Teaching in Russia vs. Teaching in South Korea
Taught at the AH Spring & Summer 2009
Currently back teaching English in Korea
When I decided to try teaching at The American Home in 2008, my decision was based on a desire for a change of scenery, not a desire to change the type of work I was doing. After two years, the novelty of living in South Korea had worn off and I wanted to learn about Russian culture and the Russian people—I had no idea that the two jobs, teaching in South Korea and teaching in Russia, would be so different.
The most obvious difference, to me (maybe because I’m American?), was the salary. In Korea I saved $10,000 dollars in one year, while in Vladimir I wrote home several times to ask my parents for small loans to tide me over. As difficult as it was to accustom myself to living within very limited means, I believe it was a good experience. Many people in Russia don’t have extra money to burn whenever they are bored, and I believe that this lack of money contributes to something I’ve discovered about the Russian people—they seem to enjoy life, to appreciate all its detail and variety, in a way many Americans and Koreans do not. It might be wishful thinking, but I hope my time in Russia has enabled me to savor life, and not rely as much on empty diversions.
Another difference that struck me was the amount of autonomy and accountability teachers at The American Home have. When American Home teachers have a pedagogical question, they can ask their fellow teachers or the Teacher Supervisors (Lena and Olya) for advice, but ultimately each teacher has to decide how to teach the content. This means that the new teachers tend to rely on Lena, Olya and others for guidance, but they become more self-reliant as they gain experience and confidence. With all the feedback from students, there is also no question about which teaching approaches are successful, and which are not. My students’ Spring semester evaluations made it clear that my use of a movie was not as helpful as it should have been, which led me to change how I presented that movie, The Truman Show, in the Summer semester. This accountability means you can’t shirk the blame when things don’t go well, but it also means your sense of accomplishment will be well-deserved when things you try work.
In comparison, English teachers in Korea have fewer opportunities to improve as educators. The focus of teaching English in Korea is on helping students pass standardized tests like the TOEFL, which diminishes the importance of actual communication.
As was especially the case in Russia during the Soviet period, in Korea the emphasis is on memorization and regurgitation, a method that is neither fun for the teacher or the student. Therefore, teaching in Korea is at times an uncomfortable highwire act, with Western teachers trying to balance their home countries’ ideas about effective language education (communicative and student-centered) against their host country’s expectations (pass the test; get a great job; never use English again).
Also, in Korea, because the students’ parents pay as much as one third of their monthly income for tuition at the private schools, they feel entitled to complain if they don’t think their child is being taught what he or she “needs to know.” This can lead to awkwardness when, for example, a parent with minimal English skills calls to ask why their eight year old daughter doesn’t know the English word for “radioactive.”
In contrast to Korea, where most of your time is spent with students generating income for the school’s owners, teachers at The American Home spend at least twice as much time on lesson-planning and teacher meetings where, among other things, pedagogical problems are discussed. This means that American Home teachers have the opportunity to actually become competent, and in many cases excellent, teachers.
The biggest difference to me was the average age of the students, which in Korea is seven or eight vs. probably eighteen or twenty at The American Home. There are a lot of advantages to teaching young children: their curiosity is contagious, they will come to love you, and you can watch them grow up knowing that you have helped them do so. However, if you want to learn about a country, interaction with adults is a necessity. During my first two years’ teaching in Korea, I only made two or three Korean friends. One reason for this was that my Korean language skills were hilariously incomplete. For example, in conversations with adults I’d get strange looks when I used children’s slang.
The biggest disadvantage to not spending more time with adults in Korea was not getting a sense of the “soul” of the country. I don’t know if it is possible to capture the essence of a country merely through talking with its adult citizens, but after working in Russian for just six months, I do feel that I know that country better, and like it better than Korea, largely because of the time I spent with my students at the American Home.
NOTE: To be fair to the Koreans, it should be mentioned that the vast majority of for-profit English language schools in Russia, as well as in Japan and elsewhere, understandably tend to focus on “maximizing income” and, therefore don’t put as much emphasis on lesson planning and feedback as does the AH. (See the relevant sections of the collected essays -- soon to be available on the website. In short, the American Home English program is unique in a number of ways) –RP