The Korea Herald


English teachers look to change their image


Published : Nov. 17, 2010 - 10:10

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One of Korea’s biggest foreign English teacher associations is taking an enlightened approach against the fight on mandatory HIV testing by correcting, rather than complaining about, the public’s image of English teachers as promiscuous party animals.

Required HIV testing for visas, one that many slam as discriminatory, has been implemented by the government since 2007. As of now, testing remains for E-2 visas.

National Communications Officer Rob Ouwehand of the Association of Teachers of English in Korea believes that the regulatory testing stems from both the fear of English teachers and HIV, both of which can be cured with knowledge.

In an interview with The Korea Herald, Ouwehand explained that rather than criticize the ministries and third party organizations involved, they look to themselves to polish the tarnished image of foreign English teachers.

“ATEK prefers taking a problem-solving approach to that kind of a question, where rather than complaining about some perceived injustice, why don’t we get to work on improving the reputation of English teachers in Korea, by going out into the community and doing good stuff.”

And knowledge of English teachers is exactly what the association plans to distribute through several positive means which includes building internal pressure, connecting with Korean English teachers and rebuilding the Korean public’s view of foreign teachers.

To reconnect with the public, Ouwehand believes they need to put themselves out there, swapping scary thoughts of English teachers with positive images.

The perceived reputation of foreign English teachers in Korea, fueled by the Anti-English Spectrum group and perpetuated by the media, had long been one of drinking, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and disease.

It is speculated that the efforts of the vigilante group helped push the ministry’s institutionalization of the testing in 2007.

“It’s not so much English teachers, it’s the idea of English teachers,” he said.

“When English teachers go out into the community and volunteer, collect clothes for poor kids and volunteer English lessons at the orphanage nearby, than instead of being that kind of faceless, scary, English teacher, it humanizes us and by contributing to Korean society and saying we’re not here just to drink and party and take our money and go home. We’re part of Korean society, and we want to be responsible members and contributors to Korean society.”

To further achieve this, the organization is looking within to encourage members to behave responsibly “act with integrity and professionalism and contribute to our communities,” said Ouwehand.

According to Ouwehand, president of the association Oh Jae-hee is planning on connecting with Korean English teachers, believing the relationship could benefit both.

“If we get a lot of Korean English teachers in our network that’ll give us the tools to enter those discussions in a powerful way,” he said.

One of which is simply breaking through the language barrier.

ATEK is also looking to educate members and the public, about what HIV really is.

“I think the one thing that we can do is to work together with parent’s groups who might be asking for those kinds of testing, and maybe work together with the education offices.”

He mentioned that the organization has many officers who are very knowledgeable about HIV. According to Ouwehand, one member worked for 20 years in the area of HIV at a health center in the U.S.

“The Korean government has already been working hard to promote the idea that Korea is a multicultural country and as they promote the idea that we can live together and understand each other, once again, that’s building the knowledge that will replace fear,” said Ouwehand.

“ATEK agrees that teaching is a really intimate relationship. The teacher-student relationship requires a lot of trust and respect, fortunately HIV and AIDS has never been transmitted through trust and respect.”

HIV cannot be transmitted through saliva, tears, sweat or casual contact.

ATEK has roughly 1,300 members, and associate membership is available to anyone. Those that legally teach English may become a general member.

By Robert Lee (