As I mentioned before there is no marking or test taking for any of the native teacher's lessons, and this can make for a fairly demotivated bunch of students, especially in an all boys high school. To place at least some competition and significance to my lesson, I dangled a bit of a carrot of cold hard cash (gift certificates as good as money here in Korea called 'happy money'). I have 17 different classes, so I obviously can't give money to every class, so I divided each class into 9 teams and the best in each class were entered into a raffle at the end of the term, with 5 prizes, 3 of them money based. The total prize fund is 175 000 won. This costs me, therefore, 350 000 won a year (about £180 or $350). But I think it's a small price to pay for a much less mind-blowing experience of teaching them. It makes for a competitive, interesting lesson that is not only fun for the students, but more importantly, fun for me. Anyway, the end of term came and it was nearing the time for the prize draw, but how to do it? I wanted all the students to know about it happening, and to be able to come and see it if they wished. I had a series of ideas of how to do this, over about a two week period, here are some of the conversations I had with my Head of English at my school;
Me: Is there a presentation ceremony at the end of term?
HoE (Head of English): Yes.
Me: Can I have some time to present awards for my classes?
HoE: No, that is not possible.
Me: Can I organise my own presentation ceremony?
HoE: Sorry, the students are too busy.
Me: Can I use a room for a presentation at lunchtime?
HoE: We have no spare rooms, sorry?
Me: Can I do the draw live over the speaker system?
HoE: No, sorry, the headmaster would not approve.
Me: Can I just announce the results over the speaker system?
HoE: No, I am sorry.
Me: Can another teacher or yourself announce the results for me?
HoE: The students are not often in their rooms during breaks between lessons.
Me: What about at the start of a lesson?
HoE: That would disturb other classes.
Me: But, it would only take 2 minutes!
HoE: Other teachers would not be happy.
Me: Can I video a draw being taken and play it in each of my classes?
Me: Can the headteacher draw 1st prize?
HoE: No, he would hate that.
Me: Oh, well maybe the deputy head. What day do I finish classes this term so I can plan when to play the video in each class?
HoE: We don't know, maybe you will teach next week, maybe you won't, and in some classes the computers will be disconnected.
It was like I was fighting a losing battle. I was trying to add meaning to my lessons and be the best teacher I could be for the school, and I was even giving up my own money! Still, my school were being about as flexible as my legs feel when sitting on the floor at a Korean restaurant, they would not budge. The strange thing is that I do get the feeling that the school likes me and thinks that I teach well, they mention frequently that I have a great reputation with students and teachers at the school. So why do they behave like this? Even with my now extensive experience with Korean culture I am still a little dumbfounded.
I was now really thinking, 'is there any value to me being here?'. I had to really think, because I was just a little bit dejected and annoyed, but I have found many reasons to feel that my position here in Korea is valuable, and even essential. It is a pity, however, that many others do not see it, Koreans and foreigners alike.
For me, the purpose of my job is more of a cross-culture teacher and student position, rather than teaching English. With any luck, a bit of English does stick with the students now and then, but if I can achieve something to surprise them, entertain them, or just give them something completely different from what they have seen before from their other teachers, I think I am doing a good job. My lessons are always my own, I never copy lessons. They have my personality stamped all over them. My likes, dislikes, pet peeves, what I find interesting, what I find abhorrent, and my passions. I am not saying that this makes me a better teacher, or that people can't teach effectively in other ways, but it does maximise my ability to be interesting and engaging. The famous saying when writing is, 'write about what you know', and when we as teachers plan lessons, we are writing something. It's not a book, it's not a play, or a piece of music, but a lesson, and I think the same principle applies. Interesting and engaging is the key here, in an atmosphere of tiredness, poor motivation, and frustration over the difficulty of the subject. My goal is this; not to improve their English this minute, or even this year, but maybe to give them confidence in speaking to a foreigner, inspire them to be interested in my culture, to have an open mind to explore my culture, and that it could have interesting things to say to them that might well enrich their lives. If I can achieve these high goals, maybe they might just be interested in learning the language too, a higher form of motivation than just learning English to get a better job in the future by way of achieving good exam results. Essential in this process is the ability of myself to learn from them too. Young people are a wonderful thing that many adults can learn from (a fact/system that I don't see operating in the status and respect culture in Korea). Young people are open-minded, adventurous, and less stuck in their ways (as adults can be sometimes), that can be the great joy of working with them. It can keep you fresh, open to new ideas and ways of thinking, and able to see things from new perspectives. But adults must be willing to learn from them, and (especially in Korea) this does not often happen. It is regularly just one way traffic. I recently returned from Indonesia, and on my way back from the airport in Seoul, I took the train. On the train there was a teenager being lectured to by an older person (presumably his father). He was just staring into space and nodding, looking thoroughly disinterested. Was he being rude? Maybe he was sick of taking advice from older people? Maybe the old man really had important stuff to say? The fact is though, if someone is just telling you what you should do, what you should learn, and how you should feel, it's pretty easy to get despondent after a while and just switch off. That was what the boy on the train was doing. His father (probably) could have been telling him the most important piece of information in the world, but his mind was closed, it was all one way traffic.
The same thing occurs in learning from other people's cultures. If it's all one way traffic, the other side just does not listen. Not only does the road block come up from the other side, but nothing can go the other way either. Important positives are missed, and learning from both sides cannot happen. There are examples where it is not possible to follow this, however. An example would be a discussion with a member of the Taliban about women's rights, of which I think I can be sure that there would not be much I could learn from such a discussion. Some cultures are wrong about some things, period. I am not a cultural relativist. Now that I have cleared my throat about that, I can give an example of something that occurs quite frequently in Korea, and that is the arrogance that many western visitors carry with them on their trip over.
Korea and the Far-East, in general, is about as different a culture as there is possible to find in the civilised world. The most fundamental of these differences lies in the fact that, in the Far-East, their culture is based around groups and hierarchy with social stability, and ours is based around individuality and freedom. There are many reasons for this that I won't go into here, but it makes a huge difference to the perception of morals and values in each respective culture. Now I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that with respect to morals, western culture has a greater depth of thought, precisely because of a greater emphasis on the individual. Fairness and human rights are understandably a western invented concept, because when group cohesion is most important, then it's alright to mistreat a few for the benefit of the whole group (hence a greater sympathy for Communism in the East in general). However, the depth of thought that the west has now gotten into has spread to laws, and bureaucracy to the point of insanity, producing a wrapped in cotton wool effect and legal action recognisably irritating to most people. So we can still learn some good things about morality, and building a better society to live in, from those in the Far-East. I think that people in the western world have an attitude that says, 'we have been developed and richer for longer, and have thought about morals more deeply, therefore we in the west have nothing to learn from recently developed and developing nations'. They simply think that most nations, Korea and China included, have only just caught up and are waiting to be enlightened like us, but that sometimes we can't push morality on them and that it will happen naturally, eventually. There is some truth to this, but in reality it goes much deeper into history and culture than this, but this attitude is rife among Native English teachers to Korea. It's an arrogance that leaves them completely closed to understanding Korean culture and maybe assimilating some of their better practices for themselves. Again I am going to use a school situation to describe an issue that we have long thrown into the immoral dump of history in the west, never to be returned, and one for which I am sure I will receive few supporters for my views, particularly in more liberal friends of mine. This subject is corporal punishment.
In Western society there is no corporal punishment in schools, no hitting of students and no physical exercises as punishments, e.g. stress positions. There are exceptions, such as in the deep south of the US, where they still use the paddle. These exceptions are generally seen as crazy or religious inspired backward thinking islands in an otherwise wiser ocean of greater enlightenment. In respect to the deep south I agree, I don't think we should be using the paddle in our classrooms, don't worry. But clearly there is a problem with discipline in our schools. I can only speak for schools in the UK, where I have worked as a teacher myself and been a member of the support staff in various schools. The lack of respect for teachers is shocking, and the constant calls of, 'I am going to sue you, sir!' ring out regularly when a teacher lays even his or her little finger on a student. The students have the power, they know their rights and their rights outnumber those of the teacher. This is the greatest obstruction to learning there is in schools, teachers have to spend time in class and outside of class managing bad behaviour and planning and delivering effective lessons is getting harder and harder. Even school trips are becoming a thing of the past as teachers and schools are worried about accidents, knowing that however thoroughly they plan, or ask for consent slips from parents, they may be found liable. The atmosphere of fear in schools in palpable, and the students can smell it all over their teachers and, as young people often do, take full advantage of it.
The situation in Korea is very different, because of the cultural history of Confucianism there is a greater natural respect for teachers (students will bow to their teachers when they see they in the hallway, for example, even me). But also teachers are given a great leeway into how they discipline their students. Some examples I have seen are; the slap of a ruler across the hand, the hit of a stick to the hip, and a little slap or punch to the top of the head. Also numerous stress positions and exercises, such as, kneeling on the ground with hands in air, press ups, squats, wall sits, etc. Now I have heard of teachers going too far in Korea, and hitting too hard or being overly aggressive, but as far as I can tell this is very rare. I hate to say this, but the examples of corporal punishment I have seen at my schools, just simply work. They stop bad behaviour almost immediately. In all the cases I have seen it used, it is a quick sharp pain, the students are upset for about 5 seconds, their friends laugh, they get on with their work and it's all forgotten. Contrary to western thinking that it damages a students' mental health beyond repair for the rest of their days, the students don't seem in the least bit bothered by it. Obviously, I work in a boys high school, and maybe this strategy is not applicable to younger students or female students. However, every single student I have asked (when I was a Hagwon teacher) had said they don't like it, yes (who would), but I cannot detect even a grain of fear or insecurity about it. They are usually smiling when they say this and often have a sense of amusement about it all. My wife also confirms that when it happened to her at school, it was no big deal, and it may even have the effect of bringing students closer together.
Let me make this clear, I am not a supporter of using violence against students in class rooms. I think, actually, that hitting students is not ideal and most of all not necessary if you are a good teacher. Maybe there is a place on the continuum of East and West for corporal punishment, though. My proposal would be this; hitting should not be generally practiced or especially approved of in UK (and others in the western world) schools but, just so the students know that threatening teachers with intimidation or legal action isn't going to happen, it is not strictly off-limits either, and certainly not against the law. I am sure with even a modicum of common sense, that situations or teachers that get out of hand are dealt with and still severely punished. I would also recommend that stress positions or physical exercises are fair game. I really do not see how this can do any permanent damage to children, but I can hear the voices of objection already, 'What about the boy with asthma? What about the obese child? Won't other children laugh at them? Won't it affect their mental health? What about the boy with dyspraxia who can't move properly?'. In this case, my advice would be tough luck. If students are going to misbehave, these are the consequences. If they have a problem that could make other children laugh at them, they shouldn't have misbehaved in the first place. Let's get the idea of responsibility back into the classroom. In quite obvious cases, such as those in schools that are severely disabled, wheelchair bound, or have some other severe condition, I am sure other solutions could be found. But I have the sense that the students in this bracket are not usually the trouble makers in class.
For everyone to learn effectively in schools, teachers need to be respected, even the bad ones. An effective school is like a good army unit. How well would the British Armed Services operate if all of the low ranking officers constantly questioned and threatened their superiors, and didn't follow orders? I suggest that this army would be an embarrassment and a mess as a fighting force. A respect for authority is key in the army and in the school. We recognise this in the army, and the government in the UK even understand that this could be helpful in school too, with the introduction of army officers as teachers in some problem schools. Why oh why can they not see that bringing in army officers will make little difference if they do not have the capacity or the tools to discipline students. It's time teachers in my own country had a few more weapons at their disposal (not literally, of course!).
It might sound like that I am a man in favour of obeying authority, but I am most definitely not. Indeed I think it is very important to disrespect authority, if it deserves to be disrespected and to constantly question and doubt it (something that is rarely done in Korea). But a disrespect for authority cannot be tolerated in a school as much as it cannot be tolerated in the army. When students leave the school premises they are at their liberty to dish the dirt on their teachers to friends, to call them names, I would even understand their right to show disrespect to me on the street, if they so wanted, but in the classroom they will show respect to their teachers for their own education and that of everyone else in their school.
I have discovered that I have much to say on the subject of the Native teacher role in Korean schools, and have expanded on the necessity for teachers to be students of culture, as much if not more so than the actual students themselves are learning about English and the culture of the Native teacher. I will continue my analysis of this in my next blog. The Native Far-East teacher in England concept is on the back-burner for now.