Ken May

Sweet spastic, silly swarms

Back in Korea again

What am I doing back in Korea? Believe me, I asked myself this question even before climbing off the airplane – a particularly grueling journey that involved sleeping overnight in Taiwan on the scratchy carpet of a departure lounge, while waiting for my transfer onto the next morning’s flight. My recently acquired TEFL certificate was gently folded into my carry-on luggage between two books. It was cushioned by a single change of clothing and a toothbrush. Travelers boisterously stepped around me as if I was a toppled chair with a broken leg. Half awake, I reminded myself why I returned to Korea despite a swarm of job offers in Thailand. Of course, money is always a prime factor. I was broke once again after a six week TEFL course in Thailand. I needed to generate income fast, and my former employer was willing to wire me cash. However, a distant promise overrode economic necessity. In the days before leaving Korea I vowed to my hagwon director that I would return to finish the time remaining on my E2 work visa (ten more weeks). I promised her that I would come back to put my TEFL certificate to test. It was a matter of self-respect. I honor my agreements. It is as simple as that.

Korea was the same as when I left it. New swarms of hagwons proliferated like rabbits on viagra and cheap wine. Every street twinkled with the latest corporate offspring – doe-eyed upstarts of whatever educational franchise chain. Small, independent, family owned schools struggled to compete; while saturating the nation themselves oblivious to supply and demand. The Korean economy was still suffering, but experiencing a slight quickening like a muscle twitch in an epileptic. It wasn’t exactly healthy, but at least it was moving. Debates continued about unqualified “foreign” English teachers. There had been many recent crackdowns on illegal teachers – a new Korean summer tradition – including those giving private lessons or working second jobs. There were a few symbolic busts and plenty of political posturing. Immigration officials now demanded sealed university transcripts from prospective teachers, and a few teachers have been fined for being outsourced to factories by their hagwon owners. Canadians working on six-month tourist visas were running scared. Filipino teachers quickly took up praising God for not getting deported. In other words, it was the same story as always.

Anti-American sentiment was as strong as ever, especially after a military vehicle ran over yet another innocent civilian while I was away. There were more demonstrations and the usual demand to remove troops. Koreans youths spent their afternoons protesting the United States and their evenings emulating American fashion styles and musical genres. Meanwhile, bus loads of Koreans punched numbers into cell phones and shouted loudly into them at public places – sounding like schizophrenics babbling incoherently to themselves at a New York soup kitchen. I was probably the only person alive in Korea that hadn’t been text messaged that day. Curly haired ajumas, in puffy flowered pants, sold kim chi on street corners. The rubber-suited disabled elbowed their way down market streets singing into distorted microphones. Marquees and billboards flashed with the latest Korean hallyu release. Buddhist monks tapped on wooden drums and Christian evangelist pounced on potential conversions. Nothing had changed since my absence. Nothing. Everything was in the same place as when I left the country. Ahhh …Korea … que viva Korea! I had returned to my familiar home once again.

It was me rather than Korea that had changed. I was different type of teacher this round. I departed as a typical English teacher, and I returned heroically like a prodigal son with a TEFL award. I had got certified! This achievement tingled with exhilarating sensations; as if I slew a dragon in battle, smoked my first left-handed cigarette, or lost my virginity to a sexy eye-glassed librarian. It felt like a rite or passage. I had crossed over to the other side to professionalism. Teaching could never be the same. So, back in my old apartment, I fixed myself a cup of tea in my favorite ceramic chalice and started planning lessons. I was no longer just an English teacher; I was a hardened grammarian. I would raise my bar to exude heightened standards. To make a good impression I dressed in some of my finest clothing for the first day of class. I even polished my shoes.

It didn’t work. I got swarmed immediately after walking into class. The children didn’t care if I had a TEFL certificate, they only wanted to be entertained. Within seconds I got repeatedly “dong chimmed”. Dong chimming is a well-known Korean ritual in which children perform the profane gesture of sticking their fingers up your butt (see November’s article). Personally, I prefer a handshake, but I am only a stranger in this strange land. There was little that I could do about it. The Korean youth circled around me strategically and, when the timing was right, they acupunctured my bum with pointed fingers as if to say hello. It felt like tiny fish nibbling. Normally (if this ritual could be considered normal), I would discipline the children on the spot for this activity. However, I allowed it to slide this time. Let them get it out of their system. We could work on classroom management later.

Over the next two weeks I adapted to a new a new style of teaching – one that could be directly applied to a Korea hagwon. I placed a lot of emphasis on prep time and creating new classroom material. Many skills from the TEFL program proved very useful. The feedback I got about worksheet design or from observed lessons was priceless. I also became more conscious about regulating the timing of a fifty minute class; breaking it up with warmers, coolers, fun activities, and staged language practice. I tried to keep events moving, so children wouldn’t get bored given their short attention spans. I started to keep a teaching journal, so that I could keep tabs about student progress and plan the next week’s lessons accordingly. Since my hagwon wants lessons developed around the Let’s Go textbook series, I pay more attention to the actual content of each unit. What are the actual functions being taught? If that chapter focuses on past continuous tense, lexical sets of colors, or expressing likes/dislikes – then I will develop activities that specifically focus on these goals. I can deliver clearer explanations about grammar and provide examples on the spur of the moment. As an added bonus, I throw in phonic practice whenever applicable. To sum, I am better fulfilling my role as a teacher.

It is too early, perhaps, to fully understand the full impact of my TEFL certificate. After all, I am still developing as a teacher, which is precisely the reason I took the TEFL course in the first place. However, there are three traits that I have already seen personal change in. One is that I am more confident. I know that my teaching skills have improved and that I understand the English language better than ever before. Two is that my attitude has changed. I am more relaxed in the classroom because I am better prepared. My new attitude allows me to connect with students and build rapport, because I understand where they are coming from as learners. I don’t take misbehavior as a personal insult anymore. Finally, I am more conscious about the gestalt of education. In other words, I am becoming more involved with elements outside the classroom: state educational policy, hagwon politics, parental attitudes, and the responsibility of the children themselves. I find myself wanting to take a more active role at each level. At least, I am more aware at how all these variables interact together.

I was eager to practice my new TEFL skills. Before I left, the Korean media had widely reported the most negative traits of “foreign” teacher. I wanted to counterbalance these claims with a marketable teaching certificate. I enrolled in the TEFLworld course on Ko Samui and passed with flying colors. Now, I wanted to see how my new skills would play out. The fact that I am a better teacher is indisputable. When I hear debate in Korea about “unqualified” teachers, I know that this term will never apply to me again. I did my part to improve myself. I got certified. I have become the type of qualified teacher that Koreans claim they want. Now, it is Korea’s turn to improve its own educational policies. And, it as at this point in which this article digresses from discussion about the value of teaching certificates.


What am I doing back in Korea? Even after one month had gone by I continued asking this question. I knew the reasons WHY I had come back, but I still wondered WHAT I was doing here. Of course, I was teaching and developing the skills harnessed with a TEFL certificate. However, my return to Korea goes deeper than that. Korea is an anomaly in my teaching career. It is the only place where I have ever been employed to teach children, and this is probably the last effort I will ever make with this target group. What I am doing back in Korea is teaching children. Therefore, it is high time that I look at my role as a mentor to these English learners.

Former girlfriends have suggested that teaching children is my way of getting in touch with the fatherhood that I never had – never having the money or staying put anywhere long enough to raise my own offspring. Yes, that is right, I have yet to spawn my demon seed or sire an urchin to my likeness. I am the perpetual uncle. These same girlfriends have hinted that I fear commitment and domestication. But, what do they know? They are all blinded by my raw, wild, aggressive, unadulterated, animalistic, and creatively passionate masculine energy. It just makes sense to prevent my DNA from floating around. Whatever my motive, I fully realize that children can teach me plenty. This opportunity in Korea helps me to understand how language is acquired and how I can better contribute to that process as an English teacher. I wanted to listen and learn from these children.

The problem with children is that they are sort of silly and spastic. They start fights over comic books, break into tears when their team loses a game, and throw tantrums whenever I take their dried squid away. They run into walls, hide under desks, and climb onto teachers like a private jungle gym. I have seen children stand on tables to announce that they aren’t an idiot, skid happily across the floor in pools of urine, and fling wet toilet paper across their face to declare that they are a ghost. Children seem to defy all logic. They covertly eat dry ramen noodles with blankets of hot chili powder during class and complain when I delay their water break. They distract themselves with extensive tug-o-war battles involving a classroom door. They break into lengthy sock fights in the middle of an English lesson. Children will interrupt a teacher every five minutes to ask what time it is, or line up in front of the door ten minutes before the end of class trying to escape early. Children pull at my arm hair with chocolate stained fingers in endless fascination. They gleefully exhibit anti-social behavior like farting towards a friend’s face and laughing about it afterwards. Even common sense physical responses – like whipping their nose before it runs into their mouth – seem impervious to them. Argghhh … what is it about children that makes them so immature?

In theory, as a teacher my job is to mold this wild, discombobulated, swarming, mass into upright citizens – the future leaders of our world. However, I kind of doubt it at times. Can you imagine George W. Bush swinging his diapers in the air while shouting that he is King of Pokeman? Can you visualize Tony Blair dancing like a chicken in cowboy boots to a song about ten little frogs? I think not. Nevertheless, children are blessed with an Darwinist mechanism that insures their future survival: on a lucky day, when all the stars are properly aligned, they can be very sweet, comical, and cute. This cute factor is so powerful that it can convince grown men to work boring jobs or double shifts, rather then spend their lives clubbing wooly mammoths and frolicking in bliss. Cuteness can tame even wild adventuresome men such as myself. It can transform us into serving children as protectors and providers. This cute factor can cause even grown men to intellectually discuss cartoons, give pony rides in public, and disfigure their voice with baby talk. I tell you, it is children that socialize and mold us rather than the other way around.

Actually, I have a more serious theory about this. Most animals learn to survive almost immediately or they would die. Deer can walk within hours. Sea turtles can swim as soon as they hit water. Humans, on the other hand, take years to develop. Why do children take so long to mature? My theory is that humans survive precisely because their children are weak and in need of protection. The frailty of children brings families together and forces communities to form. Humans have survived this long because we unite for the sake of our vulnerable offspring. The fragility of our youth leads to human’s most valuable strengths: social bonding, protective forces, emotional conditioning, and even love. But, what do I know about these things? I haven’t even procreated yet. The only thing that I seem to reproduce is clothing with holes in them.

Koreans, on the other hand, are well known for their love of children. It is easy to spot women everywhere with a baby cradled to her back or a number of toddlers holding her hand. Even total strangers lavish attention on children that stray by. Indeed, many Koreans view children as the prime reason of life. They see their future in their children. They even measure their own status by the achievements of their children. Therefore, parents are willing to spend huge chunks of their salaries to educate these whippersnappers. Since hagwon tuition is very expensive parents will pay close attention to teaching styles. The relationship between the adult teacher and the young pupil is watched by parents with great importance. However, young learners can be the most difficult audience. English teachers must coax, cajole, and convince children to go against their nature – to quit playing and open a book instead. This is no easy task.

Being comfortable in a classroom full of children is not an innate trait. It takes time to become familiar with how the mind of a child operates. It takes practice to tame the swarm, and this frustrating process stings at times. It is for this reason that parents make the best elementary school teachers. They have already been altered by the swarm. They have developed immunity. However, most native English speaking parents are too busy raising their own youth. That can’t just pack up and move abroad for a scant salary or even risk being cheated by an unscrupulous hagwon. The notoriously bad reputation of Korean hagwons has been well earned, so many qualified teachers who have experience with children prefer to stay away. Koreans are, therefore, stuck with a dilemma. They must entrust their children to inexperienced, childless English teachers.

The majority of English teacher in Korea are recent university graduates, who have suddenly finished discussing Bernoulli’s equation and Foucault’s post-modern theory to speak with kids about basic words such as “an apple”. They have abruptly switched from complicated thesis writing to sing-a-longs about ducks. These university graduates find themselves in roles more like a babysitter or an entertainer, rather than the teacher position that they were recruited for. A significant majority of English teachers have never lived abroad before either. The frustration that results can lead to many problems. Most of these English teachers quit or go home after only one year. With some teachers everything just clicks, and they find they thrive with children as students. These educators are a precious resource and a rare find in Korea (especially if they can adapt to living abroad for awhile). I have never had any problems adjusting to life in a foreign country, but it has been sometimes difficult to adapt to teaching children. This was the challenge for me in Korea. I needed to confront my weakness. I wanted to test myself and my new TEFL skills with my hardest target group to reach: children. As an added bonus, this teaching position would pay off the bad karma accumulated from my own misbehavior during elementary school days.


What am I doing back in Korea? This question crossed my mind again today. Teaching was going smoothly. My props were well developed and my lesson plan was impeccable. I held the attention of most children. They were participating in an English lesson and having fun. Then it happened. A twelve-year-old boy reached for my teaching aid and deliberately crunched it into a ball. Game over. Who knows why he did it. Maybe he was angry that he lost the game, confused by rules he could not understand, or just in need of extra attention. All of a sudden my lesson plan was ruined. I spend nearly three hours designing this material, and it could have been used with many classes over the years to come. I even spent my own money buying supplies. I watched with astonishment as the little brat unapologetically ripped my teaching aid to pieces. I could not just ignore this destruction or do nothing. Any lack of response would only encourage misbehavior in other students. This action called for discipline.

Discipline is one topic that can’t be accurately taught in a TEFL or CELTA course. Teaching certificate programs do discuss useful tactics, but theories about behavior modification often fall apart at the live moment. Discipline tends to be spontaneous, and it varies according to the action being punished. Trainees need to witness a swarm of misbehaving children first hand to learn how to respond. Korean children love to test English teachers to see what they can get away with. Each teacher must find disciplinary methods of their own. So here I was back in Korea. I had all the training that a qualified teacher may need, but I was baffled over what to say. English teaching has nothing to do with English at all sometimes. It is also about establishing authority and classroom rules. The twelve-year-boy was waging a duel. I had to put an end to this behavior before other students began to copy him.

Local teachers already know the perimeters allowed for discipline, since they were raised within this environment. They know the limits that parents will accept. Korea has changed many disciplinary practices since I first taught here in 1999, but some of the old ways persist. Many Korean teachers still employ stress positions as common punishment (although this is often denied). I know of other Korean teachers that flick problem children on their nose with a finger (although this is officially against hagwon policy). My students often claim that they are hit with long sticks at government schools (although this is technically illegal). In Korea there is official policy and there is also the actual practice. However, most local discipline comes in more tame varieties nowadays. Many schools give tickets or brownie points to students as positive reinforcement – which are cashed in to buy pencils, pens, and erasers. These points can also be subtracted for misbehavior. When a student goes bad, however, a simple phone call to a student’s parents is perhaps the most common disciplinary method of all.

When a “foreigner” English teacher takes disciplinary action on a Korean student there tends to be a double standard. There is less parental tolerance for a native speaker that employs stress positions and other physical restraints. This is perhaps for the best since these tactics aren’t very effective in the first place. However, many English teachers are not given support by parents or school owners when they employ more moderate measures. Parents will admonish foreign teacher for punishing their child or threaten to remove them, and hagwon business directors are reluctant to tip even unproductive students toward their competition. The overriding problem in the classroom is that children are well aware that foreign teachers lack the ability to punish them. Korean kids know that they can get away with more misbehavior when a native speaker is involved. At times they even goad us because they know foreigners are powerless to stop them. This misconduct is a major burn out for foreign teachers and a constant source of complaint on Internet forums.

English teachers from the west seldom have the capacity to speak in Korean. Therefore, children usually call a teacher’s bluff about contacting parents. Korean children also love to tattle on foreign teachers, making any punitive measure a subject of parental scrutiny. Local tactics such as stress positions can get us deported. Other strategies can also lead to problems. Foreign teachers often make students do sit ups or push ups for misbehavior. They might slap students with a rolled up paperback textbook in frustration. They might attempt humiliation methods such as posing a student in front of class in a awkward position. However, most teachers prefer more docile techniques. Some teachers subtract brownie points or take tickets away, and most offer some type of reward to induce good behavior. But, all this activity – regardless of disciplinary style – ultimately adds up to less time actually practicing English in the classroom.

The main difficulty in teaching Korean children is balancing play time with English practice. Class can go very smoothly if you just blow off English and allow children to play. It is amazing how little effort and preparation time a teacher can get away with. I know quite a few teacher who simply walk into class with zero planning. You can easily burn classroom time by wrestling with students or having them draw pictures. I know one teacher that read newspapers in class and another who handed out Korean comic books. As long as the children have fun then nobody complains. Parents are happy because their children are enjoying school and the directors are happy because they are profiting from tuition. The drawback is that students aren’t learning anything. How effective is student-centered learning when the students main desire is to not study? How useful is teacher-centered learning when the instructor is apathetic, frustrated, or burnt out? Classroom management is an art. It takes a sense of balance, almost like how a comedian focuses on the timing of jokes. A good teacher worries about balance. They add some playful activities to a lesson, but they never forget that they are strategically building up to the punch line – the English practice.

The long term teachers in Korea figure out classroom management after a year or two. They learn how to balance the attention of children. They become comfortable with their standpoint as a classroom facilitator, and their directors have usually created a supportive environment. The large majority of native English speakers, however, never last that long. These disillusioned teachers are swallowed alive by hagwons that cheat them or the children that disrespect them. They simply quit trying to improve. Even highly qualified teachers end up quitting in frustration or returning home at the end of a contract. They hit websites with warning to prospective teachers, which creates lasting problems with national reputation and new recruiting. The cycle of supplying inexperience teachers, therefore, continues.

What was I doing back in Korea? Despite my credentials, sometimes I am just taming the swarm. These kids study in government school all day and private schools all evening. They seldom have play time until they hit my classroom. They love the games and activities that I teach to them, but persuading these students to open their books is a major effort each day. I use positive reinforcement methods for the most part: reward tickets, bonus points, personal encouragement, compliments, remarks such as “good job” on the corner of their workbooks. If an entire class is good for a long time I will sometimes teach them a class outside. Sometimes I can have the desired effect just by promising them that we will play a favorite game AFTER work is finished. However, it is inevitable that each class will implode once in a while. Last week alone I witnessed spit wad fights, marker pen wars, graffiti writing on walls, refusals to open books, vandalism of chairs by riding them backwards, crying bouts over not being picked first, fights for my attention, licking furniture with tongues, bogger throwing, middle finger flipping, cussing in English, pulling my hair, and habitual cheating. In other words, it was a typical week at a Korean hagwon.

When a bad student finally pushes me past the edge I use three punitive measures: 1) Make them stay after class. 2) Make them stand in the hallway during class. 3) Make them tell the director what they had done. When that 12-year-old boy tore up my teaching material I made him stand in the hallway. This is harsh punishment for Korean children because it ostracizes them. They are alone rather than in the group. The threat to remove them from others is usually enough, but in this case the kid went straight to the hallway. I didn’t have the patience to even deal with him. I also wanted to prevent my anger from exploding any further. The remaining students were shocked into studying English once again. I quickly drew on improvisation skills and old lesson plans to continue the class. For a moment, I had regained control of the stage.

To my surprise, my director opened the door within minutes to demand that I continue teaching that child. Even after I explained the situation the child was allowed back in. No doubt the children were very amused to see the teacher reprimanded instead. She didn’t mean anything personal by it. She just didn’t want to have another student drop out of her hagwon to save the family from losing face. The misbehaving student was cheered like a hero when he reentered the classroom unpunished. It felt like a betrayal. The class has been my worse ever since. In Korea’s ESL heyday, starting in the mid-1990s, Korean teachers and administrators would have scooped that child from the hallway and forced him into stress positions. Parents would even present gifts such as fruit for disciplining their children. I remember my shock in 1999 when a mother presented me with a hand-made stick to beat her child – it even had her child’s name carved in it. However, times have changed since then. There is fierce competition among hagwons and school owner are reluctant to do anything that might result in the loss of a student. Parents will readily remove their children if they disagree with punitive action, and place them in another hagwon. I have had two parents already complain when I made their children stay after class. My options of discipline are rapidly dwindling.

It may be impossible to quantify how discipline in Korea has changed in the last decade. But, my impression is that Korean children behave worse now than ever before. I remember how they sometimes bowed with respect to English teachers in the 1990s (something that made me very uncomfortable at that time). The novelty of having native speaking ESL teachers has worn off. Children have been raised in hagwons over the past decade (often spending even more time in schools than with parents). During this time, Koreans have seen so many varieties of English teachers – the qualified, the confused, and the outright cowboys – that they have lost their will to follow traditional decorum. Old educational standards no longer apply. In 2005, I see activities I would have never imagined before. School furniture is intentionally destroyed and walls are covered with the most vile graffiti. For the first time ever I have heard about major theft on school property.

While I was in Thailand $90 and two MP3 players were stolen from the teacher’s staff room. The two culprits were revealed to be 12-year-old boys (both latchkey children who studied until late evening at our school). The MP3 players were eventually returned, but the cash went unaccounted for. The incident caused future problems when the issue of proper punishment was introduced. One problem was how the money would be replaced. Who should be responsible? Should the offender have to clean the school as repayment? Should the child’s parent return the stolen money? Is it the teacher’s fault for being foolish enough to leave that kind of money laying around? Should the director take the loss and offer extra money to the teacher? Naturally, when I returned to Korea the staff room was heated with tension.

The punitive outcome of this incident is not important. There are more valuable questions to ask: Who is responsible for the actions of a misbehaving child? Who is responsible for that child’s education? I am sorry for the cliché, but it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes the fragility of a child to bring a community together. I have done my part to make myself a better teacher. I earned my TEFL certificate after a lot of hard work. However, Korea’s educational problems cut much deeper than “unqualified” foreign teachers. Korea must also examine deeper cultural issues: absentee fathers, underfunded government schools, lack of access to private schools by poor children, test focused educational policy, lack of legal support for foreign teachers, increasing rates in crime and divorce, and the ability to open new hagwons without any background in education. The list goes on, but as a foreign teacher it isn’t mine to make. Koreans are the ones who are ultimately responsible for improving their society and educating their youth. Perhaps it is easier to blame foreign English teachers than to make real structural change. English teachers make great scapegoats. Let Koreans provide answers to their own problems. I have my own riddle to solve.

What am I doing back in Korea? I am reshaping my teaching style and improving myself. This process of teaching children molds me personally and professionally. It makes me a stronger person. I have developed attachments to students regardless of my difficulty in disciplining them. My students, in turn, are becoming more familiar with me. Together we are building trust and establishing ownership of the classroom. We decorate the walls with their work. We cover dirty graffiti with something productive and useful. I argue about English, they question my authority, and we both struggle to learn. We are establishing a relationship. This is a mutual investment. I will leave these children in about seven more weeks. It is my last time to make an impact on them, and for them to return the favor to me.


No comments yet

Post your comment

Comments are moderated and will not appear instantly.

Featured Jobs

English Conversation Teachers

฿35,000+ / month


NES English Teachers

฿40,000+ / month


Essay Editor, Writing Coach, IELTS/SAT/GMAT Tutor

฿50,000+ / month


ESL Teachers

฿33,000+ / month


Teacher Assistant for Kindergarten and Primary

฿20,000+ / month

Chon Buri

NES Kindergarten Homeroom Teacher

฿50,000+ / month

Chon Buri

Featured Teachers

  • Dina

    Filipino, 42 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • Romy-line

    Filipino, 24 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Jennifer

    Filipino, 42 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Kevin

    Singaporean, 52 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Catherene

    Filipino, 24 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • Thant

    Myanmarese, 30 years old. Currently living in Thailand

The Hot Spot

Air your views

Air your views

Got something to say on the topic of teaching, working or living in Thailand? The Ajarn Postbox is the place. Send us your letters!

Will I find work in Thailand?

Will I find work in Thailand?

It's one of the most common questions we get e-mailed to us. So find out exactly where you stand.

Teacher mistakes

Teacher mistakes

What are the most common mistakes that teachers make when they are about to embark on a teaching career in Thailand? We've got them all covered.

Contributions welcome

Contributions welcome

If you like visiting and reading the content, why not get involved yourself and keep us up to date?

Need Thailand insurance?

Need Thailand insurance?

Have a question about health or travel insurance in Thailand? Ricky Batten from Pacific Prime is Ajarn's resident expert.

The Region Guides

The Region Guides

Fancy working in Thailand but not in Bangkok? Our region guides are written by teachers who actually live and work in the provinces.

The dreaded demo

The dreaded demo

Many schools ask for demo lessons before they hire. What should you the teacher be aware of?

The cost of living

The cost of living

How much money does a teacher need to earn in order to survive in Thailand? We analyze the facts.