Teaching in Gangnam, Seoul

Walking along the Han River
This map of Gangnam shows Apgujeong-dong in orange.

Yes, this is the affluent, entertainment-oriented, newly developed urban area south of the Han River (Gangnam, or Kangnam, means “south of the river”) parodied in Psy’s video. The Apgujeong District, or Apgujeong-dong, is the part of Gangnam considered to have the best public schools in South Korea. In this 2013 interview, my friend Thady shares his experience teaching middle school during the regular school year and the winter vacation program. He also talks about the master’s degree program in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Birmingham, which once employed me as a local tutor. Thanks to Thady for the great photos.

The grammar-translation method he refers to was developed in the Middle Ages to teach Latin.  I learned Latin that was in the 1950s, but when I started teaching in 1966 it had been replaced by the audio-lingual method, which concentrated on the spoken target language.


Thady’s story

As soon as you mention “Gangnam Style” in the classroom, at least one student will get up and do the horse-riding dance. The students love doing that.

I started teaching middle school in Korea about two and a half years ago. I first came to Korea in 2004. My initial plan was to travel to Korea first, then move to Japan, learn Japanese, travel to South America and return to England with Japanese language skills on my résumé. But when I went to Japan for my work visa, I hated it. I fell in love with Korea. From 2004 to 2009 I didn’t go back to England. Then about three years ago I had a motorcycle accident which almost killed me. I went back to England for nine months to recuperate. My family had thought it would take an accident like that to get me back, which was exactly what happened. I thought about Korea every day. So after about three months I started looking for a job where I could work during the day and have my evenings free. I wanted to be in Seoul, not out on the outskirts or in the middle of nowhere. Universities weren’t really an option. The best salaries available were in the Gangnam public schools. So that’s what got me where I am now.

The attraction? I was born in England, but my family all came over from Ireland because of poverty—for jobs—as did many people from the same area. They were neighbors back in Ireland, and they became neighbors in England. In this community there’s a strong feeling of togetherness. People are always joking, very warm. They’re also very kind. People who don’t have that kindness and warmth tend to get ostracized. When I went to university and found the same values weren’t part of my social group, I felt lost. In Korea I immediately I found the same values and the same joking. Korea felt like home almost immediately.

For example, when I first arrived, a friend of mine and I were living in Chulsan. He went out on a date with a local girl, and she brought her brother along to protect her honor. That’s like the Irish thing I was brought up with, having pride in the name and not letting the family down. Another example is Children’s Day. People adore and worship children here, but the elderly are also held very high in society here. In England, it’s unfortunate, but when people reach a certain age, they’ve had their use in society, they get put into a home and they get only occasional visits from their children. Here people live with their grandparents, and the families stay very close together, like the Irish family units I grew up in.

At the moment I’m feeling really thankful both for my school and for where I’m living. At first I lived right next to my school in Apgujeong-dong, which was convenient, but I was coming north of the river every day to see friends who live close to Itaewǒn. Every morning I walk to school along the Han River, which takes two hours. It’s such a brilliant way to start the day. Then I get to school, do my preparation for classes and I teach between two and four 45-minute classes per day. I have a big touch-screen TV in my classroom to use as a teaching aid. When you’re teaching twenty-eight students you need something to keep their attention. I find that the animations, videos and other materials I use are very useful for teaching classes of that size.

It’s really a privilege to teach these students. Middle-school students are aged between twelve and sixteen. My English department consists of four Korean teachers and me. I’m very happy with the faculty I’m working with. We all teach from the same textbook, so we’re all essentially on the same page. They teach the grammar, reading and listening and I teach the conversation. The book is either at the right level for the students, a little high for the students or completely below the students. With the lower level students I use some scaffolding tools to make the lessons easier, with the mid-level students I use lessons pretty much as they are in the book or the teacher’s guide, and with the advanced students I push them to produce their own language on a similar theme.

Sixty percent of my advanced students are fluent in English—many on a native-speaker level—which is unusual for a Korean public school. So I give them a topic, we have a brainstorming session of vocabulary and grammar structures that will be used and then I have them produce their own dialogue, while I mingle around to interact with them and see if they want to ask questions or need guidance on grammar structures or cultural things. At the end of class they act it out their dialogues. I let them write however they want. They love bringing in a comical theme and trying to make the other students laugh. That’s quite rewarding. It doesn’t feel like they’re being taught. It feels like fun.

Mine are conversation classes so I concentrate on getting students writing the spoken word. Particularly in the lower level, they’re better at reading and writing than they are at listening and speaking, so by focusing on dialogue I’m getting them to transpose skills they already have to speaking. Conversation classes I believe should have lots of role play and lots of dialogue.

Class size is as small as twelve students per class, which give me a lot more one-on-one time with each student and which makes the class much more manageable. My advanced classes with twenty-eight students are almost first language classes. I do have a Korean co-teacher who never has to translate or intervene. The students understand all of my comprehension-checking questions and pick up on whatever I say to them.

It’s really rewarding to watch the students role play the scenes they have worked out. I’m doing a camp over the winter break. I showed the class a Youtube clip of somebody booking a hotel room, and I put them in pairs and asked them to write their own scripts of booking hotel rooms. What things would they have to ask, like how much for a single room for these dates. After they wrote and practiced their dialogue, I got some students to call a hotel in Australia on Skype and actually put into practice what they’d learned. It was really rewarding to give them real life examples of what they can use their language for.

I’m doing a master’s degree in TESL now at the University of Birmingham. I’m very happy with the course. They give students all the pointers and then get us to do our own research. I’ve got a tutor I can phone on Skype whenever I have questions. The first goal of the course is to learn about teaching English, but I think the second is to get us writing academic papers to a publishable standard. Every four months I have to turn in a 4,000 word paper. And I have to write a 15,000 word dissertation [master’s thesis] at the end of that. Then hopefully I’ll have an MA in TESL. After the first year I’ll get a Postgraduate Certificate in Education and after the second year a Postgraduate Diploma in Education. The PGCE is required for teaching in schools in England. Once I’ve got that I’ll be able to teach in international schools as well. There’s a Dulwich College, a British public school, in Seoul. Dulwich has schools in other major Asian cities. I looked at the Shanghai package, and the salaries were absolutely phenomenal. So maybe that’s the direction I’ll go in. I’m thinking of writing my dissertation on my classroom management system or on a reading program if one comes to fruition. I’m beginning to really enjoy academic writing, and I’ve noticed that not only am I getting a lot from it but I can also put something back into academia with the observations I’m making in my classroom.

At the school where I’m teaching I’m pushing a reading program. As part of my Birmingham degree, I’m finding out about reading. Krashen [Stephen Krashen of The Natural Approach] is a huge fan of having students develop good reading habits to improve vocabulary, grammar and spelling. I find that the material they have had taught directly at them and drilled into them at their hagwǒn [for‑profit cram school] becomes a lot easier if they’ve got a reading habit. When I first started this job, I noticed some of my first-year students were always carrying English books with them. It was no coincidence that by the time they reached third year those were the students whose English levels absolutely skyrocketed, even compared to the kids who had been to the States to study. The ones with reading habits always came out on top, and some of them had never left Korea in their lives. So it’s like Krashen’s “i+1 theory,” the more input you put into yourself the more you’re going to be able to produce.

My students are nurturing healthy reading habits, they’re even reading when they’re waiting for class to start, which I’m delighted about. They used to play games on their smart phones.

For this winter camp I’ve ordered leveled readers of all the classics, writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Hemmingway, books like Moby Dick, 1984 and Oliver Twist. These are very thin books, about 4,000 words in each book. I’m getting them to read two books a week, but they can pick up as many as they like. If I get one student reading habit then I’m happy. Everything else will fall into place. I keep trying to explain that when I was a kid and we got stressed and irritated or bored we picked up a book. That was all we had. We didn’t have Smartphones or Internet or computer games which kill your brain cells. A book will expand your mind. Some of the kids are really gung-ho and fascinated by it. With others I think it’s falling on deaf ears. They don’t want to be at camp at all, but their parents forced them. I’ve told them that reading will help them get really high scores on the tests, and that was a big motivation.

Abigail, my very diligent student, is checking out 17 books to read this weekend. She’s determined to win the prize for reading the most books.
Abigail’s book report

My classroom management system was videotaped by the Gangnam public schools for use in the training program. So I was thinking of using it for my dissertation. With a class of twenty-eight students, I put them into seven teams of four students each. I give them points for answering questions in order to get involvement and interaction in the lessons. They get positive reinforcement by asking questions. If they do something bad they lose a point for their team. At the end of class, the team with the highest score at the end of class gets a prize—candy or something. The team with the lowest score have to clean the classroom. Sometimes I let the winning team choose who cleans the classroom, and that makes it really fun as well. With students who really don’t get involved, I don’t want to punish the whole team. I put the student’s name on the board, I speak to the form tutor [homeroom teacher], and have the student sent back to my classroom at the end of school to scrub desks.

During the regular school year I get to see each class once for 45 minutes a week, so it’s difficult to do projects where we have to come back and pick up where they left off the previous week.  But at this winter camp I have the same class of nine students every day. So I’m getting them reading a leveled reader of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. I want them to write simpler scenes but in modern, everyday language—use their own ideas to write what might happen in inside particular scenes to change the outcome.

Yes, of course there are some negative things. Students have a very long work day. After school they go to a maths hagwǒn, a Korean hagwǒn hagwon and an English hagwǒn. One of my students says he gets home at 11:00 at night, his mom cooks him dinner, then he does his homework. He gets to bed at 1:00 a.m. and gets up at five or six to do some homework before school.

My lessons are all about getting students to use English in the classroom, concentrating on second language use and banning first language unless it can be beneficial. But my Korean co-teachers are still using the grammar-translation method.  This involves long vocabulary lists, memorizing grammar rules and translating texts. The way Korean society is, I don’t think this will change until there’s a change in the way we test students. All research and all of the books written by great Western and Korean TESL researchers and professors won’t do it. For example, the use of English definite and indefinite articles is taught via Korean, which does not have that feature. Why give them repetitive drills in translation techniques for something that does not exist in their language, you know? I tell my students, don’t worry about making errors like in the use of articles. You’re not going to be accurate all the time. If you want to correct errors like that, get excited about reading.

It’s disheartening to see my co-teachers using a method that was used in the nineteenth century, but I don’t have any control over that. What I can do is give them 45 minutes a week where they do learn something and it’s a kind of pleasurable experience. I absolutely adore my students. I’ve got students who’ve graduated and come back to visit me, and that’s a really big thing. The respect Korea students have for teachers and for education is a big thing. It makes me feel really appreciated and makes me enjoy my job a lot more.

My sister is deputy head, which is a vice-principal, in an English elementary school. She told me about the mother of a foreign student, a Romanian student whose mother brought a letter to the school on a Monday apologizing because her daughter had a hospital appointment on Wednesday and would be absent. “Please, can this be agreeable? If not we will make other arrangements.” My sister was absolutely gobsmacked at the respect mother and daughter were showing the teacher and education. She said if it had been one of the English kids the first she would have heard about the kid’s going to hospital would have been when she didn’t show up for class.

That’s what I see in Korea. Most of the kids have got fantastic attitudes. On good days I’m amazed that I’m getting paid to do what I’m doing.