Higher Learning


Higher Learning

by: Kilgore Trout | .
Groove Korea | .
published: September 12, 2016

When I first arrived in Korea a number of years ago to a standard hagwon job with standard hagwon classes and standard hagwon headaches, I quickly found there were three different groups of hagwon teachers. The first group were in it for the year and then determined to leave Korea in the rear-view mirror, the second group were those who had married and had let Korea lowly wind itself around them like a cocoon, and the third were those with a plan to seek out the holy grail: a university job.

At first, I was firmly in the first group; that is, until the end of my first, supposedly last, year rolled around, and I found I wasn’t ready to go back. But I knew that I had no ability, desire, or patience to teach young children again, so I took a shot in the dark and applied to be an English instructor at a two-year college in Gyeonggido, just south of Seoul, because…why not? I had heard enough from those plotting to do their time, get an MA done online, and then fend off the job offers to know that I was destined for low working hours, well-behaved students, and months of paid vacation. And I already had a master’s! Sure, it was in a totally unrelated field (ecology), and I had zero experience in teaching that age group, and I wasn’t even sure I was that good at teaching in the first place. But I had a suit and a nice haircut. It was worth a shot. Now, eight years later, I’m still working at the tertiary level in Korea, and it is now what I “do.” And I know there are a lot of teachers out there who would like to join the ranks of university instructor. (I hesitate to use the term “professor,” though that is often what our official titles are, because to me that title denotes something different to what most of us are actually asked to do.) So what is the reality like?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: conditions vary greatly across Korea in terms of the job specifications and the administration you will work with. A quick glance at the Foreign Professors and University English Teachers in Korea Facebook group is enough to illustrate the fact that university positions run the gauntlet from rewarding (featuring: interesting courses to teach, professional freedom, professional development, supportive administration) to foot-in-the-door, suck-it-up stepping stone (featuring: none of the above). I’ve been lucky enough to have only worked at two different universities in my time here; the second (and current) one in particular is very definitely near the top of the scale in terms of working conditions and especially in administrative support and communication. However, I won’t pretend that this is the norm and that university teaching is universally an educational paradise. It isn’t. But the good can be very, very good indeed.

For those looking to join the university instructor fray, these days you pretty much need a master’s in a related field, and past experience has become a huge factor in being hired for the better positions (which pretty much means universities with a higher name value, though that won’t necessarily guarantee a pleasant working environment). This means some of the less reputable places, or universities out in the middle of the countryside, become the only viable starting point for many new to the field because these places will often hire instructors with an MA but no teaching experience or sometimes, though it is much rarer these days, teachers with only a bachelor’s. But I personally know a number of excellent teachers who started out in crappy positions and showed the effort and commitment to the job necessary to be able to work their way towards whatever their end goals were. But I’ll leave the pep talks to someone else.

There is no standardized freshman EFL curriculum that all universities have to follow, nor are there many useful generalizations to be made about the English level of incoming freshmen, which can vary greatly by university and major. Many instructors tend to find, however, that Korean students are relatively good at reading and listening (carry-overs from suneung and the obsession with TOEIC and TOEFL scores as a measure of English ability) but are weaker at speaking and writing, with the former compounded by a culturally fortified reticence to speak up in class, whether it be to avoid personal embarrassment over a perceived lack of skill or an unwillingness to stand out in a peer group they are still getting to know. This is why many universities are happy enough to limit the freshman program to conversation classes and asking instructors to teach out of a generic conversation textbook. Happily, there are many other variations in the standard freshman EFL program to be found: for instance, my university targets an English for academic purposes (EAP) program with an emphasis on practical skills that can be used to navigate English-mediated courses and future employment, others follow an English for specific purposes (ESP) track (i.e., business English for business majors, medical English for medicine majors…well, you get the picture) and still others can’t be torn away from the allure of aiding and abetting the TOEIC and TOEFL industry. For all instructors, especially those looking to make the most of their experience, adaptability is key.

So how to describe the actual teaching of a class full of freshmen? Well, put simply: suneung casts a long shadow. The crushing pressure of the Korean university entrance exam has a number of academic and social ramifications for freshmen. At better universities, motivation may drop once the students reach college because they have already “made it,” surviving the drudgery of the suneung prep mill, and now it is time for a bit of an intellectual break. At “lower” universities (I use this term in a loose sense; it more refers to the perception of the students themselves with regards to the reputation of the university, rather than a comment on the quality of the education itself), on the other hand, motivation may drop for the opposite reason, that they have nothing really else to aim for having missed out on those name universities that have been ringing in their ears from the moment they could understand the proclamations their grandparents had made for them.

In addition to this, performance may drop because university teaching styles, especially those of overseas instructors, can be a million miles away in philosophy from the fact-based grind that is the high school classroom. The adjustment period may be quite long, and in some cases, adjustment may never happen at all. Finally, most departments have a minimum suneung score for admission, though this varies between the departments within a university. So what often happens is that a student will select the university they want to go to (often based on name value) and then choose their major based on what department will accept their suneung score, rather than what they are actually interested in. So there will often be a few students in your classes who are in the middle of realizing that the major that they have chosen is not really anything they are interested in, which does little to ignite the academic fires within. However, that said, in my experience, the vast majority of students are like any student anywhere around the world; there to learn. Then it is up to you to actually provide something worth learning.

But the most significant effect of suneung is one that is not academically related at all. The pursuit of a high suneung score is necessarily accompanied by numerous restrictions on any kind of social life for most Korean high school kids, with high school administration and parents working together to squeeze every little last drop of time and effort from brains that have been stuffed with facts. This leads to a high school life for many (but not all, it must be stressed) devoid of the typical social experiences we remember from when we were growing up, such as playing in sports teams, hanging out after school with mates, experimenting with alcohol, navigating the minefield of having a relationship, and so on.

It is then hardly a surprise that, after entering university and all of that external pressure has been lifted, freshmen students are determined to make up for lost time on the social front. Entrance ceremonies, cheering competitions, “membership training” (an excuse for a class or a club to book out a room somewhere and drink all night), club recruitment days, school festivals, other schools’ festivals, lunchtime drinking with seniors… the list goes on. Most freshmen dive right in and make it their utmost priority to become the social butterflies they were meant to be, facilitated by the hierarchy system where seniors act almost as spiritual advisors (emphasis on “spirit,” usually soju) in terms of how to best cram the day, week, and semester with events and parties and drinking and “meetings.” This, of course, is not exactly conducive to academic excellence, and it is not uncommon for freshmen to arrive to class short of sleep, short of homework, short of any semblance of cognitive processing. It also, in my opinion, makes Korean freshmen seem a lot less mature than your typical freshman from Western countries. But considering that they are finally getting a chance to live the life of a teenager, maybe this isn’t so surprising.

How an instructor deals with the negative classroom consequences of the pursuit of sociability often provides a very interesting insight into both their educational philosophy and their sense of self. Some instructors overreact, taking anything less than 100% enthusiasm for every class as a sign that the students are treating English as a joke, or that they don’t respect foreign teachers, or that they are destined to be lifelong failures. This is, of course, pretty much nonsense; get to know your class to even a small extent and you will quickly realise that the typical freshman approach to the mandatory English class is very similar to their approach to pretty much all of their classes. Hangovers do not discriminate. Yes, apathy to English is a thing, given their experience as English students up to that point, but that is our job, pretty much: to show them that English does not have to be an obstacle to surmount in the pursuit of a number on an official piece of paper, but rather a useful skill and an interesting subject that can have a multitude of benefits in the future.

Other instructors may go too far in the opposite direction, indulging their students’ lazy side and letting them get away with the bare minimum before giving them grades higher than they deserve. Why would anyone do this? Well, this brings us to the spectre of university evaluations, which often play a huge role in whether an instructor gets re-contracted or not (most universities offer 1-year contracts to non-tenure track EFL instructors, though there are some that offer 2 years). Now, the student evaluations are generally centred around questions related to the course: organization, preparation, materials, instruction. But the reality is, a number of students will not really look at the content of each question, but will rather score you on just one question each time: Did I like this person? Now, the majority of students will not do this, and in fact I find evaluations to be very informative, especially the comments that are left behind, but there will also be enough students who do score on popularity to have an effect on the overall average. And at some universities, you may not be rehired if your evaluation score falls below a certain minimum. The natural consequence of this is thus: if you want job security, you find ways to make the students like you. And if you have a class that is not interested in studying? The temptation is always there.

Personally though, I have found that being firm and fair, being organized, and explaining the reason behind everything we study, outlining exactly how things will be graded, and providing a lot of feedback are the key factors to get a class on your side. Being personable helps, of course, and a few jokes here and there are always welcome. (They don’t even have to be funny jokes. You get credit for trying.) But this has been something that I have slowly developed over the years, and as such, teaching at university is like anything else in this world. Pay attention, have an open mind, be flexible, and learn by doing.

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