Saturday, August 27, 2011

It's good to be the good guy: Teaching in Korea

By Doug Lasken

For a while now, I've had to get accustomed to the characterization of my 25-year teaching career with the Los Angeles Unified School District as a series of reprehensible acts on my part. As a teacher, I've been the bad guy.

First, over the 16 years I taught elementary, I wanted to teach immigrant children how to speak, read and write in English. Prior to 1997 when the passage of Propostion 227 mandated that immigrant children in California should learn English, my views were considered reactionary and contrary to the best interests of Hispanic children. I was told bluntly that by refusing to teach exclusively in Spanish I was destroying the children's chances of success. One coordinator told me I was perpetuating "English as King." "No," I countered, "English is the common language of most of the world," but this was a non-starter in such circles.

It seemed to me also that I should teach the content of core subjects. In elementary, I thought kids should know their times tables, the decimal system, some rudimentary science, and the fundamentals of reading: phonics, spelling and basic grammar. In my 10 years as a high school English teacher, I believed that students should know grammar and should read some novels. I found I was wrong on all counts. It seemed that memorization of the times tables damaged a child's ability to do critical thinking in math, that, for older kids, concepts like measuring one's distance from a celestial object using parallax should never be taught, rather children should "discover" or "construct" it for themselves (an approach called "constructivism"), again to preserve "critical thinking skills."

With the coming of "Whole Language," I was advised that the teacher should sit back while the children teach themselves to read, which they will do if the stories are engaging and have nice illustrations, and I was directed in no uncertain terms to immediately cease all instruction in phonics, spelling and grammar, as these would -- you guessed it -- destroy all hope of reading with critical thinking skills.

Two years ago, as if to ensure fond memories after my retirement, LA Unified decided that novels were of no use to students. Elitist professors, we were told, had forced novels on the high school curriculum at the turn of the last century, and it was time to recognize that we are an information age now and kids need expository reading. So much for Brave New World. Let's assemble that hammock!

Every one of these pedagogical oddities was endorsed at every level of California's adult administrative empire, from the local school board and superintendent to the state board and state department of education, up to and including the federal Department of Education. Never before has so vast an assortment of adults been so completely in the thrall of critical thinking skills without apparently having any themselves. Test scores tell the story: American high school graduates' proficiency levels have fallen and are falling in all areas. No wonder the Obama administration is suddenly against all current testing (though it wants to spend billions on brand-new testing). Let's shoot the messenger.

In the years leading up to my retirement in June '09, I faced another set of negative characterizations, this one pertaining to the practical aspects of my profession. It seems that the nation's failing economy has been largely my fault because my motive for entering the teaching profession was to enrich myself at the public trough. To help me in this nefarious quest, I joined a teachers union, my partner in crime. The union and I conspired to jack up my salary over 25 years to about $70,000. I must confess further that my union buddies and I saw to it that I will receive a pension of about two-thirds of my highest year's salary for the rest of my life, plus...oh the shame...I will have medical coverage! Have you ever heard of anything like this in any other sector? No wonder the state and federal governments are going bust! You need look no further for an explanation.

Let me hasten to add that I'm no apologist for teachers unions. Clearly my perspective diverges from the current vilification of unions on the financial side, but let's be clear that the unions have been complicit in the destruction of American public school pedagogy. In Californina, the United Teachers of Los Angeles and its parent, the California Teachers Association, as well as the national unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have been 100% in support of the prohibition of English instruction of immigrant children, and the abandonment of direct instruction of content, via Whole Language and constructivist dogmas in science and math.

Well, as it happens, retirement has opened some interesting doors for me. I've been teaching in Seoul, on my second tour through the UCLA Writing Project, for whom I teach at South Korean private academies. I'm crazy for Korean food -- it really clears the nasal cavities -- but the compelling benefit of this job is that I went from bad guy to good guy. I love when that happens.

First, no one asked me to stay clear of English because the kids don't know it. In fact, it seems that their status as ESL students is considered a reason to teach them English. Who would have thought? I was paid fairly, and no one seemed to begrudge me that. Forget constructivism here: they want information, skills and methods. Here's another bonus: a special bond between teacher and student is prized. I will transliterate it roughly as "cho." I was encouraged to interact with my students in a number of ways, for instance by going out to lunch with them (sometimes the company paid), by staying after class to tutor, and by discussing essays late at night via email. One night, the students, the school director, another teacher and I went out to see the new "Harry Potter" movie. The next morning, my class read David Denby's review of it in The New Yorker.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the morbid fear in the US of going beyond tightly restricted bonds, where the supposition is that teachers (especially males) -- in addition to being lazy and self-serving -- are predatory. In fact it seems that in Korea, the teacher is prized as a key element in enhancing civilization and culture.

Not to say teachers get a free ride in Korea. In the realm of the private academies, the moms see to it that a teacher who does not deliver disappears pronto. But the default position is that teachers are a key element in the human endeavor. Would that not seem to be the rational view for any civilization?

Doug Lasken is an English teacher, debate coach, consultant and freelancer. Reach him through his blog at 

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

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