Divide and Conquer

Every year in Korea the laws governing student discipline change. I haven’t kept up on the student civil rights movement, but it doesn’t matter because I know what its effects are instantly. First severe corporal punishment was eliminated, and then mild corporal punishment, and in its place was put:


No. That’s not correct. In it’s place was put teacher evaluations by the students, which is like placing a loaded gun in their hand.

Now, in theory I’m all for abolishing corporal punishment. And I think evaluating teachers can be an effective method of feedback for teachers to improve, but that’s not how it’s used here. Here, because principals don’t involve themselves with their teacher’s performance and seniority trumps excellence every time, written evaluations are punitive and can be utilized as ammunition in whatever school politics exists. As a result, all the teachers are shaking in fear over getting bad evaluations. To further dis-empower the teachers, discipline has been turned into a bureaucratic nightmare of recording and creating a paper trail of reports for every. single. thing. concerning a student.

In the Korean public school system, you have elite districts which have their own school systems where only the top teachers can ever hope to get a job at. Then there is a hierarchy between Seoul and the outlying provinces. My last co-teachers lived in Seoul yet commuted daily to my little town because they felt unqualified to even apply to public schools in Seoul. In my province, teachers are sent to five year school assignments sometimes two hours commute from where they live, which they quickly come to resent. They get no choices, and the ones who are assigned to a technical school in the country are already thinking of every day being a prison sentence.

If you are a Korean English Teacher (KET) this is even worse, because English has even less relevance to most of the student’s lives here in the country, and they have rejected it early on and put less effort into mastering any skills. This means the classroom is that much more challenging, because the curriculum is the same nationwide and geared for the university entrance exam. So the ONLY reason most kids study English is to pass their SATs. The concept of getting only one shot to get ranked for university entrance is foreign to most Americans, but then consider too what it would be like if a foreign language like Arabic was a compulsory class and a major portion of the American SAT. Arabic would not be very popular if that were the case. Many of our students don’t plan on going to university, so to them the only reason to be at school is social.

If you are a Native English Teacher (NET), your foreign presence steals precious time away from the KET’s test preparation. The novelty of you and your departure from teaching to tests can be received with giddiness by the students as an opportunity to not only let their hair down, but to go wild. So, the KETs not only question the value of your presence, but the entire dynamic of classroom management in all the English classes is upset as a result of your presence. In addition, you are handicapped so they must intervene in classroom management situations in your classroom.

If you are a Korean high school student, you are free to apply to any school in your school district you want to go to. However, application is competitive, of course. This means only the rich can go to good public high schools. Good school districts pop up near areas where the English hogwan industry concentrates. Upper middle class families move to be close to those districts. (The rich send their students to Private International schools or send them abroad to boarding school) Students can’t be competitive unless their parents have invested a fortune into private supplementary education prior to high school. The poor, well, they are pretty much stuck where they are.

Now, combine all of the factors above and imagine yourself being the only foreign teacher in the lowest level school in the most remote part of Korea with grumpy Korean colleagues and students without hope to reach their aspirations.

It can be challenging.

In my school there are two girls who have the entire school held hostage. Back-talking, cruel, sneering, argumentative, and defiant, these girls are THE most unattractive people, personality-wise, I have ever had the misfortune to meet in my entire life. The reason I’m writing is I was having nightmares of one of them, curling up her nose and sneering at me so her upper lip was drawn back with her dirty braces exposed while laughing and mocking me. (which happened earlier in the day) I mean, even girl gang members in the states have some respect for something, but these girls respect nothing.

Those teacher evaluations are seriously held up to all the Korean teacher’s heads by these girls. It’s a real problem because the girls are influential to a dozen others, who spread the joy of this power imbalance to others and encourage everyone around them to do no work and disregard all the rules. And nobody will take any disciplinary action against them.

The first week of school my KET was arguing with them and it took up most of the class period. I told her that will happen every time, so don’t even try to reason with them. I am more experienced than they are now, but they don’t listen to me, as I’m the foreign teacher. This same teacher is the one who told me to give them handouts to make them quiet, as if they would actually even do any handout! She wants me to plan a tightly controlled lesson plan to keep their behavior in check, as if they will even follow along! But she won’t enforce my very clear and consistent rules about no cell phones or doing their makeup or any rule these girls violate, because now she’s afraid of arguing with them, which is all you can do if it’s not serious like assault and you don’t want to be continuously writing reports…So instead she blames everything that doesn’t go right in the classroom on me, and she wants me to come up with fun activities for them because the girls complained that every lesson was too hard and boring. Yet I know that no matter what I/we come up with, they will find a way to complain about it. Because complaining is fun. Complaining is power. (Complaining is also distinctly Korean, btw, one of the few methods of power any Korean citizen has) Arguing is power. Teacher evaluations are the ultimate in power.

The KET’s solution is to micro-manage ME with her ideas, to the point I am totally irrelevant. I suggest you do this. I suggest you do that. Do you mind if I just do this in Korean? (Today I was just left to hit >enter< to my own presentation because she thought she could present it better than me) They are close to being in the position of telling her to jump and her asking "how high?" She can't believe I've learned anything in how to deal with these girls and their posse, which is to establish and enforce clear rules we can all understand (which have since been undermined by the KET) and then basically let them use/waste their time how they wish and be pleasant to them because there are still 2/3's of the class that are teachable that deserve attention too and to let them come along for the ride when they want to. And her micro-management of me put me in a foul mood where I broke form in weakness and now I am a target of their ridicule. (I scowled – they thought that was hilarious. sigh…) IF I could speak their language, it would be possible to engage them in conversation and establish a friendly relationship with them. But I can't do that. I DO know where she is coming from, but she doesn't care where I am coming from. Or that undermining me doesn't help our classroom management situation. Or that maybe I like to have some purpose in my work as well. Or that if something I'm doing doesn't work to her, that obviously what she's doing doesn't work either. Or that it is not just her burden but that I also have to deal with it. Or that she needs to be more flexible and relax if she's going to survive the next four years of her term at this premier assignment.

Sorry, KET co-teacher, we are all going to get bad evaluations and there's nothing you can do about it. Except throw the students a party every day, with the ringleaders as guests of honor…and these girls will not be the last to hijack your class. Korean teachers are going to have to earn respect from now on. And hopefully be given some more meaningful mechanism to give students consequences for their actions.

NEXT DAY: To add to my being irrelevant she has recently taken to not just take over my classes, but also my class periods. Of course, she always asks in a nicey-nice way to do this. She must have read this post about throwing parties, because today’s take-over was some raucous game with loudspeaker and lots of candy rewards. I hope she has a lot of energy, because 5 years of that for a control freak to muster is a lot. I shouldn’t worry about her. Only six more months of being micro-managed class time left to go.

This is the last year for Seoul’s high school positions and Gyeonggi has stopped any new hiring and letting attrition take care of the positions remaining. The speaking with foreigners has produced some improvement at the elementary school level, but for the older kids it is remediation after trauma, which doesn’t work too well. Even though there is some success at the elementary school level, they want to replace native speakers with robots. Because robots don’t have foreign culture and ideas that clash with Korean teachers, I’m guessing.

I guess I’m just disappointed. I did so want to think my birth country was smart and not just intelligent. But what does it matter: pretty soon the whole world will be scrambling to learn Chinese anyway.

5 thoughts on “Divide and Conquer

  1. you know, i think some teachers have been able to find new methods of teaching amid all of this back and forth with the politics and new school anti-violence policies. i think your co-teacher is a prime example of a teacher who has not been able to follow the new rules without compromising her dignity as a teacher. she’s a teacher who has been put in a leash. it’s quite sad, and, you’re right — how will she last 5 years teaching that way? she’ll just become bitter and anti. it’s her loss, but it’s also the students’ loss. that is sad. shameful. i’m suddenly grateful my teachers, who range from good to lumpish.

  2. Well, first I characterized the rest of the teachers wrong as grumpy. They’re not – but they are all extremely frustrated.

    I’m not always sure about not being able to follow the rules without compromising her dignity. I think in her mind she is being more vigilant and fighting harder – because at the same time I see she’s trying to not give up – even if it’s for some wrong reasons. It was kind of a bitter pill for me to swallow when I told her I’d just go back to the book and do whatever she wanted. It came across as snotty (and it was) and she admonished me that I should at least try my best. You know, that thing she said about just shutting up the students that was last month…(slap forehead) Also, I’m sure she’s trained in all the latest types of lessons and Korean ascribed progressive educational philosophies, but I also think those do not account for classroom management of this kind of student in these rudderless times. And – well, she’s not as liberal minded as the other teacher. It’s more that her efforts seem a little hysterical.

    She was decent to me today. Maybe she’s found some hope or maybe she’s realized I’m not really making her life harder. Or maybe this is just the process all new teachers with high expectations go through when first presented with this kind of assignment in this environment. There is no choice but to find a sustainable way. But these student evaluations with these school politics really are not helping…

    The micro-management brings out the worst most uncooperative me as well. Or rather, I am more cooperative but with a bad attitude.

    I must say, the other teacher and I are having a decent time together. I can’t measure what the kids are learning, but it’s relaxed and strife-free, which is more conducive to learning. I’ve even been inspired doing research for more methodology which might appeal to these students. Look up TPR.

    I’ve been asked to go with teacher training next week. Hope it’s nothing they can be smug about. Must keep an open mind. Almost finals for first semester. We can finish this year. I might vent here more, though…

  3. If I may humor you on the SAT part- there is a required foreign language that all American students have to know well to score well on the SATs- English.

    I don’t think, nationwide, the school systems here are all that great either.

  4. I’m gone to say to my little brother, that he should also go to see this webpage on regular basis to get updated from most up-to-date gossip.

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