Why I Think EFL/ESL Teachers Are Special

Tonight I am angry, I mean really angry. I’m angry because something is fundamentally wrong with the many of the education systems in whicPictureh we now work or experienced when we were young. Exam time is yet again here, and again I’m seeing the effect it is having on my students. To try and give anyone who hasn’t taught in Korea some kind of idea as to the effects their workload and academic routines have on them; at least five of my students were, today, so exhausted that their eyes were swollen. Their eyes were swollen to the stage where they could barely see, beautiful young adults looked like they had been hit in the eyes by tennis balls.  If you walk around any high school in South Korea all you will see are droves of students passed out on their desks (before lessons, during lessons and after lessons) literally unable to keep themselves conscious. But, without a doubt, the most distressful result of the system in which they are a part of, is that, and this is so awful I find it difficult to type, two students from my school have had what were officially recorded as ‘accidents’ this semester, These ‘accidents’ cost them their lives, anyone who is aware of the problems Korea faces knows what ‘accident’ could really mean, I don’t know for sure one way or the other, but what is a fact is that one teenager a day loses their life due to suicide in Korea. Yes, this is the education system in which I work. It is an extreme, and as any teacher in this system will tell you, it is something that can be difficult for us to deal with, but not half as difficult as it is for our students.

But the reason I am really, really, angry is, officially, according to the world educational ranking, I work in the number 1 educational system in the world. That’s right; according to The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) South Korea is the number 1 ranked educational system in the world. According to The Guardian newspaper PISA “is highly respected across the globe, and enables politicians and policy-makers to assess how different country’s education systems compare.” If this system is the benchmark that others strive to achieve, surely we are failing the youth of the world on a global scale? Surely something is wrong? And yes, Korea is an extreme, but I don’t think it’s alone in the failing of its youth.

So what has this got to do with ESL/EFL teachers and why do I think we’re special? I think we’re special because often (but not always) we are not bound by the same rules. Often we don’t have national curriculums telling us what we have to teach and how we have to teach it, we’re not bound by cultural stigma that absolutely forces us to teach in a certain way in order to get the educational system higher up the PISA league table and the students into the universities of their choice. Our often lack of accountability in national assessments that will absolutely determine a students future allows us to give the students the chance to relax, to express themselves, to be creative, to think divergently, and, most of all, to enjoy themselves while learning. Our institutions might not always like it, but if we want to, we can do it.

In the past two weeks my students have watched a wonderful video (Caine’s Arcade, if you haven’t seen it I recommend going to you tube and watching it), they have learnt 8 key expressions and then spent over an hour making comic strips predicting Caine’s future that had to use these 8 expressions. It’s such a simple activity, but every student has been awake, actively participating, and I’ve been reliably informed, had a great time. Although I would say this as I’m their teacher and I think they are awesome, it seems to me they produced some really creative and fun work. I asked the students if they have ever made comic strips before, and every one of them answered ‘no’. Second year high school students have never made either a comic strip or poster before, as, in the view of the Korean education system. But what can I expect when education systems are and the ranking they are judged reward rote learning over critical and creative thinking? Although there were other less creative methods and less time consuming methods I could have used that would have involved the students both practicing how to use the 8 expressions and creating language, I passionately believe that sometimes, some things, are just more important. What I am trying to get at is that, as their EFL teacher, I can give them this time and opportunity that their other teachers, for one reason or another, simply can’t. This is why we are special, and this is what we need to take advantage of.

This isn’t about me or my students or Korea though; this is about the opportunities I think we have as ESL/EFL teachers throughout the world to do something different.

But, I think it is important for me to categorically say that I am not saying this to take anything away from our colleagues in the mainstream public education systems who are teaching to national curriculums, or teachers in academies who are having to force information into students to get them through their standardized robotic national examinations, they are absolutely special in their own right, one that I appreciate whole heartedly. If it wasn’t for them, and particularly one called Keith Hodgson, I wouldn’t be a teacher now. In fact, without him, I wouldn’t even have any A-Levels now as the education system and me did not get along too well, and if it wasn’t for the teachers in the school in which I work who do absolutely everything they feel possible to help the students through such a torrid system then my students’ lives could be much worse off.

I know not every ESL/EFL teacher has the freedom I have, but if you do, please, EFL/ESL teachers, use this special opportunity and freedom we have to help our students broaden and expand their minds and personalities in ways other teachers simply don’t have the opportunity to. This is what makes us so special, so let’s use it.

What do you think about the education systems around the world? What can we do to help our students through such a difficult and painful system? I welcome and appreciate any comments below.

You can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

You can see the comics from my first class that has finished them below.

References & Sources:

These are the comics from the class that finished today.


13/06/2012 05:45

Your students are so talented, brilliant comic strips 🙂 But as to what you are saying…if 1 student a day (let alone a month, a year) is committing suicide this is horrific, and they are being let down horrendously by the whole system. I could cry at the fact that their parents allow this, enforce this, or don’t question this. I also question how PISA compares the different styles of education in different countries (rote learning vs critical thinking for eg) – and how they account for personal, social & emotional development which is also a duty of care of any educational institution dealing with children or teens. In short – you’ve depressed the hell out of me. But every person that cares matters and looks like you are shining a tiny bit of light into the rest of their over-demanding, creatively under-demanding, restrictive education-driven lives. Good luck.

13/06/2012 07:04

Hi Sophia!

Thanks, I’ll be sure to let them know you said so next class, it will make their day 🙂

I completely agree about PISA, how can such a well known ranking system possibly not take such factors into account? It’s just beyond belief that a math science and reading score is more important in the rankings than the mental well being of the students.

Thanks so much for your comment, I really hope we can use our freedom to make a difference, even if it’s a tiny one.

13/06/2012 17:50

Wow. Amazing comic strips, and an amazing post (though as Sophia says, not exactly cheering). This plays on my mind a lot too, although in Malaysia (Borneo) I don’t think the stakes are nearly as high, but having been in primary schools for the last 18 months I’ve become really depressed about the sheer volume of meaningless information seven year-olds are expected to remember in their first year of school, how often they’re tested, how futile the tests are, how grateful the kids are for any activity that allows them to think or participate instead of chant like zombies. Like I said I don’t think the pressure at secondary level is nearly comparable to South Korea but teachers have told me many stories of teenagers being ‘possessed’ around exam time – basically going a bit bonkers because of stress and having to be ‘exorcised’ (the belief in malicious spirits here is pretty widespread and workaday). But yes, as you say, we have such an opportunity as EFL/ESL teachers to at least make students aware of other ways of learning, show them that education doesn’t have to be 12-hours-a-day-competition etc. Thanks again for your brilliant and heartfelt post.

13/06/2012 18:08

HI Laura,

Thanks, my students are really going to be so happy when I tell them how impressed with their comics so many people are!

I absolutely agree regarding the sheer volume of meaningless information, I think a point I didn’t really make clear in my blog is that I feel like Korea is just the extreme, and where I work in Korea is the extreme of an extreme, but I really believe this is a global problem. The amount of tests and memorization of useless information that such young learners go through is nothing but shocking, and it seems to be getting more and for younger students all the time.

I just can’t help but worry about what the long term effects on our young learners are.

Thanks so much for reading and your insightful comment. It’s particularly interesting the way different cultures deal with the effects of such systems, although non (except Scandinavian countries) seem to be dealing with the causes.


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