Learning the Hard Way

November 11, 2010

Today was Peppero (or Bebbero) Day in Korea, 뺴뺴로. What is it, you may ask? Well, 11/11, with all those 1’s, vaguely resembles sticks of chocolate. As a result, gifts of Lotte Bebbero are not uncommon on this most splendid of days. Well, I did receive my fair share from students.

Anyway, I come to you this evening with a few confessions and stories about teaching. If learning about Korean kids or the methods I use to teach them isn’t interesting, by all means, click over to pictures of cats doing funny stuff.

Most of my kids live in a community set aside for the nuclear plant workers just north of Bugu. It’s fairly independent, containing a track, school, restaurants, supermarket, etc. As such, it’s a little bit far for them to walk to our hagwon every day, and my boss’ father usually drives them in a yellow van. Now, I should say something first: kids everywhere like to fight. Hitting, kicking, punching, screaming, scraping, crying. It happens. Especially in Korea, where they are a tad bit more undisciplined than their western counterparts, accidents happen. I say this, of course, because something did happen. My boss’ father opened the side door of the van. As one student was stepping down, another pushed him hard. He fell onto the pavement, head first.

Now, nothing serious resulted from this “accident”. The student is fine, just a little shaken. But I think everyone forgets just what frail creatures we are. That student could have broken his neck, gotten a facial fracture, or sustained brain damage. Yes, from a little fall. It is possible, just as you can break a bone by slipping and landing the wrong way.

I say this not because I’ve ever been in a situation where I’ve been tempted to do serious harm to someone smaller and weaker than I, but I’ve been questioning the amount of physical contact I use in the classroom. My boss told me to avoid contact at all costs on my very first full day in Korea; he was mainly referring to corporal punishment and disciplining out of control students. A bit hypocritical, as I see him grabbing the skin under students’ chins all the time.

I’m going too fast. Let me state my history in these cases:

– In Japan, AEON had such strict control over teachers I never even really had the opportunity to consider the impact of physical contact. Most of my students were adults, so they would have complained if I had done anything wrong (no one did)

– In the US, it becomes a legal issue. Corporal punishment and even friendly contact (e.g. patting someone on the back) can be a career killer. Understandable for cases in which the teacher is actually abusing his authority, but students have learned their words carry more weight… and we get instructors fired or arrested with nothing more than the unsubstantiated word of an American teenager. That’s scary.

– In Thailand, there’s almost an invisible shield between students and teachers. I like meandering around the class, checking students’ work and hovering by problematic ones. But most Thai teachers just stay up front and lecture… giving the kids in the back rows the freedom to fight. My kids in a rural school loved to fight. REALLY fight.

In Korea, I probably have more control and freedom in the classroom than in any other teaching situation. Which is a good thing for the most part, but my inexperience comes crashing down upon my head when I realize I’ve made the most foolish mistakes a teacher can make. I don’t violently hit my kids. But I do shame them in front of the class by tapping them on their heads when they’re particularly rowdy. I also occasionally take off their hats and flip them around, just to poke fun at them. Most of the time, this is just good natured ribbing. To me. But I fail to realize the impact such behavior can have on a developing child. It stings to be outcast, to be the subject of ridicule (however brief and unintentional) by the teacher. And things go wrong. I was flipping a student’s hat off with the tip of my book just the other day, and he walked right into it, the book hitting his eyes. Where there had been happiness and excitement at seeing me before (quite a good and participative student), now something had died in his expression. I killed his spirit with a stupid prank I should have known better to do. I’m a 80-kg, 28-year-old man in a classroom filled with little people. I can do so much harm if I’m not carefully considering every action, every word.

Kids can fight, and the resulting injuries can be brushed off as “boys will be boys” behavior. But I should know better, and anything that happens to my students while under my care is entirely my fault, whether I unintentionally hurt them with a prank, emotionally scar them with overzealous discipline, or allow them to hurt themselves. If I do, I’m no better or smarter than a kid pushing another kid onto the pavement.

One Response to Learning the Hard Way

  1. Learning the Hard Way | Once A Traveler | TEFL Japan on November 11, 2010 at 11:01 am

    […] Read the rest here: Learning the Hard Way | Once A Traveler […]

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