Saturday, May 4, 2013

Kvetch First, Ask Questions Later (Then Answer Said Questions, Then Do Something)

As I work for the Korean-American Educational Commission and am about to... air some grievances, in a sense, I'd like to remind my dear readers that: "This blog reflects my own experiences and viewpoints and should not be mistaken for an official Fulbright blog."

Toward the end of last semester, I began to feel like I had become the sounding board for my English co-teachers to voice all their woes about the Korean educational system and this country in general. At our twice-weekly teatime, which was officially a teachers' conversation class, we might have started with an interesting article to discuss, but the conversation always inevitably derailed into a discussion of politics, education, and societal issues. Well, actually, there was usually less discussion and more... allow-us-to-explain-why-everything-is-All-Wrong.

Some of those sore areas included the extremely rigid gender roles in Korean society and how women were expected to take care of childcare and all household duties, as well as remain in the kitchen all day during traditional holidays like Chuseok; the drawbacks of high-stakes testing, which cause high amounts of stress for all students, especially those who don't do well in an academic setting but must suffer through it anyway; the obliviousness of the government as far as how to properly manage its schools, as they reward well-performing schools financially when the money should actually go toward aid for the failing ones; not to mention the corruption of the government, in that its associations with administrative offices and educational boards rests securely on a network of money. My co-teachers especially had a bone to pick with the hyper-conservative superintendent of our province's educational department, who was apparently a substandard English teacher himself but now gets to dictate what is "best" for hundreds of schools. Whew.

I should probably give a concrete example lest you think I'm just parroting complaints sans evidence. My co-teachers confided in me their suspicions that some kind of shady deals were going on at a Certain Secret High School (name withheld) when its principal asked its English department to purchase a specific publisher's textbooks for the English classes. Now, both the principal and the teachers knew that the English teachers create their own teaching material. They don't directly use any textbooks, so their purchase is literally a formality and a way to use the school's budget. Hence, it didn't matter what publisher was chosen; maybe the one that created the best quality book or one with a good reputation.

That's why it raised some red flags when this principal strongly suggested -- or basically commanded -- his choice of English textbook. Who exactly would benefit from their sale, we wondered as we sipped our tea.

Another bit of dirty laundry aired during teatime was the pitiable state of teachers' unions in the country. The teachers' union, such a strong and belligerent presence in the United States, was in fact not legal in Korea until no more than two decades ago. During the dictatorship-like presidency of Park Chung-hee, teachers were commonly fired for belonging to unions and had no public support. My co-teacher believes that the previous generation of teachers made great sacrifices in order for unions to exist today, yet bemoans how union chapter meetings these days don't do much more than get together once a month for a 회식 (hweshik) and a long, Misery Poker-esque kvetch sesh. It's easy to list the myriad of problems with their professional field, but the impetus to actually do something about it has shriveled up sometime in the past twenty years.


I'm writing all of this now mostly because I've been trying to clear out the cluttered mess of drafts on this blog (there are some snippets of posts I started months ago but have never finished...). But in addition to that, yesterday, during this semester's iteration of the English teachers' conversation class, we brought up the subject of education again. And this time, everything was surprisingly very pleasant and personally satisfying. I'd say that in the past few weeks, there has been considerably less lamentation over our tea. (That in itself is neutral to me; contrary to what you might think from what I've already written, I enjoyed being the confidant and continue to hold a great interest in what seem to be the inner workings of the system in which I'm just another cog.)

So yesterday, in lieu of discussing an article, the English teachers watched Sir Ken Robinson's lecture on changing educational paradigms, which was brilliantly animated by RSA and which I will now share with you all:

Now wasn't that enlightening and quite inspiring? (Ten million views in two-and-a-half years... while PSY can rack up twenty-five times that amount in two-and-a-half weeks with a video that highlights the hilariousness of male chauvinism. Ugh.)

After watching the video, my co-teachers and I had a lengthy and spirited discussion about education in both Korea and the United States. I think that the way we shared what we knew about our own systems instead of just focusing on All of the Problems in Korea was a nice change. I think Robinson's ideas apply to both countries, anyway. (Actually, they probably apply everywhere except in the utopian Scandinavian countries.) We had a nice, long think about what we thought contributed to the problem and, more importantly, what we could do as teachers with not much power (I don't even have TEFL certification or belong to a union or anything) to motivate and encourage our students within the confines of this brutal education factory.

I decided that I am going to hammer into my students the idea that a test score, good or bad, does not determine their value as a human, and that there are others ways to be smart and/or successful outside of the path they're currently stuck to. I will also continue to try to make my classroom a bit different from the norm: less emphasis on knowing answers, and more on how to knowing how to get answers, or correct wrong answers, or see multiple answers. Maybe I alone can't change the educational paradigms, but at least I know I'm going to do a lot more than just kvetch.


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