The typical impression of Far Eastern people and especially their students back home in England is that of a population of serious, smart, nerdy computer geeks who all want to become doctors and therefore study unhumorously day and night. Granted, many of them do like computer games and it does seem that many of them want to become doctors but the reality of a Korean student's everyday world could not be further from the classic stereotype of over-seriousness.
1. Flip-flop table tennis
The students push four tables together to make the playing area and sandwich some flip-flops in the middle for a net, then use one more flip-flop for a bat/paddle. This way they only need to remember the ball. Some of them are amazingly good at it and have almost masterly control using only their slipper.
They scrunch up paper into a tight ball and seal it with sellotape, thereby making a baseball, a small broom is then utilised as the bat. Not much running can be done but they have a pitcher, some fielders, and a referee calling the strikes. To add some atmosphere, sometimes a student will plug his MP3 into the TV speakers and play some encouraging music inbetween pitches. Some students join in with chanting and cheerleading and some just sleep through it.
Desks turned around make for perfect hockey goals and a golf ball is used for the hockey ball. The students usually only have two small brooms per classroom so they have to borrow some more from the neighbours to have a full and interesting game. This game tends to cause the most disruption as desks are cleared to make room for the playing area. There are frequent breaks for lost balls under tables, bags and other obstructions.
A traditional Korean sport, which is kind of a mix between sumo and wrestling. I feel a smidgeon uncomfortable walking in on all of these activities but this one is probably the most dangerous as students go tumbling around. Other teachers do not appear to be too bothered by what goes on in the classrooms in breaks between classes, so I try and be lenient. I guess they figure that if they get injured in this time, it is their own fault and they will learn from their mistakes and it is their room and if they wreck it they have to fix it and clean it (now theres an idea).
5. Arm Wrestling
Probably the most common of the classroom sports and there is usually one student that particularly excels in each class.
General fighting with punching, kicking, wrestling, and slapping is a regular feature of the ten minute breaks. I have never seen anything turn nasty, however, although occasionally you can see students sitting on their own and studying outside classrooms, this is sometimes due to fighting and also smoking in the toilets.
I rarely see this with my students but there are sometimes coordinated dance moves practiced with a group of boys. Any search on youtube will show many more of these which they surely copy from K-Pop music stars. I would not mind betting that the girl students are even worse with things like this but it does appear funnier when the boys do it. Here some examples of what I have found on youtube (Skip to just over 1 minute on the second video).
8. Annoying other students
Some students are simply plain annoying and try their best to irritate other students in a great many novel ways. See the clip below.
9. Random Events
Rather worryingly, I walked in on one student being held down and pants partly down with his boxer shorts out and being spanked. He also had his mouth gagged by a belt. Perhaps they were trying to replica their favourite pornography scene. I just shook my head and walked on by without asking any questions.
Actually, one of the best things about schools in Korea is the responsibility they give to students. After reading my previous posts on older people you would be forgiven for thinking that Korean kids never do anything of their own accord without being told what to do first, but oddly enough they are given a kind of freedom that in many ways would never happen in Western countries.
I have experience teaching in England and teachers would rarely trust students enough to leave them unsupervised in a classroom. It is common that teachers lock classrooms to avoid students wrecking the place at breaks and lunchtimes. Of course, usually students do not have their own rooms and they travel from class to class throughout a typical school day. The great benefit of the Korean system is that they are responsible for their own room (and their school) - for maintaining it, repairing it, and cleaning it - and this makes them far less likely to trash it. Despite all my Korean students mucking around I have never seen an incident that you would regard as unsafe or anything broken.
This system of responsibility is fantastic but it obviously cannot work on its own and the culture has much to do with why it is successful. There are a couple of cultural reasons that Korean students are quite a bit easier to manage than Western students; the first has to do with a level of automatic respect they have for teachers and older people, and the second is their group centred culture. The first is fairly self-explanatory, but the reason for the second is because if an individual does something wrong within the group, the whole group can be punished for not dealing with or preventing them from doing it. This way you never have to argue about who did it and what is fair, the group will just accept the punishment (with maybe a little resistance) without feeling that their human rights have been violated.
As a teacher you do not have to waste time being fair, you can simply punish the group and the group itself will make sure justice prevails in the end by admonishing the individual responsible themselves. Again they are responsible, not only for their own, but for others behaviour. This dramatically cuts down on teacher's time spent dealing with behavioural problems, you really can (most of the time) trust Korean students from about the age of 11 upwards in a way you would never do in most Western countries.
All this responsibility suggests a greater maturity among Korean students but it certainly does not feel this way when you teach them. They have a childish like innocence, even the ones that you know are smoking in the toilets at lunchtime and talking about pornography (a favourite pastime for high school boys students in Korea in my experience). Teaching a class of 16 and 17 year olds in Korea feels more like teaching 14 and 15 year olds in England.
When my mother visited a couple of weeks ago she remarked on stories of my students with the belief that they were less mature and they do feel this way, but I am not so sure. I think they are simply nicer, and - I hate to denigrate the young people of my own country - friendlier, with a much greater sense of fun than students of a similar age in England. They make teaching a pure joy, I do not think I could have a better job. I actually look forward to returning to work after a break and my mood is usually lifted after teaching a class rather than the opposite. I am not one to overstate things like this, or indeed tend to find pleasure in working at all, and it is all down to my students, which is perhaps why you could forgive me on being so harsh in my previous posts on the culture of putting so much pressure on young people here in Korea.