'Sounding out ELT hiring policies in South Korea' by Martin Sketchley

South Korea: Gyeongbokgung Palace. Under Creative Commons: https://flic.kr/p/qrEbT
South Korea: Gyeongbokgung Palace. Under Creative Commons: https://flic.kr/p/qrEbT

I started my English language teaching career soon after completing my undergraduate degree in 2005. South Korea appeared to be a wonderful opportunity, as all you needed to qualify as an English language teacher was to be a Native English Speaker (NS), hold a degree in any subject from an English-speaking country and be willing to travel half-way across the world. I decided to jump at the chance once I secured a full-time teaching contract and was very happy, yet incredibly nervous at the same time. I spent a total of three years in this wonderful country with some interesting experiences and stories to share, particularly with regards to the teaching of English and institutions keen to recruit teachers based upon their accent.

In my first year in Korea, I was working for a private language school teaching young learners between the ages of 5-16 years. The school marketed to parents on the promise that their children would acquire American pronunciation and spoken fluency within a year, despite a native British English teacher and two non-native English teachers (NNESTs) working at the school. A number of months passed and one of the directors asked whether I could sound more American and less British.  This did not just happen to myself but a similar situation happened to my wife who was a NNEST in Korea and teaching various clients business English skills. My wife applied for a part-time contract and the recruiting agency dealing on behalf of a school in South Korea phoned to hold a telephone interview. The conversation went like this:

Wife: “Hello?”

Recruiter: “I am phoning as you applied for the teaching post.”

Wife: “Yes? I am available to teach and have experience teaching business clients.”

Recruiter: “Ohh! You have an English accent. We are looking for someone with an American accent.”

My wife immediately put the phone down and was shocked at how both native as well as non-native teachers were judged on their suitability for employment from their accent. It is worrying that there are a small number of institutions and recruiters operating in South Korea who are readily judging teacher performance on a perceived accent from a particular country.

However, to be fair, I had a wonderful time in South Korea and the majority of the time that I spent working and living in this magnificent country was very positive. Once completing a CELTA course, I was more employable and I discovered another element of teaching in South Korea which was more professional and respectable compared to their ‘backpacker teachers’ equivalents.

I changed jobs from the small American English school in a rural area of Korea and was employed by an international English institute where there were a number of native English teachers (NESTs) from various different countries. The time I spent at this school lasted until I decided to return to the UK but there were a number of tacit understandings with regards to this institute.

Firstly: all teachers had to be NSs and hold a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language – a plus for me as I had just completed the CELTA.  Secondly: NNESTs were not recruited – positive discrimination in a sense – as the institute informed that paying customers expected a perceived NS. And thirdly: those NNESTs were away from the majority of those general English students.

In a way, it was nice to see that there was no bias from the English being taught but again there was this love-hate relationship between native and non-native English teachers. Unfortunately, one senior member of staff told me, “If they look Korean, students will not think that they can speak English”.

The main reason for this, I believe, is that Korea is somewhat a homogenous society with a perception of ‘pure blood’ for those that are Korean. ‘Pure blood’ results in positive or negative discrimination towards people who are ‘foreign blood’ or ‘mixed blood’ working and living in Korea. Their opinion is such that a stereotypical English speaker is one who does not look Korean, but Western.

Design: @Teflninja
Design: @Teflninja

Unfortunately, this does have an impact on the recruitment for those people who do not look Western in the eyes of the Korean recruiters, e.g. NS of Asian decent.  However, I should reiterate that this is somewhat a historic view of how English teachers were recruited or viewed a number of years ago and I should mention that it may not portray how things are currently in Korea.

Nevertheless, the above is not to say that things have developed or improved for non-native English teachers but I should mention I have worked with a number of non-native English teachers both in South Korea, Romania and the UK and all have been incredibly professional. However, NNESTs in Korea, despite being fluent in English, are used mainly to describe English grammar in Korean, and NESTs are used to teach conversation and listening skills. As a result, this may lead learners to perceive NESTs and NNESTs in a somewhat biased way.

For example, learners are initially taught that particular people look a certain way in certain countries and this reinforces the stereotypical opinion of students. Therefore, learners will expect their native English speaker teacher to be a Western speaker with the blond hair, blue eyes and not looking remotely anything like a Korean.

Coming back to the way teaching duties are divided between NESTs and NNESTs in Korea, while it might be a good principle in theory – and works to an extent in Korea – it does raise the question whether native or non-native teachers of English should be focusing on particular skills or not. Meanwhile, it might also influence the learners to think that NESTs and NNESTs are only good at certain things, i.e. teaching speaking and grammar, respectively.

However, having worked with NNESTs in three different countries, I must say they have been incredibly professional, are treated with the utmost respect by their colleagues and hold various qualifications to support their teaching. At my current place of employment in the UK there are several NNESTs- and it is wonderful to see that there are no forms of judgement by other members of staff and the students seem satisfied with NNESTs. In fact, there are more managerial issues at our school with NESTs compared to NNESTs.

Design: @Teflninja
Design: @Teflninja

To sum up, it is a shame that we are living in an age where teachers are judged upon their accent for their eligibility for employment but as a profession we should focus on our own professional development and educating those that are none-the-wiser. If a school decides to employ a teacher based upon their ethnicity and accent, rather than their professional attributes, then the school will never progress to a level of professionalism expected by many native as well as non-native teachers of English.

I do hope that Korea does recognise the variety and diversity of English speakers, who come from various countries (at the moment only passport holders from seven English-speaking countries are eligible for ELT recruitment: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, UK and USA). I also hope that they widen their recruitment policy to those teachers who are based in non-English speaking countries.

For there are numerous benefits to hiring NNESTs. For example, they have gone through the process of acquiring and using a language which is not their mother-tongue and thus might be better equipped to support their learners through the difficulty they face learning and acquiring a second language.  Furthermore, students would also benefit from learning that English is not just spoken in English-speaking countries, but that there are numerous countries around the world that use it as a lingua franca or a second language. Consequently, students would broaden their understanding of the world and realise that it does not perfectly fit into one predictable area with stereotypical views. Finally, if non-native speakers of English hold the necessary qualifications and experience to teach English as a second language in Korea, then they should have the right for employment with any institute.  Therefore, if a person from France holds a CELTA, as well as their degree from a French University, and has taught English for ten years, they are better placed to teach English in Korea than a ‘backpacker teacher’ who holds an undergraduate degree from an English speaking University with no certificate to teach English.

martin sketchleyMartin Sketchley has been teaching English for over 9 years, starting his career in South Korea before returning to teach in the UK and has taught for a short period in Romania. He is Young Learner Co-ordinator at LTC Eastbourne and is in charge of teacher training and professional development, inducting newly qualified staff and developing the young learner curriculum. Martin is also a Trustee for English in the Community and offers consultancy support for this charity. Martin is particularly interested in professional development, lesson planning and humanistic forms of teaching. You can learn more about him from his website, ELT Experiences.

0 thoughts on “'Sounding out ELT hiring policies in South Korea' by Martin Sketchley”

  1. It looks like Korea might have had enough of the waygook teachers anyway, they are cutting them down quite severely?

    What should we do about it anyway? Most people know about the hiring practices. As a white UK guy I have even been a victim, turned down for several jobs as an American female was optimal for the position (cos only women teach young children if possible).

    In Japan they dont seem to have much probem employing non-natives, and this is because usually hey can get away with paying them less. Im sorry if this sounds bad but that is how it is. State-qualified Phillipinas with 10 years experience are on chuum change here, and schools are actively out to pay European students WAY below the acceptable rate of pay, because they just want to stay living in Japan. They arent qualified.

    Everyone should by now know about these hiring practices, Ive got stories for days and days. To be honest though in Korea and Japan they come from government level as they go down to visa regulations, and they both reflect a deep prejudice. My girlfriend’s dad has stopped talking to her now cos she is dating a white guy :/

    Very few people stay long-term in Korea. They take the money and they leave, and complain about it. More people should stay, save their money and work to change things. In Japan it seems by and large the teachers who start their own schools or branch out a little bit, are successful because they get results.

    Perhaps if more teachers were dedicated to making an effort to change things in Korea, even on a small-scale, a change could happen.

    1. Hello and thank you for your reply on the blog post. Of course, there are those individuals who are interested financially in teaching within Korea and saving money to pay off their student loans. In fact, I did this for a year and was able to pay off all my student loan. However, after a year, I wanted to develop as a teacher, took the CELTA and wanted to make an effort to change some educational aspects in Korea but the changes that I was able to make was a drop in the ocean compared to some institutions.

      I believe it would be best for the associations involved in English language teaching and education to be more involved in developing the industry within South Korea. However, there is a stipulation from various organisations that the industry has to step into line due to immigration rules and regulations so if they are to attempt to make a change they will be moved from pillar to post between immigration and the education department within Korea.

      Nevertheless, there are always those individuals who stay in the foreigner bubble but I was very fortunate to attempt to settle into this new environment and made an effort to learn the language, develop my language skills and learn more about this fascinating culture. There are always going to be certain individuals – whether they are English speakers or from different speakers of a language – that want to remain within a cultural bubble away from their home. You only have to look at particular nationalities that stick together and when they are away from their companions, they are then cast into a cataclysmic shock of culture.

      Some of those teachers that have developed their awareness in the country do end up starting their own schools and working with their partners on such a project. This is highly commendable.

      Finally, as a profession we should be focusing on those individuals who make a positive contribution in Korea rather than looking behind at those individuals who tar the industry with such a negative contribution.

      1. I agree with you by and large so dont know why Im so drawn to this issue. But I am. Maybe because Ive got something at stake or an emotional attachment I dont know. But as you point out, the problem goes all the way back to the immigration rules. If they relaxed the rules, perhaps they could have more European white people and less black native-speakers? I read recently that South African teachers now have to prove that English is their first language, how about that?

        I think that the point here is Korea is a little bit off our scale of thinking when it comes to immigration and equality. We aren’t working in the same frame. Can you tell me why there is a preference for native speakers here, where did it all come from?

        Has anyone thought to ask a Korean about it? Maybe a Korean who teaches English? Because I can tell you now, the ideal situation is Koreans teaching English to Koreans. They might not be that far away from that, and it might be better all round. Theyre cutting back foreign teachers quite rapidly, and the market is shrinking. Like we said the government is responsible for the immigration policy and the policy is quite racist. However, the people that vote in effective numbers in Korea are like most places, old and conservative. So if you think you can take that on…….

      2. Finally, as I kind of said in my other incoherent comments, plenty of people have lots to say about Korea but not many seem to really know it well enough for me. I dont know it well enough myself. But I kind of get a feeling that it’s an easy target a lot of the time. They are there for a few years, nowhere near long enough to know it inside out and be truly qualified to work a solution. Why are there no ESL “celebrity” types who teach in Korea now?

        1. There are actually quite a few English language teacher celebrities who work on radio or are on TV quite a bit in Korea. In fact, it is easier for foreigners to get a gig on TV or radio due to the fact that they are foreign and not Korean.

          There are a few Koreans who are unhappy because of this situation and that there is also positive discrimination for foreigners.

          1. I meant why are there no popular theorists based there? It seems if you wanna do that side of ESL you better move to Europe. Unless you wanna talk about discrimination then go ahead. How about the people that actually live there and understand the culture a bit? Can they have a say in this? There have been 3 or 4 blogs written about Korea or Japan, not one even pretends to understand the mindset of Korean or Japanese people. I dont understand it that well but the “hiring practices” come back to deep anti-multiculturalism at the heart of the society. You wont tackle that with a blog post

  2. To further this point, there are so many teachers in Korea who dont really care about anything but the cash. They stay for 4/5 years and dont leave their foreigner bubble, they dont even know how to ask where the bathroom is or how to do anything in Korean except order food. The only thing theyre interested in is the cheap alcohol and the girls. Then they sit in the bar moaning about how racist everyone is, they cant read the newspaper or understand the tv, they can hardly communcate with the people around them unless they can speak English. Then they ge married and nothing changes. The ones who are smart enough to open their own schools and stuff, they are the ones who will make a difference. They work hard and integrate, they give something back. Lots of teachers including qualified ones just there couning their money and complaining about the racism, complaining about something racist a 13 year old kid who can barely even speak English said and how that makes Korea a racist society. Wondering why they cant get a uni job after that hard month of CELTA training.

    What Im getting at is, the ones who can change things are the ones who can get a hold of the means of production if you like, the ones who can build up something of value and can integrate. Anyway, rant over. Good article.

  3. Pingback: ‘The narrow funnel: geo-discrimination in ELT’ by Richard Ellul | TEFL Equity Advocates

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.