A Real Teacher

A “professor” who knew me when I was in South Korea once told me I wasn’t a real teacher, and I want to tell you about that to make a point about the state of the ELT field. So, story time.

A little more than ten years ago, sometime in the fall of 2009, I was finishing my second (and final) year teaching English in South Korea. The situation there was interesting. Most of the, as we were called, “guest English teachers” did not have education degrees (in fact, I can’t remember a single one who did), and although many of us (myself included) did acquire week-long certificates in teaching. We didn’t need these certificates to get hired, but it ensured us a marginally higher salary (though we had paid for the course in the first place, so it took about five months to pay for itself). All of us teachers were “native speakers,” hired from a select few countries based on the perception that we would inherently benefit the Korean students by virtue of our NS status. Some of us worked at private language academies (hagwans), some of us (like me) worked at public schools, and a handful worked at universities. The former group often made plenty of money, but worked unusual hours (2-10 or something) and had little job protection when the owners were shady. The public schools didn’t treat us very poorly and it was most likely the most stable of all positions, so I chose this option to minimize risk. But the third group, the universities, while a bit riskier in that they often needed to renew their contracts mid-year (whereas my contract was yearly and nearly impossible to lose), that was a group of folks that really hadn’t earned their status, for the most part.

So the crowd of educators in S. Korea, at least in 2009 (but I am skeptical much has changed from the literature I’ve read), was, as you might be able to tell from the description above, a bunch of wastrels, myself included. It was a shame, because, like any large group of people, there were plenty with the ability and compassion to be effective educators, but there was little incentive to truly commit to the craft, so the only ones who did so were those who were intrinsically motivated to do so. I’m sort of judging us, as a group, mostly because I’m judging my own entitled feelings at the time, but it was accurate to say that very few of us were committed to developing as ELT professionals. For most of us, it was a blip before going back to our real lives, or, in my case, and I said this out loud, starting adulthood. We spent much of our social time in the “expat” social circle, partially because of a language barrier we didn’t really want to try and cross, and partially because we were more comfortable in our original social milieu. We rarely spoke about our teaching aside from telling stories about our “hilarious” students, and most of us lived for the next party. I certainly did.

I say all this to say that if being a real teacher is being committed to the act of teaching, then very few of us were. Some, sure, maybe a handful. And the schools don’t market the experience that way, so that’s who applies. Our orientation was mostly about Korean culture and the basics of the language (useful!), and the one or two sessions we had on actual instruction were largely ignored (including by me).

A few of us ended up continuing as educators after the time in Korea was over. We may well have become real teachers. But when that professor told me I wasn’t a real teacher, I was really upset by it… because he was right. By that time, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in the future, and coming to realize that I did want to be a teacher long-term. I had planned to become an NYC Teaching Fellow or something, but ultimately got an MA in TESOL. But in 2009 in Korea, I wasn’t a real teacher. I was play-acting at the craft, like everyone I knew there. And I was embarrassed that this was true. I had spent the second half of my second year trying to really connect with the students and challenge the assumptions I’d been handed, but I still had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

The issue, though, is that the entire profession, in the way it’s constructed, especially the “expat” field, is not designed to develop real teachers. We’re built to be facsimiles of “authentic” English language, assumed to have expertise without having demonstrated as such, especially if we’re white.

I write about these issues because, honestly, I think our field is pretty hypocritical. Not so much the individuals, but collectively. We speak about wanting increased professionalism and more stable employment, but at the same time we’re happy to employ and promote unprofessional jokers. This guy who insulted me in 2009, in the middle of an argument I don’t even remember, was a guy who spent all of his time trying to get mini-magazines off the ground and start businesses that repeatedly failed. He had the title of professor without any qualifications besides native speaker status. But to the ELT field, it remains acceptable to hire these folks over people who don’t fit inside our narrow box. And this holds all of us in the field back.

ELT will continue to mistreat its more vulnerable and committed professionals, its real teachers, until we collectively fight back against the supremacy of unqualified people who feel, as I once did, entitled to teaching positions by virtue of their birth location. We’ll never escape the traps we have set for ourselves until we face what we’ve done.