Teaching, Korea and Covid

Laura at home with cat

Laura arrived in Korea several years after I left, but we have quite a few mutual friends and have talked many times online. At the time of this interview, she was at home in Pusan, and I was at home in Antipolo. Thanks to Laura for the photos.

Laura’s story

So, how did you end up teaching in Korea, of all places?

In 2008, I was selling business franchises in Los Angeles when the bottom fell out of the economy. I lost my house, sold my car, put my stuff away and gave my two cats and dog to my best friend. For five months I tried to find a teaching job there, but all the school districts had a hiring freeze on. I had online interviews with schools in Korea and Japan, and Korea called and said they’d bought me an airline ticket.

This was a for-profit language school, a hagwon?

Yes, which students attend after their regular school. The teacher was supposed to lecture from the front of the room and write on the blackboard. My students called me  “shark teacher” because I kept circling around the kids, listening, making sure they were speaking clearly and correctly. Afterwards I put some of the mistakes on the board. No individual student was singled out.  Correcting can be a really good way to silence a child who is learning to speak—forever. Korean students are terrified of making a mistake and of looking stupid in front of the class, even when I explain how making mistakes is part of the learning process.

So, I’d take it you and the school did not click. 

We didn’t agree on the teaching methods, but the students were fantastic.  I taught the high-level students and the ones who were trying to get into a really high-class school.  We taught them how to do their interviews. “Keep your back straight and be proud of being Korean.”  Sixteen of the twenty students got in.

Then I also taught a class preparing for the TOIEC, a mostly business English exam   they have to pass in order to get a job. I had a debate class and one on newspapers. After that I worked at a high school for a year.

You are currently teaching at a university? 

In Busan. I was delighted when I got in. Dongseo University is a four-year school with a wide variety of majors, and the students’ English proficiency is high, especially in the medicine and computer programs or others where the textbooks are all in English.  The kids are bright and eager to learn. But unemployment was high even before Covid.

For college graduates it was high when I was there, and the college programs didn’t prepare graduates for jobs.  Shakespeare was not going to help a kid get a job in a company like Samsung. I told them I’d help prepare them to work with people like me, so I wrote a textbook based on real-life cultural issues, like different ways of looking at a contract.   

I tell my students, “You may not be working here in Korea, but in Thailand or the UK. This is a global economy, so your English has to be good, and you need to be able to work well with the other members of your team.”

 I take it you’re happy with your job?

Oh, yeah. We don’t have any drama in the department. People are all professionals, most of us have a master’s degree or have one in progress. I have one in business, and I finished another, a dual master’s degree in Education and Bilingual Education. Nowadays some schools will even help you finish your degree. But right now online degrees are not as highly regarded as on-campus degrees, partly because in a collectivist society people are expected to make connections with their classmates that will help them later.

Or because of snobbery.

Attitudes about online schools may change because of Covid.

How are your students?

They  start out not wanting to talk because they’re terrified of making mistakes. Then they discover nothing horrible happens when they do.  It’s best when they work in pairs or in small groups.

In the required English classes, some students don’t want to be there, but in general Korean students like to learn. In class they can use their computers for the lessons I prepared for them and look up words in their electronic dictionaries.

We don’t have the discipline problems that you find in American schools.  Our classes are also smaller, but some kids have no idea what I’m was talking about, some are looking out the window because they already know the stuff, and the rest would be in-between.

That was also my experience the one semester I had to teach a section of the required freshman class. The problem was classes were organized according to the students’ academic major, forty to a class, and not according to their facility in English. 

I’d arrange the students according to language proficiency and give each group work which was appropriate for them.  I also used a buddy system.  Put the students who are struggling together with the best students, who will say they are honored to help.   Recently, in one of my classes, in one semester a student went from knowing no English to earning a B because of the buddy system. Korea is a collectivist society, so if you get people working together, they’ll pull each other up.  

I started at Dongguk in 1989, before the administration was doing anything to control class size—they started in maybe 2000.  On the first day of a conversation class, I’d say to the eighty or a hundred students, “Follow me.”  We’d walk over to my office, I’d interview them, pick out the best forty students and tell the others to try again next semester.  Those forty students would usually shrink to thirty-two during the drop-add period, so eight small conversation groups of four, which was quite manageable. I didn’t have any problem getting the students to talk in small groups, but speaking out in front of the entire class was different because of the idea—I think Confucian— that speaking out “in public” means you think you’re an expert, so it’s seen as very arrogant.  But these were advanced students.  I had the sophomore level English majors, and a couple of upper-division nonmajors classes.  They were all pretty good students and motivated to do their homework and come to class on time by a five-minute quiz at the beginning of every class—smartest thing I ever did. 

I don’t have a problem with class size because classes are limited to twenty students. Now the problem is that because of Covid we’re put in large classrooms and spaced far apart, with at least one empty chair between two students.

When I first got here in 2013, we had MERC or SARS. I don’t remember which. We had to wear a mask and use hand sanitizer and do social distancing all the time. I didn’t understand.  I now wear a transparent face shield so the students can see my lips when I speak.  But then the virus was over pretty quickly, like in a couple of weeks.

In January 2020 we got pounded.  We got masks and had to wear them the next day. We were put in large rooms and spaced far apart. We had to use hand sanitizer, get our temperatures checked and wear a wristband.  Anyone who had been exposed to Covid or was medically fragile had to stay home.

Three of us teachers video recorded the lessons for the entire book in advance, so kids could work on it at home at their own pace. After half a semester, the school made a determination and decided whether to do the tests face-to-face or not.  During the first semester of Covid, the only time the students saw me in person was when I gave them their final exam.  Every semester since then we’ve been online for half of the semester because the number of Covid cases has been so high.

What changes have you seen?   

South Korea is still doing well in a lot of ways.  Over 80% of people are vaccinated, so that more gatherings are being allowed.  But some groups have decided they don’t want to wear masks or get immunized, and those are the ones who are getting sick.

The teachers did training.  We could meet with two or three people after having. temperatures taken.  If a student said they’d been exposed to Covid, you could just email them the homework and the video.

If you go to a restaurant, there’s a phone number you can call with your order. For a very long time, only take-out was available. When I first got here, I saw people picking their kids up from hagwons at 9:00 at night and taking them to get fast food, noodles or something.  In America those kids would be getting ready for bed or asleep at that hour. I’m really bothered by how little sleep Korean kids get. It’s very hard to do good work when you’re exhausted.

They also don’t get enough play time.  

During play, by doing new activities, new pathways are built in the brain. It forms new connections, and the new scaffolding holds up new information. The students need play with their friends, and they need more sleep.

Also, Korea is not good with anyone who is not in the middle.  I had a kid in class whose brain would not allow him to speak. He was mute.  But he wrote down everything I said and his homework was perfect.  If I hadn’t been paying attention and I hadn’t expected some kids to be different in some way, I would not have known.  I’ve also had students with attention deficit disorder, and I had to figure out what to do with them and how to explain to others, “No it’s not that he won’t focus. He can’t focus. This is what he needs.”

I have ADD myself. To get geared up for cleaning the house or whatever, so I’ll play a stupid video game on my phone for five or ten minutes.  It turns on the dopamine so that I’m able to focus on that task.  But when the dopamine runs out, I use one of the tricks I have learned to turn on dopamine production in the brain.

The real problem is Korea has a complete inability to handle individual differences. So, for example, a lot of university buildings don’t have elevators even though a lot of students are in wheelchairs. The culture needs to expand its view of what it means to be human.

When I was at Dongguk—I think this was in the mid-90s—there was one building out of many on campus that had been modified for people with wheelchairs, but it was near the top of a very steep hill from the subway station down below.

It’s really hard the way the system is put together, like grading on a rigid curve. I understand about grade inflation, but it is horrible for someone who worked their ass off to get less than they deserve because of the size of the class.  It’s demoralizing.

Agreed. What textbooks are you using and do you like them?

We’re using a textbook created by professors at my university, and I like it a lot better than others I’ve used, except I think the level is a little too high.  They’re called Fast Track 1, 2 and 3. The TOEIC book I don’t like because it’s all business English.  It’s too advanced. So I suggested that only students in their second year, preferably second semester, take that class.  I also create all the lesson plans and make them available to the other teachers. This has taught me a lot about curriculum development.

A lot of teachers do all their teaching on Zoom, but as teachers all over the world have figured out, if you have twenty people in class it’s really hard to keep track of them all on screen. You don’t know who’s getting it and who’s not.  I don’t want to lose five students.  Having made videos which they can watch as often as they need to at their own pace, and having the homework so they can take their time doing it, that helps me catch students who don’t get it. I grade every homework assignment so I can show students exactly where their problems are.

You sound basically happy with your university situation, now you’ve got an apartment that you really like.  Why don’t you talk about the flood? 

I was in a tiny apartment in an old building in a rundown section of town.  At the time that was all I could afford. Most Koreans want to buy apartments, not rent. To rent an apartment, like most expats do, you need to put down a large deposit called “key money,” usually $5,000 to $10,000. My university gives us an allowance of around $400 a month toward rent, but no key money. A lot of people put the deposit on their credit cards. I ended up in an old building that had not been maintained. A washing machine in an apartment above mine flooded, raining into mine from four different places. The water was even running through the light in my bathroom.

Oh, God!

View from the window

Which was terrifying because of the electricity.  We dealt with all that and tried to fix the mold problem, but Koreans don’t spray mold, they paper over it. which accomplishes nothing.    But then the girlfriend of one of my coworkers moved from her apartment in a beautiful part of town, and I got it. From one window I can see the ocean. The cats love sleeping in the loft. In the area are a variety of places to eat—Italian food, Indian food, Peruvian food. Restaurants are open for restricted hours now—so I play board games with friends once a week. Not too far away is Citizens’ Park, a beautiful area with grass and trees and walking trails vacated by the U.S. military.

The sea from Busan

Living in Korea tends to have an oppressive effect in addition to the isolation we’ve been through recently. You need breaks outside the country. I’ve been wary because I don’t want to get sick or spend two weeks in quarantine or be unable to get back in. But bottom line, I have everything I want here. I have friends I can talk to online and others who live only an hour and a half away. There are all sorts of things to keep me occupied. My goal is to save $400,000 for retirement, which is where my novels and the writing for video games comes in, and then move to someplace warm where there is also an expat community—Panama, Mexico, Bali, Vietnam, and, yes, the Philippines.  I came to Korea in 1999, I’m fifty-three years old, and the day will come when they tell me I have to go.