Saturday, January 22, 2011

Preparing Myself to Become a Better Language Teacher

Admitting that you have no formal training in teaching English as a foreign language is perhaps really embarrassing to the general expat in Korea (who is a language teacher). Indeed, there were times during my last two years at public elementary school that I wondered what I was doing there and why they even hired me. The large question remains in the expat community over what makes us qualified to have these jobs. Over time I have formulated my own answer, which is that a "qualified" native English teacher in Korea is one who has an open mind, is patient and willing to put in the effort required. A non-qualified teacher would be one who sees their job as just a way to bring in the money and get by, while their social life and time after work is more important. Korea, to these folks, is just a short sting between undergraduate and graduate school. 

Being "qualified" to teach in Korea shouldn't require a hefty background in the subject and credentials under your belt. Since the protocol for hiring people for these jobs simply requires you to have a Bachelors degree and be a native speaker of English.

However, I will digress here and say that once you have been in the industry here and have a few years under your belt you end up desiring more skills and knowledge to better match the needs of your students. This is where my current pursuit comes in to become a better language teacher. In other words, to go beyond my already "qualified" skills and give myself better tools and knowledge to teach well and produce better results.

I have come to see the past two solid-years of teaching in Korea as my "stomping in the mud" experience. There I was able to see what works and doesn't, along the way creating my "teacher-self." Now I feel it is time to expand and really understand the EFL environment and what I can do to improve.

That is why over the course of my lengthy vacation, here in the States, I picked up several books from Amazon on teaching EFL. Today I am going to review one of these books and provide samples from it, that I feel are going to greatly benefit me at my next job.

Teaching Large Multilevel Classes by Natalie Hess:
Review: So far, as I am not finished reading it, the book has provided me with a lot of "ah-ha" moments. In other words, it has been really helpful in allowing me to take my experiences from the past and digest them into cohesive material. The book is written in an academic way, but it doesn't hinder you from following along. Everything is put right to the point and doesn't mess around. There are several sections to this book on different aspects of what you need to teach. Within these topics are a description and then activity examples with plenty of information to let you know how to do it. However, this isn't a cheat-sheet book that you can just look up an activity and apply it to your class. The book provides the necessary details to let you come up with your own activities and scripts. I would highly recommend this book for the seasoned Native English teacher or the one who is about to jump on the plane and fly over to Korea. 

Coping with Multilevel classes through 11 Principles:
The book starts off by providing 11 Principles that you can apply to the large class. A large class is likely up for interpretation but in this case, teaching in Korea, it means a class with more than 30 students, which is the typical scenario for elementary school and even higher for the other levels. However, if you are working at a hagwon (private school) then you will find yourself with a small sized class. These principles might still be applied. 

Generally, I think most new public school teachers feel an initial anxiety knowing they are going to teach a large class, especially since all the students are EFL. Usually, their next thought is that we will have our coteacher and they will "help" us. In most cases, and most recently, this is not the situation. These days, coteachers are either really involved or just sit in the back of the class and doze off. The native English teacher is expected to teach at least 80% of the time in the classroom. Meaning you need a set of class management and principles to get you by. By showing the following examples from this book I hope they will come in handy for any Native English teacher out there.

Let's take a look:
  1. Don't Panic! In more professional words the book basically laid this out as the first principle. Saying that the job is challenging but bad days should not weigh us down.
  2. Variety: Match all levels and vary the way in which things are done. You will likely get into a routine, especially working from the class book. Make sure to mix it up and keep the Ss (students) on their toes.
  3. Pace: Know what activities should be fast & slow, pay attention to the time. Coteachers really value this and will criticize you if you fail. My tip: Use the first class of the lesson as a tester to see how much time Ss need on certain activities. Then the rest of your day will go smoothly.
  4. Interest: Each lesson should incorporate activities that get Ss interested. What this means is set up the class so that there are the usual stuff but something "fun" mixed in to it. Outlining the day's activities at the beginning of the class will help Ss to get interested.
  5. Collaboration: This is a fancy word for "group work." Basically you want to get the students working together and using the language a lot. In time they will work together and even create their own works.
  6. Individualization: One of the biggest struggles in a large class, especially if you have many of them throughout the week, is getting to know each and every student. I for one believe you don't have to know each and every one of them, but instead make sure that every student is given a chance to express themselves in class. This can be done either by speaking or working on an individual assignment. 
  7. Personalization: Make sure each Ss has the opportunity to to present their own opinion and be recognized. 
  8. Choice & Open-ended expressions: One thing you should really strive for is to get away from the Multiple-choice type of questioning or the "yes - no" answer response system. Ask questions to the class that open up their minds to make full responses. Asking "why" or "could you explain that more" helps.
  9. Setting up routines: Although variety is something you want to strive for, keep lessons fairly similar to each other so a routine is set up. You know...after covering material there is later a test. So you will need to review before hand. Build up things so that they are familiar in a timely sense. This helps not only cognitively but also with class management. 
  10. Opening up the Circle: Teaching in a way that allows every Ss to participate. Don't just pick the same "Min Su" who raises their hand. Wait for more Ss to put up their hand. One thing I learned from this book is to alert the quiet kid before class that you want him/her to participate and will likely call on them. 
  11. Questions That Arouse Interest: Basically this goes with #8. Just try to get Ss more interested in the topic. I did this a lot with the 6th grade last year, and it helped get them involved and steamed up. haha
I look forward to keeping those principles in mind as I start at my new school next year. In general, I think we Native teachers need to start thinking of our classes more like opportunities instead of "I have just 3 more classes today...I can make it." Sure you get tired of teaching and there are weeks where you feel burnt out. But approaching the job with a positive attitude in this manner might keep things more perky.

Sample Lesson Activities:
I would like to show some examples from the book of activities you could use. However, I haven't gotten through the whole thing so I am just going to pull from their "Reviewing" and "Writing" sections.

Reviewing Activity:
  1. English Goals: For the beginning of the semester. Ss write down their goals for learning English then walk around and discuss it with others. Eventually you figure out the major ones and turn those into goals for the whole class. As the semester rolls on you review them with the class and see if things have been met or not.
  2. KWL Chart: "Know", "Want to Know" and "Learned". Make a chart with those topics on it. The chart will be used when starting a new lesson. Ss will brainstorm in groups answering the first two questions. After the lesson they go back and review the first two steps and the fill in the "Learned" section.
Written Work:
  1. Buddy Journals: Ss keep a journal between them and a friend. Could be Ss in the same class or from another. Could be done with email.
  2. Wall Newspaper: Using written work from class pick ones of interest. Edit them and have Ss re-write them Post them up on a bulletin board. Let it cycle throughout the year.
There were a lot more samples and many with great ideas, although I did feel some of them were for advanced levels. However, it is definitely your job to take an activity or task you find through research and transform it for your student's levels and capabilities. Plus after using an activity in class you usually end up modifying it anyways as things work themselves out. 

Whether or not I actually do become a better language teacher at my next school, I know that I at least have the drive to do it. My motivations aren't my salary or that I will even be working at a private elementary school. Instead, I plan on doing all this because I want to see the results in the students and the feeling it will produce in the classroom. 

Am I nervous? You bet I am. As much as I want to get in there and start putting these thoughts into action a little part of me wonders how it will work out. Then there is the whole coworker and comradeship situation that must go smoothly, and I end up pulling out my iPod and playing Veggie Samurai to forget about it all.  

I know last year was a particularly difficult one when it came to working with my Korean coteachers, but I must move on and let go of it all. Take with me the lessons I learned and apply them to my next school. Thankfully, I will not be coteaching, but that doesn't mean I am out of the woods.

All in all, I hope all my past gripes and new found enthusiasm has somehow helped other expat teachers in Korea. :)


  1. People like you are admirable and actually care what you are doing even though you may or may not do it for the rest of your life.

    This is unlike so many others I have worked with who come into work drunk, office conversation consists of how much they drank on the weekend and who they got with. Racism, ignorance and pure rudeness to top it off.

    This is why despite being a "foreigner" myself, I separate myself from the "English teaching" community as much as possible and has unfortunately left me bitter about English teachers here. (Apart from a few excellent ones I know)

  2. TeBags...I too am feeling that way. But I have worked hard at making expat friends who are of the same demeanor as myself.

    Throughout my life I never really enjoyed the "What I did this weekend...was...drink...lala" stories from people. And then they can't wait till the weekend comes again to do it all over. Sure we should have fun and socialize..but I think it is pitiful to think every workday is boring or just day to day drudgery.

    Anyways perhaps we can meet up some time for tea :)

    BTW I made a facebook group called, "People in Korea Who Don't Want to Drink."

    Even though I like wine...but the concept relates to your topic.

  3. Wow this is a really good little post. It really resonates with me because I want to come teach in Korean but don't have formal teacher training. I would still put my job above everything else and do the best that I could at it. It seems like you are doing a lot of work to improve yourself as well. Nice job.

    As far as drinking, I like a few drinks as much as the next person but I have never seen the big deal about partying every night or all weekend long. I think it is sad when that becomes the best part of your life that you look forward to all day every day. Plus, I would never be able to work if I was up drinking all night the night before. Too much alcohol makes me stay awake all night and feel like crap in the morning.

    I have read quite a few of your posts and others who are teaching in Korea. I am mostly interested in the teaching posts because I want to learn as much as I can about people's experiences in the job before I go over there. Nothing scares me more than being in charge of 30-40 students and not knowing what to do and feeling unqualified. It seems like a disservice to the students if you don't know what you are doing. Thoughts? I know this post is kind of old by now but is very useful...

  4. Hello Stephanie and thanks for your comment. I don't mind writing back. I would say the most you can do to be prepared is get to know Korean culture and the work environment you are going into. How you become as a teacher will be up to the experiences you have once in Korea. But being ready for the culture shock and also the trials and tribulations of a Korean work environment will help you out the most. To do this read up on people's blogs, ask questions on forums and find out as much info about your new job as you can from your recruiter or previous employees.

    If you have any more questions for me go ahead:)!

  5. English is very important to businesses other than having 1300 numbers for communication purposes.


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