Classroom Discipline: Unteachable?

July 19, 2011

Greetings from Korea. I’m still trying to integrate Google+ into my blog (and deciding if I really want to do it). If you’d like to add me, go right ahead.

In the meantime, with my videos from the Boryeong Mud Festival still in the buffer, I thought I’d discuss something that’s been going on for a while in one of my classes. Naturally, I have some problem students. Some are completely disruptive to class (mostly younger ones), some just aren’t smart enough to be in the class they are in and slow learning for others, and others just simply don’t care at all about English. But even when they don’t care about English, I get the sense they’re alive by the fact they sometimes listen to me and do their work.

Enter one student who is completely lethargic. He might as well be a mannequin, he moves so little in class. Never answers my questions. Never acknowledges my presence. He hangs his head low, and acts as if I’m disturbing him when I try to get him to participate. In case you’re wondering, he isn’t simply tired; when my back is turned, he takes the opportunity to exchange a few words with his friends with plenty of energy. But as for me, he just doesn’t try.

As a student, there were plenty of times I was too tired to pay attention in class, and showed little interest about certain subjects. I had friends who felt the same way from time to time, but at the core, we all actually tried to learn something from our teachers, because they always tried to teach us regardless of our moods.

It’s not a matter of being worked too hard. He just doesn’t care at all. Even the Korean teacher is fed up with him. Last month, my boss and I discussed how best to handle him in class (he is being raised by his grandmother with his father out of town, but even that excuse is wearing thin after a year); in the end, he told me to simply seat him in the corner of the classroom and ignore him. This didn’t affect class in the slightest, as he pretty much ignored me and the Korean teacher at all times.

But I hesitated, because it felt like giving up. On the one hand I had given this kid plenty of chances to express the slightest bit of interest, and he hadn’t given me an inch. On the other hand, if the teacher himself gives up on a student, even if he is a difficult one, what does that say for education? I don’t want to be mean to him or deny him the opportunity to learn English, but nothing is getting through.

A little more background: his mother has passed on, his father lives out of town and rarely comes to visit. He’s been kicked out of every single hagwon in the area, and the only reason my boss has kept him on is as a favor to his father. He feels poor and unloved, naturally, and I can’t say I blame him.

Today he acted the same way he always does, keeping his head down and his eyes unfocused as I tried to teach him something so basic. But instead of simply ignoring him, I lifted his chin up and tried to force him to meet my eyes. Although avoiding physical contact of any kind would seem to be obvious protocol for teachers, I had just had it; nothing was reaching this kid, and if I had to forcibly pry his eyes and ears open to get him to learn something, I was willing to try it.

Naturally, my boss took me aside after the boy told him what happened. Not that my boss didn’t understand why I had done it, but informed me touching someone’s head in Korea is particularly rude. Then this kid finally did something to make me believe he was human: he began to cry. Crying about how he thought I hated him, how he wasn’t smart enough to be here, and how he thought he had done nothing wrong. I have to admit, I second guessed my behavior at that point. My boss jumped to my defense, telling the kid what he had done (being utterly unresponsive in class) was just as reprehensible as my actions, but in the end, he was a student, and I was a teacher. The Korean teacher said he should have listened to me.

I’m still very upset about what happened, knowing I pushed him too hard and probably should have just kept my distance. I just wanted him to try, but it seemed like nothing I said had any effect.

I’ve asked some friends for advice. One suggested getting to know the student personally and following his interests. It’s a sound suggestion, with one problem: there’s no time. I have exactly 35 minutes with this student a day, and others are in the class with him. There’s no time between classes to socialize (barely with my boss), and if I focused on him during class, others would feel left out.

What would you do?

One Response to Classroom Discipline: Unteachable?

  1. Bluegreen Kirk on July 20, 2011 at 4:35 am

    This kid sounds like a friend of mine! Though everyone has a problem its hard sometimes when you are truly trying to help and get no response. The sad part is that in the states as long as you don’t interrupt the class no one seems to care if the parents don’t and in his case mom is gone and dad is away. You simply can’t give one child that much attention simply because it would look like favoritism which I think will make it worse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to OAT

Created by Webfish.

Need Advice on Living Abroad?

Thinking of teaching English in Japan? Volunteering in Thailand? Backpacking around New Zealand? If you're looking for some insider tips on the places to go and the people to meet, check out my consulting services. If you just have a few questions, no worries: email me.