More on Teaching in South Korea

March 27, 2011

This blog begins with no plan, no structure, not even a general idea of what I want to say. I read a friend’s blog regarding her first impressions teaching five-year-old Korean kids in Seoul, and I couldn’t help but realize how I was making the same observations she was, but somehow unable to find the words to describe them. It’s sad, really, how much my writing has lagged in the months since I left New Zealand. But blogging really is like a muscle: use it or lose it.

There’s such a big gap between my lowest level elementary school class and my second lowest. One has a vocabulary of a few hundred words, can understand a few phrases and questions, and whose writing is decent. The other may as well be starting from scratch; the majority know the alphabet and numbers, but some struggle. The only words they know are the ones I teach them, with a few random ones they’ve picked up from their parents or TV.

Keeping them entertained yet orderly has been a bit of a struggle for me. In fact, I’ve been resorting to yelling and points systems rather than doing the best thing and interrupting my lecture for the occasional game. Still, I don’t understand why some kids can’t just sit still and pay attention. Some students even pull out their cell phones or toys and then try to tuck them away when they realize I’ve seen them. Doesn’t work.

As far as maintaining order in the classroom is concerned, I’ve had a few things work for me. The best method is found in the axiom “sometimes the threat of a blow is often more effective than the blow itself.” I have no intention of hitting my students, but for those who really misbehave by continuing to talk after I tell them to stop and pay attention (students old enough to know better, too), I do occasionally fake a blow to their head to call attention to them and make they realize how bad they’ve been.

Another tried and true system is using “points” or stickers in class for good or bad students. Good? You get a sticker or +1. Bad? You don’t get a sticker. Minus 1 to you. I still can’t comprehend why they place so much value on points I’ve simply made up. They must realize they don’t exist beyond the classroom, won’t affect their grades or time with their parents. But still, meaningless points offer competition between students: who will be the best? And the threat of taking away a point is just as effective:

(Student turned away from me, talking to his friend)

“Ok, Paul, minus one.” (I turn to write ‘-1’ on the board)

“Teacher, no! Sorry, sorry!”

“Ok, but listen!”


Sometimes, in the middle of a lesson, one girl will just pipe up, having never said anything all class:

“Teacher, game!”

“No, no game. Book.”

“No, teacher, game!”

“Ok, minus one.”


“Yes, student.”

Is that cruel? It feels like it when I see their faces go slack in realization that their complaining has cost them a valuable point. One nine-year-old even cries every time this happens. But he still doesn’t learn to stop asking for games and just pay attention. Eventually, the games do come.

The whole experience reminds me of my 5th grade math teacher, Mr. P. He was infamous for throwing chalk at talking students and yelling one consistent phrase: “Why are you STILL TALKING?” I get it now. He valued his time, and wanted us, his students, to do the same. So when a classmate would whisper to his friend, it was an attack on his authority and his value as a teacher. I wonder if he still throws chalk…

There are always a few students who hang on my every word and actually want to improve their English. Most are indifferent to the whole idea and simply go through the motions until the end of class. But some, the most difficult in the group, do everything in their power to show they will not pay attention and try to encourage others to follow.

Outside of the classroom is a different story. On my second day in Higashi-Hiroshima, I passed a group of Japanese elementary school students during my daily run. Of course, as you imagine, they squealed and shouted “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!” nonstop. I chuckled, and responded in kind.

That’s not really the case anymore. I’m tired of being seen as the foreigner to be gawked at and used for English practice. Not that I don’t understand it, but I’m certainly not going to do anything to encourage it anymore. When I see my students around Bugu on the weekends, I ignore them if they don’t address me, and if they do address me in English, I respond in Korean. Even if I could explain that “this is not English class; we are in Korea and the rest of my life does not revolve around teaching you English” in Korean, I doubt they’d understand. So I lead by example.

I just wish I could get into the heads of Koreans who are so surprised I would respond to their “HELLO!”s with “안녕하세요”; after all, why are they speaking English in Korea? I’m the one making the proper reply in the proper country. Still, this logic seems to escape some.

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