The English Zone

 So I wrote a couple posts about my initial impressions of Korea, and this time I’m going to start writing about what it is like teaching English in South Korea. As you probably know, the emphasis on education is huge in most East Asian countries. In Korea, kids still go to school on Saturday, and adults have one of the highest rates of post-secondary completion. In fact, high school is strongly geared towards preparing for one enormous college entrance exam, which includes a significant English language section. The test can only be taken once a year, and it strongly predicts whether students can enter a prestigious university, and thus whether they will end up with a well-paying, secure job.

Thus, parents get really involved in their kids education and part of that is sending their kids to private after-school academies for extra practice with subjects like English. There is immense pressure to somehow get ahead. Of course, 13-year-old kids don’t really understand those stakes, and foreign English teachers like myself have never experienced that pressure personally, so how can these students get motivated by us?

As it turns out, my school (which is a private academy students attend after public school classes) has a very efficient system for encouraging students to behave in the classroom and finish all their homework outside of the classroom. Every class, the teachers check to see if students have completed all their homework and each student receives three stamps if everything is done correctly. This includes getting their parents to sign that they have completed non-written tasks, such as listening to a CD, that the teacher can’t really check up on. Anyways, most of the students really want their stamps, and if you give them an extra by accident, the rest of the class immediately protests.

But that brings me to some issues that I have with this kind of motivation. (And I guess I’m not totally unfamiliar with similar reward system, since I was paid to read books from about ages 5-15, lol. Of course, I certainly loved that system, and really did begin to enjoy reading, but the concept of skimming a book or just tossing a lousy book was completely lost on me during that time). If the students just want to finish every task by doing the bare minimum and getting their mom to sign for it, so they can get your stamps (Oh yeah, if they accumulate about 50 stamps, they can cash it in for some fancy school supplies), then they probably will never learn to appreciate the language and understand the flexibility that is demanded to develop speaking skills.

So on one level, I really want to de-emphasize the reward and punishment and teach these kids to appreciate the language and build relationships with them so that actual communication with their teacher is more important to them. As it stands, the only kids that don’t care about stamps are the rebellious ones, rather than ones who grasp the value of learning another language. Of course, I probably can’t expect kids to actually be fascinated by learning English, but it bothers me that in this competitive atmosphere, they get so angry when I absent-mindedly give a student an extra stamp. Similarly, when I tell one student to be quiet or threaten to remove a stamp, they immediately point the finger at another student who “started it”. On the bright side, I’m beginning to give very inspiring speeches about saying sorry instead of blaming. So I don’t want my classes dictated by behaviorism or whatever you want to call it, but overall the esteem for education is pretty exciting to be a part of.

So if you wish to write your questions or thoughts on this, I would love to see your comments. Also, if you want to get an email when I write a new post in the future, you can find the “link to your email” option on the right side.

Thanks for reading!


About mwitster

Blogged about teaching English and language learning in Korean and the Middle East. Now, as a Speech-Language Pathologist, hope to post some new info and possibly reflections from private practice.
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3 Responses to The English Zone

  1. derek says:

    true true. Good points. To this day I feel terrible if I skip even a single page of a book, because then when I finish it’s like I haven’t earned my pay (not that I actually get paid anymore).

  2. Mark Witten says:

    I love reading your blog! And I would love to hear one of your inspirational “say sorry, don’t blame” speeches. 🙂 Adding extra stamps absentmindedly could be a kind of exposure therapy, I guess. I’m thinking that the psychology training is creeping its way in to your teaching! Just kidding. I’d love to hear more about how your adjusting to life and what community is looking like over there. Praying for you! Lauren

    • mwitster says:

      Thanks Lauren, haha, ya it is like exposure therapy. Maybe I will start doing that purposely sometime. Looking forward to hearing about India!

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