A Message to the Children’s English Teachers of Korea

Dear English-teaching westerners in Korea,

I was spending the afternoon with my Korean wife and our three year old nephew June-young and we happened into the play place on the 10th floor of the GS Square Department Store in Bucheon. After spending a substantial amount of time playing nearly alone, the after-school rush seemed to come in and the place started to fill up with kids, most of them between six and eight.

June-young wanted to play on one particular ride, a revolving palm tree with very low-hanging beanbag coconuts that the children try to hang from. One older boy was pulling one of the beanbags so that the whole thing was revolving very quickly, so I, who had been watching from afar, came over to help June-young. A little girl, who was riding at the time, said to me in English “He’s too young for this ride.” My first reaction was that she had spent substantial time abroad, as while she did have an accent, she spoke very well. I helped my nephew up and as I walked away the little girl said to me “You are an alien American.” with a cloying, twisted-mouthed accent, torturing out her R’s and straining her little chipmunk cheeks. I assume she was referring to my shaved head or something like that, and shot her a patronizing “Yeah, sure” sidelong Cheney smile as I continued to walk away. Then she continued in her grating faux-American accent “Do you have an alien card?” and I knew what was going on. She clearly hadn’t lived abroad, but rather learned English at an expensive English school (hagwon) right here in Korea.

June-young left that ride and went into a balloon room. The annoying little girl, whose one and only desire was clearly to bother a foreigner, followed him in, and was joined by her friend, who apparently also spoke English well. I wasn’t listening, but my wife heard them talking, and heard them conjecturing that June-young was my son. They took him aside and said something to him that upset him. He came out and seemed to be hiding behind my wife and me.

We asked him what they said. “They said my father . . . It’s a secret.” He didn’t want to repeat it. He was very aggravated. My wife asked him if they said his father was an alien, and he said yes. I saw red. I spent the rest of our time at the play place keeping the two little girls away from June-young. He and I played video games together, and when the first cloying little girl came over and tried to talk to me I brushed her away like dust without even throwing a glance her way.

I could see it all as if it were really there. This little girl, sitting in a classroom in an expensive immersive English hagwon here in Bucheon. In walks her teacher, Evan Teacher. ‘애벌레 (caterpillar) Teacher!’ the kids shout disrespectfully, but Evan teacher thinks it’s awesome that he got such a creative group of kids. Evan is twenty five, tall and a little doughy from too many nights of fried chicken and too many pitchers of cheap Korean beer, unshaven and wearing a wrinkled shirt and jeans. His boss, Wangjanim, is so cool that he lets the teachers wear jeans, although franchise policy is dress pants only. Evan’s got a useless liberal arts degree from a decent school and now he’s in Korea. Everything he knows about Korea he learned from the other foreigners at his school and a few cursory glances at Korean television on nights when CSI Miami isn’t on cable. He genuinely thinks he’s a great teacher, partly because the students he’s teaching are so good at English and partly because he’s never heard any of the complaints that have been lodged against him.

Evan teacher just got a copy of the book his kids will be studying this month from Stacey, his Korean coteacher. Gogo Loves English, level three. Gogo looks like a red charonosaurus head on E.T.’s body. Evan looks down to see that the kids already have the book. Good old Stacey Teacher, what would Evan do without her? She taught him how to get pizza delivered to his house, how to write “I love you” in Korean, and now she’s given out the books as well! Evans students have already read the title of the book.

“Wa, Gogo loves English! Gogo is a 외계인!” an alien.

“No speaky Korean!”

“Evan teacher, Gogo comes to the . . . Evan teacher, what is a 외계인 in English?”

Evan Teacher has no idea, but it isn’t that hard to guess. “Alien.” Just then Evan realizes that a brilliant teaching opportunity has arisen. “I am an alien too!”

The children are skeptical. “Evan Teacher no, you are American!” Evan pulls out his wallet and draws his alien ID card.

“See kids, this is my Alien Card, because I am an alien!”

“Wa, 애벌레 (caterpillar) Teacher is a 외계인 (alien)! 바보 멍청이 Teacher가 외계인이라구!!” (“I said stupid idiot teacher is an alien!”) And peals of laughter echo out into the halls.

Yep, I sure am a great teacher, Evan thinks to himself with a self-satisfied nod of approval.

See I was an English teacher for years and I still teach English when I have to, but I think just as important as teaching English to the kids here, we also owe it to them and ourselves to teach them to respect us as teachers and foreigners as human beings. You may think your kids love you because they give you ridiculous nicknames and climb all over you and are ‘cool’, but what they actually think is that you’re an ineffectual joke and that it’s fun to ridicule you.

Worst of all, your students, who have little choice but to think of you as little more than a dancing bear, leave the classroom and carry that attitude into the world. And it leaves a lasting impression on these kids.

So please, for your own sake and the sake of your kids and every other foreigner who ever sets foot in Korea, comport yourself with a modicum of self respect.

  1. Don’t say “Assa!” anymore, because you sound like an idiot when you do.
  2. Don’t take a ddongchim (finger playfully thrust up your ass) lying down.
  3. Don’t let your kids give you dumb nicknames.
  4. Don’t let anybody call you crazy in Korea.
  5. Don’t call kids crazy and try to stand on some lame principle that “They should know how English is really spoken.” It only makes you sound like a pompous idiot.
  6. If you’re bald, don’t let your kids touch your head.
  7. If you’re fat, don’t let your kids touch your belly.
  8. If you’re hairy, don’t let your kids rub your forearms.
  9. Don’t tell your kids stupid lies about your home country. Don’t tell them that you’re an alien, even though it may be hilarious to them.
  10. Never, ever hand over the power to punish your students to a Korean, whether it be your co-teacher or the owner of the school. You will soon find yourself completely powerless.

You’re not their friend, you’re their teacher. To be anything less is to let them down.

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~ by Joe on February 4, 2008.

11 Responses to “A Message to the Children’s English Teachers of Korea”

  1. Excellent post. I completely agree with your 1 through 10, and I also insist my students call me “Brian Teacher” . . . not Hiiii, Hello, Hey, You, Come on, 브라이언, or 쌤. I had a kid try to ddongchim me . . . WITH THE END OF HIS BROOM, and I’m not going to tell you what my reaction was, but suffice it to say it wasn’t pretty.

    From what I’ve seen, you and I are in the minority, and a lot of people are coming in trying to be the cool teacher. Be their friend, placate them with candy, etc. I think a lot of Korean teachers expect this behavior, because Engilsh is supposed to be fun. Not the Korean English teachers’ classes, mind you, just the foreigners’.

    I go through my expectations each semester with my coteachers, and they’re usually surprised when I tell them the behavior I expect from the students, and the behavior I will not tolerate. I guess they’re used to the “foreigner a clown” motif, and judging by TV programs and by the way a lot of foreigners act, it’s not surprising. But the assertive, intelligent teacher is still the minority.

  2. I hear you. At my hagwon there was a clear division between people who took their job seriously (even though the curriculum was a joke) and those who *thought* they took their job seriously. I am still confused as to how anyone can be cool with another person poking their fingers up your ass… I think it has something to do with being hung over/still drunk from the night before.

    I have been guilty of #1 and #9, can’t remember specific instances but I know I did them. I said “Assa” in the kindergarten class sometimes. I remember trying to explain some cultural and other differences between Korea and the US, and I’m sure I failed miserably somewhere. Like when I tried to explain with pictures that yes, there are some really fat people in the US, but not everybody is fat.

    Did I ever tell you that the other kindergarten teacher at my school stuck his head in front of a train when he was super wasted and ended up stuck in a Korean hospital with serious brain damage? This is the caliber of person you’re dealing with here. A guy who goes to work drunk, does all 10 of the things on your list and doesn’t even try to teach, yet for some reason *I* would get bitched at all the time and he *never* would.

  3. Well written article. Keep up the good work. i have added your blog link to mine.

  4. I was using Google to look for a specific article from the Korea Times and stumbled upon this article. While the point about professionalism in the Korean EFL industry are not entirely new, I think that your experience with that obnoxious child underscores the need to continually remind teachers who come here that they need to conduct themselves with a more than a modicum of professionalism.

    Unfortunately, I must admit that I was a guilty member of the “do as little as possible at my academy and have as much fun as possible” class of clowns when I first came to Korea. My school expected very little and I guess I met their expectations. :S I’m not proud of it and in my second year I changed jobs to a middle school and engaged in some professional development. I found that this completely changed my attitude toward my job and my style of teaching and I’m glad for it.

    Articles and ideas of this nature need to be repeated and teachers who intend to do well by the Korean EFL system need to propagate these thoughts and experiences if change is to happen. Thinking about what I have learnt in the past few years, it amazes me that the Korean EFL industry in general doesn’t require more from the people whom it hires.

    Thanks for the thought-proving writing. I will certainly be checking back in the future. Keep up the good work.

  5. Don’t say “assa”??

  6. Please help me! I teach at a hagwon. I am not trying to be the kids’ friend, but I just have personal self-esteem weaknesses and very little practical help. I am supposed to make them want to speak English to me. I was told early to be humorous and lead the class (like Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam?). My puns didn’t work and so I bought gag things. That worked to a limited degree, but the honor students wanted to play and so did elementary school kids. I wasn’t sure if they were tired from little sleep and lots of school and I should give them a break. I tried assigning more stuff, but what could I do that would really be a threat at a hagwon if they don’t do it? I can’t give them checkmarks, send them to a principal’s office or give them a detention if they don’t. Threatening that I won’t give them snacks or I won’t lead hangman or Bingo doesn’t work. Shouting at them isn’t going to get them trying to talk to me. I’ve tried being annoying. They do answer when spoken to, but, otherwise, they talk in Korean or play, sleep or do homework. I’m very frustrated and demoralized and depressed no matter that I have friends (it’s like Jim Croce’s “New York’s Not My Home”). Fortunately, the boss and co-workers are nice and fair, but don’t seem to have a clue, except to give me pious platitudes and acknowledge that I must be home-sick. Please tell me at stuff149 at lycos dot com, as I might lose this site. Thanks!

  7. RIGHT ON.
    Bottom line: DON’T let them disrespect you!
    If you let them disrespect you, they’ll think they can disrespect all foriegn teachers.

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  10. I agree that professionalism is important in these jobs. I work at a public school and I can see that a lot of the younger kids, in particular, have a very bad attitude about learning English. They really like English, which is great, but they expect everything related to English to be silly and laughable. I want my kids to enjoy English, but I also get irritated when they come into class thinking it’s a non-subject, forgetting that they’ll be graded on it.

  11. Why care what they think of you? Who cares? Aren’t we in this for the paycheck? I don’t care if they learn, I care if I get paid… Get over yourself, they are kids, kids say stupid stuff in any language.

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