[Eye on English] English teachers struggle with job insecurity

By Korea Herald

Native teachers speak about difficulty settling, hagwon harassment and racism in the classroom

  • Published : Mar 12, 2014 - 20:47
  • Updated : Mar 12, 2014 - 20:47

For Australian teacher Lauren Price, teaching English in Korea was not just about living abroad for a few years. She fell in love with the country after a two-week homestay here as a high school student, and had wanted to be a teacher for as long as she could remember.

“Ever since I came back from the trip, I was dying to get back to Korea. There was some pull inside me,” she said. “I had a school in Australia offer me a job in my final semester of study, and while I really liked them and they really liked me, I was set on going to Korea.”

After obtaining an education degree from Australia, Price landed in Korea in 2010 to join the more than 20,000 native English teachers here. She has since then picked up a master’s degree in education focusing on ESL, and now coaches Korean teachers on how to teach English.

She counts herself lucky for getting into a specialist science school with great co-teachers and students, but sees other native English teachers struggling with job security. The number of native English teachers has steadily declined since 2011 after public school budgets came under pressure. As a result, the number of teachers on E-2 visas, the most common visa for foreign teachers, has fallen from 23,300 at the end of 2011 to 20,000 now.

This has added to the job insecurity that Price said was a problem for teachers looking to stay for longer than a year. She said that, especially in the private sector, performance was no guarantee that a contract would be extended. The result is that even if teachers intend to stay in Korea for a long time, they cannot enjoy the benefits that come with settling into a place and committing to living and working there.

With the government budget cuts leading to a shrinking job market, native English teachers are now facing a sink-or-swim battle for their jobs.

Price’s suggested solution calls for action on both sides. Those with long-term plans in Korea should arm themselves with better qualifications, she said, while schools seeking better teachers could consider longer-term contracts to attract and motivate committed teachers.

But even for teachers who have been here for years, the problem isn’t getting a job, but dealing with private schools not following the rules.

“I have had situations where things in the contract were not met. My pension is being taken from (my) account, but hasn’t been paid. What does the government do? Nothing,” said Tim, a teacher who has worked primarily in private education in Korea for three years.

Tim, who asked that his full name not be disclosed, also said that as a black man he has encountered racism from his students. The biggest lesson he has learned in Korea, he said, was that he should live as if he were still in the U.S.

He said that he now behaves so as to not only prove himself as a teacher, but also fight stereotypes against his race and nationality.

“Still believe in yourself and do your job two to three times better than the next person,” he said.
A man teaches English at a local institute. (Korea Herald file photo)

American Roger Fusselman, who has been teaching on and off here since 1995, has also been treated poorly at times by management who violate essential clauses in his contract. Despite his struggles, he finds his job worthwhile when he sees the effect he has on his students.

“Becoming respected enough as an authority on teaching has been one of my successes,” said Fusselman, who left Korea for only two years to get a master’s in teaching English as a second language. “I’ve been grateful to see my students grow in their abilities and attitudes.”

The obstacle the English education sector faces, he said, is that so many people want what they can’t have or haven’t earned. “Directors want a school without overheads. Parents want their beginner-English kids to do public speaking. (Native-speaking teachers) want the same esteem as a teacher without making the dedicated efforts necessary.

“The teacher lifestyle here breeds complacency in one’s job. Add this to the director’s contract breeches, and morale and effort take a big hit.”

Native teachers’ work pressures have been compounded by the Park Geun-hye administration’s initiative announced last month to bar schools from teaching subjects including English beyond the curriculum. The move will also bar universities and schools from including questions that require this knowledge in tests.

Teachers see the policy as a double-edged sword. While not every student needs to know English well, Price suggested, perhaps Korea should follow other countries in making English an elective subject.

“I think it might be a hard change since it seems English and its importance is ingrained in all aspects of education,” she said.

Meanwhile, Fusselman said that if it means more regulations, he is against it. However, he would agree with the removal of English as a requirement on tests.

Regardless of what it means for the future of native-speaking English teachers, Tim urged foreign teachers to put aside their petty differences and work together.

“We are all expats in a foreign land and should find solace that we can communicate and try to help each other survive. Also, once we can have unity amongst ourselves (and) unity with the citizens, we are then more powerful,” he said. “And then, with our influence, (we) can ignite change.

“There is a revolution brewing between the classes here. People are angry. The young are angry and they just don’t know how to cause change due to the social setup. The English in Korea could use a reboot. A complete overhaul.”

By Emma Kalka (