Seven Years of ESL in South Korea
I arrived in South Korea with that most despised personal document, a B.A. degree. Overnight I was Mr. Western Superior World. The Korean notion of an English speaking College degree was about a hundred years out of date. I was instantly recognized really by every Korean as an expert on the path to riches and the Western lifestyle. I had no intention of putting them right. A bus driver took me on a detour on his bus so I could get to my classes on time. Policemen spent the night searching for my lost apartment.
Getting to teaching hagwons in South Korea was mind bogglingly easy. Within about a week I was whisked away from Auckland on a hagwon paid air ticket to Seoul. The only legal requirements were a passport and my original degree certificate.
Seven years on, teaching in South Korea may be closer in practice to North Korea. From the easiest ESL requirements in the world they are now arguably the hardest. The New Zealand Immigration Department now has a special section devoted exclusively to ESL in South Korea. This time I had to wait two months to gather the required documents. ESL teachers world wide are now bitterly complaining about the quite outrageous demands now put on them by the South Koreans. I was told that the new ESL regulations have required teachers to fly back to their countries in order to have a five minute interview with the Korean Consulates. An historic trivial Court offense puts teachers into mental agony. I myself was only saved from that because of the New Zealand Court Privacy Act. The new required HIV medical tests are not ever a pleasant experience. The South Koreans in turn complain that they have been serially conned and ripped off by dishonest ESL teachers. The love affair between ESL and South Korea has ended in much bitterness.
The South Koreans had for a long time a very unrealistic understanding of the road to fluency in English. Just stick a degreed westerner in front of their children and English would take flight. South Korean society uses hagwons as both evening baby sitters and English teachers. Parents have wizened up. Unfortunately most parents listen to the judgments of their children and for practical reason don't pay attention to the ESL teachers. If their children are not happy in their hagwon, they typically move their child to another hagwon or lay an ultimatum that sack the ESL teacher or they leave. The children want fun i.e. variants of Sesame Street. Surveys have shown that Sesame Street is a great entertainment but fails to teach. So the ESL teachers are reduced to slave laborers. One might argue that is the free market and the best ESL teachers will survive. Another way of looking at it is teaching is not a commodity. The best teachers are not generally liked by children. Children appreciate them only in later life. The typical Korean child has no interests outside Play Station. Time spent in the hagwons is to rag the funny looking and sometimes smelling ESL teacher. If the ESL teacher succeeds in subduing them and making them study, just complain to the hagwon and the parents and in a week the ESL teacher is gone. There are some delightful Korean students. There are also excellent ESL teachers still in South Korea. They survive because they are so good and dedicated.
However my advice is this. If you treat ESL teaching as offering the Korean students a fun and happy time, ESL is for you in South Korea. However if you have a passion for education, if your personal satisfaction is an hour of progress in English for children, then a long term successful career in ESL in South Korea is not for you. You will be teaching children whose reading matter if it exists at all is centered on Harry Potter. Harry Potter is a magician who just floats all his problems out the window.
ESL teachers have achieved slow but real progress in South Korea since 2001. I especially noticed the improvement in English pronunciation. My gut feeling is ESL will now be all regression. The ESL teachers will assume more and more the role of social workers. The ethos of social work is already permeating the South Korean classrooms. Inter school language competitions are held where the children declaim their rights. They can not be hit or even spoken to sarcastically. That is all very nice. They are entitled to hit and humiliate us of course. I succeeded in a very un PC way in stopping a Korean child from chronically masturbating on the table and chairs. I did it by shouting at her. Later I heard it advocated that her father should be investigated. South Korean parents mostly laugh off and ignore their children's misdemeanors. Then they will unpredictably lash out at them. Another seven years on in 2015 I think Kim will not be able to read English or Korean for that matter.
The new South Korean President has high ambitions for the future of ESL. I suggest he and his cronies are totally out of touch with conditions of ESL and general living conditions in South Korea. The political system thinks it can solve ESL problems on the back of an envelope. We are not consulted and as guest workers need not expect any mercy. Recent wild events in the South Korean Parliament show the symptoms of a disintegrating society. I fear the generals will take over. In that case ESL teachers will be made grilled meat. Think of Thailand.
This is a sour and disillusioned opinion from an ex-seven year teaching ESL teacher from South Korea.