One of the biggest nuisances I remember from secondary school in Ireland was the rigmarole around speaking to teachers outside of class time. You’d have to knock on the staff room door, where a grumbly teacher would make it clear that you’re an absolute nuisance, before begrudgingly fetching the teacher you were looking for. The worst thing was trying to make sure your knock was loud enough so the teachers would hear it, but not so loud that you got roared at. I really hated that staff-room door.
At the Korean girls’ middle school where I work, all of the teachers work in an open plan office and students are free to wander around. I really love this arrangement. Students can ask me questions or just hang out if they want to practice their English, and it makes the hours of lesson planning less monotonous. Sometimes on a Friday the school orders pizza or fried chicken and we share it with any students who happen to be around.
I also think my students know more about me than I knew about my teachers. On my first day of teaching I prepared a presentation to tell the girls about my family, my interests, and a bit about Ireland. At the end I asked them if they would like to ask me any questions, but I couldn’t have prepared for the barage that ensued:
Do you have a boyfriend? How tall is he? Is he handsome? How old are you? Woooow, so old! How tall are you? Stand beside Jia teacher so we can see who is taller! Is that your natural hair colour? Wow! Can I touch it? What colour eyes do you have? Wow, green!? Can I look more closely? Where do you live? Do you like K-Pop? Can you speak any Korean?
In Ireland, it would be considered especially rude to ask a teacher questions related to things like age and appearance, but not in Korea.
I had some really nice teachers at school in Ireland, but my relationships with them were mostly tainted with distance and fear. There were none that I felt could chat to about non-school related things, or just have ‘the craic’ with. Of course some Korean teachers maintain a cool distance from students, but most have fun with them. The strength of these student-teacher friendships becomes clear whenever the local high school has a half day, and my school becomes full of students coming back to visit their old teachers. I can’t imagine that happening in Ireland, at least not to the same extent.
I’m not quite sure why it’s so different in Korea. Perhaps it’s because, just like almost every facet of life in Korea, school is influenced by Confucian values. Social harmony is seen to be achieved when everyone knows their place in the pecking order. Teaching is a highly esteemed profession, so for the most part students are polite and respectful (though don’t get me wrong, there are a few who are out to destroy me), without teachers feeling compelled to act like hard-asses.
I know that fostering positive relationships with students feels good on both sides, but an educator named Rita Pierson has helped me to realise that it’s good for students’ learning too. In her Ted Talk entitled Every kid needs a champion, she recalls a colleague telling her that ‘The don’t pay me to like the kids’. Pierson responded by saying ‘Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like’. I think this is particularly salient with language learning – if the students regard me with dislike and fear, then their feelings towards learning English will be the same.
I had a lot of teachers I didn’t like. And while I did learn from them, I resented every fact and formula they taught me. I developed a disdain for learning which didn’t go away until I went to a small college where I was was able to get to know my teachers.
On a different note, physical contact between teachers and students is also very normal in Korea. The first time I saw a teacher with a student in a head-lock I was horrified, until I saw that they were both laughing hysterically. I have one co-teacher who wakes sleeping students with a gentle shoulder rub. It’s also normal to see teachers stroking students’ heads, hugging them or walking down the corridor with their arm around a student’s back (I should probably note here that I teach at an all girls’ school and the vast majority of teachers are women – there is a very different attitude towards physical contact between people of opposite genders).
I remember as a student in Ireland, I developed a big ball of fluid on my wrist, which disgusted and excited my classmates in equal measure. ‘Sir, look at this yoke on Clare’s wrist! It’s all squishy, touch it!’ one of my classmates said to our Irish teacher. ‘I’m not allowed to touch students’, was his stony-faced response.
One Friday a few weeks ago, I was hanging out in my classroom with some third-grade students. We were discussing their ambitions to marry handsome Irish men when they grow up, their weekend plans, and the deliciousness of Cadbury’s Crunchies, which they had recently tried for the first time in their lives. One of them turned to me and said ‘Teacher, you are Irish big sister. We are Korean little sisters’. The joy I felt just then immediatelly cancelled out all the silly little things I had been stressing out about all week.
Students also regularly say ‘I love you’ to me, something I found a bit disconcerting at first (You don’t love me, you just love the idea of me!). But now I respond by saying ‘사랑해‘ (Saranghae – ‘I love you’ in Korean). I know plenty of people would say that’s exactly the type of closeness that should be discouraged, because it undermines my authority over them. But frankly, I don’t care. Teaching is harder than I ever could have imagined. Teaching without warmth and friendship would be miserable.
When I leave Korea, I can’t imagine thinking ‘I’m glad I was strict and didn’t bother getting to know any of the students. They were afraid of me so there were fewer discipline problems’. I’d much rather think about my 600 little sisters, and hope that they’ll remember me in a good way, too.
(Side-note: If it seems like I’ve painted a rosy picture here, be assured that it isn’t all hugs and heart-to-hearts. In a future post, I’ll talk about discipline styles in Korean schools).
Also, have a look at Rita Pierson’s brilliant Ted Talk: