Today I am talking with Manpal Sahota, a Canadian teacher who completed his M.A TESOL at a local university in Korea while teaching EFL full time. Manpal is currently working at an in-service teacher training center for elementary and secondary school Korean English teachers in Daegu, South Korea.
Q1. Hi Manpal, could you tell us a little about your teaching context when you decided to take the M.A TESOL and how that influenced your decision to commit to it?
I was teaching at a language institute at university in Daejeon. I had a mixture of hagwon (Korean language institute) classes, college classes and university classes (the language institute, college, and university are all under the same name and run by an umbrella education foundation). I was teaching elementary/middle/high school/adult students at the language institute and mostly first year students on the college and university campuses.
There were over 60 foreign English teachers working for the language institute. The university has a graduate school and they have a TESOL program that is taught in English. Several of my co-workers were taking the program. I thought about taking the program for a couple of months but was hesitant since I wasn’t sure if it would be valued outside of Korea. After many bar conversations with workmates who were in the program and with the director of the program (an American professor) I decided to enroll.
Q2. When you enrolled, what were you hoping to get out of the investment?
I think my main motivation was career advancement. I thought I could get a better job if I had an MA, especially when I return to Canada. Another motivation was as a foreigner I received 50% off the tuition. With the regular cost already being much lower than an MA from Canada, I could save a lot of money doing an MA in Daejeon. Also, I thought I could learn about practical teaching methods and techniques that I could use in my classes. And I guess a lesser motivation was thinking that there was an element of prestige to having an MA.
Q3. I think it is interesting you have picked out the desire for a strong practical element in the course, would you say your course delivered on that and if so how was it structured to do so?
Not at all, the program was very theory-heavy. The only practical ideas I got were those that I learned/stole from one of my professors. These ideas were not part of any course content, but rather little things he did in class that I felt were cool/interesting/unique. I continue to use those ideas in various new forms in my classes today. Ultimately, I chose this professor as my thesis advisor.
Q4. With it being so theory heavy how did you go about applying what you were learning to your classroom? Was it a struggle?
To be honest, there was not much that I could directly apply in my classroom. But I still very much enjoyed my program because it made me question my beliefs about what I teach and why I teach. Through reflecting on those areas I made new decisions about my class content and teaching practices.
Q5. I see, could you talk a little bit more about how it made you questions your beliefs, I mean, what was different about you as a professional educator once you had finished the course compared to before you started?
After I took my first course on critical pedagogy it really made me look differently at what and why I was teaching in Korea. In fact, there was a short period where I considered leaving the teaching profession because everything I was reading in the course really made me look at what I was doing as an English educator in Korea in a negative light.
But through taking more courses on critical pedagogy, and one particular course on teacher identity, I came to a place where I was comfortable and confident about the kind of teacher I wanted to be and what I wanted to teach.
Q6. Wow, it sounds like you got a huge amount from your M.A, would you say that without the M.A course you might not have discovered this or did it just speed up the process? (the kind of teacher you want to be and what you want to teach?)
I think without the MA I probably wouldn’t have reached this discovery. And possibly I might have left the teaching profession altogether. While at the start of the program I consider quitting and returning to Canada, by the end of the program I had a new found vigor and passion for teaching, and teaching in Korea in particular.
Q7. I’d like to come back to the fact you chose to do your M.A in a non-native English speaking country if I may? This is unique because it allowed you to teach at the same time as taking the M.A in person. Was this a big benefit at the time? How would you say it affected your experience?
It was helpful financially, as I was able to still have an income while I studied, and as I mentioned earlier I received a 50% discount on tuition as a non-Korean student.
More importantly, teaching and studying in the same context allowed me to focus my assignments on real-life experiences that I was having and discuss/share ideas with classmates who were also teaching in the same context. I think it allowed for a richer learning environment for me. I could make connections from the theories in the program to the teaching context at my work.
On a bit of a side note, after receiving my MA I was turned down for a university job in Busan because my degree was from a Korean university and not a university from a native English speaking country. I remember laughing at their rationale as I considered myself a stronger applicant compared to others who studied outside of Korea and perhaps didn’t have the same awareness of how various ideas/theories apply (or don’t apply) to the Korean teaching context.
Q8. That must have been frustrating, have you had similar experiences since or do you think that was a one off?
That is the only one that I am definite about since I heard about the rationale directly. It could have also been a factor in the hundreds of other jobs that I applied for but never received a response, but this is just speculation. Of course, there are other possible reasons for not hearing back from the places that I’ve applied to, reasons that are beyond the scope of this interview.
Q9. Coming back to the course itself, did you find it difficult to work full time, study part time and maintain a personal life or were you able to strike a good balance between the three?
For the most part I was able to have a pretty good balance. I think what helped me in my situation was having a core group of friends that worked at the same place and were also taking the MA at the same time. So, even when we when we were socialising in bars we would also be having discussions about work and what we were studying. The MA program director was also a fan of fermented beverages so on many weekends we essentially had extended classes in soju tents until the wee hours of the morning. Looking back on it now, I imagine our other friends who weren’t taking the MA must have thought we were proper geeks.
Of course, when I started writing my thesis I had to remove myself from social situations and revert to a hermit lifestyle for 3-4 months. But again, with having friends who were at various stages of the MA and who knew the time needed to write a thesis, I had a lot of support and understanding from my social circles.
Q10. I think you’ve done a really nice job of outlining the positives and benefits of choosing to do an M.A at a local university while also teaching at the same time. If someone was interested in going down this route, is there any advice you would give them?
I would talk to current/former students and see if they are willing to share their experiences with the program. I would definitely talk with the professors to find out which courses they will be offering and what their areas of expertise are. Also, I think it’s helpful to be part of a community with other classmates so that you can have a space where you can share ideas (or concerns). I feel this is the best way to accelerate your personal growth and help you get the most out of a program.