Question 4 - Reflect for a moment on your career in ELT. What have been the major turning points and decisions in your professional life? How have these related to your personal life? What values have guided you in choosing your career path? What conflicts of values have you experienced, and how have you tried to resolve them?
I think I can answer all of these questions by discussing my experience during my first year teaching ESL! When I first started teaching here in Korea, I did it to take a year off before beginning my career in financial planning in earnest. I had been working at a bank for a period of time and had studied quite hard over the preceding year to become a Certified Financial Planner. Having never lived outside the US, I wanted to take a year to live somewhere new and do something I knew I would enjoy.
Things didn't go to plan, however, because I really loved teaching and my experiences in Korea :) I didn't want to come back and start my 'real' life! That year affected me on a very personal level in both positive and negative ways. I think, because many of my own deeply-held values are more in-line with teaching than financial planning, I was able to recognize what I really enjoyed about education despite a very difficult work experience.
So I would say the decision to stick with language instruction as opposed to returning to financial work was definitely my most significant professional decision, but it was also the easiest life-altering decision I have ever made. I value the act of helping others and have always known that I would only be satisfied with a job in which this value was directly and significantly attended to. My desire to help others had previously led me to financial planning (and hospitality for many years before that!), but teaching provided me with a totally pure sense of personal and professional satisfaction which I had never experienced before. After a few months of that feeling, it was hard to envision returning to a morally complicated and less satisfying career in finance.
Still, that first year at a language academy was extremely difficult. Coming to terms with education-for-profit was not easy because management's goals so often conflicted with educational goals. The academic approach set the students up for failure, a situation with which upper-management was perfectly content provided the net student enrollment was maintained and tuition payments continued to roll in. I made my feelings known on a variety of issues which I felt were creating a poor quality of life in my classrooms and preventing acquisition, but it was soon clear that the systemic changes needed to move into positive territory would never come to be. Furthermore, the teachers (foreign and Korean) were constantly being marginalized and taken advantage of financially, professionally and personally, leading to very low workplace morale. Many of the other foreign teachers had simply given up, using the extremely flawed management as an excuse to check-out as educators and drift through the days, collecting paychecks, students-be-damned.
The negativity of that place affected me, too, but in a different way from some of my colleagues. Management was upsetting, but teacher apathy was more upsetting by far. I found myself motivated to do the extra work necessary to create as much good out of a bad situation as possible for the students in my classes, however much or little that might amount to. Some of the other teachers clearly had the same reaction, and I suspect some others shared my feelings though their actions didn't reflect it. In their defense, there were many days (like, every day?) when I also wanted to just give up.
Still, as painful as it was to watch many students fail where they could have easily succeeded under better circumstances, I think all the disadvantages we faced made it that much more exhilarating when students were able to succeed. I developed a pretty close bond with some of the kids and we still shoot emails back and forth from time to time. The good that came from that bad place was so good that I stuck with ESL.. and the bad was bad enough to make clear the need to further my own ESL education; I wanted to have the technical competence and the professional clout to bend disadvantageous educational conditions to my will, making them student-centered and successful.
So here I am and that's why :)
Question 5 - Think about your own teaching situation. Do you consider that you are marginalized in any way? If so, what forms does this marginalization take? What forms of advocacy are or would be useful in your situation?
Thankfully, my current teaching situation does not suffer from almost any of the circumstances laid out in the previous section! It is a private elementary school in which English education is taken somewhat more seriously and my approach to ESL is respected, within limits. I do, however, feel marginalized at work because of the language barrier between the administration and myself. Really, I don't put much or any of the blame for this marginalization on the administration. I think it's my responsibility, as a resident-alien in Korea, to learn to communicate with them or to be satisfied with using middle-management as an intermediary for communication (this presents a slew of problems..).
While I am able to communicate basic conversational utterances in Korean, I am not, for example, able to effectively explain my feelings on more complex issues: the effect of my class meeting times upon language acquisition; my opinion concerning the pace at which we should be covering material. For these dialogues, I have to wait for an appropriate time to present itself in which I am able to express a complex thought to our middle-manager and hope that she successfully expresses that thought to the administration in the way that I had intended. The opportunity to do this in person happens about once a semester.
The kind of advocacy that would be useful in my situation is my own! I am looking forward to having the time to continue improving my Korean communicative ability for both personal and professional reasons.