Back in the Classroom

February 8, 2014

This is the first time I’ve seen anything like corporal punishment in Korea. I witnessed my old boss grab students by the ears, but generally this was done without malice and only if students had really been misbehaving, e.g. hitting others, making others cry with insults. Nevertheless, my current employer is taking things to whole new level. I guess she’s old school. I had just informed her only one out of seven in my class had written in their journals for this week. I’m still getting to know how things work at this hagwon, but one thing I did pick up on right away is the fact my students are overworked. They’re tired, hungry, and not in the mood to study English unless that’s really their passion.

Other students’ journals confirmed this: all day Friday I had to read about how tired they were from math academy, English academy, and school (a few wrote about Justin Bieber’s arrest and Dokdo). So many were beaten down after just one week back from vacation. Given this mentality, I never found it particularly surprising when my kids didn’t complete the homework I assigned them. I couldn’t condone it, but I understood it, which is why I rarely got angry or even annoyed when students fell asleep in class or something like a broken spirit showed in their eyes.

My new boss, on the other hand, had a different approach. After I told her only one student had finished her journal, she ordered the others to an adjacent room, where they were forced to stand holding two encyclopedia books over their head.

I don’t think I can get behind this. I used to go back and forth on corporal punishment (thinking about its use, not actually doing it) when it came to American students who were truly lazy, disruptive, and sometimes just evil. Recently, however, I’ve come to realize some kids will just never be suited for a traditional education structure. Maybe there are ones who can be forced into it with beatings and punishments like the aforementioned, but if your heart isn’t into math, science, or languages, is that your fault?

In Korea’s case, I could never support it. I’m amazed students are able to have the slightest bit of enthusiasm in my classes given what they go through on a daily basis. Though I encourage them to participate and offer negative feedback if they do something wrong, I don’t resent them in the slightest.

All but one student went into that room for punishment. I had a clear view through the window in the door. Every time I glanced over in sympathy, I suspect they thought I was checking up on them, and raised their books higher or straightened their stance. I had never felt more guilty being in a position of authority. Part of me – ok, most of me – just wanted to walk into that room, tell them to stop punishing themselves, and quit on the spot. Before I could rationalize my inaction even further, the other teacher finally told them to stop and return to class.

I don’t know where to begin. I know it was wrong to have those kids hurt themselves for the sake of a simple missing assignment, but it seemed so institutionalized. I mean, they stood there without being overseen for at least fifteen minutes, giving me the impression they must have done it before. Still, what does it say about me, unwilling to help a child in pain because it’s not my culture, my place to get involved.

On the street, as a stranger, I might not second-guess myself facing a child I didn’t know being scolded or hurt by a parent. But I wasn’t on the street. I was in the classroom, and I was their teacher. I had the power to stop it, albeit incurring the confusion and possible wrath of my employer, but chose inaction.

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6 Responses to Back in the Classroom

  1. Meagan | on February 11, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    What grades do you teach? My old elementary 6th grade co-teacher always threatened a punishment a bit like this at the beginning of the semester, but never actually followed through. It’s such a hard spot to be put in because it obviously isn’t our culture, but it definitely is theirs. Saying something to your co-teacher could make your working relationship with her awkward for the rest of the year. I know hitting the students is now illegal (though is still practiced sometimes), but I wonder what the official stance is on punishment like this?

  2. Evan and Rachel on February 11, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Yikes, yeah corporal punishment is really hard for me to swallow. I work at a public school, so I see similar punishments like the one you described almost every day! Luckily I’ve only had one coteacher who did it often, but those classes were often painful to watch. They knew I was sympathetic, but they also knew there was nothing I could really do to help them. It was just an awkward situation all around. The best thing we can do as teachers is to not give them a hard time, be empathic, and smile a lot. 🙂

  3. Danielle on February 11, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    oh man! i’ve heard horror stories, and so thankful i’ve never had a co-teacher in public school do awful things to students. but yea, it is really sad to think of the lives most of these kids lead. they all look so miserable and all you want them to do is have a little fun.

  4. Turner on February 12, 2014 at 4:03 am

    The ones being disciplined were middle school students, one high school student I believe.

  5. Away with Lily on February 12, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    I think my hagwon is totally opposite. We spoil and love our kids like no other! No punishment at all like this, although I teach kinder and elementary students. Discipline is well needed on some of the elementary kids though.

  6. Leah on February 13, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    Wow that is a pretty intense headmaster. My hagwon isn’t like this, at all. In fact, my kids are very wild and could use a heck of a lot more discipline, for the most part. Although, my co-teacher did pinch a boy on his cheek yesterday for mouthing off. They are definitely over-worked: when I get my 8th graders, they’ve already been to 2 or 3 hagwons before English class. When I ask them what they did for their super fun weekend, they either say “sleep” or “play cell phone games”. I’m determined to break out some creativity buried deep in those little souls!

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