Friday, August 24, 2007

the 98.57% (or 98.4%) man

I got my evals back. Depending on how you calculate them, my average this time around is either 98.57% (345 out of a possible 350 points) or 98.4% (if you average the percentages from the three classes that reviewed me-- 95.2%, 100%, and 100%). Either way, I'm over 98% this time, so I don't think they'll fire me quite yet.

What seems to happen in this department-- and this is only a theory of mine-- is that the bosses, who do not come in to observe classes, rely almost entirely on student reactions to determine whether a teacher is doing a good job. A lot of front-desk rumormongering substitutes for hands-on management, which is much the same as what happens at many hagwons, where information about teacher conduct is passed along to secretaries (or to unwilling Korean colleagues), who in turn pass the information along to the supervisors. As you might imagine, I'm uncomfortable with this way of running things. If I were a manager, I'd be sure to block out time to observe my teachers directly, and I'd be sure to know well in advance what I was looking for.

Criteria vary, of course; different people look for different things in a good teacher. When I observe teachers (as I did in the US and have done here on several occasions), I normally take notes that include "time stamps" to get an idea of how a teacher flows from activity to activity. So: How evenly paced is the lesson? is one question I want to answer. Another question is How organized is the lesson? Yet another is What reinforcement/review strategies does the teacher employ? In other words, does the teacher leave a few minutes at the beginning/end of class to recap/review, or does s/he at least block out some review days (esp. before major evaluation periods such as quizzes and tests)? No reinforcement at all (and I've been guilty of this myself) is not a good thing. There's always a temptation to rush through a lesson, but that temptation needs to be resisted. Review is crucial, especially in language class.

Some points I don't care about:

1. How well does the teacher dress? It means jack shit if the teacher dresses well but sucks at his/her job. Koreans do say Oshi nalgae-da (roughly, "The clothes make the man"; literally, "Clothes are [your] wings"), but class after class of Smoo students have confirmed my impression that undergrads actually prefer teachers who dress in a manner that doesn't convey uptightness. One reason why I chafe at teaching businessmen (something I haven't done in over two years) is that I have to wear a suit. That makes me sweaty, uncomfortable, and, well, stanky. I much prefer the relaxed atmosphere at university. You've seen enough photos of me to know that I dress like a slob for my classes, and I've never once received a complaint about it.

2. Does the teacher make the students feel good? While I strongly believe that learning comes more easily in comfortable settings, I'm not fundamentally interested in cultivating a pleasant ambience. I know myself and know this will happen naturally in most classes, partly because of my sense of humor but mostly because the students I teach are generally decent folks. Unfortunately, many students tend to judge their class experience almost entirely on feelings, with only a few conscientious ones truly concerned about content. A better question than Does the teacher make the students feel good? is: In the end, did the students meet the teacher's cognitive and behavioral objectives? Students who have a good time but learn nothing should not pass into the next level. Unfortunately, many do. More on this in a bit.

3. Does the teacher give the students many handouts? Quite a few students are under the impression that "preparation" means that a teacher walks into the room armed with photocopied handouts. For some reason, this is considered a "rebellious" alternative to the department-assigned textbook. But stealing some random shit off the Internet and photocopying it for the students is not prep. Actual preparation takes time, and it does mean extra hours in the office. Not many expat teachers here seem willing to devote that sort of time to what they do.* Teach and go is the rule, and it's a shame. It also fuels the general disrespect many Koreans have toward foreign teachers, and doesn't help the image of those teachers who actually make the effort to do a good job.

I promised I would say something about student progress from level to level. One problem is that students who don't deserve to move up to the next level often do so anyway. They manage this in part because a given department has no clear criteria for level promotion. Students might, for example, go from Level 1 to Level 2 by passing the class, or they might fail Level 1 yet get into Level 2 by taking a placement test with an "easy" interviewer. Why is this even allowed? The idea that a student who failed simply should not move up is lost on many hagwons and university departments in Korea. Another problem is that some departments do have clear criteria for promotion, but those criteria aren't enforced by the relevant powers. This is frustrating for teachers who don't want to see incompetent students rise in the ranks.

Teachers seem to break into two major camps when it comes to the question of levels, progress, and evaluation. One camp is partial to Dr. Spock's idea that grades are inherently odious: not only are grades misleading, but they also give students the wrong motivation for taking a class. Learning ceases to be about education and becomes more about getting the "A." As a result, these Spockians believe class should be modeled on a low-pressure, "divergent learning" paradigm where students can create their own content or take their studies in whatever direction they please. The teacher isn't there primarily to push, but rather to facilitate. Evaluation, if it happens at all, is framed and reframed in terms of the student's self-established goals. This is a reasonable view: studies show that students regularly learn more when intrinsically motivated to do so. Tailoring lessons to the specific needs of a given class can yield very positive results.

The other camp, whose view I find equally reasonable, believes that students need structure, and that if you initially accept the idea of levelling, you are implicitly accepting the idea of evaluation. Convergent learning is more important to this camp: students should come away from classes having demonstrably mastered certain skill sets. This requires an "objective" measure of progress, something both the student and teacher can recognize, which can be used to determine whether a student is ready to move on to the next level. I say this view is reasonable because it's very hard to determine how, exactly, a student should move up to another level if every teacher in the department is, effectively, "doing his/her own thing." A large number of departments allow this to happen while paradoxically requiring students to register for and progress through different levels. Without some overarching departmental philosophy, effective curricula won't be put in place, and students will ultimately pay the price for this negligence.

In my ideal department (which we can't have because our staff is down to two expats), there would be a two-track system, each track appealing to students with different fundamental orientations-- convergent and divergent learning-- with the two tracks eventually meeting at the end of the line. This fusion would be the natural result of language mastery: whether a student goes through a structured or unstructured course, if they spend enough time in either track, they will eventually be able to handle higher-order cognitive tasks in the target language-- discussions that require analysis and synthesis, for example.

Teachers who, by temperament or training, prefer the divergent/Spockian approach should be assigned the task of handling that track. There would need to be a lot of discussion, though, about how exactly these teachers hope to measure student progress, or whether progress, per se, is even an important notion. Much of the preparation for the Spockian track would be in the area of underlying philosophy, general departmental goals, and specific cognitive objectives. The teachers assigned to the convergent, non-Spockian track would need to lay out specific behavioral objectives because it would be important for students to demonstrate mastery before progressing to the next step in the program.

I think the two-track system should also allow students some leeway to jump from one track to another. It strikes me as unfair for a student to enter one program and then be locked in. On a business level, I see that as a sure money loser. But everyone likes having a larger gamut of choices, and the track-jumping option would let students know they have some room to stray from their chosen path and see what life in the other track is like. However, I don't know how the track-jumping option would work in reality. It's obvious that a student can't constantly jump from one track to the other; this muddled approach wouldn't benefit the student at all. But how much jumping is too much? I suppose that would be something for each individual department to discuss.

Anyway, just some thoughts about the Big Picture. Comments welcome, as always.

*To be fair, many teachers have outside commitments that prevent them from spending too much time in the office. This is perfectly understandable, but because I've worked in the American high school system alongside 40- and 50-something teachers who have families, I know that you can make the time, despite domestic commitments, to do your job right. Sorry if I sound like a sanctimonious asshole, but my selfish reason for sermonizing like this is that I do worry about what sort of reputation foreign teachers have in Korea. As things stand, our overall reputation is in need of serious rehabilitation. Yes, true: a big part of the problem is the bad hiring practices that allow substandard teachers into Korean schools to begin with. But reducing the problem to Korean hiring practices rings false to me.



Anonymous said...

I teach at a small hagwon in the poor part of town, and I only get to see my students for 50 minutes, one time each week. I wish I could do some reviewing, but with high student turnover and daily surprises, it's hard to keep my sanity, mush less actually have detailed lesson planning. What I wouldn't give for some structure, but kids can't always keep the same schedules, sometimes they need to take time off to keep their sanity, and occasionally they get sick and miss a class or two.

A big problem I have, is that I work for a big franchise with their own set of questionable, and very expensive, teaching books. These books preach large scale memorization over actual learning and reading beginning from a low level and slowly progressing from there. I have 5 year-olds trying to learn words I didn't learn until I was in junior high. But, they figure this rote memorization will impress the parents and keep the funds pouring into their coffers. However, the kids, and I, are really struggling with pages I wouldn't wipe my rear with. Luckily, my bosses let me switch to decent (age approriate) quality texts, but not without some flack from the home office.

I do my best and have been rewarded with another year here. It's a great place that actually cares about the students. Our prices are less than half the price of other areas in town, and the owners even give some students, who really want to learn, free tuition when they can't afford to pay.

However, many kids are here not to learn English. Their parents use these hagwons as a type of child day care. We have kids who stay around for hours after their classes are over (the Korean version of latch key kids). And, with all the studying these kids are given at school and their various hagwons, it's hard for me to drill them to death and overburden them with homework.

I wish I some solutions for the teaching ills here and back in the states, but I'd have better luck keeping dry while pissin' into the wind.

Unknown said...

I think I tend to lean more towards what you call the Spockian approach, though not quite to the extreme picture you paint. Structure is also important. It actually facilitates learning in that it lets students know what to expect and what is expected of them. Learning for the intrinsic value of learning leads to better long-term results. That being said, we are operating in a university where grades do make a difference. For many, that letter grade is enough motivation to get them off their butts and actually study. More of them are realizing that with a second language, any language, their post-university job hunt will go much easier. That is their motivation. But I've seen the most growth in those students who are taking a class because they just want to. They've had enough English credits to satisfy their requirements, but just want to take something more. They want to practice writing in English because it is something different, or they simply like writing. Or speaking. Or whatever.

In-the-class teaching is only part of the overall job. One cannot be an effective teacher if they do not prepare good quality lessons or check students' work.

One problem with many "native speaking" teachers is that they believe that because they know the language, they can walk in with a textbook and be ready to teach. The Korean teachers (especially in a hogwan) see this and are naturally resentful.

Everyone has other commitments, but don't accept a job if you can't do it. Teaching is more than just showing up. I get so frustrated with people who just do the minimum. The students know who prepares and who does not. Those teachers who do the minimum of what is required of them propagate that old notion that English teachers are in Korea because they can't do anything else.

Anonymous said...

"Either way, I'm over 98% this time, so I don't think they'll fire me quite yet."

Mr. Kim, it's come to our attention that you are now overqualified for the position...

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Side Note: When I first arrived here in Daejeon, I tried too hard to be a good teacher. The kids were use to their last, mostly Korean talking, constantly Bingo playing, native speaking, English teacher, and they were not used to any sort of structured learning pattern coming from their new one-year oddity. The kids started to revolt, and I lost a couple of the longer term ones (Not good when you need every paying student in a private school). I changed from a structured plan to a slower paced one that still uses Bingo for the youngest kids (at the end of class), but now also games like pictionary and scrabble-like black board games for the older ones (at the end of class). To say that my second and third months here were rocky would be an understatement.

I did have a few diehards who missed the old, fun teacher, but slowly structure has seeped into my classroom and probably my worst class in the beginning has become one of my best--actually striving to do well for me. They even turned on one of their own, when I was plagued with a student/teacher showdown. They banded together to see that the bosses knew who was the problem, and to make sure I didn't become so discouraged as to leave them.

The kid was gone by my next class thanks to a few kids who care about their teacher and justice. Hell, growing up I wish I had the backbone to do what was right as these kids did. In eighth grade, I stood by when a good teacher was tortured by a disturbed student and eventually cracked. Mob mentality sucks when you don't realize the consequences of your actions. I wish I could at least apologize for standing by and doing nothing, but sadly, she is no longer living.

I still have a few tough students here (usually the newer ones), but the laughs on them though, as I'll be back next year (well, in two weeks to start my next year).

Being a good teacher requires nerves of steel because it is a high-wire balancing act trying to cater to classes where student proficiency runs the gamut from nonexistent to high intermediate in the same class. At times it is the most frustrating and thankless job on the face of the planet, and at others, it is the most rewarding under the sun. While I wasn't able to apologize to the one teacher who deserved it the most, I have tracked down those teachers who actually "taught" and "cared" about me as a student, and person, and personally thanked them for all their hard work. It feels great to talk to these great people as an adult. There are even a couple who are now my friends.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, well written. Serious but hides it well- the ultimate blog compliment! Ditto for the commenters (is that a word?)

Some of the things you've said remind me of the "Why are there so many bad teachers in Japan" series of blog entries I've been doing. Would love to have your comments from a Korean perspective.

One thing that stood out for me in what you said is that if you explained to a German or Swiss student "Who cares if you like the teacher or they like you, look how much you are learning" they would totally get it. A Japanese student never never would. Emotions are prominent in the culture and they are told that is a good thing. No idea if that is the same in Korea.

Ditto with lots of photocopies and sending the students away with a long list of words "learnt". Showing the effort the teacher and students have put in is culturally much more important than the results. Which is why the Japanese all have to work 14 hour days...

TEFLtastic blog-

5330 said...

Great post on a very sensitive topic. Big now at Japanese universities under the heading of "faculty development." This sounds great, but usually means ill-conceived questionnaire style evaluations without the integrated kind of constructive program that the name implies.

One observation about Alex's comment; talk about emotions in Japanese culture is prominent. The actual display of those messy things is frowned on. There is some like/dislike stuff going on in classrooms, but I think it's more of a loyalty issue.