In Korea, hagwons (private English teaching schools) are 10 a penny. There is one on each street corner with often several in the same building. Mine is on the third floor of the Sanyang Plaza, above a supermarket and a department store, facing another two across the street.
Unfortunately, hagwons are a cuckoo in the nest of parents' best intentions. They began as a few parents wanting to give their children an English advantage. However, with no parent wanting their offspring left behind, the idea snowballed and it's now a disadvantage not to attend. Most elementary-aged children are enrolled in at least one.
The names of the rooms at my hagwon reflect these educational aspirations. They are called Stanford, Yale, Columbia and Harvard. Fifty-minute classes run from 1.30pm to 7.30pm, with the earliest sessions attended by pre-schoolers. I work from 12:50pm until 8pm with five classes most days and six on a Wednesday. After classes, I have 20-25 minutes of phone teaching, consisting of a short dialogue.
I had two days of observation and orientation at the start, one day where I introduced myself to the pupils, one day of teaching with a Korean teacher, and I was teaching on my own by the Friday.
I am not superhuman - the textbooks are easy to teach. They have the same elements which are performed in sequence, though it is advisable to have alternative activities if the class decides not to play ball. However, parents pay for the textbook to be completed within a certain time. This leads to a lot of repetition learning and a vocabulary list to be delivered for the day.
The textbooks, CDs and voice-recognition multimedia suites are slick, well designed and lend themselves to a fast-paced learning environment, making the teacher's life easier. The fun activities often go first if pushed for time, the conversation and drama pieces are only vocabulary and grammar vehicles, and there is no room for creativity.
Most students are technically excellent but flounder in real conversation, which has caused heads to be scratched here. I often think of the puzzlement caused by this as I substitute another student's name into my scripted phone "teaching".
Colette Lynagh is gaining teaching experience prior to applying for a PGDE course later this year.