Sunday, January 23, 2011

Teaching in Asia: You Can't Move a Mountain

I have now been teaching in classrooms in Asia for more than eight years. I've taught in both South Korea and Japan and have worked in both language school and international school settings. I have also taught in classrooms in Canada (both public and Catholic school boards). I am a teacher and obviously I think about education and how cultural differences effect it constantly.

This week I plan to write about a few different aspects of teaching in Asia. In this post I want to give my two cents about the idea of "Moving a Mountain" as a teacher in South Korea and Japan. Most of my experience with this topic comes from my days in South Korea, but some is also from my experiences here in Japan.

Every year, thousands of young and not so young people from English speaking countries around the world take the plunge and head to Asia to spend some time teaching English. There are also folks who are teachers in their native countries who move to Asia to teach in international schools. Some international schools have a predominantly international student body while others have student bodies mostly made up of indigenous students. For the most part though, these teachers from abroad are moving to a foreign country that of course has a very culture.

Moving to a new country and dealing with a new culture often leads to culture shock. Languages are different, customs are different and of course, systems of education are different. This couldn’t be any more so than between Asian countries and those in the “Western” world.

As a Canadian who is a product of the Canadian education system and then later became trained as a teacher within this system, I can tell you, the “Asian” approach to education is nothing like the one we have in our country. This is the main stumbling block many new teachers come across when walking into their first classroom in South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, etc. Many young, idealistic, energetic and creative young people walk into classrooms across Asia every year expecting to deliver an awe-inspiring, fun, creative and imaginative lesson, just like their favorite teachers did when they were young. Every year, many, if not most of these teachers, get a surprising kick in the pants!

That creative, fun and hands on learning experience that you appreciated or valued so much is not what the parents of your students and often administrators of your school are looking for! That is not what they want you to deliver to the students. You’re being told to do something that you never would have considered as a teacher and of course never stood for s a student. You are being asked to give your young students boat-loads of homework, daily tests, lists of vocabulary to memorize, grammar formulas and the kind of class that would score 1/100 in the fun factor scale. Now of course NOT EVERY school is like this. Many teachers will come abroad and have a fun time at their schools. I am only speaking from my personal experience and that of some of my friends.

You are now a teacher in Asia and the education system is very different. Both South Korea and Japan are test-taking cultures. They are results based cultures. The education system you find in 2011 in South Korea was based upon the Japanese system (they were colonial rulers of Korea during the early 1900’s), but now has been taken to an extreme level that, currently, far surpasses Japan.

These systems of education are based upon rote memorization and testing. I think folks moving to a country like Korea also have to realize that Confucianism is also very influential so rank/social placement is also paramount! The pressure on young students to be #1 and to succeed is nothing like any of us have faced in our own countries/education systems. Starting in kindergarten, students have immense pressure to read/write/speak English/play piano/violin, etc. They have pressure that most American/Canadian, English, etc., kids never have.

As a new teacher in Korea or Japan, you can easily get stressed or unhappy with the amount of pressure put on the shoulders of the little kids you teach. Sometimes you may complain to the managers of your school. You maybe even feel compelled t complain to the parents of the kids you teach, but just remember; you are coming from a different place. Cultural and education wise, it is difficult to get used to. The education systems of America and Korea for example are diametrically opposed. There are many arguments to be made (and I will in some future posts). Many in Asian, Korea China, etc., will defend their systems of education and say that kids there score higher in math, reading, science, etc.; than many in Western countries. Many would argue that students in Western countries are more creative, deal with less stress and are far more innovative.

However the cookie may crumble, it can be difficult coming from one culture and teaching in another. Sometimes, after years of teaching in another culture you may not understand the goal/thought process of your students/parents/clients/etc.

I would suggest keeping an open mind to the new and fascinating culture you have come to live in. It is very different from yours. You may not like some of the things you find, but there will be other aspects you do enjoy. Although you have your opinions, things are not always black and white. Your school administrators (hagwon/ekaiwa bosses) may ask you to teach in ways you dislike or disagree with, but that is the nature of the beast. Like it or not, that is what they have hired you to do.

If you are a new teacher in Asia and things are frustrating you at times, remember that the culture is different in more ways than you may ever understand. We aren’t products of the culture so it can be difficult to grasp. I’ll admit, that to this very day (8+ years of being in Asia) that I don’t understand the way most people here view education. That’s ok though. I’m a Canuck! I do however; have to try hard to keep an open mind.


QiRanger said...

Great post and very true, especially about the educational system here in Korea. I think one of the things I really like about my current school, is that more emphasis is placed on fun and creative endeavors!

However, that's only applicable to the elementary kids. When I was teaching middle school classes, it was routine for me to give a list of 160 vocabulary words and then generate a test of 50 words. The passing score was 60%. The real kicker was that this one only one of three tests per week for each student (at the academy)!

AlmostaGeek said...

Nice post. Agreed 100% and most teachers know it's not the best environment to learn English, but they feel they can't change it, so "Shoganai".

In my travels I have run into many very good English teachers that are making a difference from within the system. All hope is not lost ;-)

Plus crazy gaijin like us corrupting the youth.