A YEAR TEACHING ENGLISH IN SOUTH KOREA
I hit Korea with feet running, only to find that my timing was as wrong as it could be. I’d just spent a decade teaching in Indonesia and Thailand, and had forgotten what cold weather was. South Korea brought me up to speed on the subject in short order. Korea was cold. Frigging cold. Mind-numbingly cold. Newspaper reports said it was Korea’s coldest winter in years. Biting, cold winds swept down from Siberia, bringing rain, sleet and snow with them. Snow deposited on the streets during the day had turned to ice by next morning. My lightweight Teflon clothes from Indonesia afforded me as much protection from the cold as a band-aid.
My second misjudgement: I arrived in Seoul in a month when English schools weren’t recruiting. Job opportunities were nil, nowt, non-existent. Thus I was reduced to sitting in my tiny, windowless yogwan room with an eiderdown wrapped around my shoulders, rueing the day I ever decided to move to this god-forsaken country. Then, a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon. Or on the Armed Forces radio network to be more exact. Extras were required to appear in the movie “Inchon”, currently being filmed in and around Seoul. Twenty-five dollars a day, plus transport, plus lunch. And, while they didn’t mention it, plus the opportunity to break into the movie industry, and inexorably rise to become a leading box-office name. In “Inchon” my co-stars would be Richard Roundtree, Jacqueline Bisset, David Janssen, Ben Gazarra, Omar Sharif, and Sir Laurence Olivier (“Larry” to me, now that we’ve appeared in a film together.) I would be in good company.
I reported to the hotel the movie company had commandeered early next morning. A harried American guy announced over a megaphone that today they were filming civilian refugees at Seoul railway station, so would you please go to the wardrobe department in the basement of the hotel and get fitted out. The basement proved to be half an acre of clothes racks containing GI’s uniforms (new, used, and battle-scarred) and civilian clothes (new, used, and tatty). I was directed to the tatty end, and handed a pair of baggy trousers complete with a piece of string as a belt, a nondescript brown coat, and a stained hat. Then back up to the convention room to wait. And wait. And then wait some more. Lunch was handed out (three ham sandwiches and an apple) and we were told to get ready to be bussed to the station anytime now.
At the station we were ordered to wait yet again, but at least now there was something interesting going on. They were filming a street scene just outside the station. Driver Richard Roundtree was driving a jeep carrying a military big-wig, then swinging into the station entrance at speed. They filmed the scene time after time, but it was not quite up to the director’s expectations. “Cut. Let’s try that again. Take thirteen.” Richard Roundtree then alighted from the jeep, a Korean worker reversed the jeep back to its starting point, Roundtree got back into the driver’s seat, and did the scene all over again. To actually reverse the jeep was not in Roundtree’s contract; that was the task of a scenery-shifter.
I spent the next few weekends working on ‘my film’. One day I was part of a crowd of GIs listening to General MacArthur (Sir Lawrence Olivier) as he delivered a speech from the town-hall balcony. Olivier was not actually on hand; instead there was a lackey holding up placards that read “Applaud”, “Laugh”, and “Shout ‘Hurrah’ .” On another day I was in a landing craft (just a few seats away from David Janssen) and spent most of the time waiting as walkie-talkie equipped assistants coordinated the helicopters flying overhead and the explosive charges buried in the sand.
After three weeks, my movie career ground to a halt, as by then I had picked up a couple of teaching jobs. I never did get to view “Inchon”, but I did read the review in Time magazine. “Inchon would have to be one of the worst films ever made…” it read.
My teaching year started off with a situation that is the bugbear of all new teachers. I couldn’t find a job that offered a sizeable chunk of hours, so I was reduced to teaching an hour here, two hours there (in a hole-in-the-wall apology for a school), then one and a half hours on the other side of town….
It was well over four months before I landed a job at Language Teaching Research Center, working full afternoons and evenings. LTRC was a non-profit making school run by Encyclopedia Britannica, and its mandate was to try out new teaching methodologies and assess their effectiveness. The year I was there, the Silent Way was the focus of their attention. This method, invented by Caleb Gattegno in the nineteen sixties, is based on reducing Teacher Talking Time to a bare minimum, and instead eliciting the language by various visual cues and body language. I started off full of cynicism and scorn at this off-the-wall teaching technique, but ended up a convert. In the Silent Way, students are challenged by the fact that they are responsible for their own learning. They also know that if they do not speak, no-one else is going to, and no-one is going to come to their aid. The teacher’s role is to cue them on the target language, then accept or reject the students’ utterances. It all sounds dry and humorless, but in practice it isn’t. I still use Silent Way techniques every lesson. If you spoon-feed new language to students, they’ll have forgotten it by next day. If you force them to sweat over it, they’ll retain it. Elicit, elicit, elicit.
Korean students are hard-working, and demanding of themselves and their teachers. “Driven” wouldn’t be too strong a word for it; a legacy of parents’ pressure to push their children to the top rung of the ladder at all costs.
I am in two minds about my year’s employment in Korea. On the one hand I did learn how to teach. I did get to write a fortnightly column in The Korea Times. On the other hand I never really warmed to the Korean people. Nor, I must add, to the weather. My time in South Korea was an interesting experience, but I can’t see myself going back there in the foreseeable future.
My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon) puts the English teaching game under the spotlight. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.