Saturday, May 02, 2009

Foreign Teachers Wrongly Portrayed in Korea

By Brian Deutsch
Contributing Writer

There are many misconceptions about native speaker English teachers in Korea and profound ignorance about who we are and what we do. This article will look at 10 of the most common misconceptions about us. It's not compiled for the sake of complaining or for being clever but rather to look more closely at 10 misinformed assumptions that are repeated so often that they're practically taken for granted.

(1) We're Unqualified

This is an extremely obnoxious misconception because it can neither be confirmed nor denied. That's because the definition of qualified is constantly changing to suit the needs of the person offending us. Does qualified mean having the proper visa? Does it mean having undergone teacher training? Or does it mean being able to competently speak and teach English in English? It's the Korean government and its citizens who've come to define ``qualified" as merely possessing a bachelor's degree from an English-speaking country, and it's unfair to turn on us because of consumers or a government that demands no more.

(2) We Don't Care About Teaching

Tell that to the teachers who, beyond teaching 20-30 classes a week, spend hours preparing materials, grading papers and putting together lessons that are both entertaining and educational. Tell that to the teachers who stand alone in front of a class of 36 students who neither speak nor understand English, yet who still make it work. Tell that to the teachers who cry when their students graduate and light up when they see them again on the street. On second thought, you'd better not tell those things to those teachers.

(3) We're Sexual Predators

This is unfortunately a common motif in the media, especially as it pertains to foreign men. Television shows will depict ``English teachers" _ usually played by Koreans or Eastern Europeans with noticeably poor English _ harassing, molesting or raping Korean women. Papers and news programs will run sensationalist stories about the debauchery of Hongdae and Itaewon, or that teachers are constantly on the prowl for ``easy Korean women.'' Why are foreigners being held to higher standards than their Korean peers?

(4) We Just Talk in Class

Because we usually teach English conversation classes, there's an assumption that all we do is go to class and talk. We're native speakers, so ``teaching" is pretty easy for us, right? Perhaps the biggest challenge we face is creating a classroom environment that encourages learning in a way that's so contrary to the traditional Korean style. By creating lessons that give students a chance to use the language they've studied for years, we have the difficult task of bucking the system of passive rote learning and obedience. Assuming we just talk or play games is insulting to the hard work we do every day.

(5) We Can't Teach on Our Own

Though we are contractually paired with a Korean co-teacher in public schools, we often do teach on our own when these co-teachers don't show up for class or prove unable or unwilling to participate. Ideally, the two teachers would find a way to compliment each other, but this rarely happens. In fact, sometimes the class is more effective when taught entirely by a native speaker.

(6) We Can't Find Jobs at Home

This stereotype predates the current economic crisis. Besides denigrating the teachers who come here, all of whom are college-educated and have been employed in the past, this misconception is also an insult to the Korean education system because it implies that it can do no better than to hire cast-offs.

(7) We're Uppity.

A prominent scholar in the field of English education here said recently that native speaker teachers ``often cause problems," though he didn't expand on his comments. This is a good catch-all misconception that covers pretty much everything from ``doesn't like the school food" to ``complains when not paid," and is likely code for ``doesn't fit in." It's too easy, and has been far too common, to simply blame the foreign teacher for misunderstandings, miscommunications and failures. It would behoove the schools who hire foreign teachers, and the imported teachers themselves, to be understanding of the communication breakdowns that will invariably occur, and not reduce everything to a cultural problem.

(8) We're Criminals.

Every year we hear the news that foreign crime is on the rise. The papers usually fail to emphasize that the number of foreigners in Korea is also dramatically increasing. Most of us agree with requiring public school teachers to submit criminal background checks, though the panic is in the wrong direction. The frequent stories about teachers behaving badly are not about foreigners but rather about Korean teachers who beat children, sexually abuse students, take bribes or participate in anti-government rallies. It's unacceptable to generalize about Korean teachers based on a few news stories, and it's even more wrong to generalize about foreign teachers based on none.

(9) We're Here for Money

This misconception is insulting to Koreans as well as to foreigners. This is a country, after all, that spends a lot of time, money and advertising space building its image and trying to entice foreigners to come here. As Korea welcomes more and more foreign teachers and laborers, it will need to get over this one-sided stigma attached to economic migration, especially since historically so many Koreans have left in pursuit of a better life.

(10) We're Unhappy

It's odd that we stand out so much, considering how often Koreans complain about the weather or the food, or how often they take to the streets over something or other. Less anecdotally, Korea has the highest suicide rate of the 30 OECD countries, and suicide is the fourth-leading cause of death here. It is the leading cause of death among males 18 to 35, and the second-leading cause for teenagers. And, according to the ``OECD Factbook 2009," Korea ranked the lowest for life satisfaction.

I won't deny that we are an opinionated bunch. Sometimes too opinionated, and the need by some to pass judgment on every little thing is a phenomenon that deserves fuller treatment.

It certainly deserves more analysis than ``we are unhappy." There are, of course, plenty of reasons why foreign English teachers complain: cheating bosses, indifferent students, uncooperative authorities, and a media that constantly portrays us as sexual predators, drug users, unqualified teachers, or bitter imports. Or maybe it's just a bad day or plain old culture shock.

But we're not unhappy. On the contrary, we're active in our communities and our neighborhoods. We volunteer at orphanages, organize charity events, adopt animals, and participate in clean-up campaigns. Like our Korean neighbors, we relax in `jjimjilbang,' sing in noraebang, go hiking on the weekends and have a beer or two on a Friday night. As information on Korea is becoming more widely available online and in print, we are becoming better teachers, better travelers, and with more frequency, better residents.

Teachers come here and stay here because they want to be here. This is something Korea should be proud of. It shouldn't wave them in with one hand and nudge them out with the other.

The writer can be reached at


I wrote a piece about ten common misconceptions Koreans have of native speaker teachers, and it appeared on the Korea Times site this evening. I hope to be allowed to turn each point into a full-length article, because each one really needs fuller explanation and amplification. And a word count limit meant that I had to leave quite a bit out. It's important to point out not only why these misconceptions exist and the extent to which they do, but why they're harmful to us.

There are other misconceptions that deserve treatment as well: we do drugs, we have AIDS, we are buffoons, we are on call to practice your English at your convenience, we are decoration, we are helpless, we aren't necessary, and of course the catch-alls like we don't understand Korean culture or we don't like Korea. I had a couple of those in the rough draft, but swapped them out later. There are other things that drive me up the wall---getting asked if I know bibimbap, being told kimchi is too spicy for me to eat---but it's probably not best to go running to the paper about those just yet.

I also left out that when these misconceptions are circulated they're often defended by saying "many foreigners" do this, "some foreigners" do that, or "I heard about" native speakers doing something or other. There are bad apples among us, of course, and it's insulting to pretend there aren't. But the actions of a small few are consistently used to disparage an entire demographic, which suggests a number of larger forces at work, issues I hope to explore later. Don't get me wrong, "we" have a lot of growing up to do, and if we want to grow as professionals we have to defeat these stereotypes by continuing to set positive examples. We need to set these positive examples for our Korean neighbors and also---and more importantly I believe---for each other, and for a quote-unquote community of teachers that does not yet exist, because too often our introduction to the country is in the form of bitter veterans who treat Korea as a place to survive, not succeed.

But as far as this article, I hope to draw attention to how we're portrayed in the media, and how this portrayal---by Koreans and foreigners alike--- is neither responsible nor accurate, and that even the act of trying to "prove" these negative stereotypes ought to lead one to evidence of just how uninformed they are.

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