Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Students

I have taught in Korea for approximately two and a half years now, and have taught at three different schools; two academies and I am currently teaching at an all boys High School.  The students are generally fantastic, they are respectful, obedient, and hard working (if you know what buttons to push), but what I like most of all is their character.  With all the study they have to do, you can't help but feel for the poor little mites.  For example, in my high school (ages 16-18) they start their day at 8am and finish at 10-11pm at night, a fourteen hour plus day at school!  In middle and elementary schools the day is not so long, but parents make up for this by sending their children to private after school academies called 'Hagwons'.  Most students study at least a couple of hours every day after school in these academies with homework on top of this as well.  Some students, however, can go to up to four different academies after school, and may possibly do Taekwondo or Hapkido also (Korean martial arts).  The different subjects they study after school are usually comprised of, English, Maths, Computer studies, Science, and maybe Chinese writing.  These private academies are big business in Korea, and although there may be a possibility in the future of Native English teachers being removed from the public school curriculum, the private schools will be ready to accept foreign teachers for many years to come.

With all this in mind, I try very hard to understand the students' workloads and attitude to my class and be entertaining, and friendly in my classes.  The kids are so nice that behaviour management strategies are not all that necessary anyway.  Being quite open and relaxed does bring a wonderful advantage, and that is that the students are not scared of talking to you or having fun.  This sometimes does not work in my favour but it keeps my job interesting at least.  I have a theory about teaching English in South Korea, with such tired students, and it's this; 'If I find it interesting and funny, they will too.'  This also helps me enjoy teaching and, after all, me having a good time is by far the most important thing.  Most schools in Korea allow you incredible flexibility when you teach, mainly because they don't have a clue what you are saying or how to tell you to stop doing something, they also don't really think of the native teacher's lessons as important.  So we can all get creative and let rip with some innovative, fun, and sometimes bizarre lesson plans.  Activities in my lessons include 'What could you do with it, what did Bear Grylls do with it?'  'What happens next' with Family Guy, 'who would win in a fight and why' with Discovery animal face-off (this is pretty stupid but it's funny that way), and 'a day on vacation with Karl Pilkington'.  I have recently started playing some of my favourite music in lessons and forming activities around that too (I haven't figured out a way to include cricket in my lessons yet, but I will eventually).  I try to make lessons around a theme that I am interested in like; prejudice, science, sport, violence, philosophy, history, travel, etc.  These subjects are quite deep and my students level is not great but there are ways round these problems.  Basically I am trying to give the students the idea that my classes are worth waking up for.  The students have got a great character, if you can achieve the seemingly impossible and wake them up.  They usually respond with some quite funny stuff.  Here are some examples:

The Stereotypes Class

Have to admit I didn't see this one coming, but should of.  I was teaching at the all boys high school and the class was on stereotypes and started amusingly, but innocently enough on country stereotypes, like the English being famously shy with women and a bunch of hooligans, Germans are serious, that sort of thing.  They enjoyed saying that the Japanese are stupid, smelly and look like monkeys.  The conversation then went on to racial stereotypes, however, and that is where all innocence was lost.  Starting with black people the first answer was;

Students: Big.
Me: Yes, they are often perceived as being bigger and stronger (obviously in slightly simpler English).
Students: No, big!! (Pointing to their crotches)
Me: (slightly taken aback) Well maybe, erm, don't know, err....

The next race was white people.

Students: Big.  But black bigger.
Me: Oh god, sigh.....

And finally Asian.

Students: Small.
Me: You mean in height?
Students: No, small penis.
Me: Well, maybe, I don't know, perhaps...

The funny thing is that indeed this is the stereotype of the racial size of the male reproductive organ, and they were of course absolutely right.  Like a red rag to a bull, and seeing me a little flustered the students were not about to let this one go.

Student: Teacher I am big, see..  (feigning to undo his belt and take down his trousers).
Me: No, no, stop that....
Student: You don't believe me!?  Teacher you and me penis battle!!!  Penis battle!!!
Me: (With head in hands) What have I done?

The same student then proceeded to show me what a penis battle was, fortunately with his trousers on, with a fellow student as they thrusted their pelvises together in an energetic and fervent manor.

The Epic Arm Wrestle

While doing a class on comparatives (bigger, prettier, more comfortable, etc) I asked for a free thinking answer and one student came up with the response of, 'I am stronger than you, teacher.'  I obviously responded with disdain, as no student could possibly be stronger than me.  He then reacted by challenging me to an arm wrestling contest.  Not one to back down, and with a history of stunning arm wrestling victories back home in England, I took up his challenge at the end of the lesson.  As he rolled up his sleeves I could tell that I had made a grave mistake, when he produced the most freakishly huge forearms I had ever seen on anyone, let alone a 17 year-old student.  During the match he managed to stay cool in the face, not showing any strain (Koreans never seem to go red).  I on the other hand was pulling sex faces left, right, and centre, and was going horribly red.  Needless to say I wasn't going to lose against a big-headed little upstart student, so I pulled out the win, but was heavily flustered at the finish of the rather long, epic battle.  I asked his classmates how he was so strong and they responded that he didn't go to the gym, but his father was a Korea strongman champion and his mother was a Judo champion.  It made me feel a little better knowing that he wasn't your average Korean boy, but a freak of nature conceived by parents with almost god-like strength.

The Taekwondo Kid

This was an eleven year old student from my first academy.  Don't ask me how we managed to get on to the topic of my abs of steel, but we did somehow.  After (semi-jokingly) saying that I had a six pack, the students asked me to show it, which obviously as a non-pervert I didn't do.  So to prove myself I invited the boy who always came to class wearing a Taekwondo uniform to punch me in the stomach to test that it was fairly solid.  There was some logic behind this as he looked pretty small and I wanted to see if his instructors taught him how to throw a good punch.  I assumed he would give a good technical, but not all that powerful punch, like when you see people practicing martial arts on the TV.  I was confident that this boy couldn't hurt me so I braced myself.  Doubts began to creep into my mind as he took about 5 or 6 paces back with a rather determined look on his face.  Anyway, he took a run up and launched into a almighty punch landing perfectly in my midriff.  I didn't show any pain, but my goodness it hurt and the other students seemed genuinely concerned.  It wasn't that it took the wind out of me but his hand was so small it was almost like the point of a knife, which focused the force into a small space.  The area was tender and bruised for a week.

The Fart and Kim Jong Un

No matter how much of an upper class, high brow person you think you are, farting is funny and especially when executed with precision timing.

While doing a popular quiz activity in my class (Jeopardy) the situation was tense, with a $500 question on the line.  The bell was about to go for the end of the lesson (which is actually a part of a song, piece of guitar music, etc), the question was difficult and the class was in a silent pause, amid a fair amount of chaos beforehand, of about 10 seconds.  Just as one of the boys in a team was about to open his mouth his team mate let out a classically sounding trump.  Perfect timing, and it sounded like it came from the smallest, most innocent and quiet looking boy in the class.  The look of shock and horror on his face when the whole class and myself included were staring at him was golden, and he continued to profess his innocence in flailing arm actions rather and Korean words.  It all fell on deaf ears, however, as we were all laughing too much.  But there was time for one more question for the next team, an easy $100 question, 'Who is this?' with a picture of Kim Jong Un on the TV screen.  The general sniggering turned into a roar of laughter, which I thought was just because the picture was a little funny and Kim Jong Un looks a little chubby and funny anyway.  However, I turned and looked at the quiet, innocent boy who was embarrassed a little earlier and realised that he was the spitting image of North Korea's new leader, they could have been brothers.  Poor kid, a bit of a double whammy, but it was all in good fun, and he did see the funny side (eventually).

To be honest teaching is funny every day, sometimes I have the odd student that irritates me but generally they are all a fantastic bunch.  In the high school, maybe because of the amount of time they spend with each other at school, there is a great sense of camaraderie and most students form many close friendships in their classes and school (note that it is only within their year, though, because of the respect culture).  Usually when I walk into class there is any number of things going on.  Recently there has been a fascination with arm-wrestling and general tests of strength, and it is possible to see at least 5 or 6 students doing this in the break between classes.  At least a couple of students are always having a wrestling match, some are slapping each other in the face, a few are shuffling around in their slippers creating a static electrical charge and touching people's faces shocking them as they shuffle past, some are trying to put things in their friends ears and up their noses while they are trying to sleep, and others are just sitting around in their underpants, because they couldn't be bothered to put their trousers on after football at lunchtime.  The other day I walked in and six students were bent over and joined together like a caterpillar, when one student took a running jump seeing how many he could hurdle.  How he didn't break one students back, in particular, I will never know.  They are pretty much the most typical lads you can imagine, dirty, cut and bruised, and wrestling in their underwear, what could be more normal.  Except for one peculiar quirk of Korean culture.  In England it is considered weird and a little gay to even accidently touch your friends hand or leg, not in Korea, where you can see some strange sites.  It is common to see 17 year-old boys holding hands as they walk down packed corridors, students sitting on each others laps with their arms round each other watching a music video on their smart phones, or even massaging each other (non-sexually I might add) during class.  To my eyes it couldn't look more gay.  Not that I believe there is actually anything wrong with being gay, but most people still have a prejudice against it, so any show or even  hint of gay behaviour in public is met with derision.  My students are not gay, and even if they were the prejudice against gay people is much stronger in Korea than it is even back home in England, so they would never want to show it or admit to it.  The touchy feely behaviour is just not seen that way here though, and that is probably a good thing.  Perhaps it is not my students that are behaving strangely but that it is Western culture's way of looking at this behaviour that is strange and bizarre.

Inevitably, in an all boys school with the odd mean-spirited boy, I have a few issues with behaviour but on these rare occasions dealing with it is mightily easy.  One such occasion happened a couple of weeks ago.  After the a fore-mentioned stereotypes class, where there was much talk about penises, which although was uncomfortable, I had to admit was funny, some students started to step a little too far over the teacher-student line of respect and I was starting to get a little upset.  So I told them that I am not feeling a good amount of respect from the class and that I wasn't happy with how they were speaking to me.  This immediately rectified their behaviour and they looked visibly upset with themselves.  The next week in the same class when one student said something that was approaching being disrespectful, a student next to him punched him in the arm and gave him a good telling off, which was amusing and in fact very sweet.  If I had used the same tactic in a school in England, saying that I was upset with them, I would have been seen as weak, and might as well have thrown myself to the lions.

I think my personality resonates quite well with older students and I get on well with them, but the students really are great.  It is fantastic to work with them and I also feel sorry for them that their culture lets them down and asks far to much of them when it comes to studying and exams.  If only they gave them a bit more free time to have fun and be creative, they could accomplish so much more.  That is why I think I need to earn their respect with hard work to produce interesting lessons, as much as I demand their respect and attention in my classes.  Respect always goes both ways, and this doesn't always happen in Korea, and usually just goes to the elder, the teacher, or the person in the highest position.  A little more respect for students lives is what is needed here.  There is a statistic that the suicide rate for students in Korea is the highest in the world, I would hate to think that these statistics could include one of my students in the future.  They don't seem to be miserable in my class, and I hope I never contribute towards their stress.

This video gives a pretty fair reflection of what my students are like, sleepy one minute, funny the next.



  1. This is a really nice article.

    I can't imagine how much time they are actually spending on education, I don't think I could ever spend 14+ hours just in school.
    I think it's great that you make the lessons more interesting and don't insist on always being so authoritarian. Your classes seem very fun, I wish my teachers were like that.

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      I think I would feel a bit guilty imposing myself too strictly on them and stressing them more than some of them already are. I see them once a week and there are no tests for my class, so I know it is low on importance for them. I simply try and motivate them to want to have a chat in English with me, that's all. If they don't want to or they are too tired to speak in another language, I understand and it is their choice. With the amount they study already, if I forced them it would truly kill off their joy for learning and especially for learning English.

      I am less a teacher and more a friendly visitor they can practice their English with if they want. I think they respect that and I have few, if any, behaviour issues because of it.