Jaded With The System: Insider Perspectives from an ESL Teacher in Asia

I’m sitting in a comfortable leather chair recently scavenged from the streets of Jukbyeon (줔변), South Korea. To my left: my friendly Australian Couchsurfing hosts, Brendan and Kate. Across from me, wearing her red TALK program shirt, is Young, a Korean citizen raised in the US who chose to take a break from university and rediscover life in her homeland. To my right is a couple who have both taught English in China and been in Korea for some time. I offer the Japanese perspective, and a little on Thailand.

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Between us, we cover a sizable cross section of ESL teachers in Asia: some new to the game, some making it a career (or at least going for 4+ years), some just settling into a contract renewal; some at English academies (hagwon), some at public elementary schools. Despite our different backgrounds and teaching experiences, we’re quick to offer almost identical gripes about the system as a whole.

I’m not referring to contract disputes, problems dealing with cultural differences, or anything remotely personal. No, we’re all just rather numb to teaching. I know after you’ve been doing something — anything — for a long enough time you tend to act without thinking, going through the motions, using your brain in cruise control. This wasn’t entirely about that. It was more based on our observations of how though these kids have had English instruction for years, only a few out of hundreds or even thousands could speak the language with any spontaneity.

Photo by author

Why? It’s true, not all of us had teaching experience prior to landing in Asia, but we still know our own language, and offer several teaching hours a day to these kids. Why is it so difficult for them to grasp at least some English? Maybe I’m being too hard on them, or downplaying just how difficult English really is.

In Korean and Japanese, there are fixed sounds for each written character: i.e. one vowel sounds the same regardless of the word being used. But this doesn’t change the fact that little progress is being made. Arudou Debito, a human rights activist in Japan, recently defended the JET Programme and addressed at least part of this issue:

”¦ what are JET teachers here to do? Teach a language? The majority of JETs aren’t formally trained to be language teachers, and even if they were, it’s unclear what they should be doing in class because ”” and I quote JET officials ”” “every situation is different.” Exchange culture? Uhh . . . where to start?

Exactly. For the three countries in which I’ve taught English as a second language, the goal does not seem to be actually getting the students to learn. In most cases, it’s simply getting through the curriculum, right or wrong. If that happens to include English that isn’t practical, or follow a lesson plan that will only allow students to repeat a few key phrases, so what? There was never much of a mission statement in the first place, so the school’s obligation is fulfilled, and the teacher finishes his or her year.

Secondary to that (and not always the case, for younger students) is passing exams. High TOEIC and TOEFL scores are useful for university admissions and job applications. But, like the American SATs, the only thing students learn is how to take the test, not necessarily the material it focuses on.

Let’s go back to the teachers. With the world economy fluctuating and many graduates and the unemployed seeking alternatives to minimum wage in their countries, the idea of teaching English abroad is billed as an exciting adventure. Search any city’s Craigslist for “teach asia” and see what comes up:


***************************HOT JOBS*************************************
No Teaching Experience necessary

– Free roundtrip Airfare to/from Korea
– Free furnished Housing for contract year(s)
– One month Bonus (after 12 month contract)
– 21 days Paid Vacation PLUS national holidays (approx. 15 days)
– 1/2 paid Medical Insurance

** * Salary + Free Housing + 4% Tax + Free Airplane Tickets + Severance Payment + Paid Holidays + VERY COMPETITIVE Living Cost are equivalent to over $4,500/mon salary level in America.
– Save up to $20,000/year

Notice anything? The first selling points are travel and “no experience required”. Well, guess what, Asia? You get what you ask for. Travelers. I doubt more than 5% of the native speakers who go abroad are committed to teaching, in that they have a reasonable amount of experience, and they actually try to get the kids to learn. A rarity. Instead, they (we, rather) focus efforts on the next weekend trip, the next vacation, the walk around their Beijing neighborhood, the exciting chance to learn a language in the country of origin. That’s all well and good for the teachers, but what of the students? If men and women’s passions aren’t in educating these kids, progress will be slow, to say the least.

Why take the time to print pictures, cut and paste, write a conversation poster? There’s sleep to be had, food to be eaten, things to buy. Teaching is lowest on the priority list. Sad, but true. Even if some workers are a little more dedicated than others, I doubt they’ll say this fits into their career path and they want to do a good job to get a good reference. More like just making things smoother in this interim period abroad.

Phratom 5 students, Thailand
Photo by author

Secondly, the way students are taught in Asia (with some exceptions) is incredibly inefficient. Of course, kids learn the basics like the alphabet, days of the week, and numbers. But after that, it’s kind of a leap. The focus isn’t on grammar or building a foundation, it’s repetition and vocabulary. Brendan, the Australian working in Jukbyeon, put it rather well: “They learn phrases as vocabulary.”

If you haven’t taught ESL or learned a language before, this might be a little confusing. For adults who are living abroad and don’t have time to take language schools, I can understand them having the maturity and building their vocabulary word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase. But these are kids, and they’re given only one choice: this is how you speak English.

Don’t believe me?

Take the example “This is a pen/map/pencil/desk”. My youngest class will yell this at the top of their lungs because it’s simple enough to remember and pronounce. But it’s like they see it as one word: “thisisapen”. The verb doesn’t exist. The article doesn’t exist. The noun and pronoun? You guessed it. I didn’t understand the mental block some students had when using a similar phrase – “this is my pen” – until I realized none of them had the knowledge to break this sentence down.

This was true even of my twelve and thirteen year olds who struggle with English structure (having taken ESL for years). Repetition may be necessary for new vocabulary, but no one learns anything about the language as a whole, just one word.

Thirdly is the attitude students have towards foreign teachers. Often, many students, especially in rural parts of Asia, have never seen a white or black face, and can’t help not taking “it” seriously as a teacher. In Japan, I did feel like more of a trained monkey than an educator, the way the children and staff reacted to my presence. When recruiters bring in inexperienced newbies with no knowledge of the language, students pick up on it right away; they know foreign teachers can’t understand them and usually won’t hesitate to goof off, curse, or just not pay attention. The time with the foreign teacher is “Fun time! Yay!” The time with the “real teacher” is for learning English. No matter how hard local teachers try, they will never get students to behave the same way for both class times.

” ”¦ you have been in Japan for a long time. Perhaps you forget your English.”

The Blue-Eyed Salaryman, Niall Murtagh

Fourthly, local educators seldom take advantage of native English speakers. Even if their minds are focused on places to travel or exotic singles to bed, the fact remains that they’re here, and they do know how to speak their own language.

This is a bit of a generalization. I have known Japanese teachers who used their foreign teachers to their fullest potential, always asking for their input and complicated grammar questions. But, more often than not, foreigners are simply pointed in the right direction and told when to speak. Even those who do have the freedom to teach classes by themselves are given a curriculum to follow, and may be subject to observation and criticism; this is fine to a degree, but sometimes local teachers just don’t have a clue what they’re talking about – how can we, as native speakers, expect to heed their advice on a lesson when we’ve heard them make that particular grammar mistake?

All over Asia, foreign instructors have far too much idle time at schools, just sitting there and using the internet, waiting for someone to ask for advice or help with a class. I’m not mentioning this to complain about the treatment of foreign instructors – I’ll save that for another article – but just to illustrate that the system is flawed in not taking advantage of a great educational resource: us.

The flip side to all of this, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that it’s good to have inexperienced, somewhat-ignorant people living abroad ”¦ well, assuming they’re open-minded. But it is not advantageous to the ESL system as a whole.

Teaching English is often the only means some have to live abroad long-term. By creating no requirements other than a university degree and citizenship of an English-speaking country, recruiters have opened the floodgates to those in their gap years, those looking for a change or an escape, and those who just really need the money. I can’t seriously believe they’re only looking for those intending to educate; if so, they’re simply incompetent. If companies or government-sponsored programs were to just take a stand and say “we only want those devoted to teaching who have one year’s experience in a real school”, the numbers would thin considerably. But the teachers they hire might actually accomplish something.

The system isn’t perfect, but it is better than leaving all these educated people in their home countries. Right now, they benefit from the experience, and ESL programs benefit by just showing the face of English speakers: “We must teach you something here at English Right Now! After all, we have a genuine, mint-in-the-box Canadian!” And I suppose that’s a big part of it, in Korean and Japanese culture: showing you’re making the effort, even if it doesn’t produce anything tangible.

Recruiters may spend thousands of US dollars searching the world, finding a suitable candidate, interviewing her, flying her over, setting her up in a company apartment, advancing her salary, only to find she hates children and just needs the work. But the school can say they have a native English speaker on staff, and that’s sure to bring results. Right?

  1. Mine and my colleagues’ experiences mostly match this. At a lot of schools it seemed more important to increase enrollment by having a foreigner on staff than it was that the foreigner be a competent teacher at all. One of my friends regularly played a game called “Silent Speed Ball” in class, just to pass this time. I was at a good school, with good students, and an administration who actually cared my first year. I didn’t really appreciate that until my company switched me to another after that year.

    Well written.

  2. I agree…I’m in SK right now. Many times I feel like a clown in the front of the class. The other day my co-teacher had to miss school. All the students assumed we wouldn’t have class, despite the fact that I was there. Clearly it meant that she was the authority figure and I’m just there to entertain…

  3. I’m sure many non linguistic trained native English speakers can teach simply English to East Asian without any problem, even I can teach simple Korean or Japanese for non-native speakers. This isn’t the real problem after all Korea/Japan care only they’ve got the native speakers on school board ready to teach students and makes their parents happy. The real problem is some ESL teachers themselves abusing this corrupted system.

  4. @Koreansentry The point of the article is ESL schools tend to get what they pay for. The real problem is not the teachers, but the way many schools themselves are run. Some ESL teachers wouldn’t “abuse” the system if it were competently managed and treated its employees in a professional, respectable manner.

  5. Exactly, HH. There’s a whole other article out there for teachers who abuse the system, but that isn’t what I’m trying to say here. The problem is the system not benefiting the students.

  6. The problem with this sort of article is, like so many, it focuses on the ‘foreigner teaching English in E. Asia’. The fact is the vast majority of people who are called ‘English teacher’ here are natives to the respective countries, like Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, China. Also, the linguistic analysis above about sounds and characters made no sense whatsoever.

  7. @Charles
    Of course there are more natives acting as English teachers in their respective countries, but can you honestly say they’re better than any (even an untrained) native speaker? Their being able to speak to the students in their own tongue certainly helps, but I’ve known many who couldn’t form one complete sentence in English. You can’t tell me you’ve never encountered that if you’ve been teaching in Japan. I really don’t understand how you’re making this point, as you seemed to reach the same conclusion:


  8. You get what you seek. If you think of the foreign teachers as monkeys, that’s what you’re going to get. My hagwon in Korea has very different expectations for Korean and foreign teachers. I’m sure they’ve had bad experiences with incompetent foreigners in the past, but at my branch every single foreign teacher is well qualified, and I don’t mean just an online TEFL and a bachelor’s in some random subject.

    This little conversation I had with a Korean teacher kind of made me bristle at the way foreigners are perceived:

    Me: “It’s a bit over-the-top, having to go through three observations and evaluations a week. It takes up a lot of time I could use for planning. I never hear the Korean teachers complaining, how long do they need to be evaluated?”

    K.T.: “We don’t have to go through those observations.”

    Me: “Why not?”

    K.T.: “Because we are teachers.”

    …. What? Then what am I, exactly? I’m trained, certified, I have 6 years of teaching experience and years of experience working with kids. My job title is “English Teacher,” so if all of these things don’t qualify me as a *real* teacher, what am I exactly?

  9. Great post. I taught English in Vietnam for nine months… I just couldn’t go on because of all the reasons you outlined above, and the system of “observations”.

    (Aside — after first observation I was told every lesson must include A, B and C. After second observation I was told I’d made an easy mistake and included A, B and C in the lesson (and so would not get a pay rise). Same observer.)

    The ESL system in Vietnam is set up very much like a sausage factory. Students are the “customers” and customers are always right, so they always pass exams and move up to the next level. I used to be absolutely horrified in my advance classes when students couldn’t understand basic sentences. And the textbooks — I taught a stupid lesson on tapas (relevance, anyone?) so often that now I could not even walk into a Spanish restaurant.

  10. “foreign instructors have far too much idle time at schools, just sitting there and using the internet, waiting for someone to ask for advice or help with a class”

    I think you make a lot of good points, but this is definitely not the case for private institutions in Korea. (hagwon)

    That said, among the number of shocking things in the Korean system is not just the hiring of college grads with no teaching skills, but the lack of a coherent (or even existant) curriculum.

    A smart person can “teach the book” if a decent system is in place, but so many Korean schools (public and private) expect NETs to teach eight hours or more a day _and_ create a curriculum from scratch.

    Insane. The definition of penny-wise pound-foolish.

  11. Getting a TEFL certification is something I have been thinking about doing for a while now. would you say this is a problem mainly with the systems of education in Asia, or a more global issue? would looking into teaching in a part of the world where the culture gap isn’t as large as it is in Asain countries lead to a different experience?

  12. @Lucien

    I’m afraid I can’t really speak to the ESL education of children globally… it very well may be, but I have no idea.

    I don’t think what Asia is doing to ESL has anything to do with culture… well, not really, anyway. In Japan, it kind of has to do with the dividing line between foreigners and Japanese. But overall, it’s just been the norm for too long, and no one seems to be willing to try something different.

  13. What a great article! I’m an ESL teacher in the U.S. I think you hit the nail on the head by essentially saying that these countries are getting what they pay for. I take pride in what I do (I even got a Masters in TESOL since I love my job so much). It is tough getting lumped in with English teachers in non-native speaking countries; my students sometimes don’t have high expectations before entering my class if they haven’t taken English in the U.S. Thanks for speaking honestly about this problem!

    (And one little nitpicky mention: you’re actually teaching EFL in Asian countries, not ESL. EFL–English as a Foreign Language–is taught in countries that do not use English as the native/main language. ESL is only taught in countries in which English is the native language. So, a Korean student who moves to the U.S. would take ESL, but a Korean student in Korea would take EFL. Sorry, I had to get a little geeky for a moment.)

  14. You could replace “Korea” with “Saudi Arabia” and the article would be just as pertinent if not more. But my experiences teaching private students have been much more favourable since the students are paying out of their own pocket and thus have a vested interest in learning English. Teaching university students however…..

  15. >>I really don’t understand how you’re making this point, as you seemed to reach the same conclusion: <<

    I don't think I reached the same conclusion at all. First, I don't necessarily see that failure as a negative thing. It obviously isn't for the many E. Asians who only complain vaguely about English here and never bother to do anything about it. Second, the problems are tied up with the interactions between the vast majority of teachers and the learners, and not the imported foreign teachers, who are so limited in numbers as to have very little real impact in most situations. Much of what is centered around the imported foreign nationals is really just a fantasy of importance.

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