Monthly Archives: September 2013

BG KOTESOL mini-conference

Last weekend I attended the Busan-Gyeongnam KOTESOL mini-conference.

Not once did I regret the long drive from the top of the country to the bottom. The atmosphere was very friendly and welcoming and I got a chance to see a lot of people, some who were new to me and others whom I rarely see offline…. er, face-to-face.


The conference began with a keynote talk from Tim Thompson called “Close Your Books”. Tim began by confessing his teaching sins (during which time, I checked each one off in my head: teaching the book not the students – done that; not preparing for class “hey guys what page are we on” – yep, and more recently than I’d like to admit; Facebooking while the students “do” the book – yep, Tweeting too….), reinforcing the point that being tethered to a course book can have some negative consequences that are really worth considering.

Tim touched a topic that has given me much thought recently as well. What are we teaching? What do we say to the student who asks, “Why do I need to learn English?” Maybe she doesn’t need to learn it.* Tim’s approach is straightforward: we need to teach skills through English, where English is the medium rather than the content.

What skills will our students need in life? Tim offered some suggestions: public speaking, small-group discussion, academic writing, time management, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, how to set and meet goals. These skills can easily transfer to real life situations in any language and help students start to take responsibility for their own learning.

My take-away was reflective: I need to think about and also talk to my students about what they want to learn and how to achieve my, their, and the academy’s (= their parents’) immediate and future goals. I’m grateful for all the suggestions and ideas I took away from the talk and look forward to helping my students find ways to improve their life skills through English.

Memorable quotes from the talk:

“If we don’t have goals for developing skills, then we need to start asking, “What are we doing in the classroom?” 

“EHP – English for Hypothetical Purposes. Let’s stop teaching this.”


The second session I attended was given by Chris Miller, “Journaling for Professional Development.” The session was mis-named in my opinion, as Chris actually presented a framework for reflection and helped participants consider how they reflect on their own classes. He also presented research by Hatton and Smith (1995) which added to my understanding of reflective practice.

The jargon-heavy framework Chris presented included descriptive writing (which meant defining the moment), descriptive reflection (which meant evaluating the situation), dialogic reflection (which meant exchanging reflective journals with someone), critical reflection (which meant considering the larger context, including factors beyond your control), technical rationality (which meant making small changes in your teaching), reflection-on-action (which meant reflecting to understand your teaching after the class has ended) and reflection-in-action (which meant reflecting before reacting during a teaching moment).

The presentation was rather complex, but the explanations were pretty clear and through Chris’s guidance we talked about our strongest points (for me, descriptive reflection) and weakest points (reflection-in-action). I also decided after learning about it that dialogic reflection is something I would love to try. Any takers? ^^

My take-away from this session is that there is a lot about reflection that I don’t know and that Chris is really passionate about improving his teaching practice. 

Memorable quotes: 

“Reflection is a work in progress.” 

“Asking more questions [is important] – even if you don’t know the answers.” (following Farrell (1998))


The third and final session I attended was by Jackie Bolen, “Teaching Public Speaking and Presentations 101.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be teaching public speaking or presentations, but I figured I could probably learn something for myself at least. 🙂 Anyone who has ever seen me in front of an audience knows that I need a teacher like Jackie (and perhaps a book like “Speaking of Speech”).

And I definitely learned a lot. First of all, I noticed Jackie’s presentation skills:

  • she showed the book first before beginning;
  • she introduced herself and gave some of her background;
  • she got the participants’ ideas before giving her own;
  • she kept it simple and told stories to support her arguments;
  • her speaking pace was natural and she used hand gestures and eye contact;
  • her volume was appropriate to the size of the room.

I noticed these things because she was talking about teaching them to students and also because they contrasted sharply with some other presentations I’d seen.

I learned that speech has a physical message, a visual message, and a story message. I could pick and choose and adapt to the ages and levels of my own students. One thing I thought was a bit of a shame is that all the “example” speeches on the resource cd were perfect, native-speaker examples. However, Jackie also suggested TED, YouTube (a place for bad examples!), and the website Presentation Expressions as additional input.

What I took away from the presentation is a keen desire to teaching speech and presentation skills in my class – especially since it ties into what Tim said in the beginning about teaching something meaningful. 

Memorable quote: “If you teach them the skills, even shy students can do it.”


As always, the most difficult part of a conference is deciding which presentations to attend, knowing I have to miss other great ones. I’m happy with my choices, but of course wish I could have seen everything. I am very glad I attended this mini-conference and kudos to all the speakers (many first-time presenters) for their courage and willingness to share their thoughts and ideas on a variety of topics.



*I approached my boss with this question a few weeks ago and she answered, “You never know where life will take you and English keeps a lot of doors open.”

what does a test measure?

A few months ago I saw a notice for a Korean class offered by Daegu’s YMCA. Attached was an email address to send off for an application and level test. I had a few free months in front of me and thought I might try to learn Korean again, so I sent off for the test.

I completed the test and sent it in. Until this point, all correspondence had been conducted in English. The following day this email arrived:

Hello , Anne

Thanks for the mail.

한국어를 잘 하네요. 지금 아침 화요일 , 금요일 인텐시브 반에는 높은 레벨 반이 없어요.

하지만 지금 높은 레벨 수준의 학생이 없어요.

개인 수업은 어때요 ? 개인 수업으로 토픽이나 말하기 수업을 할 수 있어요.


감사합니다 ^^

Followed soon after by this one: 

아 그리고 한국어 테스트는 모두 맞았어요!

 말하기 테스트가 필요해요.

 혹시 이번주 토요일에 와서 말하기 테스트를 할 수 있어요?


To summarize: You’re good at Korean, and we don’t have a class for your level. Would you consider private lessons? You can take speaking or TOPIK as private lessons. You answered every question correctly on the level test. You need a speaking test. Could you come in on Saturday morning? Let us know.

The experience made me think a lot about book tests. The YMCA’s level test was based on the Sogang Intermediate book. I recognized the characters, situations, and questions. I’d “done” the book before and so I had no problem answering the questions. The problem was that I couldn’t answer the e-mail. I knew every page of Sogang’s Intermediate Korean book and could not string together a response in real life if it didn’t use structures from the book.

I’ve made my share of tests, taking sentence structures and vocabulary from the books my students have been using without any thought to how they’d use language in real life.

Now I wonder….

Is it fair to test students on material that goes beyond the scope of the book? 
…When the test results affect their grades?
…When the test results affect them emotionally?
…When they are learning English just to pass tests?

Is it fair not to? 
…When they may need to use real English in real communication in real life?
…When they need the confidence to answer an email or respond to a request?
…When they the book does not supply the randomness and unpredictability of a conversation?

What do you think?

the wrong way around

I quit the best job in Korea.

The University Job is the dream of every hagwon (private academy) teacher. University teachers teach 14 hours a week; hagwon teachers do 30. University teachers have a minimum of 2 months of paid vacation a year; hagwon teachers get 10 days – if their directors allow them to take it – and sometimes have to find (and pay) their own replacements. University students behave because they are adults and because their grades depend on it; hagwon teachers behave because they work for for-profit organizations and their jobs depend on the parents’ and students’ happiness. Hagwon students don’t behave.

I worked in hagwons for eight years before moving to a university. There are a lot of reasons hagwons get a bad rap, and I know some of this from personal experience.

They’re a bit of a grab bag. The hagwon system is not very well regulated. There are stories of directors who hold their teachers’ passports and university degrees (and sometimes “lose” them). Some directors cut corners on teachers’ pay or include weekends in “vacation” time. Sometimes directors charge teachers pension and insurance, but never actually pay into those things. Some directors fire teachers for spurious reasons in the 11th month of their contract to avoid paying yearly severance pay. The list of grievances seems endless. To be fair, there’s often an equally long list of grievances on the hagwon directors’ parts as well.

There’s no job security. Hagwons have a notoriously high turnover rate. It’s rare to find a hagwon whose teachers stay more than a year or two. There seems to be a revolving door for Korean English teachers as well. The market is also quite competitive and smaller hagwons often fail to stay in the black. When the school sinks, everyone walks away penniless. Being penniless in a foreign country is not fun.

Hagwons are part of the problem. 1) They’re for profit, which means that they sometimes lose their focus on learning. 2) They perpetuate the native speaker fallacy. 3) They contribute to the number of hours students spend studying rather than playing, relaxing, reading, or enjoying their free time. 4) They widen the gap between rich and poor.

Then again, if you get a “good” hagwon, a lot of that isn’t true. 

At a good hagwon, the present and future needs of the student are put first. Learning does not get lost in the drive to make money. Teachers are not mistreated and their time is respected. The directors know something about education and choose their teachers carefully. They are aware that they are part of the problematic education system and do what they can to mitigate it. In fact, they are in a position to do a lot of good.

And this is why I left my cushy university job to return to a hagwon.

Hagwons have small class sizes (usually maximum of 12). The students usually come to classes between two and five days a week and between one and three hours a day. In public schools or university classes, foreign teachers only see the students once or twice a week for under an hour, 30 students to a class with mixed abilities, and hundreds of students altogether.

Working in a hagwon means I have a chance to get to know each one of my students. I can learn about them and listen to them and find out the best ways to help them learn. While there is student turnover, many students stay for several years at the same hagwon. That’s a lot of chances to form a real connection and make a real difference. In this way the extra teaching time without long vacations is a good thing for teachers and learners.

Hagwon students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. Some of them are there because their parents make them go, but many of them have dreams that they need English to achieve. I know I said above that “hagwon students don’t behave.” Classroom management is a lot easier with the support of the directors. Classroom management is also easier when I have a connection with my students. If students aren’t behaving there’s probably a reason.

Hagwons provide a place to be a little more radical experimental than a public school or university classroom where the teachers have to justify everything they do and are bound to specific textbooks. The ability to try new things and teach the students rather than the material, combined with the igniferous tendency of trends in Korea means that willingness to make small risks can lead to big changes across the country in the informal education system (okay, perhaps I’m dreaming…).

Note 1: I’ve over-generalized a lot in this post. Feel free to ask questions or provide additions or corrections in the comments.

Note 2: This post is not meant to demean university teaching positions (or public school positions). It is simply meant to share why I left “the best job in Korea” to return to a position that is well-known for being rather humble.

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