Kong Jeong-taek, superintendent of Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, says the Seoul education office is strengthening ties with foreign universities to pick qualified teachers. / Korea Times Photo by Shim Hyun-chul
By Kang Shin-who
Seoul’s top educator said he will take diverse steps to upgrade English classes at schools. Kong Jeong-taek, superintendent of Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE), said primary and secondary schools in Seoul will have at least an assistant teacher specialized in helping students improve English communication in two or three years.
Under the plan, the top educator will invite more foreign teachers, not only native English speakers but also foreigners who are skilled in the use of English.
“With the growing number of mixed-nationality families, it is not desirable to restrict selection of English teachers to English speaking nations,’’ Kong said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Mindful of possible opposition from parents against such plans, the introduction of non-native English teachers will be taken step-by-step.
“We need to gradually open the teaching jobs to foreigners from Asian countries that use English as an official language,’’ he added.
Currently, the Korean immigration authority doesn’t issue English teaching visas (E-2 visa) to those from Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Singapore and the Philippines where English is used as an official language. However, some of them who are married to Koreans are teaching English at schools with their residence visa.
Moreover, the requirement for securing an E-2 visa turns many native English speaking teachers to other countries resulting in schools and private language institutions having difficulties in securing foreign teachers.
More Native English Teachers
Kong was confident about the quality of foreign teachers selected by the education office. “Our foreign teachers are better than those of private language schools and those from other regional education offices because of our strict screening process.’’
He said the Seoul education office is strengthening ties with foreign universities to pick qualified teachers.
“We have maintained close ties with foreign universities for the selection of quality teachers,’’ he added.
SMOE plans to increase its number of foreign English teachers up to 480 this year.
Use of Koreans
Despite growing demand for professional English teachers, more than half of schools in Seoul don’t have foreign English teachers.
To make up for the shortfall, the education office plans to use university students or Koreans who can speak English fluently.
Related to this, the superintendent said that there will be a big-scale recruitment for assistant teachers to improve students’ conversation skills in English.
“It is better for children to learn English as early as possible. I believe elementary students need English education from the first grade,’’ Kong said. The top educator, who had been an English teacher, also expressed his support for implementing English as the country’s second official language.
SMOE also plans to introduce English immersion programs that teach mathematics and science in English. Kwangnam Elementary School will run pilot programs from this year and a state-run Global High School slated to open this March will do the programs.
Along the same lines of the commitment of President-elect Lee, Kong will strengthen training programs for English teachers. Lee proposed to train at least 3,000 new English teachers qualified to give lessons speaking only in English.
Above all, the superintendent emphasized the roles of headmasters of elementary and secondary schools to build an English-friendly education environment.
“School heads should be global-minded and interested in English education to improve English skills of students,’’ he said.
More “Global Schools’’ Planned
SMOE plans to set up two more “global middle schools’’ that provide all classes in English. Once the authority for establishing elementary and secondary schools is handed over to the education office from the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, the project will start.
“I faced strong opposition last year when I pushed forward to establish global middle schools. But today’s schools need global education. We need global middle schools like the global high school we already have,’’ Kong said.
Young Hoon Educational Foundation and Daewon Educational Foundation want to set up specialized global middle schools. Kong pledged that he would carry out the project step by step to prevent any possible side effects.
Korea currently has two international middle schools, the Cheongshim International Academy in Gapyong, Gyeonggi Province, and the Busan International Middle School in the southern port city of Busan.
Kong is positive about the incoming government’s move to set up more autonomous private elite schools.
“I am not sure how many independent private schools or autonomous private schools will be built in Seoul. But I believe it’s a right step for the development of education,’’ Kong said. “Those schools will offer various scholarship programs supported by the government. In the long run, this movement will reduce private education fees.’’
Educator for World Peace
Kong is also known as an educator dedicated to help the unprivileged. “I believe I have lived over the last 50 years only for education and sacrificed myself for the development of Korean education. Specifically, I have tried to open the ways for vocational high school students to learn more,’’ he said.
His devotion to education has reached other countries as well. He has invited children of Koreans residing in China, Russia, Mongolia and Uzbekistan for technology education. Particularly, Kong conducted a computer donation campaign to implant “IT Learning Programs’’ in Uzbekistan and trained teachers from the country.
Kong also arranged for paper to be sent to North Korea to produce textbooks. With these efforts, Kong was last year recognized by the International Association of Educators for World Peace, an international NGO, dedicated to United Nation’s goals of peace education, environmental protection human rights and disarmament.
The top educator pledged that Seoul schools will also care for children of mixed-nationality families. Under his leadership, SMOE will continue to develop various programs to adapt those children to Korean schools.