Steve Schertzer

Not in my classroom

Dopey foreigners and mentally deficient Koreans

In my last column I discussed some of the myriad of problems many foreign teachers have in Korea, specifically in the EPIK program. Quite frankly, there are so many problems that I needed to add another part to the column. So here it is. Remember Miss In The-dark's letter from my last column? To recap, she mentions a foreign English teacher who got caught in one of his public school classes talking about marijuana and heroin and how to use them. He also, on occasion, swore at his students and played "too many" pop songs and movies. Basically the English teacher we all dream of becoming when we grow up. I wonder what happened to him. He's probably an administrator now. Or the Minister of Education!

Before discussing at length the REAL danger of Miss In The-dark's letter, let's go over two points from the conclusion which was sent to the Korean co-teachers in Gyeonggi province.

"To avoid any similar incidents, here are some announcements I'd like to make:

1) Do NOT go into a class to teach WITHOUT a Korean co-teacher. (I know you are sometimes asked to go in alone because the co-teacher is busy. In this case, refuse to teach alone.) Korean law states that unless one is duly licensed to teach in Korea, then one MUST be accompanied in the classroom by a teacher who is actually licensed. Even though you are teaching 100 percent of the class, a co-teacher must be present. Our office will be sending official letters to all co-teachers regarding this.

2) Leave the disciplining of students to the Korean co-teachers. In recent years the punishing of students has been a huge controversy, so Koreans have been very sensitive about this."

Let's begin with number one where Miss In The-dark tells the native English teachers to NEVER go into class alone. She's right, and there's a very good reason for this. She never mentions it. For me she doesn't have to. She says that it's against Korean law. True again, but the law has never stopped some of the people here from acting inappropriately. The law is not the only reason not to teach a class without a co-teacher. Here's the reason: Someone could get hurt. Someone could get very hurt. In fact, someone could get killed. It is not only for legal reasons that that a foreign teacher must never enter a public school classroom alone, but also for moral and ethical reasons.

This is what I want to make crystal clear: Many Korean children today, especially teen aged boys, are viciously rude, ill-tempered, vulgar, unrefined, uncouth, and barely civilized. Many of them sprang from parents who are barely civilized themselves. Ouch! I know that hurts. But the truth must be told, and here's why.

Every year thousands of Korean students get hurt in their public schools, many of them seriously and some of them very seriously. People fall down stairs, bones get broken, heads are banged against walls, and some idiotic students try to push each other out the the window. I'm not the only teacher concerned about this. From a column titled "War at School" by Choi Tae-hwan, teacher Choi talks about his experiences.

"Every morning at school I find myself in somewhat of a nervous state of mind as I were about to enter a tug of war with myself about how to solve a variety of problems caused by my first grade middle school students, which range from harmless play to serious fights, often resulting in injury.

A boy shattered a window because he was teased by some girls who made fun of his short hair. Two boys are now fighting upstairs. Some of the girls speak ill of me all the time.

Listen up Korean parents! Do you think your children are well mannered and would never bother and tease others in their classes?" (Korea Times, "Thoughts of the Times", August 3, 2007.)

If you think I may be exaggerating my point here, remember that just about all school shootings in the United States, including Columbine, happened because so called well mannered children initially bothered and teased others in their classes. As I write, I can't get this horrible image out of my mind. Friday, September 14, 2007. Just before noon. A fourteen year old boy was helped into the teacher's room of my middle school by another student. He was crying. He was also wheezing, trying to catch his breath. He was holding his side. He collapsed on the floor near one of the Korean teacher's desks. A teacher came to his aid. She held his head up and whiped his tears. She took a jacket and turned it into a makeshift pillow for the boy as he laid down in an attempt to be more comfortable. His crying and attempts to breathe went on for a good 15 minutes.

What happened? He was punched in the stomach by another male student from the same class. Just past noon an ambulance came to take the injured student to the hospital. The injured student was still crying as he was led away on a stretcher. By the end of the day he was back in school. He had bruised ribs and a bad stomachache, but other than that he was fine. But it could have been worse. Much worse. Like this:

"School Boy Brain Dead After Survival Game Accident", (Chosun Ilbo, October 5, 2007.)

"An elementary school boy is brain dead after a brick wall fell on him during a 'survival simulation game.' At 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, Kim a 13 year old student of "J" elementary school, was jumping through a window in the center of a 197 cm by 152 cm brick wall at a survival training ground when the wall collapsed. The boy lost consciousness and was carried to a nearby hospital. He was wearing NO PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT. (Emphasis mine.)

Survival training grounds have become popular with schools looking to teach students COOPERATION SKILLS, (emphasis mine), but safety management is weak and students are often exposed to risk."

Holy Crap! What in the world does jumping through windows have to do with teaching elementary school students the art of cooperation? I teach cooperation to my students everyday, but I do so in the safe confines of a non-competitive classroom. The current generation of Korean children live in a world of computer games where animated characters die and are miraculously brought back to life. They are not aware that in the real world of "survival simulation games", people get hurt and sometimes die. And apparently, neither are many of their dumb-ass teachers.

I know this can and does happen everywhere. But that's not the point. Taking responsibility is. That's why it's easy for me to see these teachers and administrators as little more than dumb and irresponsible pygmies with so little knowledge of how to secure the safety of the children they were entrusted to look after. These people, with such small insular minds, have for centuries relied upon outdated methods and cultural superstitions to raise their children. From an anthropological perspective, it's interesting. A deep look into another culture without having to watch the Discovery Channel with a bowl of popcorn on your lap. But when children get hurt, when someone gets killed because he was wearing NO PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT, it's time to take these "quaint" superstitions and flush them down the toilet. Or, at the very least, learn how to be more responsible.

Those teachers who put their elementary school students through a military style boot camp are either some of the most irresponsible teachers on earth, or they are simply dumb as dirt. I would like to believe that it's the former. Koreans are simply not taught to be responsible for others, especially those who do not share the family blood. The higher and older one is in this Confucian society, the LESS responsibility one has and feels they have to take. The Korean version of responsibility falls upon the young and powerless. Once these people pass a certain age or enter a higher social strata, irresponsibility becomes acceptable behavior as one waits to be taken care of and venerated by the young. Irresponsible people grow up to become irresponsible teachers, who, in turn, pass that irresponsibility down to the next generation. It's a vicious circle that's not going to be broken anytime soon.

So this making of excuses for the Korean co-teachers by Miss In The-dark and others at the Ministry of Education is as stupid as it is dangerous. According to her letter,

("I know that you are sometimes asked to go in alone because the co-teacher is busy.")

Busy? BUSY!?! My fat, hairy, beer-filled, pizza-stuffed Western ass they're busy! Many of them are lazy good-for-nothings who take the opportunity to sit in the back of the classroom with their eyes closed and dream of Gucci handbags. Busy? Are they too busy to make sure that one idiot student is not punching another idiot student in the stomach? Are they too busy to ensure the safety and security of the very children placed under their care?

Getting students to sit in their seats, be quiet, and take out their pens and notebooks is challenging enough even for the most seasoned of teachers. And EPIK is not helping to solve this problem by continuing to hire those with little or no knowledge of how to handle even basic classroom management issues. The marijuana monkey-boy advising his students how to "roll roll roll a joint gently down the table" was silly enough. Stupid and irresponsible too. But that was pretty small bloody potatoes compared to some of the co-teachers who ignorantly or deliberately put their students' safety at risk by either not showing up for class or putting some of them through a military style boot camp without the proper equipment. The powers that be are, in affect, putting this country's children in danger by turning the other cheek whenever a courageous foreign English teacher attempts to point this out.

Tragedies like the dead elementary school boy are just begging to happen more often. And because of the negligence of some of the co-teachers and the sheer stupidity and irresponsibility of the powers that be, there's a pretty good chance of something like this happening WITHOUT a Korean co-teacher in the classroom. Newbies don't know about all of the problems with EPIK or the public school system here before they arrive. They don't know how difficult it can be to work with co-teachers, bureaucrats, administrators, and public school officials--- many of whom lie, can't speak English well enough to communicate, and carry with them vendettas against the West that go back generations.

They may not be aware that for centuries many people in this part of the world have drowned their own babies in rice paddies when they got tired of feeding them. For many years South Korea led the world in the export of their own children to Europe and North America for adoption. And thanks to medical technology such as ultra-sound and amniocentesis, thousands of female fetuses are aborted annually. I have 30 percent more boys in my grade one middle school classes this year. Thirty-five people kill themselves everyday here in South Korea, (one of the highest suicide rates in the world), many of them teenagers who failed who failed an exam. Newbies may also not know that people in this part of the world don't think in terms of three or six months down the road. That's the blink of an Oriental eye to those with a 5,000 year history. Many people are simply unaware of the strong resistance to change that permeates just about every segment of this society. "Oh we tried that 700 years ago and it didn't work then", is the common response when many teachers try to suggest something new. The people in this part of the world think in terms of decades and generations. Most of them have children so that in five decades they will be looked after in their old age. Children here are a means to an end. A form of social security. This right-brain kind of thinking is alien to me. This is not just a different culture. It's a different planet!

So it's easy, (at least for me), to see why many in this part of the world still put their children, (and other people's children), in peril. And it's so easy for me to say this: Any co-teacher, Korean or otherwise, who does not accompany a foreign teacher to class every single time should not only be fired, but have charges brought against him or her for child endangerment. (In fact, being fired for child negligence would be the least of their problems.) That was the criminal act that Miss In The-dark failed to mention. Not the fact that an unlicensed foreign teacher walked into class without a Korean co-teacher, but the the fact that a licensed Korean co-teacher refused to go to class with the foreign English teacher. THAT'S the crime. THAT'S the immoral and unethical behavior. THAT'S the mental illness and irresponsibility that purposely puts thousands of children a great risk for serious personal injury every day.

It's also easy for me to ask these very important questions to educators and administrators at the MoE. How many more children must get hurt or killed before you start taking more responsibility, both professional and personal? How many more teenagers must throw themselves off 20 story apartment buildings before you start making your backwards educational system LESS competitive? How many more lives must be ruined before you start making education more cooperative and compassionate? After all, these are people I'm talking about. Not commodities.

The letter by Miss In The-dark was not intended to change things. It was meant as damage control. Plain and simple. It was meant to placate any potential dissent from parents who may somehow find out the truth about how poorly many of the Korean teachers work with foreigners. Remember the television documentary the Korean media wanted to make about the marijuana monkey-boy? Without the threat of this "documentary", there never would have been a letter to the Korean co-teachers, and this whole fiasco would have been swept under the rug.

As for Miss In The-dark's second point, the disciplining of students, classroom management and maintaining control of the classroom is a very large part of an educator's responsibility. If the teacher is too lenient, the classroom becomes chaotic and very little will be accomplished. If the teacher is too strict, fear and intimidation become the norm and the teacher runs the risk of being seen as a dictator. It's an extremely difficult balancing act even for those experienced teachers in their own countries. Add the fact that EFL teachers are teaching not in their own country but in someone else's, and now we're dealing with a whole different series of potential problems.

Even though I understand on a logical and intellectual level that certain cultural sensitivities should be followed regarding the disciplining of students by foreign English teachers , I can't help but see the MoE's request through Miss In The-dark's letter as just another way to put me--- the foreigner--- in my place. This request, to "leave the disciplining of students to the Korean co-teachers" is well and good, but what happens when the co-teacher refuses to discipline the students? Besides stripping me of one more responsibility as an educator, there are now far too many teachers here--- both foreign and Korean--- who are afraid of their students and simply want to be friends with them. Imagine being paired with a co-teacher who is afraid of the students and allows them to do whatever they want. I've seen that right here in the public schools and it's not a pretty sight.

It's not that I love to discipline students. I don't. But it is part of my job and I accept that. I have precious little time as it is to teach my students the English they need to know, so I would rather not waste class time telling students to sit down, keep quiet, and stop throwing things. For those miscreants who refuse to listen to simple classroom instructions, I do not (and will not) hesitate to squash any disruption in my classroom routine. As an educator I do not tolerate any student who is rude, disrespectful, uncooperative, and is, generally, a pain in the ass. Not in my classroom.

From the moment I step into the classroom until the moment I leave, I convey these three very important messages to the students:

1) I own the room.
2) I control the class.
3) I am responsible.

The classroom is my house and I don't tolerate any disrespect in my house. I control the class, not the students, by seeing them as "one body." This way, as a class, we accomplish whatever needs to get done. Although the students are responsible for their own learning, I am responsible for whatever else happens in the classroom. I am responsible because I control the class and I own the room. That way, I see to it that everyone does their job and no one gets hurt. Not in my classroom.

Good teaching comes down to knowing your stuff. Great teaching comes down to responsibility. Either you take it or you don't. Far too many teachers wait for responsibility to be given to them while others shy away from taking any responsibility at all. That's unfortunate and tragic. Students yearn for responsible teachers. In fact, they need responsible teachers. Their future depends on it.


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