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  HOME > ESL Community > Free topics
  English Education: Two-Headed Problem
  love     Sat 13 Jun 2009 02:44 PM (GMT)      Read : 11477    
English Education: Two-Headed Problem
By Chris Evans

I am a long time educator in Korea. I have worked in hagwon (private language institutes), public schools and universities across the peninsula. I was also a full-time teacher back in Canada before I arrived in Korea in the late 1990s.

Over 10 years in Korea have allowed me to take a step back and look at the ESL (English as a second language) industry with some perspective and to offer what I hope to be useful and constructive observations on what I see as a two-headed issue.

Korean System

The Korean ESL industry is anything but organized along a common standard except perhaps when it come to the rules that govern the granting of a work visa for foreign teachers. These rules work along a fairly similar minimum standard: a university degree from a select list of countries.

Requiring a degree in any field to obtain an E-2 teaching visa is accepting the lowest common denominator. Setting the standard so low will not attract better candidates. Then again, market forces (i.e. the need for teachers) places enormous pressure on the system to allow an increasing number of teachers into Korea.

This opens the floodgates to many people who have no place near a classroom. Such people are not the majority of foreign educators in Korea nor are they necessarily bad people. Most of them simply are not qualified to teach and are here for a host of other reasons that have very little to do with education.

The other key issue is the lack of regulation of the hagwon industry. This leads to an eclectic and very heterogeneous field where one school does things one way and the school down the road does something completely different which produces a wild variation in quality and opens the doors for shady operators only out to make a quick bundle of won.

These schools give the rest of the industry a bad name. With a global ESL market that is getting more competitive, Korea has to address this issue lest it see its share of the ESL pie shrink as teachers head to other countries, namely rising China.

Foreign Teachers

Hiring mostly fresh graduates may be cheaper financially but it also creates a number of problems. When you look at the motivation of many foreign teachers here the dominant themes are usually: saving money, paying off loans, traveling and seeing the world and so on.

One motivation shines all the brighter by its absence: the desire to teach and to help students learn. This is a serious issue and as long as Korea does not fix the entry issue and revamp its ESL industry it will continue to attract backpacking teachers in transit between their home country and another destination.

When someone comes to Korea to travel and save some money they will usually be ill-equipped to deal with living in a different cultural environment as a resident and not a tourist. The gap here is huge and potentially toxic.

Throw into the mix that teaching is a hard profession that requires dedication; selflessness and a desire to pass on knowledge and you have a recipe for disaster. This young graduate out to see the world and save money will hit a very sturdy brick wall upon realizing that teaching is hard and that often teachers are left with few resources.

This is true of teaching anywhere in the world but dedicated educators or people with a desire to be career teachers are far better equipped to deal with this.


In my opinion, Korea needs to come up with a more comprehensive and consistent screening system and to better regulate the hagwon industry and its ESL industry as a whole. This means raising the selection bar and standardizing the working conditions for foreign educators.

Since the need for teachers is increasing Korea could, instead of lowering the bar, widen the net. Native speakers are certainly not the only people qualified to teach English.

In fact, being a native speaker should not be a qualification as it simply means that a person was raised in English. Widening the net would mean putting value on qualifications over being a native speaker.

This would include people with ESL or education related degrees and people with teaching experience for whom English is a second language.

Currently Korea will not accept applicants from the Province of Quebec, Canada, if English is their second language. This ignores the fact that for all intents and purposes, the largest city there (Montreal) is bilingual.

Many qualified teachers could be hired from that market through a simple English test. India is another good example as there are many graduates with degrees in applied linguistics, ESL or education who are not even considered due to the native speaker rule.

There is an inherent advantage to hiring such teachers: They know what it takes to learn English and can understand the ESL students' perspective.

Foreign teachers who come to Korea need to accept that teaching is not a working holiday and that it requires sacrifice, hard work and a willingness to learn. Teachers need to understand that they are here to teach, not to travel.

Remember that your students are the priority, not you. At the end of the day, if you approach your job as a joke, do not expect to be treated as anything else than a clown.

Chris Evans is a 38-year-old Canadian teacher in Seoul. He has been teaching in Korea since 1999 and was a public school teacher in Canada before his arrival in South Korea. He holds an undergraduate degree in history and a master's degree in education specialized in ESL. He can be reached at

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