Reflections on Teacher Training

I have wanted to reflect on my experiences training teachers, and a recent post over at Brian in Jeollanam-do critiquing the teacher training, and English education in South Korea has rekindled this urge. In the institution from which I recently resigned there were two teacher training sessions a year. During those sessions I trained primary and secondary school teachers.

A few brief words describing the course. It is a two week program where teachers work with the instructors for about six hours a day. In all honesty I feel sheepish calling it teacher training, because in many ways it was a farce, a little dance that both the teachers and I knew was more for the benefit of the administrations of our institutions than really for the benefit of the students’ educations. This was quite hard for me to tolerate, because many of them made it quite obvious that they were just going through the motions, yet some of them were sincere and showed genuine interest in reflecting on their teaching, and learning some new ideas or resources. The final thing that I think was detrimental to the program was the test at the end, something that is unavoidable in South Korea and in a great many other areas of the world, as well as all levels of education, I fear. Therefore the teachers were more concerned about “What’s going to be on the test?” than they were about critically evaluating the resource I was trying to share with them and how they could apply it to their teaching contexts. In any case, I generally enjoyed these sessions, sharing our experiences in South Korea’s classrooms, and seeking ways to improve our teaching.

But the question that was always in my mind at the end of each session, and I suppose is in the mind of every educator after a class, is will anything take effect, will it endure? I pity some of these South Korean teachers for they are up against seemingly insurmountable odds (or at least that is the picture they paint in their frequent lamentations in class). The main complaint that they referred to was in regard to our old foe the standardized test. They need to get their students’ to achieve satisfactory marks on these tests to appease parents, in order to keep the admins happy, which only perpetuates the system. It doesn’t look good for the lonely few classes I had in the last session trying to impart the benefits of extensive reading.

Admittedly our training session was probably not the most effective way to induce change, and there are other programs in the country that were described in the last KOTESOL conference, which include six months of training including one month abroad. But how much more effective are these? (Which is what Brian asks in the post mentioned above) I asked one of the presenters if he ever followed up, post training session, to see how many teachers had succumbed to the pressures inherent in the South Korean context upon returning to their classrooms, and he said he hadn’t. This is also something that I haven’t done either. Once, the training session is over, I rarely heard from the teachers again, unless by coincidence. I guess my questions are: Are these problems unique to South Korea? The South Korean government has repeatedly lamented their students poor English communicative competence, but what should I recommend to those teachers who are stuck in the system and repeatedly the focus of blame from their administration and the parents?