Why Korea Needs Native English Teachers, Now More Than Ever

There has been a lot of controversial talk over the past couple of weeks caused by an SBS news story claiming that Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) was going to remove 57% of native English teachers (NETs) from public schools. Their reasoning for doing this was based on a recent survey carried out and, as I am going to argue, a mis-interpretation of what the results of the survey mean regarding the needs of Korean education.There have been plenty of blogs that have gone into the results of the survey and in doing so have demonstrated how the government have mis-informed the public about the results, I am just going to link them here as there is no point repeating what has already been said. What I take issue with is that the governments justification for the cuts is simple, yet, as I am going to explain, it is this simple reason that actually means we should all be discussing an expansion, or at least a positive development, of the current program…

An anonymous SMOE summed up the governments reasoning for reducing the NET program when he simply stated:

“Korean students feel more comfortable learning from a Korean teacher”

It seems to me that everyone has just accepted that this does provide justification for reducing the NET’s. However, if we really think about it, this fact should be the saving grace for NET’s and the one that we use to keep our jobs. Here is a quote from the Korean education authority itself…
“The ability to communicate in English will act as an important bridge connecting different countries, and will be the driving force in developing our country, forming trust among various countries and cultures” 
(Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Korea:2008)

Our job is to instill a generation of Korean students with the confidence and self belief TO communicate with foreigners. If the majority of students still don’t feel comfortable communicating with foreigners then they obviously need more time in direct contact with foreign teachers, the programme has only been running 9 years, which, given the extensive history and isolation of Korea, is nothing. What this statistic should be telling the education authority is that with the current state of affairs, when this generation of students become a part of the business community, they are going to be unable to successfully communicate with native English speaking business partners. Do they really want business people who are too scared to pick up the phone to their American business partners? Especially in an age where forms of communication such as tele-conferencing are becoming so important. They are not going to be able to get away with simply putting it in an email, especially not when their neighbours in China, Japan and Taiwan are increasing the amount of exposure time their students are getting with NET’s.

Now, moving on to teaching, why do the government think students are more comfortable with Korean teachers? The reason is quite obvious, their lessons are taught almost exclusively in Korean. Of course it is easier for them to understand, and thus it is more comfortable, but the point is, if Korean students can’t understand their NET they certainly will not be able to understand their American business partner. Now I don’t want to take anything away from my Korean counterparts, they do a great job in difficult circumstances. At the end of the day, given the nature of the multiple choice reading comprehension exam, the teaching methods they use get the results they need. NET’s are not constrained by this examination system, as quite simply, our competency as teachers is not evaluated by our students’ exam scores. We are free to communicate with the students in an open and honest environment. We are not just teaching our students English, but the makeup of a NET’s duties here allow us to give the students the opportunity to practice creative communicative skills in general. At a time when Korean business leaders are stating their frustration at the younger generation’s inability to creatively communicate this is an important skill for students to be practicing…

Among respondents in companies human resources department, 75 percent said the education system fails to nurture the workforce the corporate world needs. The uniform way of teaching in schools was blamed by 59.3 percent. (http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2011/12/07/2011120700522.html)

Often a NET’s class is the only opportunity in this very uniformed educational environment to nurture the communicative and creative needs of the future generation of Korea’s workforce.

I’m not trying to say that the current system is perfect, every NET in a Korean public school would admit that we can be utilized more efficiently and effectively to give the Korean taxpayer the most value for their money, what I am suggesting is we focus our attentions on how this can be done. Let’s create an open dialogue between the NET community, the education authority, the government and parent and students to work together to meet the targets of the English syllabus and give a young generation of Koreans’ the skills they will need to continue Korea’s remarkable growth when they enter the business world.

What are your thoughts on the role of NET’s in Korea?
How can we take the role of NET’s into the future?

I welcome any comments below.

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter @AlexSRWalsh


11/12/2011 17:51

I completely agree with you!

I have only been here for a short period of time, but I can see the difference having a NET in the classroom has on the students’ English.

I have some great co-teachers, but some of them… I wonder how they would be considered to be an English teacher. One of my co-teacher’s barely knows enough English to say hello, and she is unwilling to learn. There is no way she can effectively teach English when she understands the textbook about as much as the students do.

I have seen some Korean teachers tell the students the wrong pronunciation or meaning of a word, and I cringe. I have to then try and correct the mistake without making it look like I am correcting the teacher.

I think the role of NETs is much more important for communication with English speakers. Sure, Korean teachers can drill vocabulary and grammar rules, but they don’t give the students the tools for effective communication. NETs do.

Jason Allshorn
11/12/2011 18:38

It focus I feel should be on the quality of research which leads to government policy. If all stakeholders are not surveyed and those that are, are not checked up on, the data remains useless. I believe that the research reported in the news is flawed.

Further more I believe the title NET is not a true one. NESG(native English speaking graduate) would apply to much more of the Native teaching community. When this issue is addressed, and the education system hires teachers then a new way ahead might be seen. Finally I totally agree that accountability in any education system is important. Let me have a camera in my classroom, opening it up to the world. The world can see me on a good day, parents can see their children on a bad day, and the school and see just how lazy other teachers can be. 🙂

12/12/2011 05:17

This is a great article and given it’s controversial nature surrounding native speakers it’s hard to wrap around what should be done to make all parties happy. What is annoying is the very black and white approach the government has taken on the issue without considering the long-term impact on English in Korea and how the education process works. Are we under utilized, most definitely, but not all teachers are, and it often boils down to the schools under utilizing us and not giving us more autonomy in the schools and this is mainly because of the position as foreigners in the schools. We often have to nod and agree to last minute and random camps, after school classes without any good information on student levels (co-operation with co-teachers) and disinterest in both teachers and students (although not always).

Every school, every province is different and it’s incredible that such a drastic cut was taken from the survey above without the thought of the importance of extra-curricular and non-academic situations that would be beneficial to the kids. The government set such initial standards and instead of surveying the levels of the teachers to determine their possible effectiveness, instead they keep the same rigid standard, don’t hire more credentialed teachers, and then say oh opps we hired too many under qualified teachers so therefore we must suddenly cut hundreds of teachers because so and so said they’re not effective. Funny enough they completely neglect to mention that more students find the lessons from Native Teachers much more effective and interesting, of course in Korea creativity, and striving to learn in non-academic settings is of low importance.

Just my 2 cents. Cheers!

12/12/2011 22:55

mmkay I read this article here(and i sorta agreed on several points) and then again in other Daum ‘cafe’ page.. Apparently Korean people who had ‘Native teacher’ in their school during their school years does not agree with ur argument at all. Maybe you can check the comments there?

13/12/2011 00:33

Hi Sod,

I’m really glad you enjoyed the article, I’m also really happy to have the opinion of a Korean person, I would really like more opinions on my blog from Korean people. I’m a little surprised about what you said about the opinions on Daum. A friend told me the article had been linked on there but seemed to think a lot of the comments were quite positive, that most agreed there is a need for NET’s but their roles need to be adapted as it is ineffective having 30+ students at a time, also that only one hour a week is not long enough. Unfortunately my Korean is good enough to read all the comments there myself, but I will ask my friend to translate some more of them for me.

Thanks for your input.

13/12/2011 00:40

Hi Kayla, Jason & CanadianNET.

First of all I’m glad you enjoyed reading the blog and thanks for commenting, I love knowing my readers opinions on the topics.

Kayla I think you’ve raised a very important point there, that although students may prefer a Korean teacher with a high level of English, there simply isn’t enough at this point with a high enough level of English. I think most Korean teachers would agree with you too, as I know the teachers at my school are worried about not having a NET next year to help with writing the exam paper etc.

Jason, I once taught at an academy with a camera, it wasn’t that pleasant but I definitely get your point. The trouble is, are there enough high standard quality teachers that want to come and work in Korea? Most of the quality teachers seem to be the ones that leave after a year, in my experience anyway!

CanadianNET I agree we are most definitely under utilized, I wish all this talk that is happening at the moment was centered around how NET’s could be used most effectively, because I think that is where the true issue lies.

Thanks for all your input guys,



13/12/2011 03:18

umm no.. im seeing about 75 comments and im pretty sure they are quite supportive about SMOE’s decision. Think it has a lot to do with the reasons you said tho

13/12/2011 03:26

Most of them have complaints on many NETs being ‘just some native speakers’ and not having mjored in education or at least, English. I myself have taught English in middle school (I majored in English) and I have to (kinda) agree with them coz there were many times I was so frustrated with my teaching skill (or method or whatnot..) i know there are many talented NETs out there and i can’t speak for others on this note but still..

23/12/2011 01:14

I believe that the problems with native speaking speaking English teachers, (and please don’t feel the need to be an apologist about the term. If you grew up speaking a language, you are a native speaker of said language), in the SMOE, EPIK, GEPIK, and generally in Korean education at large are rooted in the problems that are inherent in the Korean education system, a system which is not native to Korea at all.

Addressing the issues at the foundation of the system, (and in society at large) , would be the best first step.


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