Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Brief interview with a Korean public school history teacher

A rather off topic post today. Due to my obligations to SMOE (Seoul Ministry of Education) I have to attend certain meetings and seminars. At one of these seminars, an English-speaking Korean high school history teacher delivered a brief lecture on Korean history and why we should care. I think for the most part, my fellow colleagues couldn’t care less about ancient history but are curious about a few modern historical topics. I say this because my colleagues asked questions liked “Why do Koreans hate Japanese?” and “What is all the fuss about Dokdo? Who gives a..” and so on. He was happy to answer.

The lecturer’s name is 임태현 and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions via after the seminar a few months ago. I asked him some rather random questions but he was surprisingly happy to answer them. I have edited out some of the really off-topic questions and modified the speech a little so as to give context. Also, although his English is quite fluent, I have also taken the liberty to correct a few mistakes. I post this with his permission and hope that it answers a few random questions some may have. Enjoy.

Q: How does a person become a public history teacher in Korea? What are the requirements? Is it competitive?

First of all, there are two types of teachers in Korea. Elementary school teachers and Secondary school teachers. Since you are asking about a Korean history teacher, it falls under the category of “Secondary school teachers” because elementary school teachers have to teach all kinds of subjects.

One who wants to be a Korean history teacher must obviously first get a teacher's license. For Koreans, it is needed to enter the College of Education for secondary schools or if he or she majored in history, they can take a teacher's training course or even dual major. Once they obtain the license, they can be a teacher legally. But in Korea, there are more people who are qualified to teach history than are actually needed in the schools. So, the government made a sort of qualifying exam once a year and it is really competitive.

Plus, there are two types of school systems: Public schools and Private schools. The government picks Public school teachers by the qualifying exam, but the private schools invite teachers using their own recruiting system. Their recruitment test may include a test of major knowledge, teaching skills, experiences, etc. What is more important is that recently the government permits some specially selected private schools to invite some competent teachers even if they don’t have a teacher’s license. In this way, even a foreigner could be a Korean history teacher.

Q: How can I learn 한자 (Chinese characters) effectively? Do I need it?

Chinese characters are really difficult to remember and use even for most Koreans because we express most of our feelings in Hangul. But Korean history researchers must be trained to read and interpret Chinese words in historical texts. So once prospective history teachers enter university, they keep reading and memorizing Chinese characters to learn and interpret Chinese sentences. I am not fluent but I am trying improve. I was surprised that you can speak fluent Korean, therefore I think you can easily learn how to read and interpret Chinese characters. I think there might be books on Chinese characters at most bookstores. Considering that you have to interpret Korean to English, just look around and see if there are Hanja-English books available. In the library of my school there are some good Hanja-learning books, so it shouldn’t be too hard for you to find some.

Q: Could you recommend any Korean historical movies?

I don’t really watch them often, but I can certainly tell you what are some popular ones. Of course the most famous one would have to be “태극기 휘날리며” (Taegugki) which is about 한국전쟁 (Korean War). Two movies set in 조선시대 (Joseon dynasty) are “왕의 남자” (The King and the Clown) and “신기전” (The Divine Weapon). For the 삼국시대 (Korean three kingdoms period) there is “황산벌” (Hwangsanbul). Finally, for the contemporary history, there is “화려한 휴가” (May 18th) which deals with “광주 민주화 운동” (Gwangju Democratic Movement - previously known as the Kwangju Uprising).

Q: Why do public school teachers move to a different every five years? Do they have to go? Why can’t they stay?

Like you ask, it’s only for the public school teachers. Private school teachers stay there until they retire or choose to leave. For the public school teachers, they belong to the government; more specifically, to SOME. The city or local province hires teachers and the city or local province belongs to the government, so teachers have their right to apply for the school they would like to be relocated to. From that point, there exists a sort of preferred school list in terms of traffic, residence, etc. That becomes the reason why the city has to take some measures for teachers to rotate. Otherwise, theoretically, so one would want to teach outside of the downtown area. It’s a system to help make things fair. Nowadays, the 강남 (Gangnam) area is on the top of the wish list.


Chris in South Korea said...

Hi Matthew,
Nice interview - wish I could've gotten that myself.

Chris in South Korea here - I just discovered your blog via KoreanBlogList and wanted to say hi from one K-blogger to another. I've added you to my Google Reader (the only way to keep up with several dozen K-blogs!) and linked to you on my blog ( It's all about life in Korea, traveling around the country, and the occasional commentary. If you have the time, I'd appreciate a linkback! I know you're busy studying - next time you have some time, let me know :) Take care for now -- Chris

Matthew Smith said...

@Chris - I've run across your blog before, of course. Nice to e-meet you. Thanks for the comment and I'll be sure to watch your blog!

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