Thursday, March 19, 2009
A bit about school (Hagwon VS Public School Part I)
... I really like it so far. True, this first full week of teaching has not been without its challenges. On Tuesday, I nearly had a frustration meltdown, but don't worry, I kept it to myself.
I feel good about being here. There are too many things that are different between being a public school teacher and a hagwon teacher to even know where to begin, but I suspect that some of you are curious. Instead of trying to spell it all out in one onerous blog, I'll touch on things from time to time - understanding that my experience (one year at one of a million hagwons and two weeks at a public school) is very limited.
Let me begin with privilege.
Like most private schools in most well-to-do cities in the world, Seoul public schools have children from backgrounds of mixed privilege. The students wear uniforms at my middle school and I can't tell a privileged child from one who is not. I have been told however that it is a very mixed bag.
That means that the great majority (I would say 90-95%) of my students cannot afford to go to a hagwon (an after-school academy) to improve on their English, math, science, or music skills. What that means from my perspective is that these students are speaking, reading and writing English at an extremely low level - at least compared to what I was exposed to in my hagwon last year.
I think it's actually fair to say that the students at my public school understand English about as much as you or I understood French when we did it in grades 7-9. That is to say - not a whole hell of a lot. So, imagine that a native French teacher (who doesn't speak English) came to your school to blather at you for 45 minutes. It might be a bit of a trying time.
That's what it has been for some of my lower level kids here. It's not their fault. Well for some of them, their lack of discipline is getting in the way of how well they could be doing. I'm sure that also is the same everywhere.
Though I dearly loved some of my students last year, and there are things I will miss dearly about teaching them in the environment that I did, I have to say that already I feel more "needed" here. That's not my hubris - saying that these kids "need" to learn English. That's society's hubris. Like it or not, these children are in a situation where learning the English language would be of huge benefit to their future education and employment. It sounds like there is a lot of pressure on the English teachers at my school to affect positive change here. There is.
While privileged families can afford to send their children to after school language classes, most cannot. As a result, the Korean government has allocated funds to place native English speaking teachers (or NESTs - like me) in as many of the over 2000 public schools in the Seoul area. Money has been going into providing "English only" classrooms, complete with state-of-the-art touch screens that will run hands-on English programs. In a technology-obsessed culture like Korea, this seems like money well-spent. My school's English only room (as you can see in the picture below) is still in the construction phase, but it's starting to move fast.
This infusion of money into public education is an attempt it seems to slow, or combat at least the idea of private after-school education at all. It's all relative though. For example, I will soon be teaching two after-school classes: one for low level beginning English students, and one for advanced. The students who attend will likely be doing so because they aren't able to afford to go to a hagwon. Of course, joining Teacher Dave's after-school class will not replace that opportunity. A hagwon at its best has a team of devoted staff that plan curriculum, write tests, and push the bar as far as it can be pushed - mostly in the name of satisfying demanding parents who pay good money and want their kids to get ready to be shipped off to private schools in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. At a hagwon, as I suppose it will be in my class, it is full English immersion. But, most kids who join there have been going to a hagwon since they were in grade 1. You can tell the difference.
What this all means for me is many things, as I said before. I can't comment on all of them here and now. What I will say for now though is that I feel a sense of responsibility that I didn't feel last year. Don't get me wrong - anyone who worked with me would tell you that I maintained a very high level of responsibility in my job at the hagwon last year, and that I set a very high standard for myself. Yes, it was about the students, bot for every high-achiever last year, there was another student who pissed-away his parents' money by coming to class, but not really trying. That was hard to deal with.
Somehow, in a public school, it's more palatable to me. I see these kids immediately as inspiration to do my job better. My first line of defense is not to assume that they are spoiled brats with no motivation, but rather kids who have been given unrealistic expectations heaped on them from a system that greatly favours the rich. Learning English in Korea seems to be so much about how much money your parents make. In a public school, you really feel that. For me, for now, knowing that it's very early on, it feels good being there to help at more of a grass roots level. I know, Obama would love this stuff. It's all very socialist, yet it's coming from an otherwise very conservative Korean government.
Don't get me wrong - I operate under no delusions here. Many of these kids have much more important things to worry about here than learning English. But, when I see faces in a classroom of 30 kids, and those faces are looking away from their books, not because they are bored but because they just don't understand, I feel like I need to change that reality. These kids' lives move at too fast a pace. I don't expect to work any miracles when I only have each class for 45 minutes a week (that's another blog), but I do feel motivated to at least try to work small ones.