Why Don’t They Just Get It?

Taking Another Look at Why and How We Teach
By Darren Ng Jung Myong High School, Bucheon darren.yc.ng@gmail.com http://jm-english.blogspot.com

A Familiar Scenario?
Perhaps we spent the last weekend preparing what we viewed as a “wonderful lesson” to share with our students. Just as the bell rings to start class, we may think to our self, “Wow! This is going to be a GRRRRREAT lesson! The kids are in for a treat!” Then we start our lesson, and it is the exact opposite of our expectations. Of the 40 or so students in the classroom, the “bad kids” are acting unruly, disruptive, and disrespectful. You observe that Hi Joon, one of your “tougher students” is enthusiastically trying to engrave his own pencil rendition of MC Mong on his desk instead of participating in your lesson. Another “gem” of a student is trying to covertly text message his buddies to arrange this evening’s online Star Craft battle at the local PC BANG. The “good kids” are sitting quietly, but appear to be disinterested and unresponsive. Unfortunately, your Korean co-teacher is not faring much better than your “good students.” On the plus side, he is actually present for your class today and letting you teach a lesson of your own choosing. On the negative side, he seems to be more interested in filling out his end-of-term spreadsheet on his notebook rather than helping you teach and motivate the students. Well, to be fair, things have improved a little bit. (At least now you actually get to teach!) When you first arrived, your English department relegated you to the position of “Wagookin Perfect Pronunciation Human Tape Recorder.” The end-of-class bell rings, and you slam your textbook shut. You feel miserable. You ask yourself, “Why don’t they just get it!” As any ESL teacher can testify, teaching English in Korea is certainly not easy. Sadly, many of us have had terrible teaching experiences like the one above, situations that make us want to “bang our collective heads against the wall.” In today’s presentation, we are going to explore some philosophical and

practical methods that can equip us, as GEPIK assistant teachers to encourage and inspire our students and co-teachers to “get it.” To explain, I am going to use JENGA as metaphor for teaching effectiveness. Educational Effectiveness is like… JENGA? I would argue that more than 50% of our effectiveness In the classroom is a function of our motivation and activity OUTSIDE of it. For the sake of today’s discussion, let’s call this our EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION. So using the JENGA analogy, the EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION consists of four critical educational components, here in this diagram represented by interlocking Jenga blocks.
1.

Educational Philosophy (why do
we teach?)

Working Relationships 3. Teaching and Behavioral Management Skills 4. Appropriate use of Educational Resources (e.g. Technology) and Environmental Design
2.

Resting on top of this EDUCATION FOUNDATION is our lesson for any particular class: OUR MESSAGE.
The quality of this EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION sets the stage for whether or not the students will be in a position to readily accept and positively respond to our teaching. If our EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION is solidly developed, it will elevate and secure OUR MESSAGE in a place where our students can access, interact, and hopefully internalize our teaching. A robust EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION is the only thing that can support ESL teaching that is life-changing and meaningful, both to our students and us as teachers. Keep in mind, of course, the opposite is also true. If we offer our students an unstable EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION inevitably, OUR MESSAGE will be ill-received by our students. Without a secure foundation, just like in Jenga, the pieces quickly come crashing down. Unfortunately, in these situations, it is not only OUR MESSAGE that will crumble, our own feelings of

competency and job satisfaction, and respect from our coworkers often ‘takes a hit’ as well. Moreover, and perhaps most unfortunate, is that our students become the biggest victims to this educational earthquake, victims of a lost educational cross-cultural opportunity. When the stack of “educational JENGA blocks” understandably, our first natural inclination is to feel frustration: crumbles,

”Arrgh! They just don’t get it! These kids are useless! This school is useless! My co-teacher is useless!
[and for those with a healthy sense of self-deprication]

I’m useless!”
However, as we examine the EDUCATION FOUNDATION metaphor, it becomes obvious that an “educational nervous breakdown” certainly should not be the last thing we experience and convey in our classrooms. There is a lot we can do to avoid these sorts of frustrations so that next time, “THEY GET IT”. However, before “THEY GET IT” we first need to “GET IT” ourselves first. We must endeavor to construct and develop any educational Jenga blocks that may be missing from our educational foundation and fix whatever pieces that may have inadvertently been loosened. Frequently, these episodes of frustration start with the student, but they must be resolved and end with the teacher –a teacher committed to building and mending a sturdy EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION. With that in mind, let’s explore each essential piece, starting off with the most essential piece, Our Philosophy of Education. 1. The Base: Our Philosophy of Education (Why Do We Teach?) To start this section off, I would like to share with you a conversation I had recently with a fellow GEPIK teacher:

“Hey” “Hey, nice to meet you. So you are foreigner teaching in Korea too eh?” “Yeah. I’m teaching at a public school.” “Oh really, me too! So how’s your experience going so far?” “Well to be honest it really sucks. At the beginning it wasn’t so bad, but now the kids are being real $%^&’s! I’ve pretty much given up try to do anything special in

class. So I simply follow the textbook, make the kids practice their drills and call it a day.” “Man, that sounds awful. So I guess you won’t be signing up again for another year huh?” “No actually, I’m planning on sticking around a little longer. As you know, this gig is a great way to pay back my student loan, travel through Asia a bit, and the free housing is a nice perk. I’ll probably sign up for another year after this contract is done and then quit after 6 months.” ”What? You’re going to quit after 6 months?” “Well, eventually I have to go back to Canada and go back to school…” “Why’s that?” “Well, I can’t do a gig like this forever! I got go back to school, to teacher’s college in Canada, and become a real professional teacher!”
Sadly, this is not an unusual conversation to hear between “wagookin”, foreigner teachers. In my school in Bucheon, I am the 4th teacher they have had in less than 3 years! My predecessor, a good friend of mine, stayed in his contract for only 6 months, the gentleman before him 18 months, and before him, 4 days! Essentially, unfortunately some of us often treat this job as a “joke”, so naturally, our teaching becomes a “joke” as well. This sort of problematic behavior is rooted in an inadequate educational philosophy, or poor motivation for teaching.

So what does an effective philosophy of education in a South Korean cross-cultural setting look like? With an effective educational philosophy the teacher…
…has intrinsic motivation based on a deep desire to develop the character

With a counterproductive educational philosophy the teacher…
…has extrinsic motivation based exclusively on amenities, i.e. what can

of oneself and her student. …views their position as sacred calling that can benefit students, schools, and the community at large. …serves as mentor, positive role model, servant leader, and cultural ambassador. …uses prescribed curriculum to explore with students how to live effectively. …values community and seeks interdependence. …understands that effective education requires a significant investment of time, perseverance, and personal commitment. …recognizes the ethical and moral dimensions inherent in education and its profound potential to positively impact both individuals and society. …understands that learning never stops and that the best teachers continually choose to be good students. …is reflective and has a good self knowledge of her strengths and shortcomings. Regarding the latter, he is earnest to overcome any weaknesses in his teaching. ...views challenge as a learning opportunity.

I get out of this deal? …views their position casually and pragmatically. I.e. a great way to pay back the student loan, travel, and pay the nightly bar bill (?). …is a glorified mp3 player, consumer, and neo-colonialist. …relies on prescribed curriculum to impart information. …xenophobic and seeks independent self-interest. …views their position callously with an “easy come, easy go” attitude. …is amoral and indifferent to their own ethical and moral development and that of their students. ...views his education as complete.

…is frequently reactive to her immediate context and has little to no knowledge of self. Consequently, he is often defensive about any revealed shortcomings. …views challenge as yet another thing to complain about.

Going back to the sample conversation, we can see that indeed, “out of the mouth, the heart speaks” and sadly it is speaking volumes about this man’s poor motivation for teaching. Is it any wonder that he is facing so much difficulty at his school? Can you imagine working with this man? How do you think his students feel? If you were his principal, would you feel proud to have this foreign teacher on your staff team?

Two good questions to ask ourselves periodically are: “Would the attitude and behavior I bring to my teaching work in Korea be acceptable in my home country?”

“Would I even consider thinking and acting this way back home?”
Back home in Canada, Australia, South Africa, the UK or the States, would they even consider hiring anyone to teach in the classroom without a teaching degree? Would we ever allow a foreign language teacher, e.g. a Chinese teacher in Canada, who did not speak the local language anywhere near a public learning institution? Obviously, no, so essentially, the South Korean government is extending us a tremendous amount of grace, allowing us to teach in their schools, in the first place. What I find mind boggling is how some of us respond to this gracious courtesy. In our own countries, would any of us even consider committing to a year-long contract to one of our public educational institutions, knowing that we only intended to fulfill 6 months of that said contract? Would any of us even dare to act like the young man I described? Or to present things from a different perspective, imagine the uproar an immigrant in our home country would cause if they joined one our public schools, and then after a couple of months, decided to pull a “midnight run.” Our institutions would not tolerate such flippant behavior, and no one in this room, if it was regarding their own country, would either. Yet sadly, this sort of behavior is common place. So why then do so many of us act with such low regard for our Korean students and personal character, especially, in the face of such tremendous potential educational and financial opportunity? Several years ago, I served with Outward Bound Canada (OBC), one of the world’s leading outdoor leadership organizations, as a wilderness leadership instructor. Although the school prides itself for having highly trained staff with internationally recognized technical outdoor certifications (Rock climbing, Wilderness First Responder, White Water Canoe Instruction, Swift Water Rescue Technician, etc), I noticed that many of the new instructors, like myself, started our careers there with barely any certifications and very rudimentary experience –all we had was an enthusiasm for teaching and a deep love and respect for the outdoors. I asked my supervisor, “why does a top-of-the-line organization like OBC even allow us ‘newbies’ in? Surely, they could higher more technically qualified staff with greater experience?” She answered wisely, “Because if your heart is in the right place, the skills will eventually come. And whatever you end up missing in the training, you’ll surely gain in the actual experience. One instructor with a sincere motivation, is worth twenty skilled instructors needing an attitude change. To us, attitude

is everything.” Similarly, adopting an effective philosophy for teaching provides a critical foundation for the teaching we do. For those who may feel discouraged by their lack of experience, or less than ideal work conditions, I encourage you to do a philosophical “oil check.” Is your heart in the right place? Do you reasons for being here have integrity? If they are, then be encouraged! It is your motivation to serve, inspire, and educate your students that will give you the strength to persevere through the hard times, and ultimately flourish as a teacher. Without a doubt, your students, your coworkers, and you will be glad you “stuck it out” and committed yourself to excellence in teaching. This discussion is continued at http://jm-english.blogspot.com. In the second part of the discussion, the author explores the three remaining pieces of a sound educational foundation: coworker and student relationships, teaching and behavioral management skill, and appropriate use of educational resources and environmental design.