Teachers Query EPIK's Effectiveness
This is the final article in a two-part series on the English Program in Korea. _ Ed.
By Mark Dake, Staff reporter
There are teething pains, to be sure. It can be obviously exasperating, teaching overflowing classes of 50 to 60 rambunctious kids. The textbooks are outdated, the curriculum goals, hazily defined and when East meets West, there can be wide cultural gaps.
But for many foreign teachers placed into hundreds of Korean public schools in landlocked interior towns, large bustling cities and breezy coastal villages, the government mandated English Program in Korea (EPIK) has been an intriguing experience.
"I think it's excellent," said Frank Kelly, 48, a gregarious Scotsman teaching at Keumok Girls High School near Kimpo airport.
"It's the best place I've taught English at in 24 years." Kelly doesn't naively spout platitudes. He's made a lifelong career of instructing English _ in Russia, Spain, Poland, at universities in Paris and Glasgow and now, Korea.
"All the girls are so hard working and the Korean teachers are very pleasant." EPIK began in 1995, and there are currently about 700 or so foreign instructors, mainly Americans and Canadians, in the program.
What do the teachers think of EPIK? Are Korean students picking up English efficiently? Is it worthwhile? "It's basically a very good experience," said Don, an American who has been teaching in Suwon in Kyonggi Province south of Seoul, for two years. But the 40ish American, added that he felt the program wasn't very well organized.
The American's conclusions were partly based on his first year's experiences when he was shuffled to different classes every day, seeing some "20,000 students" and never the same class twice.
Teachers said large class sizes, usually 45-55 students, with as many as l,000 weekly, meeting for 50-minutes, were difficult to organize.
"I like to think we're effective, but I'm not sure," said Canadian Sandra Korpela, 49, at Hapdock Girls' Middle School in Tangjin-gun, South Chungchong Province. "I've been here for 11 months now, and I'm finally getting some students coming up to me and initiating conversations in English. There not long conversations, but its a start."
Teachers also said that Korean students seemed to suffer from an inordinately heavy course load, leaving precious little time to make serious inroads in English.
"The kids aren't learning," stated Charlotte Landes, 57, an American teaching at Demonstration High School at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "They're taking Korean, French or German, and English (language courses) and Chinese characters, about 15 courses. They are horribly exhausted and in a state of anxiety."
Kelly concurred and said his pupils were "snowed under with work." He recalled teaching in France and Spain, where the average course load was seven or eight subjects, and he favored that system.
When Landes first began, she taught 57 students per class and 914 students weekly. She pushed for change, and now directs class sizes of about 25, twice weekly. She felt she is more successful now.
Korpela wanted to know exactly what her EPIK mandate was.
"I asked my district supervisor 'why we are here, why is the government spending so much money to bring us over?'" said Korpela.
"He answered, 'because you are foreigners.'" Korpela took that to mean that her presence was part of a need to provide opportunities for students to gain new perspectives on other cultures, via herself, and the other foreign teachers. In her region, she said, most students had never met anyone outside of Korea.
Assisting Korean teachers certainly is a top priority.Thankfully, since the Seoul Education Office has cut all of its secondary school positions for NSETs, the program has apparently succeeded, and the problems discussed in this sixteen year-old article no longer apply. Right?
"The greatest benefits of us being here are for the Korean teachers, not the students," said Don, the EPIK language coordinator in Kyonggi Province. "The long range benefits are greater for them, than they are for teaching students for a month or so." Most western teachers felt their Korean counterparts were a pleasure to work beside, but felt that the rigid Korean educational system wasn't conducive to optimum student performance.
Instructors told of using student-centered methods to encourage "interactive, spontaneous" learning, anything to get kids using English as much as possible, in opposition to the host country's teacher-centered lecture system, in which listening, not talking, was stressed.
Korpela said in her first semester, she spent afternoons teaching workshops to 60 Korean teachers, but discovered perhaps only three or four at most were willing to adopt new methods.
"The teachers didn't want to do new things," she said. "Change seemed to be abhorrent to them." Don said that teaching teachers new "methodology is the biggest problem. When I try to teach it to Korean teachers, they don't really seem to understand it." As Western and Korean teachers work side by side, wrestling for a balance in teaching styles and methods, and the kinks get worked out of the system, the positives nevertheless certainly seem to outweigh the negatives.
Sixty-five percent of this year's teachers wanted to renew their contracts for another stint, according to the Seoul Education Office, indicating most teachers felt comfortable in their positions.