Monday, February 08, 2010

What is the State of ESL Teachers in Korea?

Dear Korean,

I came across this article today in the Los Angeles Times concerning the Anti-English Spectrum and English language teachers in Korea. Is this simply a homegrown, right-wing nut group, similar to what one can find in the U.S. and other countries, or are ESL teachers in Korea really this problematic?

John C.

Dear John,

Where does the Korean begin? This issue has the potential to blow up in the Korean’s face in any number of ways, since many of AAK! readers are ESL teachers in Korea who are sensitive to this issue. So the Korean must begin with his clear and unequivocal position on what he thinks about Anti-English Spectrum (AES):

The Korean thinks that AES is a nut group. Its leader engages in stalking ESL teachers, and exhorts others to do the same. Having a group like AES is an embarrassment for Korea. It needs to go away.

But the influence of AES needs to be put in perspective. Korean society most certainly does not endorse stalking anyone, and Koreans who care about the situation – including AES members themselves – have roundly criticized this tactic.

Nonetheless, even an unsavory group like AES could serve as an indicator of how things are – and failure to recognize how things are comes at a cost. For example, most liberals derided and dismissed “birthers” who dominated town hall meetings in America and claim that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. Obama is obviously an American citizen, but that is not the important part. Liberals should have realized that many people in America were deeply pissed off at Obama for whatever reason, and that many Americans were willing to latch onto any dumb reason to vent their hate. Instead of sincerely exploring what was angering these people, many liberals blamed their usual parade of horribles – Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, racism, dumb rural Americans, you name it. And the result now is that liberals have frittered away their dominating advantage by losing the Senate seat that was held by the icon of American liberalism for decades.

Laughing at them is easy. But figuring out why they do this is the right thing to do. (Source)

(Here is the Korean’s unsolicited advice to future politicians and pundits: Never, never, never assume that people are stupid. They are not. There are stupid individuals in the world, but a group of people is never stupid. If you don’t understand why people are doing certain things, you are the one who is stupid – not the people.)

So what can the existence of AES tell us about the state of ESL teachers in Korea? Right now, Koreans are feeling deeply uneasy about their new reality – that there are many in Korea who do not look like them, affecting them in a way that they do not necessarily like. This uneasiness feeds into the tension between Koreans and ESL teachers. This tension right now is still mostly under the surface, because most Koreans are reasonable enough not to express that tension like AES does. However, there is always a chance that the underlying tension could blow up, sparked by a certain event. Therefore, it would be important to understand the factors that feed into the tension, and neutralize them in any manner we can.

The Korean believes that there is no party with clean hands in this situation – (some) Koreans and (some) ESL teachers must share the blame. To that end, the Korean prepared “blame scorecards” – the laundry list of everything wrong that everybody has done (that he can think of.) First up is Korea.

Blame Scorecard:  Korea

· Half-baked Policy to Bring in ESL Teachers – This is the action that began the entire cycle. ESL teachers came to Korea as early as early 1980s, but the ESL teacher population exploded in the last 10 years or so. (As recently as 1988, there were barely over 1,000 non-Korean ESL teachers in the entire country.) This happened because as English education became more emphasized in Korea, Korean government loosened up the visa requirements for people who are known as NSETs (= native-speaking English teachers.) As a result, more than 20,000 NSETs entered Korea every year since 2002. For a country that has never experienced mass immigration, this was a very significant number.

But, as governments often do, Korean governments set up regulations that emphasized quantity over quality, which means they did not properly filter out unqualified NSETs – which blew up with the case of Christopher Paul Neil. Neil, an internationally wanted child molester, was arrested in Thailand after having fled from Gwangju, Korea, where he worked as an ESL teacher. When these loopholes were exposed, the government overreacted and swung to the other direction, requiring drug and HIV testing (that it did not require for Korean teachers) that nearly amounted to harassment.

Also, Korean government did not anticipate what should have been reasonably anticipated – that importing such a huge number of people to work in an area that Koreans care so, so much about (i.e. English education) -- would cause a lot of friction. Initially there was no real training that would get the ESL teachers ready for living and doing their job in a culture that can be radically different. Even though there are more trainings offered in recent years, they tend to be done in a manner Korean government is known for – bumbling and haphazard.

The idea to bring NSETs to assist in English education was not a bad idea. But Korean government’s execution of that idea was simply terrible. Problems that could have been avoided through reasonable anticipation were (halfway) mended instead through trial-and-error, pissing off everyone involved in the process.

· Bad Behaviors from Employers of the ESL Teachers – It is no secret that education business in Korea is very lucrative, which means it sometimes attracts unscrupulous characters who really should not be anywhere near education, period. Well, it was no secret to Koreans anyway; not so much for NSETs. Many ESL teachers were blindsided by the fact that their employers would cut corners and rip them off at any chance possible. To this day, the horror stories of ESL teachers getting ripped off by their employers are a dime a dozen on the Internet. (For example, here.) Not paying salaries? Arbitrarily changing schedules? Refusing to provide health insurance (as they are legally required to do)? Generally reneging promises? You name it, it’s there.

Even places that are otherwise reputable, like the public school system, sometimes give into the temptation of screwing over ESL teachers, since ESL teachers have a harder time fighting back compared to Korean teachers.

· Poorly planned use of ESL teachers – Even in cases where Korean schools act with the best of intentions, they often put ESL teachers in a position to fail. Particularly at public schools, ESL teachers are supposed to be co-teachers with a Korean teacher. Often there is poor communication between that Korean teacher and the ESL teacher, leading to confusion and resentment on the part of both sides. Many schools have no orientation process and simply tell the ESL teachers to go to it and teach the children. Considering that most ESL teachers do not have a previous teaching experience, much less experience in teaching English to non-English speaking children, they often fail even with their best efforts, frustrating everyone involved in the process.

· General racism of Korean society – As the Korean said previously, Korea was not (and still is not, although to a lesser degree,) a place where its people are used to dealing with race relations. This often conflicts sharply with ESL teachers who are from countries that are more more accustomed to dealing with race relations. (e.g. United States.) Because of this inexperience, Koreans often do not hesitate to ascribe particular characteristics to a given racial group and judge the entire race – which is exactly what racism is. Once a few bad apple NSETs emerged, the idea that every NSET is a drug-sniffing child molesters began to gain some traction in Korea, which made NSETs in Korea to feel unfairly persecuted. It also does not help that news media in Korea often play on Koreans' xenophobia by writing sensationalistic but factually dubious articles every now and then.

· Jealousy of Korean young men – This factor is not often discussed, but is very significant in understanding the actual people who fuel the tension. Korea has had a chronically high unemployment rate among young adults, which has been recently exacerbated with the global recession. These young adults – particularly men – are right now forming a very pissed-off social group. They have sacrificed much in their lives – grueling schools, going to college, serving their military duty, etc. – for the promise of having a good job. Understandably, not having a job after all the tribulations makes these young men very angry.

NSETs often provide a convenient target for their rage. ESL teachers are generally a group of young people who have no better education than Korean young people, but somehow they get a cushy job that pays well (by Korean standards) simply by virtue of being born into speaking English. On top of that, NSETs never served in the military.

Another thing – do you know what happens when a guy doesn’t have a job? A lot of things, but one of them is that he doesn’t get a date very often. And when you are young, few things matter more than getting a date. So when male ESL teachers flaunt the fact that they date Korean women (more on this below) – well, you can imagine the rest.

These men are most certainly not the majority in Korea, but the ability for these men to sway the public opinion is not to be discounted. They are generally tech-savvy, and all they have is time. According to a study by Naver – Korea’s largest search engine, with a format similar to Yahoo! – less than 1 percent of the people who view a news article leave a comment on the article. Predictably, 76.7 percent of all comments are men, and 61.1 percent of them were under 30. But the astonishing part is this: 3.4 percent of all commenters generated more than 50 percent of the comments. In other words, less than 0.0034 percent of all news viewers generated more than half of all comments. But that is enough to make the government overreact and put in restrictive policy towards ESL teachers, making them feel unwelcome in the process.

But again, the ESL teachers are not free from blame either. More blame game after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Continuing on with the blame game...

Blame Scorecard:  ESL Teachers

· General Assholery – One should never underestimate Americans’ (and Canadians' and Australians') capability of making an ass out of themselves no matter where they are in the world. David at Ask a Frenchman! had this to say:
Why is it Americans students (even a minority) that always behave stupidly in public places though is still a mystery to me. Other foreign students usually behave normally most of the time. But yeah, for some Americans, abroad, especially Paris, is some sort of Neverland where nothing is real and everything is designed for their own entertainment, as if the US was an island floating on a planet-wide Disneyland.

Given that fact, importing a fresh college graduates from America (and other countries) en masse is a recipe for trouble. And indeed, they do cause trouble. Guess where the name “Anti-English Spectrum” came from? It is a reference to a website geared towards NSETs called English Spectrum that posted a bunch of pictures of ESL teachers partying with half-naked Korean women. Posters at English Spectrum also penned other eyebrow-raising posts, bragging how they do not give a shit about teaching, how they go to work smelling like liquor and how much they enjoy screwing Korean women who were often their students. And as if those posts were not graphic enough, some were big enough assholes to create a drunken ruckus in a Seoul subway, loudly singing a song degrading Korean and Japanese women, and posted the whole thing on Youtube. Real smart, these guys.

Particularly sensitive is drug use. In Korea, there is no distinction in criminal law between “soft” and “hard” drugs – smoking marijuana is equivalent to being a heroin addict both in the eyes of Korean law and Korean public. Some ESL teachers are apparently ignorant of this, and think it is a good idea to mail themselves marijuana. When they are arrested, the sensationalistic media takes care of the rest.

· Unprofessionalism at work – Continuing on the theme from earlier, some schools complain that ESL teachers were often late or do not show up to work at all. There are also complaints that ESL teachers do not come to the class with any preparation. In some cases, the ESL teachers would not fulfill the contract and simply run away. (And ask people how to do it on the Internet!) In some cases, ESL teachers presented fake college diploma to be hired. There were also complaints of sexual harassment.

· Ignorance about Korea and their place in Korea – Even when ESL teachers come to Korea with best intentions, they often come strikingly uneducated about Korean history and culture. Korea is a unique place; no other country in the world brought itself out of utter poverty to a leading economic power within a few decades while surviving two devastating wars under two different countries' occupation. Many things about Korea require a radically different mindset from any other country’s mindset to understand properly – which is really what being exposed to a different culture is all about. Often, ESL teachers fail to get into that mindset, and instead wonder why Korea/Koreans are so "irrational" or "stupid". (Again, remember -- if the only explanation you can think of to explain a group of people's actions is "stupidity", you are the one who is stupid, not them.)

Also significantly, ESL teachers are often totally ignorant of their place in Korea. It is actually a valid point that ESL teachers have it pretty good in Korea. Generally, ESL teachers in Korea are paid well and receive free housing for having no more than a college degree and no degree or experience in teaching. They generally get to hang out with an elite company of Koreans, since Koreans who speak good English tend to be from well-to-do families that can afford to invest in English education. Because ESL teachers do not know how good their lives are, they are also unaware that they come across as spoiled brats to Koreans when they complain about little things in Korea (that, to be fair, genuinely bother them.)

On a personal note, the Korean’s observation is that many ESL teachers – particularly white men – in Korea simply do not know how to live in a society as a minority. The rants about Korea (often without any real question other than “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH KOREA??”) that the Korean often receives from ESL teachers in Korea are simply head-scratching. You mean you did not know people would stare at you, or try to practice English with you? And you had no idea that sometimes people would tune out what you say just because of the way you look? And you think it’s unfair that you are branded as a child-molesting druggie because some other idiot of your race was a child-molesting druggie? Congratulations, you finally know what it’s like living as a racial minority! Your fellow colored Americans have been dealing with the same shit for years! Of course it’s not fair, but it should not be a surprise that no matter where you are – even when you are living in the least racist country in the world – racial minority will often be grabbing the short end of the stick.

*                            *                             *

At this point, allow the Korean to put a major caveat – for everything above, the Korean will emphasize that only some schools and private institutes screw over ESL teachers, and only some ESL teachers are assholes in Korea. Also, it is fair to say that one party’s fault brings out the other party’s fault. (For example, one NSET acts like an ass, Korean school overreacts and monitors its NSET closely, the NSET feels unwelcome and complains in words that are overly harsh on the Internet, those words are picked up by angry Korean young men and spread over the Internet, NSETs who did nothing wrong feel unfairly persecuted, etc.) This feedback loop between the two parties has been going on for so long that it is meaningless to figure out who is at fault for what.

However, progress has been happening. Korea is slowly becoming more used to the idea that more non-Koreans want to come and live or work in Korea. Korean newspapers often run a series on “the age of a million foreigners” and “living with multicultural families.” Korea is also attracting more high-quality ESL teachers, and the schools are beginning to learn from their experience. On the other hand, long-term expats in Korea are also trying to foster a sense of community, encouraging one another to do more in Korea than getting drunk at night and causing trouble. That’s really characteristic of Korea – things may not be the best, but they generally tend to get better over time.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. This is an excellent post, thank you. I've lived in Korea for a while, although never as a teacher, and I make an effort to try and understand every aspect of these issues, and I think this is about as fair and objective assessment as is possible. Nothing else to add really, so thanks again.

  2. Great post. It sums things up quite well.

    My experience, though I'm sure others with less scrupulous employers or less fortunate nights out would disagree, is that there isn't much overt racism. The exceptions have been job interviews I've had, some of which were shockingly racist.

    I had a phone interview with a school in Bucheon that refused to hire me because I was Muslim and that meant I couldn't work Fridays.

    I had an in-person interview last month with the Songpa SLP where the director asked me, not-so-deftly, where my parents were born. She made a note of it on my resume. I assume she wasn't going to boast to someone breathlessly that they could hire someone of Pakistani descent.

    Other than that, stares and an inability to fully use the Internet make up most of the discrimination I've faced in Korea.

  3. This sums up my feelings almost exactly. It's a shame that in seemingly any sizable group of people there's a loud minority who bring down the image of the whole.

    As someone who's lived in Korea for a while I've seen the racism and can say it presents itself to me in ways that are both beneficial and not. I think one has to keep in mind and accept that to the people you meet here, you are making an impression not just of yourself, but also of your entire race and creed. It's a hefty responsibility, but I hope I'm not the only one to also view it as an opportunity. At the very least, I hope long after I'm gone, someone is talking to someone else around here and saying "Man, I hate Americans." At which point the other will remember me and respond, "They're not all bad," or better yet, "Really? I kind of like them."

  4. Great post. It's good to see both sides' mistakes, and how much Koreans and ESL teachers (or foreigners in general) have a lot to learn from each other.

    On the foreigners' side (and I'm one of them, although not a teacher), I consider the lack of interest in learning about Korean culture absurd. I've met people who have lived in Korea for 8 years and never cared about learning Korean. And they keep coming up with the same "What's wrong with Korea?" all the time. I hope things get better.

  5. Love it--especially the points about angry, unemployed, young Korean men (because I hadn't thought about it before and it actually makes perfect sense) and the shock of being a minority and being unable to adjust for many white, male ESL teachers (which I had thought about before, but you have expressed here rather eloquently).

    Just wanted to add that there's a huge problem with adjustment to a Korean work culture, which is dramatically different than U.S. and other Western work cultures. I think this fault actually rests on both shoulders. Foreigners are often unwilling to look at the elements of culture in the workplace and Korean offices/schools/hagwons can be very insensitive to the expectations/needs of their foreign employees. I've seen a lot of difficulties arise when I've tried to get a direct answer from a supervisor about something that is kind of a sensitive issue or when I'm not informed about schedule changes. Some people (both employers and employees) take these kinds of conflicts out of context and increase the animosity between the EFL teaching community and Korea.

  6. @Adeel

    I had a phone interview with a school in Bucheon that refused to hire me because I was Muslim and that meant I couldn't work Fridays.

    Really, that's racism? Are you kidding me? I wouldn't even think of hiring you if you even hinted about getting privileged treatment for religious reasons.

    You apply for a job that requires you to work on Fridays (like most jobs in the world) and expect a company to exempt you from that just because you are superstitious? Do you expect that just because you follow the ilogic and unjustified rules supposedly dictated by a crazy sadistic man from the mountains seven centuries ago.

    What if jews tried the same with Saturdays or christians with Sundays? What if I created another religion that forbid me from working three days a week and expected companies to agree with it?

  7. I apologize, I didn't want to derail the comments but I've been accused of racism (despite it having nothing to do with race) and even sued once because of situations similar to the one Adeel described.

    It's infuriating and insulting to think that people with restrictive beliefs (semitic religions for the most part) should be favoured like that.

  8. Sch, being Muslim meant to him that I couldn't work Fridays. I repeatedly explained to him that it obviously wasn't a problem since I applied for the job, not the other way around, and had been working part-time on Fridays all through university.

    The interview was by phone when I was in New York (I'm Canadian). My friend pointed out that asking my religion, as the employer did, is illegal in America. I'm not sure about Canadian law, but it's certainly not proper.

  9. Agreed on the degree of excellence of this post.

    I found the Korean's view that "If you don’t understand why [groups of] people are doing certain things, you are the one who is stupid – not the people" particularly refreshing, a viewpoint that can sometimes feel lacking among elitist/"intellectual" circles.

    Interesting as well that you brought up dissatisfied young men- indicating that the anti-ESL teacher sentiment runs along a similar strain to the anti-Jaebeom of Kpop group 2PM. My Korean friend has used the term "keyboard warrior" to refer to this small percent of commenters responsible for the majority of comments.

  10. I meant "seem to be lacking" rather than "feel lacking" above.

    I also have a HUGE question for the Korean: how do you have a career, girlfriend, a blog, and manage to stay well-informed on issues like the anti-English spectrum that don't affect you directly??

  11. This was a great post. I second your thought about many white people not knowing how to deal with being a minority, but will extend that to a generalized term of foreigner. Many foreigners whom I interact here on a daily basis make racist undertones towards Koreans and the sad thing is that they don't even know they are doing so. They feel superior in some way. It's just sad.

    One other aspect that I think was missed in your post, is how the military's behavior affects ESL teachers. For example, since some GIs can't control themselves and cause major problems in "night spots" the resentment carries over to all foreigners, ESL teachers included. Since I am a tall and fit American, I am usually thought of as an Army Officer. Once someone finds out that I am a teacher, their attitude changes.

  12. Excellent post - sums things up very nicely for any readers trying to understand the current state of things.

    These young adults – particularly men – are right now forming a very pissed-off social group. They have sacrificed much in their lives – grueling schools, going to college, serving their military duty, etc. – for the promise of having a good job.

    Exactly what jobs are we taking away from them? For most jobs, a Korean OR a foreigner will be hired; few jobs offer any competition between the two. That we might be 'taking away their women' implies that those women had no choices but the locals - such a case is no longer true.

    As for the racism / racist tendencies, it cuts both ways. Yes, most white people haven't yet been part of the minority - and living here will remind them of that quickly. Being an 'expat' necessarily puts you in the minority in any country you go to, however. Yes, Koreans are still learning the rules of what is acceptable and what isn't. Yes, it's changing - partially because the government feels some pressure to shape up its image. You can't legislate people's feelings, however - and some people will never change.

  13. Great post, on the ESL teachers front, the fact that many teachers are straight out from university is a bit of a problem sometimes.

    Since at that age culture doesn't often excite people as much as getting drunk every weekend. I do notice a bit of a divide in hobbies between those who come here straight out of university and those come a bit later in life (say more than 3 years after finishing university) and tend to sometimes want to learn a bit more about Korean culture.

    Although to be fair, certainly not everyone straight out of university is a party animal and they can be as equally interested in cultural exchange.

    Living life as a minority is an excellent point. I think it is a positive experience in a way since I can kind of understand the minority experience a little better in a small small way.

  14. Korean,

    Once again, a thoughtful post. Now on to some recommendations from one the much maligned English teachers.

    Since government here has more or less decided that NSETs are necessary better use of them is needed. To that end, the first improvement is mandatory TESOL certification from accredited institutions. This is simple, quick and provides a basic skill set that can be put to use immediately in the classroom. Furthermore, for the NSETs, it's a qualification that can be used elsewhere and for Koreans, it may eliminate the fear of totally unqualified graduates being turned loose in the classroom. Second, start networking and partnering with school systems in English speaking countries to provide exchange programs where trained and certified language teachers spend a year or two in Korea teaching. Third, by all means run those culture education classes for new teachers, but for God's sake do not use Koreans to run them! Long term foreign residents who are well aware of the problems that westerners run into in this country are the most qualified to tell their fellow barbarians what to do, not do, avoid and expect. With all due respect to the locals, they can and will put the best possible face to their country and avoid explaining a lot of the pitfalls of their culture either out of ignorance or an unwillingness to explain the less attractive aspects of the society and education system here.

    Now, will any of these recommendations be actually considered? The cynic in me thinks the response would be: First) costs too much, Second) costs too much, Third) they might say bad things about us.

  15. I think having Western bosses or managers (ethnically Korean or otherwise), wherever possible, would go a long way. The difference between a Korean who lived abroad for six, eight, twelve years and a Korean who was born and raised elsewhere is immense.

    I had a foreign director for the first month I was in Korea and I learned a lot from him. The Korean director that followed was a better boss, but in terms of communicating expectations, both cultural and professional, the American was better than any Korean could be.

    Recruiting experienced teachers to work as directors is an idea I have, to piggyback onto Douglas' idea of cultural education classes offered by Westerners.

  16. Very even-handed post, as per usual.

    I have one question.

    You stated that employers are required to provide health insurance to NETS.
    Seeing this surprised me because I think I have read otherwise elsewhere.

    I couldn't find the article I believe emphatically stated so, but I did find the one below, which seems to suggest that part-time teachers, for example, aren't entitled to health insurance. (In the absence of contractual health insurance, an issue which I suspect may clarify my confusion.)

    My questions is: are full-time E-2 employers required to provide health insurance provisions in their NETS contracts?

    This site [] supports what you said, but If you have a more authoritative source I'd be greatly appreciative.

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  18. counthaku, here is a great Shin Dong-A article that makes exactly the same point as you/your friend did.

    QiRanger, the military thing is a whole 'nother can of worms, and frankly the Korean thinks relatively small number of Koreans are affected by the military thing.

    Chris, if those losers were able to reason at your level, they would not be pissing their lives away bashing NSETs on the Internet.

    Douglas, great suggestion. The Korean will say this about Korean government -- it can be extremely good at solving problems when it focuses on the problem. But so far, it rarely focused on this particular issue, despite its rhetoric.

    Daemyann, please read the questions policy on the right.

    ZtraderX, this might be unfair to you because you are (as far as the Korean can tell) not an NSET, but the Korean would just like to point out the fact that some NSETs often try to lecture Koreans on what is acceptable and what is not (as you do) is one of the big sources of the problem. The Korean thinks your position is totally reasonable, but it is also completely rational to go the other direction. The better attitude for the NSETs would be accept Korea's way of doing things -- they live in Korea after all.

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  20. This is a really good, balanced post AAK. I'd point any foreigner thinking of teaching in Korea to it.

    My mostly positive experience teaching English in Korea can be summed up by an early meeting I had with my boss at my current hagwon. After learning each others names, she began the meeting by telling us that we needed to understand that a contract has a different set of cultural associations and expectations for a Korean than it does for an American/Canadian/Brit/etc. Basically, the told us that we shouldn't expect her to honor the contract with regards to hours taught per week, vacation time, class size, etc.

    All well and good. Cultural relativism is an important thing to grasp for anyone planning to live for an extended period abroad. But it just seemed like a ridiculous way to begin the school year. IMO the problem with hagwon and public schools is that they aren't completely up-front and transparent about expectations. Fact is, you'll work longer hours here for less pay than you would back in my home of the States. Why not make that crystal clear, but then play up the great things like how living here is such a great experience, you'll meet some really interesting people, and if you push yourself you'll learn Korean, a valuable job skill.

    Understanding that Korean work culture is different than it is in the west isn't a deal-breaker, but you'd think employers would make this clear before the contracts are signed or even more importantly, the plane tickets are purchased. Wanting to know exactly when your vacation is, how many classes you'll be teaching, and expectations for meeting with parents outside of school hours isn't lazy at all -- it's the definition of professionalism. And if you'll allow me to rant, many Korean employers don't understand that professionalism is a two way street. I meet your expectations as an employee, but you have to tell me what they are before I sign your contract.

    As for assholish ex-pats, well I won't deny they're here. But I'd go back to your first point -- don't do everything on an ad hoc basis. Don't give a pre-Korean health check that literally asks "Do you have AIDS?" or "Do you have mental illness?" and then have boxes marked "YES" or "NO." Require education degrees, or degrees that are tangentially related to teaching reading and writing. Don't have such an incredibly obtuse immigration system that basically requires hagwon to hire illegally for a short-term basis when a teacher, for no fault of her own, gets sick.

    Yes Korean hagwon owners, people do get sick. You know what group of people get sick a lot due to exposure to sneezing children? Teachers!

    Again, nice post.

  21. ZtraderX,

    Korea's way of doing things is that you can go ahead and have a wild time, but you do not post pictures on the Internet. The picture you linked to also caused a firestorm of criticism in Korea.


    Thanks for the compliment. The Korean really tried hard to make it as balanced as possible. The Korean does think that the ultimate onus is upon Korean government and schools to get the system right, since they are the only entities that can fix things at the institutional level.

    But the Korean will push back a little bit on one point. The Korean agrees that what you are arguing for is totally reasonable. But he just wants to point out that Korea's way of doing things -- e.g. sacrificing vacations/sick days, supplicating to your boss and not expecting much autonomy -- is also totally reasonable. In fact, the Korean's boss loves him because the Korean brings a little bit of Korean attitude to his job: show up to work on weekends when necessary, deal with the unpredictable schedules, and don't complain. And that's really the big point that the Korean wants to make with the NSET population: NSETs need to accept and deal with the fact that they are the minority in Korea, and be ready to do things in a way that may appear unreasonable in the first glance.

    Of course, there should be a boundary. (It would be completely unreasonable, for example, for your boss to not pay you.) Also, like you pointed out, Korea really should do a better job letting NSETs know what to expect. The Korean is not trying to let Korea get off easy here. It's just that personally, the Korean receives waaay too many emails from NSETs that yell and scream about what's wrong with Korea without an ounce of reflection that they are living as a minority.

  22. Dear A Korean:
    You wrote
    >>they did not properly filter out unqualified NSETs – which blew up with the case of Christopher Paul Neil. Neil, an internationally wanted child molester

    This sentence is a bit misleading. Christopher Paul Neil was not a wanted man when he entered Korea. He had no criminal record, and a legitimate teaching degree. He had been in Korea at least three years before the Mr. Swirl photo was released by Interpol.

    Hence, the "filtering" which followed would not have caught him.

  23. I hate to be another teacher posting on this when there's already been so many good points made, but--

    I think both parties are doing better. With the program I'm in Korea with, I have been lucky enough to see some of the suggestions here put into action and I feel it has made all the difference in making all parties happy.

    --NSETS LEARNING CULTURE/LANGUAGE: All the teachers were required to learn Hangeul before arrival, then required to take 6 weeks of intensive Korean language and culture classes.

    --HONEST CONTRACTS: Program director makes all the difference. Our program director--a Korean woman who has worked with the Korean educational system and the American embassy closely enough that she understands both sides' expectations--works out extremely detailed contracts that we and our schools are expected to follow tightly.

    Requiring at least limited language/culture classes and working through a respected program director has made all the difference. Other programs are beginning to follow this example and I think it's improved the quality of candidates coming to Korea and the teachers who have extended their contracts with schools.

    In the future, I'd like to see more communication between these groups. Korea has made the first steps, having conferences between the province's educational department and a representative group of its teachers. These things really need to be encouraged because those forums are where these comments should be brought up, rather than on a blog.

    Teachers! write your province's education department a letter with all of these great suggestions you've posted here. They usually have an English speaker working in the English educational department and they want to improve this situation as much as we do. Comments and suggestions will probably be more than welcome, and even if they're not it certainly cannot hurt.

  24. The reality is that this presently tense situation will settle in time. South Korea is capitalist, open society that is rapidly liberalizing. The doors of South Korea have opened. A large foreign population, multicultural families and intercultural marriages are simply *unstoppable* if your country is open to globalization.

    I think its safe to say that within ten to twenty years, most of the problems described in this post will have withered away. It is inevitable.

    Interestingly, Japanese English education went through similar growing pains but seems to have arrived at an equilibrium now. English teachers, foreign businesspeople, American military and so on are now accepted as regular occurrences in Japan. It can be said that Japan's post-war development is about 20 years ahead of Korea (Japan industrialized in the '60s, Korea in the '80s). Thus, I think its safe to say Korea will become as open - if not more open - than Japan within 20 years.

  25. BRB, Korea! -- This program you speak of sounds great. What is it?

  26. As noted before the positions that 'unqualified' teachers tend to fill are often hagwons etc. All that is required are the visa requirements, 4 year degree, police check etc. These foreign teachers are no less qualified than the Korean native teachers in such schools. Likewise, many of these individuals have no formal education qualifications. Why, its all about demand being higher than the available workforce.

    When unqualified foreigners enter puclic schools this is different. I would love to see higher expectations for individuals hired here. Some Koreans believe that teachers are luckier and these constitute better jobs. Perhaps they are right. Again, if only qualified teachers could be hired there would be a huge gap in the workforce.

    Regulate the industry, all teachers and standards will rise. The only regulations are set by immigration, who have no responsibility for teaching standards.

    In my opinion, the reason pay is so high for teachers in Korea, is that it is required to attract enough teachers. I cant credit the quote but i once read online the point that Korea can choose only 2 of 3 desirable options:

    1) High Quality Teachers
    2) Large Quantities of Teachers
    3) Cheap Teachers.

    If anyone has a solution to this problem then the industry would change overnight.

    When the rules changed so English speakers from the Phillipines etc could legally work in Korea a possible opportunity arose. However, as previous posters have commented racial stereotyping is extremely common during hiring. Even Gyopos fall prey to this.

    In regards to accomodation, this is a boon for teachers. However, perhaps the accomodation should be considered by the value of the rent. Realistically, how many teachers would come if told they needed 10,000,000won upfront for apartment key money. It would be impossible for many teachers. Western accomodation rental systems are very different. Westerners in my experience, generally dont have financial liquidity to produce that at will.

    Also if you think new teachers have problems now. Imagine that rather than missing months pay you suddenly lost your keymoney. In a country you have no prior personal links and dont speak the language, i would be extrememly cautious to hand over $10000.

    A great article. I agree entirely, but just feel that these small points are often missed during the debate. These are just my opinions so i hope they dont upset anyone.

    Thanks Doug

  27. I think your post proves a very valid point. I am ashamed when fellow white people act ridiculously in public places. However, I think it is unfair of you to really single out Americans. I see earlier that you put Canadians and Australians in parentheses, but your entire argument centered around Americans. I resent that. As an American who visited a lot of ESL teachers in Seoul, the vast, VAST majority of them were Canadian. That was including a bunch of others I met during my time there. And, it was not the Americans, but the CANADIANS who were acting rather obnoxiously. It's unfair that Americans take the blame for anything an immature white person does. Try and be more objective.

  28. Really great article. I appreciate the way you broke things down into categories and provided your analysis on each one. Thanks for posting!

  29. Nice article. I taught English in Korea for a year and had a great experience. My only problem with the article is your comment about being stupid for not understanding why someone else does something stupid. I understand your point. But I am someone that got stared at a lot in Korea (I'm mixed race, light skinned but Black so my hair is curly, so the average Korean has no idea I'm not White). I got stared at when I grew my hair out. The afro just was fascinating to everyone, even the ajuma that lived in my apartment building would stare at me even though she saw me everyday for 9 months. I cut my hair and she starts talking to me again.

    Like I said, I understand why it is they do that, but just that doesn't excuse ignorant behavior. People have different types of hair. You haven't seen it before so you stare at it. I get it. It's 2010 and you have an education because your Korean parents wouldn't have it any other way, so use your brain and move on. Sometimes people do things for completely ignorant reasons, the hair thing is just one example but as for the birther movement in the United States, labeling them stupid is pretty realistic, knowing the deeper reasons as to why they came to a completely ridiculous, illogical conclusion not based on fact shows that at their base they have either A)No ability to logically reason or B)Have an immense ability to ignore reason when it makes them feel better. The exact reason why they do it is pretty irrelevant because you are not going to satisfy those people with anything reasonable because they already have shown you their propensity to ignore logic.

  30. Before you teach in Korea learn something about it.

    I completely agree. Perhaps knowing korean should be a requirement. It would fix alot of problems

  31. The Korean,

    good post and very informative. I am a American girl of Nigerian decent very intrested in traveling and exploring various cultures. Korea always seemed like a cool place to venture. I spent 7 years in Nigeria and it was mind blowing the differences in culture. From the way they walk to the way they greet. With this knowledge I found traveling to a country different from my birth place, I became more socially aware of different customs and cultures of different nationalities and how to respect them.
    I think it is a no brainer to take time to study a country's history and culture before traveling there. Being considerate of others usually always gets good results. It is baffling how some people goto other countres and expect the country to adjust to them, rather than the ther way around.
    I think this is a problem a lot of we Americans have. From childhood we have been taught that America is the best and in a way our culture is so ethnocentric that many of us see ourselves as the center of the world. A lot of us seem arrogant and condensending. And with a lot of middle aged males (most often white, I have not seen anyother instance) who seek out sexual serivces and partake in sexual tourism and exploitatin further these negative perceptions of Americans and Westerners who travel abroad.
    Like America has strict policies on people coming to America the same should be done in other countries. Opening the flood gates lets all sorts of shady characters in.

  32. Further more,

    I did not realize teaching english abroad was a job. We see adverts here in school all the time to teach English abroad but I just thought it was an unpaid internship or volunteer work. That's is why this article piqued my interest.

    But I think it is sad that the Korean government did not put heavy restrictions on those who could teach in their country. I say this because the damage has been done. Shady foriegners kinda messed up a good thing.
    ESL is a great program that is a bridge between cultures. It is sad it has been sulied by dishonest & dubious characters.
    I understand both sides. But I am leaning towards those who have anti-english sentiments... because living in Nigeria I have seen how foreigners (not all of them) have disrepected an taken advantage of Nigerians especially concerning black gold.

    If you are coming into a country as a foreigner you need to adjust to them and be more accomdating because you are in their country.
    Understand the issues and do your best to brake those stereotypes. Give respect and you will respected.

    This is the same way most Americans feel of foreigners who come to USA. So those of you who are in foreign lands you need to adjust.

    Hope this helps.

  33. its author, who claims to have been a "founding member" of ATEK, clearly accuses ATEK itself of having engineered the infamous "ATEK death threat". . . . . . That would mean the law was broken with false reporting of a hate crime. A hoax was perpetuated in the national media of several countries — particularly the ROK, Canada, and the US — and trust may have irreparably been broken. Those involved would owe a lot of people some major apologies: the English-teaching community they would have been trying to frighten, AES which they would have falsely accused of attempted murder, the larger Korean society that was indicted for promoting such violent hatred, etc.

    Check out Kushibo's blog for more details

  34. Thank you for this post! My daughter is going to start college in the Fall and she wants to be an English teacher. She will be majoring in Education. She's obsess with the Korean culture and has her mind set in going there after graduating. I will be sharing this with her.
    Thank you. I hope by the time she graduates and start work the Korean people will be more used to seeing foreigners and foreigners will learn to be respectful to the Korean culture. I will make sure to teach my daughter to be a good ambassador of her country and not be an embarrassment.

    Thank you so much!

  35. Great article. Please translate this into Korean and get this into the news paper so both sides can read this. I am glad to see other people working on this. The ones of us that want to live here, teach and make a life need to get the word out and keep showing through our actions that we want to understand and learn . I am so glad the issue of unqualified teachers was addressed in this article. I really hope there is more education on both groups to understand each other on a much deeper level than the superficiality of everyday.

  36. Good article. I would just like to say I agree that the quality of some ESL teachers is less than acceptable. I am a teacher in London and because of my love for Korea and the fact that I have friends in Korea, I go twice a year to teach English at summer and winter camp. It is long hours and hard work. I pay my own airfare so I don't make a huge amount of money. I take pride in my work because I am a professional but unfortunately I've worked with so many "teachers" that are inexperienced and unprofessional. I've sat in staff rooms where I have to listen to foreigners slag off Korea and Koreans. I've met many teachers who think they are just there to babysit children for wealthy parents who want the children out of the way during the school holidays. The whole situation makes me very sad because as a qualified teacher I just want to do my best for the children.
    As for racism, I am a mixed race, middle aged woman who has many Korean friends and I can honestly say I have never had a bad experience in Korea. People are friendly and helpful and whenever I am on my own I get offered seats on trains and buses and I only have to get my map out and someone will ask me if I need help. I also have Korean tattoos. I really love Korea with it's wonderful people and great food, vibrant culture and history.I think people should not go to another country to live and work if they are not going to learn about the culture and treat it with the utmost respect.

  37. All these points about the faults on both sides are valid, but they are not sufficient to explain why people complain more about Korea than any other country. There are immature and irresponsible NSETs, cultural misunderstandings, unscrupulous employers, and most if not all of the other things mentioned in other countries too, just as you might expect. But nowhere else generates the level of complaints that Korea does. Why?

    No smoke without fire, I say.

    However, Korea is certainly a country that changes fast, so I expect many issues will resolve themselves.

  38. Matt,

    If there is any sort of data about whether expats in Korea complain more than expats anywhere else, the Korean would love to see it.

  39. ak* said: "You mean you did not know people would stare at you, or try to practice English with you?"
    and *ak/tk said: "Considering that most ESL teachers do not have a previous teaching experience, much less experience in teaching English to non-English (speakers)":
    This is a major problem: most of the NSETs don't know anything about linguistics, nor do they have any interest in seriously studying another language: arrogant 'linguicism'/'linguicentrism'.
    Few teachers realize how inefficient, ineffective, and "incompetent" it is to not know the student's mother tongue. (see 'Skutnabb-Kangas, 1998, Human Rights and Language Wrongs... pg. 22'. Seeing the minimal comments and responses to them on this page regarding this problem, it's apparent few people realize one of the biggest causes of racism towards native English speakers in South Korea is their not learning Korean. Not learning Korean also sets up a situation where the NSET can never be autonomous in society: the NSET always must rely on Koreans for 'honest' interpretations. You can imagine how much linguistic power a NSET is has when Koreans don't want the NSET to know what they're talking about in Korean!
    ak* Koreans often do not hesitate to ascribe particular characteristics to a given racial group and judge the entire race:
    This also relates to the main problem with racism in SK: Koreans learn from the media: TV, 학원s, school, newspapers, etc., and each other that NSETs cannot speak Korean, and even if they could Koreans should use any encounter with a NSET as a chance to practice English! This piled on top of the fact that it is really hard to learn Korean for NSET
    s in general, and that NSETs usually don't want to learn Korean, or even mingle with any 'real' Koreans in public, results in a situation where NSETs are legitimately labelled as culturalist/linguicentric/ethnocentric, and are only in the country to make money. The big problem with this sort of stereotype is that there are NSETs in SK who do speak Korean, and want to branch out and not just hang out in little segregated, heterogenous clumps with other NSETs. These Korean-inclined NSETs feel it worse than the other NSETs because normally they've been in the country a lot longer than the one-year contract NSETs. Usually you don't even feel this big side of the racism your first year, two or three in SK: you're always just thankful that you can depend on a Korean to speak English in public. It's only once you really get into learning Korean that you start to feel the racism: (Hey I want to learn Korean, represent myself in Korean, and earn Koreans' respect by learing the most important thing from their culture: 한국어. But they actually don't really want me to learn it.)

  40. (continued)Yes, the obvious solution to this problem is to have a major campaign through the Korean media encouraging Koreans to yell at NSETs and '외국인's in general who don't speak Korean. Also, don't let any NSETs into the country who can't speak a significant amount of Korean. These are clear and obvious solutions to the problem: oops! wait a minute, clear any obvious yet hard and impossible. When it's the media, the government, and most of the people who want to discriminate ethnocentrically and arrogantly against the NSETs by only speaking with them in English. We gotta learn English!!!! WE JUST GOTTA!!! (Right? Koreans must learn English, right? There is a real legitimate need to be able to speak English in Korea, right? Of course not, but that's what the big money Korean English industry and the global monolingual English industry will have South Koreans believe. In order to become successful domestically, you must know a lot of English to get into the best schools and get the best jobs: That's pretty logical, right? When Koreans normally speak to each other in Korean 99% of the time. If Koreans really want to learn English, they should speak to each other and to NSETs in English one day, and then in Korean the next. That would be free, and really the best solution I can think of to wipe out the English,racism, and especially the class disparity (a much bigger issue for a different blog) problems.

  41. I think foreign English teachers not from an English speaking country are the ones in the worst position.
    Having to deal with above mentioned Anti-English movement and the misstrust of Koreans searching for native speakers and allways having to prove both their English skills, teaching skills as well as knowledge about Korea.

    Like me. My native language is Croatian, Italian is almost a native language too. I speak English and I've learnt Korean for around 1 year of stay and study in a language training course. They're all impressed by how fast I've learnt Korean and by my ability to speak 4 languages, but that's still not enough for people to employ me. I was just lucky to meet this one woman who likes me, trusts me and made me teach her middle school student daughter. And this girl told me in her academy there is a teacher who drinks a lot, swears, uses bad words and the behaviour of this teacher doesn't seem so proffessional. Sometimes they only care about the native language rather than the real skills for the teaching proffession.
    I can understand that mentallity, I really can. But I cannot completely agree. People should open their mind a bit more and look at people as individuals and judge them as such, individuals.

    Actually, I'm not really a teacher, I'm a student. Knowing about the problems I was gonna face in Korea as a foreign English teacher not from an English speaking country, I enrolled in a university with a good reputation. Well, not such as Seoul University, but still, judging from people's reactions, I'd say my school's reputation is good. Because I had no choice. I will always have to prove myself. So the university reputation is important to me because it is important to Koreans as well.

  42. Hello,
    I have a dream of teaching in korea. I have since I was 18 I am now 38 going to college. I was wondering what I should know/study to make my living with the korean pople better.
    What I should learn so my students can learn better from me. I will absolutly find a way to learn korean and how to wright Hangul. I would really like to make a really good impresion on them and I want to do a great job for them and for me.

  43. My name is Brittany, and I am an English Teacher in Korea.
    All I want to say is this: I have not experienced any direct meanness from people. I get a lot of curious stares, as I am blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but that's about it. Sometimes people at restaurants or stores get frustrated with my horrible Korean pronounciation, but I think they are allowed to get annoyed. I feel as though I should hve prepared myself better (learned more of the language, etc.) before I came. I do feel really bad for my school when they act surprised that I want to do extra work and help out as much as possible. I came to korea with 2 years experience of working in education, and am not content to just sit at my desk like their former native speaking teachers apparently were.
    Yes, there are differences. Yes, there is going to be, and has been, a lot of apologizing on my part as I make mistakes. But overall... so far, I have enjoyed Korea, and have found the people here to be friendly and understanding.
    That's all.

  44. I know this is an old post, but I've always liked it.

    Many of my Korean English teaching friends often ask me, "Why are there so many unqualified foreign teachers in Korea?" My response is always, "Because Korean schools hire them." Hagwons often like young, white, fun NSETs who will keep the kids and parents happy. Public schools often prefer NSETs who look professional and adapt well to Korean culture. Seldom does anyone ask about teaching credentials or experience. Check out some of the job postings on Dave's ESL. Many of the postings scream, "Good money and free housing! No experience necessary! Any bachelor's degree is okay!"

    Of course, there ARE many qualified and experienced NSETs teaching in Korea, but they usually have jobs at universities or international schools where the teaching environment is generally more professional.

  45. "There are stupid individuals in the world, but a group of people is never stupid."

    Yeah, no, the birthers are stupid. "Ignorant" might be a better word, but saying otherwise is about literally incorrect.


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