Monday, August 13, 2012

What it's like to teach in Korea

Growing up it was hard to imagine my teachers having lives outside of the classroom. Running into a high school teacher on the street was usually awkward for both parties involved, like two parallel universes accidentally crossing. Aside from the token "cool teacher" with whom I might occasionally have a personal conversation, I treated my teachers as distant authority figures and engaged with them through formal interactions.

Though some students back home had closer relationships with their teachers, many of the interactions that comprise the teacher-student relationship in Korea would be grounds for dismissal in the States. I do not say this (or anything else) to pass judgment, but I want to emphasize the level of difference in accepted teacher-student interactions. Teachers in Korea are much more like parents. Touching, texting, playing, and even corporal punishments, are all a daily part of Korean school life.

Teachers in Korea will shake, pick up, and even hit their students, no matter what their age. Corporal punishments were only recently made illegal in public schools. Many teachers, especially of the older generation, will still hit (somewhat gently) their students on the back of the head when they are falling asleep in class. Teachers also give physical punishments like standing in a corner. One time my co-teacher made a student repeatedly lift a fire extinguisher like he was lifting weights.

On very rare occasions, I've heard of students getting into physical fights with their teachers. It you witness something like this, it will surely be uncomfortable but it's best to stay out of it. Schools deal with severe punishments much differently in Korea. There is no such thing as detention. It is an absurd concept to them that that one's punishment for wrong doing is simply doing nothing (does seem a little backwards the more you think about it huh?). Though punishments vary, at my school for example, really bad students will have to do community service.

When it comes to teaching in any classroom, you will gain the student's respect if you are composed and know (or at least act like) you know what you're doing. Although it's tempting to be the "cool teacher" and level with your students, its hard to get back control once your students begin to view you as a peer rather than an authority figure. Luckily though, since hierarchy is highly valued in Korean culture, students tend to be respectful regardless, and the fact that you're a foreigner will certainly make them interested in getting to know you. As I also mentioned in my previous post, students will get to know you by asking more personal questions such as "How old are you?", "Are you married?", etc. 

Of course you can answer these questions and more, but don't be afraid to be clear about where your boundaries are in general. I know foreign teachers whose students will call their cellphones after school to ask about homework, meeting up for extra practice, etc. I sometimes eat lunch and take walks with a foreign student who is having a hard time at my school. Where you draw the line still means using common sense, but interactions between students and teachers that might be frowned upon in the States are not always as unusual in Korea.

Maintaining authority in the classroom is always the hardest part. Though more experienced teachers may give different advice, so far I've found that the easiest way to maintain authority while still building good relationships with my students is to be strict about staying on task in class, while constantly asking for their feedback, their likes, and theirs dislikes. This way I can create activities that are tailored to their interests. I think most students will be more attentive if they feel that you are actually listening to them, and not just talking at them.

On that note however, when it comes to teaching, suspend your expectations and be very patient. Lessons you thought would take 20 minutes might take up the entire class. Preparation is key, but no matter how thorough your lesson plans are you still might get stuck or finish too quickly, so plan to be flexible. I like to always have an extra game or easy activity ready in case I need to pass the time. Korean students are shy and for the most part have been taught English in a very systematic way that does not encourage much spontaneous conversation or creativity, but everyone loves a good game.

Note: If you are teaching middle or high school students, you will hit culture barriers immediately in trying to do activities that involve acting out emotions or creative work. The Korean education system is based on memorization and repetition, thus the idea of writing a creative essay or an original argument is completely foreign to them (no pun intended). I recently went to a workshop where a teacher described how confused and distraught her middle school students when she tried to get them to play Charades. They could not understand why or how someone would act out arbitrary emotions, and were extremely embarrassed by the game.   

Though you can't reverse a lifetime of deep set cultural values in one year, let alone one class, I find it helps to provide students examples of what you want them to do, even if it makes you feel a little silly as well. Have them imitate you or someone else. For example, when trying to get my students give speeches, I first had them watch and imitate Obama speaking. Having a model made it easier for the students to practice their speaking skills and it made a funny game for the class. And of course I started by doing the first impression! The key point: if you're not interested in what you are doing, your students won't be either. 

Outside of the classroom you will probably find yourself in a different working environment from what you're used to at home. As I emphasized in my last post, some of the same rules still apply: make a good first impression, be on time (early), and act professionally.  However you may see some things that wouldn't fly at home, such as sleeping in the office. Koreans work extremely hard. You'll find students sleeping in class and teachers snoozing at their desks (I've even heard of schools that have couches where teachers can go for a brief repose). I'm not saying to bring along your pillow and blanket everyday for a mid-afternoon siesta, but if you close your eyes and lean back for a few minutes every once in a while you won't attract much attention. 

Though this may vary by school, public school teachers will frequently hear the term desk warming: this means long periods of time spent at your desk with not much to do. Though it may sound wonderful, I suggest finding ways to occupy yourself and keep busy (like writing a blog for instance). While many public school teachers will simultaneously surf the internet, myself included, desk warming is a good time to gather teaching materials and prepare lessons. Classes often get cancelled and switched around. It's always good to have lesson plans, or at least game ideas, tucked away for unexpected happenings. 

Though it may seem cliched, if you think back to the best teachers you had growing up, it's more than the likely that they were the always prepared, confident, and enthusiastic about their job! All of these things are also important for maintaining a good student-teacher relationship, not just in Korea, but anywhere in the world!  

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