How I try not to lose my shit as a middle school teacher in Korea

It was late March of this year. I had been a teacher for just under a month and I had no idea what to do. I was becoming more red faced as the seconds wore on, sweating despite the classroom’s baltic temperature. The tension rose through my body, creating a throbbing headache and the feeling that I wanted to lie down and have a cry.

My new teacher novelty was wearing off. The wide eyed, shy little girls sitting in neat rows during their first lesson were gone. They had been replaced by a shower of rude little wagons, chatting in what could only be described as outdoor voices. Last nights’ episode of whatever Korean drama they watched. Who would marry which member of Exo. I didn’t know because they were speaking in tongues, otherwise known as Korean. They weren’t like the Korean teenagers you see on documentaries.

My co-teacher, who was apparently supposed to bear most of the responsibility for handling discipline problems, was sitting in the back row. Occasionally she lifted her head up from her phone to tell the students to ‘joyong’ (be quiet), but they just ignored her.

I tried out my teacher’s glare, long honed in the mirror on the advice of a more experienced teacher. I stared the room down. As a student, teachers doing this had always freaked me out and made me shut up. But they barely noticed, and I felt like their incessant babble would haunt me long after 4.30.

I had seen it done before, this teaching thing. More than eighteen years of my life were spent with my body oriented toward some desk or lecture stand. The people behind them were all different – there was the teacher in my two room school in deepest West Cork who would keep us quiet with penny sweets, and another who once roared ‘Will you all just shut up!’ in a moment of desperation. There was a secondary school art teacher who cared to ask if everything was okay in my life, when she noticed that my work was becoming ever more half arsed. A science teacher who I can only remember for his spectacular moustache and the way he said ‘sperm’ with two syllables. Spe-rim. There was also a college lecturer who spent most of every class regaling us with his stories, and he listened to our stories too.

Throughout primary school, two secondary schools, a diploma, a degree, a masters and a part-time job transcribing lectures, I have watched at least a hundred people doing this. Now I could empathise with the ones who weren’t very good at it, and felt jealous of the ones who were.

It was me versus them and the students had a landslide victory that day. I knew it couldn’t go on like this, but I had everything going against me. I was young, I was temporary and I was a foreigner. I couldn’t even give out to them in their own language. I wondered how the Korean teachers managed to keep their students in check, but when I discovered I felt even more hopeless.

I walked past other classrooms in the school and saw students standing at the back of the room with their arms in the air, or kneeling on the ground. A page from a Busan Office of Education book of sample speaking test questions, issued in 2012, details some other physical punishments: standing in the motorbike position, doing squats, or holding yourself in the push-up position.

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A sample question and answers on school punishment from a Busan Metropolitan Office of Education speaking test guide.

In Ireland corporal punishment was banned in 1982 and made a criminal offence in 1996. Older generations of Irish people could tell you about physical punishment in school, including my own mother who still remembers getting a wallop in Home Economics class for the crime of taking a knob of butter off with a bit of the wrapper instead of a knife. Of course I can’t say that corporal punishment has been eradicated in Ireland, but I’m fortunate enough to have never experienced it. That is, unless you count a primary school teacher who would come up behind you, Biro clenched horizontally between her lips, grab your shoulders and throttle you like a rag doll.

On the other hand, corporal punishment was lawful in South Korea until 2010. But it doesn’t take a person long to realise that the law and what actually happens in Korea are often two very different things. I don’t know what goes on behind classroom doors up and down the country, but I know that the punishments used at my school cause children physical pain even when teachers don’t touch them. Pain is pain – whether you inflict it with your hand or by forcing a student to do something that hurts. Corporal punishment is still alive and well in Korea; it just wears different clothes.

I don’t want to suggest that Irish punishment styles are more evolved than Korean ones. I remember being forced to write ‘I will not talk during class’ 20 times in my copy book, writing each word all the way down the page to make it go faster. Spewing in detention for my first incidence of having no history homework in over two years. Like Korean students, I suffered through punishments that made me not want to screw up again, but didn’t make me think about why.

Now I was teaching over 600 excitable young teenaged girls every week and I knew I needed to figure something out. I could send them to Punishment Guy, a stern man who had informed me, like a Korean Tony Soprano, that he could take care of the bold students. ‘You have any problem with naughty student, you give me name,’ he said to me on my second day. But I decided not to send students to him because he’s scary and I wouldn’t like to be sent to him. Even when he says ‘Good morning’ or asks me if I like Bibimbap, he’s scary. Besides, I didn’t want my students to see me as a coward, someone who gets the Punishment Guy on their case without dealing with them myself.

So I began with the naïve idea that I wouldn’t need to punish students if I could offer them incentives to behave well. I used a points race where I gave students rewards, like playing a game or watching a music video, for different milestones. For the classes where the majority of students were fairly well behaved anyway, it was great. If you’re acting the maggot and everyone turns around and tells you to shut up or you’re going to cost the class points and therefore rewards, you will promptly shut up. Peer pressure is more powerful than the most piercing teacher’s glare.

But there are a small number of classes where the students who don’t give a rat’s ass are in the majority. For them, it isn’t cool to care about points or rewards. I realised that I needed some sanctions, so I made the ‘Thinking Seat’ at the back of the room, where students are sent to write about their behaviour. The thinking seat isn’t for every every student who comes to class without a book or pen and sits there with a face like a slapped arse for 45 minutes. Neither is it for the ones who use my class as snooze time. They’re not bothering anyone or preventing me from teaching, so it’s not worth the fight. The Thinking Seat is for kids who talk incessantly, tease other students, throw rubbish around and so on. It gets rid of them so others can learn, and it’s better than robotic line writing.

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One student’s reflection sheet

I also made a system where sanctions, like staying back after class and having a discussion about behaviour, are accrued when classes have too many negative points.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m a soft touch. I think, ‘When I was their age I never got to play games and watch music videos just for behaving myself, but I was still good most of the time. I did my homework and answered when the teacher called on me. But why did I behave? Because I enjoyed my classes and could see how they would benefit me? That only happened in the classes I loved, like English and art. But I’m lucky if the students who love learning English make up 5 out of 35 of my students. The rest can’t see past their next godforsaken test, let alone to the long term benefits of learning English. When I was their age, sitting in classes I hated, I would shut up and put up because the threat of punishment hung in the air like an Easter egg festering in June. I behaved because I was afraid.

I don’t want to be an angry teacher. My students would be scared of me, and you don’t learn anything when you’re scared. My job would also be miserable. So they tell each other to ‘joyong’ so they can have a game of bingo or watch the new B1A4 video next week. Nobody is ever called on or forced to say anything. If they’re bold they write and talk about their boldness, and then go with their day. They might be bold again next week because Clare Teacher never sends them to the Punishment Guy. But that’s okay because teenagers will rebel and there’s no need to make everyone’s time shitty because of it.

I won’t pretend to have managing behaviour – or any other aspect of teaching – figured out. All I can do is keep trying to work it out as I go along.

If you have any views on any of this, please feel free to leave a comment!

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About Clare Hartwieg

My name is Clare Hartwieg. I come from Ireland and I'm a GET (Guest English Teacher) at a middle school in South Korea. So far I love Korea. I love the fast pace of life, the food, the bright lights, the warm and generous people – I even love my job! Please follow my blog and share my posts if you are interested in hearing about my adventures in South Korea!
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3 Responses to How I try not to lose my shit as a middle school teacher in Korea

  1. I too have seen the corporal punishment doled out to students and it is hard to watch, although sometimes it really does seem like the only option with some kids. I understand why teachers use it, even if I don’t condone it. However, the ‘reflection sheet’ you have used looks like an effective way to make students realise why their behaviour is out of line. How have you found it to work?

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Sometimes it does seem like physical punishment is the only deterrent but you just have to look for other ways.

      The reflection sheet is mainly just to get the really bold kids out of the way. But Korean kids are used to adults treating them like robots and I knew that if I got them to write lines I would only be reenforcing that. I always have a little talk with the student after class and normally I get a deep bow and a ‘sorry, teacher’. I’ve rarely had to send someone to the thinking seat more than once, I’m not sure if that’s because they’ve seen the error of their ways or because they don’t like to be isolated from everyone else. Either way I’m happy!

      It helps me a lot to remember that they don’t know they’re being such assholes, you just don’t have that awareness at that age. Some day they’ll look back and think “I was such a nightmare to that poor foreign teacher”. But for now we just have to play our small part in helping them grow into decent, self reflecting adults!

      Oh and I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read of your blog!

      • I do the same in my classes, usually just explain I’m only angry at what they’re doing because they are a good student and are better than this. That works sometimes, but failing that I do ask if they would be proud if I called their parents and told them what the kid was doing. Although that only works with my lower classes.

        Thanks, I’m glad you like it, I’ve only just begun to read yours but your posts are very detailed and interesting 🙂

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