Beyond Qualifications: contextualizing the foreign English teaching experience

I post this as an foreign English teacher working and living in Korea. I post this as a Korean-American adoptee and as a recipient of a privileged government teaching contract. I post this out of my love for education as the practice of liberation and from a desire to see us all grow. I don’t want to address directly address Korean media coverage of the topic, like MBC, as it’s in a language and context I am unfamiliar with. Rather I seek to create dialogue around why anti-foreign English teacher sentiment exists and how we as foreigners not just suffer but benefit from the systems that create these viewpoints.

I believe that the perspective of English teachers in Korea as under-qualified is a fair and valid statement—not about us as individuals (I have met many a foreign English teacher here who is overqualified), but about the way that English education by foreigners is implemented systematically in Korea. Furthermore I do not believe blame solely lies in hagwons or hiring practices, but rather lies in a structure of privilege of which English is just one branch and of which we, as U.S. citizens and English speakers, all certainly benefit from.

First we must admit to ourselves that overall our credentials and training pales in comparison to any Korean-certified teacher (this could even be said when comparing credentialed teachers in America to credentialed teachers in Korea, but that is another discussion). We must admit that our opinions and judgments of the Korea education system are equally unfounded and generally based on a set of limited personal experiences. We must admit that we have no chips on the table, that ultimately it is not our future children who will live, learn, and grow in the Korean education system.

But we are important to the Korean education system, I hear many cry. So let’s say we are qualified. Let’s say our English fluency and bachelor’s degrees do translate to effective teaching pedagogy. Let’s say we provide a global (re:American) approach to education and culture that Koreans couldn’t possibly possess. Still a larger question looms: why is there a need for English education and who is reaping the rewards?

In today’s world English functions as a filter. Some of us have access to English fluency as birthright, while others are left struggling in the margins. One need not even look beyond the borders of our country to see how English is a marker for inclusion and exclusion, the haves and have-nots. English means economic opportunity, access to some of the top Universities in the world, political power, not getting stared at while walking down the street, the difference between being labeled as friend or enemy of the state. Simply put, English is access.

English functions in similar ways in Korea as well. Many of my students study English for even more hours than their Korean.  It is rigorously tested on school entrance exams regardless of its relevancy to the field of study. A lack or mastery of English can make a break a student’s academic goals, and it appears this trend will only continue as the Korean University entrance exam expands to include a listening portion.

There are very real economic benefits to speaking English, but we as foreign English teachers experience these benefits in very specific and unique ways. Like it or not, qualified or not, we get jobs, tutoring opportunities, a plane ticket to and from Korea, and shorter work hours with more vacation time than any Korean teacher I’ve heard of. We have the hearts of the Korean people and institutions of power opened to us through homestays and free or discounted language programs. And we have the ability to leave it all when it is no longer meeting our needs and return to a life back home. Our lifestyle is a far cry from the way other immigrants have come to Korea and how Koreans have come to America. Here, more often than not, our pay scales don’t reflect our qualifications or talent, but our privilege. And that money is coming out of Korean pockets to pay for Korean futures.

English education in Korea is unjust. Not because foreign teachers in Korea face slanted media coverage. Not because Korean education policy stresses long hours of English acquisition and testing. But because there is a world system of privilege that benefits those who speak English and marginalizes those who don’t. I find youth often have the sharpest sense of fairness—as one of my students put it “why do I have to learn English, I am Korean.” This is the “why” behind why we as foreign English teachers are viewed as under-qualified. This is the “why” behind the unbalanced media coverage, the misdirected anger, the misunderstandings between us and our Korean peers.

Perhaps most importantly, this “why” is the elephant in the room when it comes to discussing Korea’s educational policy shift from foreign English teachers to Korean English teachers. The Korean government’s goals are not to create ethnic purity on the peninsula or to ignore the economic and political impacts of globalization on the Korean people. It is a move to create a relevant teaching force, one that understands the pressures and intricacies of learning English in a Korean context. It is a move to provide a permanent, trained staff that can serve the needs of a population subject to an unjust global language system. It is a move towards self-determination by the Korean people. We as foreign English teachers should support these shifts, learn from them, and take these lessons back home with us. We should listen to understand the context we have been thrown into, not jump to defend our sense of self-worth whenever the system we are working in is criticized. The Korean people deserve this much.

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7 Responses to Beyond Qualifications: contextualizing the foreign English teaching experience

  1. bobblesse says:

    A well-written and focused statement, Matt. I think this really coalesce the feelings you’ve had ever since you started teaching English in Korea.

  2. wholeistic says:

    Wow, so amazingly well written Matt.
    You managed to articulate truths, myths and your own point of view, on such a topical subject, without being condescending or contrived.
    I enjoy reading your work, keep it coming 🙂

  3. Pingback: A few reflections on the problem of the expat English teacher in South Korea | Symptomatic Commentary

  4. Great job Matt! Thanks for putting in all the reference links too

  5. . says:

    100% agree. Nicely said!!!

  6. Pingback: “I think Shaw is an outright bigot,” Encountering trolls on the internet | Mapping Words

  7. soblesse says:

    Thanks for the love ya’ll

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