Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Teaching Teachers.

I started out writing this post wanting to tell you about what I've been doing on the teaching front this last month, however, I found that I first must confess to you my greatest failure as a teacher. Doing so is not easy for me. I feel that I am, usually, an excellent teacher, and that if I encounter a situation where my methods are not working, I find ways to adapt and make the class successful. However, in this instance, I feel like a failure. In fact, you could say that I'm giving up--something I have never before done in my career. I am ashamed. I don't want to share this with you. But I must be honest.

A year and a half ago, I began teaching at Taegu Foreign Language High School (TFLHS). In addition to teaching conversation and co-teaching reading and culture classes to our wonderful students, I was asked to teach a class for the English teachers at 외고. At the time, I was overwhelmed and confused. I'd never taught adults before and hadn't finished my master's, so I felt unqualified and intimidated. Furthermore, the teachers gave me no guidelines about their own expectations for the course, merely a negative review of the previous native teacher who had shown episodes of Friends (25 minutes) and then discussed them after.

I had some ambitions for the twice a week class, mostly inspired by the excellent seminars I experienced with the Martha's Vineyard Summer Institute where I took most of my graduate coursework. We started by alternating discussions of teaching philosophy and pedagogy with single-shot lessons about tricky points of English grammar and usage, such as helper verbs and conditional language. I offered them the class a place to discuss problems they were having teaching students that I could help with, but none of them brought these to class (though they certainly weren't shy about asking me privately during my planning time). I began to develop huge management problems--they never came on time (we're talking 15 minutes late or more) or consistently; my boss, who was a student in the class, would cancel class at her whim and forget to tell me about it; they refused to do any studying outside of class; they seemed dissatisfied with what they were learning in class, but wouldn't answer my questions about what they wanted to do/learn. It was completely impossible. I felt like a crappy teacher who couldn't do anything right. Usually, I can adjust myself with high school students who need more structure and "crack the whip" so to speak, thereby solving my management problems. But with colleagues, especially since one of them is my boss, I couldn't do this.

When the new school year started last March, I tried to take control by making the class more structured. I required that they show up by five minutes into the class. I gave them notebooks and had a written warm up for every class and offered to read their journals if they chose to practice writing in English. I asked if they were interested in having a book discussion club of sorts where we'd read an English book together (a chapter a week) and one of the classes would be a discussion of the contents. If some didn't want to do this, they could still come to the other lesson in the week, which would focus on debate and continue usage lessons. They all liked the idea and agreed to read Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

It worked (more or less) for about two months. However, as exam time approached and teachers got busier, they stopped reading the book, stopped coming to class, stopped wanting to do anything in class but discuss silly, nonsensical topics like shopping(they complained when I would introduce debate topics about education because they claimed they were sick of talking about it and they couldn't change anything anyway), stopped bringing their notebooks and pens to class to write. I came to hate teaching this class and resent the English teachers at my school (who I usually loved for other reasons--they are generally good, hardworking teachers who really try to make sure William and I are informed and supported).

Perhaps they sensed my animosity because by the start of second semester, we were down to just four regular students (out of 12 Korean English teachers). By the end, we were reading The Crucible aloud together. The teachers who made it through to the end seemed to really enjoy and appreciate this, but I feel like such a failure for losing so many students and not being able to ever feel like the class was my own.

No class--not even my sixth period class from hell my first year of teaching that included a young man who showed up high on the second day of school--has ever made me feel less competent and talented at teaching than this class of colleagues.

I started to wonder if maybe I just wasn't up to par when it came to teaching adults. However, this January provided me with the opportunity to see that this just isn't the case. I'm so glad that my teaching self-esteem in this area has been mostly restored.

Instead of participating in the regular English camps for students that the public schools in Daegu sponsor, I opted to do the same as last winter and teach at a training certification camp for Korean English teachers, along with William and four other English teachers in Daegu.

One reason I enjoy teaching this kind of seminar is that it provides new insight into how the public schools in Korea work from a professional perspective. Having worked as a public school teacher in the U.S., I'm quite interested in some of these differences. After four years in the Daegu public schools, teachers can take this five-week long training program at the Palgong mountain center to receive their Level One certification which results in a significant pay raise. One part of this course is a required 36 hours of native English teacher instruction. That's where I come in. The six native teachers each taught six classes to six groups of 9-11 teacher-students.

Last year's organizer seemed better prepared and asked us each to conduct lessons with a different focus (such as Reading, Listening, Speaking, etc), and I elected to teach Writing. My master's degree is in writing with a focus on pedagogy, so I'm pretty well qualified to teach it to others at this point. Also, of all the aspects of English taught and studied in Korea, writing is the area that gets the least attention. (Perhaps 10-12 years ago, speaking would have been considered more neglected, but now with so many native teachers in hagwons and public schools teaching conversation classes, it's definitely writing).

People still graduate with degrees in English Education and English Literature from good universities in Korea without ever having had to write an essay in English. Furthermore, Korean students often don't even study writing in their native language. Few high school teachers assign essays, and even fewer bother with basics like the writing process or things like structure and idea development.

But, I digress.

This year, they didn't ask us to consult with each other, so I was the only teacher who chose a focused topic (not just a general conversation class with cool, fun activities you can do to help students practice speaking with each other). I was also the only one who chose to assign homework. I felt a little sorry for the trainees because I knew the teachers had a lot of other projects/work to complete for their seminar, but I pitched it to them as an opportunity to practice their English writing and I promised that as hard as they worked on any of their writing assignments, I would work just as hard to give them feedback on their work.

I structured the class better than last year, considering what went well and what could be improved; focusing more on practical implementation of teaching writing in the classroom and assessing/commenting on student writing because that's what had been requested the year before. I worked hard, staying up late at night reading essays and commenting. I thought the class was going pretty well, even though the students had been nervous about the workload initially.

However, the outcome of my final assignment (which was the same as last year) shocked me. I gave the student/teachers the last 15 minutes of class to compose a thank you letter to one of their six native teachers. I asked them to choose someone whose class had particularly inspired them or where they felt they learned something useful.

Last year, the students divided it up pretty evenly between the six teachers, so that each of us got a handful of letters. Actually, I think that although William tells me that he and I got the highest ratings last year, I received the fewest letters (mostly because I assigned them to write it, I think). This year, one third of the students chose to write to me. It was overwhelming. And moving. Especially because I felt that the set of native teachers this year was overall much superior to last year's teachers.

I mean, I don't teach to be the most popular and well-liked teacher. In fact, I frequently make pedagogical decisions that I know will be unpopular with my students because I want to challenge them. I'm even ok with being hated, if students find this necessary (because, for example, I make them write essays or do critical thinking). I'm not used to students appreciating my methods in the moment--at best, I usually get the thanks the following year when they come back and tell me how English is "so easy" now because of what they learned in my class.

So as much as teaching the English teachers at my school drained me, this set of eager, inspired teachers has taught me that I can be of some value to other English teachers. I am renewed.

But still, nagging at the back of the mind, is the failure. I've given up--I asked William to change classes with me for next year. I will take the non-English teachers he's been teaching, and he will get the English teachers. In my entire six years in this profession, I have never before given up on students.

I truly hope that William can succeed where I have failed. If he does, maybe I can finally learn what I did wrong. Perhaps I should try to be more likable, as one of my teacher-students suggested (although he appreciated my class, he found me scary at first), or attractive (which is often listed by Koreans as the #1 important quality in a teacher--my eyes always roll when I hear otherwise intelligent people say this). Maybe I just couldn't read through their indirect communication about their expectations for the class.

All I know is that by the end of this whole thing, I feel like the previous native teacher was onto something with showing TV sitcoms and discussing them. It would have been a whole lot easier to do that and the end results would probably have been nearly identical.


  1. When it comes to adults, it's all about the will to study and learn. Parents can force their children to study, but there's no one out there forcing these adults to study.

    They probably view the class as something imposed on them by the director of the school and therefore, don't want to do it. I'm sure they agree that it's important, but I know I hate to be forced into doing anything, especially studying.

    As I study Korean at a hagwon, I see the same in myself too. Because I choose to go to class, I try my hardest when I'm in class, but when I'm out of class, it's hard to find time/motivation to do homework and study. I guess we all need mothers watching over us making sure we do what we're supposed to..

  2. Think of it as making better use of your time and energy. The English teachers don't view the class the same way you do, so continuing to work with them will lead to frustration no matter what you do. If you keep trying to provide a high-quality service nothing will change, and if you "give in" and make it very undemanding you still won't be happy. In other words, don't see this as a failure on your part. Other sources clearly think you are an excellent teacher, and that your organization and planning really help them.

  3. I agree with Elinor. And find myself raising questions with the first comment. I think it's weird to assume that kids only do homework because parents make them. There are many reasons to do homework, one of them being genuine interest in the topic at hand.

    But Diana, I don't think you should view this as a failing. Long ago I came to realize that some people and I are destined to misinterpret each other. Maybe you should bow out of the class not because you have 'failed', which from your description doesn't seem to fit the situation, but because your expectations and your students need/desire to learn just don't match up. Since I know how dedicated and wonderful you are, I am proud of you for recognizing a situation that wasn't working, and moving on. I think that's a much stronger position to take that 'making the class easier', or playing tv episodes.

    You're awesome. You're strong. I think you made the right choice, even if you question your motives. Your heart is in the right place, and listening to it is one of the things you've always been good at.

    I trust you.

    Trust yourself.


  4. Joanna--I think you're a bit right about them lacking the motivation for this course which makes a big difference, but I also disagree with you that's it's mom-pressure which makes younger students more apt to study. I've motivated plenty of unmotivated and parentally uninvolved teens in the U.S. I think part of it is just that teens are less "set" than adults. Adults will make their own decisions and often lie to themselves (saying for example "I want to learn English" but not setting aside the time and energy to study). Kids' lives often revolve around school, so it's easier to convince them of stuff.

    You are right that this class is as much to make the school look good as it is for teaching people. I feel like at least 1/3 of my job at the public school is to be a model token whitey. In that sense, I guess appearance *is* a huge part of my position.

    Eli-- Yeah... On better days I do see it as "They didn't want to use the great resources that I provided them... oh well. Their loss."

    Rose--Thanks. But I do think a mismatching of student/teacher needs/expectations is part of the responsibility of the teacher to fix.

  5. wow...a teacher in real action! ^^



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