the footsteps of other failed innovations,” said Shin Sang-keun of Ewha Womans University.

No one can fail

“(The program) is not easy, but we will form the test so that diligent teachers will have no difficulty in receiving the TEE certification,” the SMOE had said before kicking off the program in September 2009.

But evaluators, both Korean and native English-speaking, argue that passing-rate quotas and funding pressures lead to questionable practices in passing the trainees.

One Gyeonggi Province native English teacher, who took part in TEE certification evaluations last summer and asked to not be named, claimed she was pressured to pass trainees she “would never recommend for this certification.”

She said teams of three ― one native English teacher, one higher-level official with a variable English level, and a principal or vice principal from the province ― evaluated TEE trainees based on a 10-minute mock English lesson and an interview on TEE. Trainees needed a minimum 80 percent to pass, and those receiving more than 85 percent were recommended for certification.

The trainees were “outstanding” during the mock lessons, which they had long prepared for ― but the interviews revealed teachers’ true conversation abilities, the native English teacher said.

“Because of this interview, you could really separate who could speak and convey their ideas in English against those who had simply memorized their scripts,” she said. “Some teachers did well and some teachers did terribly.”

After filling in her score sheets, she said, she was told the judges were required to pass the same candidates, and therefore had to agree on similar scores.

“We were required to pass 18 of 25 teachers that came to our room,” she said. “I was under the impression that my score was private and could not be changed once I wrote it. However, I was given new score sheets so I could change it without it looking bad.

“I distinctly remember giving one teacher a score of 60 and we passed her with a score of 85.”

She said other evaluating teachers had the same experiences, leading to big arguments among judges. Afterward she made complaints to Gyeonggi officials. She said she doubted they were taken seriously.

A native English teacher, curriculum designer and former TEE trainer in a different region, who also requested anonymity, expressed similar sentiment about the pre-screening process. He and a Korean supervisor, who had a “false-beginner level of English,” had 4-5 minutes to evaluate each TEE program candidate.

“The evaluation rubric was vague at best, and no instructions were given to native English teachers or Korean teachers and supervisors about how to use the rubric or run the interviews,” he said.

He added that the grading system made it almost impossible to fail.

Though passing requires 80 percent, the minimum grades start there and go up with every exam or assignment. Their grades are put into a “formula” that elevates the actual scores to 80-100 percent, he said.

“Korean English teacher trainees could not fail the program regardless of how poor their English language skills and teaching methods might be,” he said.

“There is enormous pressure from Korean supervisors on native English teacher trainers to make the program courses as easy as possible, and to make tests, exams and teaching demo evaluations as easy as possible because they want to guarantee they get funding again for the next year or program,” he added.

To an extent, program coordinators acknowledge either the fail-proof criteria or a passing-rate quota. Chan-wook Diggs-Yang, the coordinator last year of the now-defunct TEE training program run by Seoul National University, said it would have been “more of a problem” to fail the teacher, as the government requires those who fail to repay the training expenses.

“The program was not set up to fail the teacher,” he said. “That’s not saying there were teachers who shouldn’t have passed, but we did our best to try to make sure teachers could do at least the minimum of the program.”

Busan City’s TEE coordinator Lee Mal-sook claimed that passing or failing teachers was a matter of integrity.

“To be honest, failing to pass the TEE certificate would bring disgrace to the teacher’s name as an English teacher in public education,” Lee said, adding that there was no national standard in passing criteria.

She said there were some teachers who did not pass, but declined to reveal the statistics.

Gyeonggi Province coordinator Kim Hee-jung acknowledged the existence of a TEE certification passing quota ― 100 each for elementary and secondary teachers last year ― but denied that undeserving teachers were credited.

“I don’t agree that there is a pressure to give some teachers higher scores than they should get. This does not happen,” Kim said. “However, since three judges have different judging standards, there might be a possibility to adjust the standards among them.”

Rough start

Early on, the program met heavy resistance from instructors who believed the new methodologies were unnecessary or even detrimental to their day-to-day teaching.

Paul Jambor, assistant professor of English for academic purposes at Korea University, said the older teachers in his TEE class in 2009 saw no use in teaching writing skills not covered on the College Scholastic Ability Test, also known as the Suneung.

While younger teachers seemed motivated to adapt to English-mediated teaching, older teachers felt it unnecessary to prepare students for English-led university-level classes, or to teach English in English at all, he added.

“The older they were, the more hesitant they appeared to be toward teaching English in English,” he said, adding that they were resistant to the program to the point of being “confrontational.”

One TEE trainer said that in the training program’s inaugural year, teaching tasks were poorly defined, instructors were given no time to prepare content, trainees were openly rebelling, and “native teacher trainers were being scapegoated for the lack of planning and organization.”

Even this semester, another trainer said, teachers in his essay-writing class rebelled when addressed on their basic English problems, not wanting to waste time going over repeated conversation errors.

After being reprimanded, he found that it was more important to the school for trainees to like him and his class than to fix their grammar problems, he said.

The trainees would become very confident in their English abilities after the intense six-month program, he said. But, he added, their “hagwon-style” attitude means the students are the boss, and happiness of trainees takes priority over effective learning ― which will hinder Korea’s pursuit of becoming a global leader in EFL education.

“Even now they can teach English, but can’t achieve the level of independence or sufficiency that the country wants to achieve,” he said.

Low popularity

Lee Hyo-shin of Konkuk University also said high school teachers especially found the program unhelpful for their classroom needs. Only 13.3 percent found it useful for improving teaching ability in daily teaching practice, according to research she noted in the journal English Teaching last year.

In comparison, about half of secondary teachers said they weren’t satisfied, and thought it did not help them improve their teaching ability.

Consequently, many regions have low teacher participation.

“The training program itself is a good opportunity for teachers. Teachers get educated for six months while getting paid,” said Chin Sung-in, a middle school teacher certified at the Seoul Education Training Institute.

“But the program is not that popular because some schools have trouble getting teachers involved in it, teachers are not that interested, and there are not enough incentives.”

One factor, a Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education official said, is that teachers are already too busy to take on more tasks.

A middle school teacher in Gyeonggi Province who had not taken the program said TEE-based teaching methods required a “holistic approach” from more than just one teacher, but that would burden the whole staff.

“Frankly, I don’t think I can get enough support from the school authorities and other fellow teachers because they are very busy, so they cannot afford to give support to others,” she said.

Another factor, suggested Lee of Konkuk University, is that as the program varies from region to region and even institute to institute, teachers aren’t even sure what TEE is, which leads to confusion or anxiety and further dissuades teachers from signing up.

Additionally, for most teachers, the training stops at certification, as many regions have no additional training programs, Lee said. In other cases, teachers simply don’t want to continue participating, or have no time while working to continue studying.

Despite complaints, the regional programs are generally taught to rigorous standards, and improvements are constantly being made, coordinators and trainees say. Diggs-Yang of the former SNU program said although some teachers were initially forced by their schools to participate, they ended up appreciating what they learned.

But teachers and academic experts say that it takes more than TEE training to turn the tide in English classrooms. Even well-qualified, nearly fluent teachers find themselves reverting back to teaching in Korean, Shin of Ewha Womans University noted in the journal TESOL Quarterly last year.

The expectations from parents, resistance from peers to adopt TEE, unideal classroom environments and the pressure of preparing students for standardized tests all become hurdles.

“The system is a culprit for everything. But if you create a system where the teachers can be held accountable, then I would be willing to call out the teachers,” said Diggs-Yang. “But if you have a system that’s set up that only allows the teachers to do the minimum of what needs to be done, then you can’t hold teachers accountable for all of that.”

By Elaine Ramirez (elaine@heraldcorp.com)

History of TEE program

The creation of the TEE program was spurred by former President Lee Myung-bak, who believed national English competence was vital to the globalization and economic prosperity of his country.

In the mid-2000s, Koreans had among the lowest TOEFL scores in the world, despite one of the highest rates of private spending on English education ― about triple that of Japan, according to Samsung Economic Research Institute.

Leaders faced calls to improve the English communication competence of teachers who received grammar-only training. Soon after Lee’s election, his transition team pledged to have all subjects taught in English by 2010.

But teachers, parents and education experts strongly opposed the proposal. They argued that it would marginalize low-level teachers and students. Lee was heavily criticized for being “like the Japanese imperialists,” according to news reports.

His team instead proposed a program to train 3,000 Korean teachers of English a year.

The Ministry of Education in 2009 announced a target of having all Korean teachers capable of teaching English in English by 2012, according to a journal article by professor Lee Hyo-shin of Konkuk University. Through TEE, the ministry hoped to create a database so it could improve teacher education programs, and easily screen teachers to help the best performers become “leaders of teachers.”

That year, Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education launched the first TEE program, where teachers with at least three years’ experience undergo six months of training. They are then tested on their proficiency in speaking, listening, writing, reading and presenting.

As of February, SMOE said 1,324 of its teachers had gone through the system and understood how to teach English in English to global standards.

The basic incentives for teachers are to self-improve and gain free resources to study English further. They also earn points for career advancement; “TEE-masters,” who have at least seven years’ teaching experience, qualify for supervisor roles in the future.

Most regions have adopted a program similar to SMOE’s, but training programs vary by province and even from institute to institute.

The curriculum varies, but this semester’s schedule at Seoul Education Training Institute for secondary school teachers includes “Teaching Cultural Awareness,” “American Culture,” “Classroom Culture with a Foreigner” and “English Education Using an English Newspaper.”

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