"Teacher should hit me"

Korea - why I stayed

by Riann Arkinstall

For my first year in Korea in 2003, I worked at a private English academy. My expat colleagues were from a diverse background, my Korean co-teachers were kind (and oh SO beautiful), and the kids were marvellous. 

The Korean culture is very different. I began to make new friends, both Korean and expat. As for teaching, it was a joy to see students making a diligent effort to improve their language skills.  

To explain why I chose to stay, I will break down my initial Korean experiences into different sections: Professional, social/cultural, and personal.

Professional - Spare the rod, spoil the child

I taught in Canada after graduating from UBC, mostly Grade 10 and 11 Math. I enjoyed my job, and formed close relationships with both colleagues and students. 

However, I did not enjoy forcing my students to jump through the curriculum hoops. I spent countless hours preparing before class, and even more time after class assisting kids who couldn’t get the concepts. Sadly, Grade 11 Math is a required course needed to go on to university. 

I found myself constantly frustrated and rarely fulfilled. The education culture in BC was becoming more and more tiresome, stressful, and disappointing.

My experience in Korea has been quite the opposite.

In Korea, they follow the traditional Confucian belief in a hierarchy of respect, and it is very important to observe the levels. On the top tier, and considered equal, are the King, the Father and the Teacher. There is even a specific day in Korea called Teacher’s Day, when students give a gift to their teacher. I have received a wide gambit of presents ranging from toilet paper, socks, underwear, expensive aftershave, gift certificates to department stores, and numerous thank you cards or letters from students and parents.

In my second year, I moved from the private English academy to a Provincial (Girl’s Middle) public school. Teacher’s day occurred shortly after my arrival at this school. There was an assembly for all students and teachers, where the students presented a number of performances and songs to celebrate their teachers. It brought me to tears for its genuine reverence and respect.

Another curious difference can be found in the type of relationship that teachers have with their students. Sadly, it is far too common in North America to hear of teachers being disciplined for inappropriate interactions with students. In teacher’s college, we were instructed to never touch a student. Even if a child falls down and skins their knee at primary school, there are to be no hugs to make it feel better. 

Again, this is completely the opposite in Korea.  

For me, education is a skill that requires as many senses as can be utilized to make learning more effective and meaningful. A touch on the shoulder or a pat on the back to connect with a student is an important part of communicating a sense of caring and concern, and a way to keep students engaged.

Coming from my Canadian teaching background, I felt incredibly uncomfortable at first when students gave me a massage on my shoulders or neck. As well, students would practically insist on holding my hand to go to class together. If I were checking homework, they would come very close, and even reach out to put a hand on my arm or thigh. This was a showing of affection and caring, nothing more. What a wonderful difference.

Oh, and quite a number of my students have seen me naked! More on that in the next instalment.

On the other side of the physical interaction coin is that corporal punishment is still very common in Korea. Although it is deemed illegal by the government, it is still commonplace, and ranges from getting one’s forehead thwacked with a finger (as though you were flicking off a piece of lint from your jacket) to having students stand at their desk with hands raised over their head to receive some solid smacks with a stick to the palms or bottom of the feet. 

A number of times I have posed this topic of corporal punishment to my students as a writing assignment. The overwhelming majority of students feel that corporal punishment is good for them and their education. They feel it makes them more motivated, focused, and ‘tuned in’.

One technique I use for discipline problems is to ask a student to decide what type of punishment they should receive for ongoing problems (for example, poor behaviour or not completing homework assignments). Very commonly, the answer is, “Teacher should hit me.” Further, I have been directed by parents to hit their kids. 

I will not lie to you, I have done so, but rarely use a stick. When in Rome. . . .

Teaching in Korea is very rewarding, challenging, interesting, and, by in large, fun. The students are very keen to learn and improve, they want the ability to understand English movies, television, and books. 

I get up in the morning without ever having that old familiar feeling, “Oh man, do I have to go to work today?”

I love my job! 

Stay tuned for next week’s third instalment when you will learn all about the Norae bong, and more about why my students have seen me naked. Until then. . . .

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


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