As recent changes in government policy regarding Native English Teachers (NETs) in Korea have resulted in significant NET reductions, the Fulbright program has managed to maintain the size of its program. Because of the Fulbright program’s strong connections with schools and its teachers’ positive reputations, many of the changes effecting other NET programs have been minimized for Fulbright ETAs.
In 1995, several nation-wide and regional English in Korea programs began to promote the use of NETs in Korean classrooms to teach English. In 2011, Korea’s NET program reached its peak with nearly 9,000 NETs in Korea. Major cuts in numbers of foreign teachers have been made in the past few years, especially at the middle and high school levels. These cuts have impacted larger cities the most, and similar cuts are likely to continue over time.
Many regional education offices feel that enough Korean teachers have reached a “teaching English in English capacity,” so they hope to phase out their NET programs over time. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education stated that 95.6% of Korean teachers in their region are capable of teaching English classes in English.
While this may sound somewhat daunting, most argue that NETs will have a place in Korea for many years to come. As larger cities cut many NETs, numerous smaller, more rural cities have begun to add NET programs. In addition, many elementary schools are working to maintain their NET programs to enhance pronunciation development, provide native expressions, and allow for the students to understand English, not only as a language, but as part of a larger culture.
So, what does all of this mean for Fulbright ETAs? It definitely does not mean the end of the program, but it does mean that there have been changes. This year, 15 ETAs received brand new Fulbright placements in areas such as Sejong City (세종특별자치시), Bonghwa-gun (봉화군), Yecheon-gun (예천군), and Uiseong-gun (의성군). Many of these ETAs were placed in rural and/or elementary schools, some even teaching at two or more schools due to small enrollment numbers.
While these changes have altered the composition of schools who employ Fulbright ETAs, the new types of schools have offered new teaching environments for many Fulbright ETAs. In the words of Matt Kendrick (2014-15), an elementary school ETA in Yecheon-gun, “The small school environment is an amplifier.” It has the potential to amplify relationships, teaching experiences, and cultural immersion to a level not possible at many large schools. Since many of these changes are relatively recent, we will have a better understanding of how they will affect the program long-term in the coming years.