It’s a fact of life and if there’s one thing known by people close to me, it’s that I keep it real. Cynicism is a waste of time, but, believe it or not, failing to acknowledge the times when things aren’t going great can ultimately lead to a cynical mindset. Keeping negative emotions pent up doesn’t make them go away; it just makes them worse. In light of that, I’d like to go on record and say that this was a decidedly atrocious week. I’m not talking about a routine squall, but really a Perfect Shit-Storm. So many things converged at once to make this week one that just wouldn’t pass quickly enough. So, sit back, relax, maybe grab some popcorn, because you’re about to hear all about it.
To that end, I should point out one more thing generally known by those I know best: I’m really not in the habit of taking bullshit, particularly teenage bullshit. And, you may rest assured, the surliness, poor attitude, and “too-cool-for-school” mentality so typical of American teens is something that transcends culture. In fact, it’s one of the things that reminds me culture is pretty much an entirely human construct and that beneath the mores and customs that define those cultures, we’re all remarkably the same. I once said that all cultures are, in their own way, superficial; a better way to say it is that all cultures are, by their very nature, superficial. The stuff that makes us human is rooted far deeper.
Anyway, due to a peculiarity in the way the teacher schedule was organized this week, I wound up having middle school groups for twenty-six of the twenty-nine class periods I taught. Oh boy. This collided with the shocking discovery teachers made on Monday that these middle schoolers were beyond awful. And, I’m serious, they were out of control even by American standards. By virtue of my height, beard, big build, and ability to menacingly lower my voice to a bear’s snarl, I had far fewer behavior issues than many of the other teachers did. That said, I still had to try my hand at discipline far more then I’d prefer. I also ran out of coffee on Wednesday. So, yeah.
Let’s start with Group 34, which, like the rest of the groups numbered 20 through 35, consisted of eighteen students from a middle school. I know nothing about this school other than that most of the kids who go there suck. On Tuesday afternoon, sixth period, Group 34 entered my class without an invitation (teachers meet their groups at the door and tell them when they can enter) and began rearranging seating to their own preferences. After I’d adjusted their expectations regarding their ability to do that in my classroom (“You can put those desks right back where you found them, and be quick about it”), the girls pulled out their mirrors and started adjusting their makeup while the boys struck up a loud conversation like they were in a pub and not an English class. Pulling no punches, I immediately made it clear that they were in my classroom and that “when I’m talking, you’re not. Understand?” After two more warnings to shut up went unheeded, I made every student (only about two were listening) stand up, push in their chairs, and sit cross-legged on the floor like the Kindergartners their behavior resembled. I explained to them, “In my classroom, if you are not listening, then you are not learning. If you are not learning, then you are not a student. If you are not a student, then you cannot sit in a desk because desks are for students.” Their English was a bit low to fully understand what I was saying, but they could tell from the tone of my voice that I was not pleased. After letting them sit on the floor for a few minutes, I asked, “Now, would you like to be students again? If you’re ready to be students, you may sit in a desk.” One by one, they slowly took their seats and we proceeded with my lesson.
That action by no means completely corrected their behavior. For the remainder of the class, I continued to remind them to be quiet and when the time came for them to complete the worksheet, I told them they could either work on the worksheet or sit quietly on the floor. Many decided (stupidly) to test my resolve and about half of the class wound up sitting on the floor—one was booted into the hallway and told “sit right there and do not move.” The best part of all this was when their school teacher walked by the classroom and the students became visibly scared; two tried to sneak back into their chairs but, upon seeing them, I said, “Oh, no, no, no. I didn’t say you could sit in a chair. You’ll sit on the floor until I tell you to do otherwise.” They then slunk back into criss-cross position on the dirty floor.
That afternoon, three of the four groups I taught ended up sitting on the floor for one reason or another and, for two groups, I turned the air conditioning off. After the warm, muggy outside air had saturated the classroom, one student complained, “Teacher, I am so hot!”
As she spoke, I grabbed my water bottle and took a big drink. “Oh, you’re hot?” I asked. “That’s too bad.” I may not be able to slap the kids when they’re being asinine, but I can still make them extremely uncomfortable.
The next morning, the troublemakers from the middle school groups were reamed for about half an hour by their regular school teachers and forced to do wall-sits. This, combined with a fairly steady smackdown from teachers and village guides, caused them to gradually mellow out a bit as the week wore one, but most of them still refused to participate and often showed up to class late and without any supplies whatsoever, probably thinking that doing so excused them from doing work. I just gave them a pencil, a blank sheet of paper, and copies of the workbook pages that I’d prepared and explained that they would do work in my class whether they wanted to or not and that if they refused to do so, then they could sit on the floor. As I said before, I have a bit of an unfair advantage in that regard. I’m tall, big-built, bearded, and have a voice that kids find it difficult to ignore. I discovered this week how wonderfully effective these tactics are, particularly if it’s just one or two students who refuse to work or stop talking: making them sit on the floor means they’re sitting lower than their peers, which causes them to lose face. After a few minutes, most are willing, however grudgingly, to get their acts together and participate in the lesson.
On Thursday, sixth period, I had Group 30. I’d had them earlier that day in the Library and grew so frustrated with their complete unwillingness to take part in anything that I’d just sat down and started reading. After being initially confused, they sat and chatted quietly; at the end of class, I’d given them a zero and told them to leave. That afternoon, as I read the notes from fifth period, I saw that they’d spent nearly the entire class insulting the previous teacher, calling her fat, ugly, and a host of other things. Seeing that pegged out my livid meter and my thought was, “These kids might not leave my class having learned any English, but they will leave having learned respect for teachers.” After marching them in, telling them to sit down, and hovering with an “I’m waiting” expression over those who’d neglected to bring pencils or paper until they’d managed to borrow some from their classmates, we began. I explained that if they listened and completed my short lesson, they’d have free time at the end of class. I said this knowing they’d likely be too thick-headed to take me up on my offer and fully intending to hold them to account for it. After we’d gotten through the bulk of my lesson, they worked in groups to create a menu (I was teaching in the Restaurant situational) and then I told them if they all completed a particular page in their workbooks, they could all have free time. Most ignored me and after repeatedly (but not too insistently) warning them to get to work, I stopped, and said words that became dishearteningly familiar this week: “Alright, everyone stand up, push in your chairs, and sit on the floor.” Initially, they didn’t think I was serious–they just kind of looked at me bemused. So, I repeated my command and slowly they started standing up and pushing in their chairs.
At first, they tried to squat instead of sit and I made it clear I intended for them to sit on their rumps. One student said, “Teacher, this floor is very dirty.”
Out loud, I said, “I don’t care. Sit on the floor.” On the inside, I retorted, “Let’s talk about how big the shit is I don’t give.” She didn’t understand what I said, but she got the idea that it didn’t matter to me whether the floor was dirty or not, sit on it.
Once they were all seated, I sat down in a chair at the front of the room, pulled out my New Yorker magazine, and said, “You will all be absolutely quiet until class ends in fifteen minutes.” Then, I opened to an article I’d been unable to finish that morning and started reading. At one point a few minutes later, a student said something obnoxious and everyone laughed. I said sternly, “Shut up,” and explained that I had grown quite tired of their stupidity, once again reminding them I wasn’t joking. Anytime another student spoke or moved too loudly, I made them come and sit on the floor right next to my chair. As class ended, I put my magazine aside and broke the silence, saying, “If you all want teachers to treat you like kids, we’ll do it. Personally, I’d much rather have fun with you and teach you English, but that’s up to you.” I reached to my side, grabbed the folder holding their teachers’ notes and points tracking sheet (called a “Blue File”), and tossed it on one of the tables, saying, “Now, take your Blue File and get out of my classroom.” They slowly and silently stood up and walked out the door.
However good I may be at asserting my authority in my classroom, it’s not something I enjoy. I hate it, in fact. It drains me emotionally, and makes me feel like a bad person. I don’t like yelling at unruly kids, even though sometimes that’s all you can do to maintain–or salvage–the academic integrity of a lesson. I did learn a few things though: for one, most of the time, all middle schoolers want is just a little down time, particularly Korean middle schoolers. I mentioned this briefly before, but in the rest of my classes with the teenagers, I rewarded them for a completed lesson with time to talk or sleep at the end of class. Some might call that giving in, but I’d much prefer 30 minutes of good teaching to 45 of hair-pulling teaching. And even then, in the end, very little of our disciplinary efforts paid off. After we’d wrapped up our final classes and the kids had been loaded on the buses that would whisk them back to become someone else’s problem again, one boy held his hand out the window of the bus and gave us all the “Fuck You” sign. I couldn’t help but see it as perfectly symbolic for a hellish week and said to myself, “That feeling’s mutual, bud.”
In the end though, it’s worth mentioning that my job is still good and most of the time I really enjoy it. On the whole, the kids are great, well-behaved, and eager to learn, with me finding it a joy to teach them. I live in a cool mountain campus not too far from a fairly cool city and will soon be moving into completely new living accommodations.
Sometimes, stuff like this happens. And this:
And telling the kids goodbye, even the less than lovable ones, is always bittersweet:
I’m now approaching my four-month mark, which means my year in Korea is almost a third of the way over. Korea is still a cool place, even if the people and the quirks of their culture sometimes make me laugh. My first time living in a foreign country has been packed with lots of its own firsts, like my (accidental) first time getting drunk at a staff barbecue, my first time receiving a regular monthly salary, and my first time eating kimchi (not really a fan, but it’s okay). Next week will be my first time teaching high school students and teaching Cooking (I’m mildly panicking). Time is passing so quickly and I’m certain that before I know it, it’ll be Friday, February 28, 2014, and I’ll sign my very last passport as a teacher at the English Village. It will also be my twenty-fourth birthday and I’m sure it’ll be a surreal experience, as has been this entire endeavor up to this point. Until then, as the Koreans say, “Fighting!”