Steve Schertzer

The deep bow and the silent fart

Where does respect for teachers actually come from?


"When the King walks by, the servants bow deeply and fart silently."

----- Ethiopian proverb.

I'm currently teaching at a public middle-school in Busan, South Korea, and whenever I step into the classroom with my Korean co-teacher, this is what usually happens: Most of the students will not see me walk in. They are busy talking with each other or throwing things at one another. The Korean teacher will raise her voice or bang her wooden stick against the side of the teacher's podium. That gets their attention. It takes 20 to 30 seconds for them to settle down. Then the class leader stands up. He or she looks around, then says, "Attention! Bow!" Then in unison the class says--- very unenthusiastically--- "Good morning teacher." I try my best to ignore this superficial display of respect and move into my lesson.

The first thing I do is arrange the students so that they are sitting boy/girl for every lesson. I tell my Korean co-teachers that they should be sitting this way before I step into class so that we won't waste any time. This seating arrangement is to get the students to behave themselves and to keep the noise level to a minimum. Most of the time they listen. Sometimes they don't. But they are getting better at this seating arrangement.

The second thing I do is to tell the students to take out their pen, pencil, eraser, notebook and dictionary--- what I consider the five essentials of any ESL class. They all have pens, pencils, and erasers. Most of the boys have exacto knives that they use to cut up their erasers and throw the pieces at each other. Most of the girls have cute pencil cases, mostly of animals. Furry dogs or rabbits that can hold more than a dozen writing utensils. The first three of the five essentials are rarely a problem. It's the last two that are. Invariably, in most classes at least half of all students don't have an English notebook. And this in a part of the world that invented paper!

Sometimes I will ask, "How are you?" Most of the time the response is dead silence. So I stopped asking. Not because I don't care. I do care about a lot of the students. But if they can't, or are unwilling to answer a simple question like "How are you?" then it's time to move on.

I like to dictate the focus questions for the listening activity, so I must wait for half the class to tear a piece of paper from their notebooks and give this sloppily torn piece of paper to those who, for whatever reason known only to them and their closest friends, don't have a notebook. It is highly unlikely that most of these slackers will ever purchase a one dollar English notebook with a picture of a puppy on the cover and the words, "Happiness is a warm puppy" on it.

As for dictionaries, forget it. The Korean teachers are the walking/talking dictionaries. One of my co-teachers walks into class with her electronic talking dictionary. Whenever a student needs a word translated from Korean to English, the Korean teacher will do it herself. If she doesn't know the word, she will punch it into her little machine and presto! The machine will tell the students. It must be nice to have students who never have to do anything for themselves. Spoon feed your students. Treat them like babies. Never let them do anything for themselves. And they'll goo-goo and gaa-gaa from one assignment to another, from one test to another, from one job to another, from one doctor to another, from one hospital to another, from their spouse to their mistress and back again. Never understanding what in the world is wrong with them. Never knowing what can or must be done to fix the problem. Never knowing what responsibility--- for oneself and for others--- really means.

The real problem with this bowing stuff--- especially in the public school system--- is that it turns the society into little more than a self-fulfilling prophesy of social stagnation. Like Pavlov's dogs, people are turned into lemmings, blindly following the lemming in front of them without asking why. Students have absolutely no idea why they are bowing to their teacher except for the fact that for hundreds of years other people before them have been doing the same thing. Without a reason or purpose for asking why they are doing this, or perhaps there's a better or more socially realistic way of showing respect, they are like "Little Eichmann's" just following the orders of their superiors who themselves may not know why they do the things they do.

Another problem with this kind of system is that, at least where I teach, nobody fails. That's right. A whole educational system where no student ever fails a test or exam. The students with the higher grades are guaranteed a place in one of the city's top high-schools, while the students who received the lower grades get to languish in one of the city's lower high-schools. Perhaps a vocational school or, God forbid, one of those "Special schools" that are talked about only in vague whispers. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy of social stagnation! In a situation like that, nothing moves. Nothing goes forward. In a situation like that, how will a society progress? How do we judge success? In a school where not one student fails, then who does? And are teachers in that kind of system really doing their job? It must be nice to pat yourself on the back and claim a 100% success rate every single time.

So in a situation like that, everyone knows what their social roles are. No one has to guess. No one has to communicate. No one has to negotiate. No one has to work too hard or look too far outside their immediate surroundings or social boundaries to see where they stand. Outside of "Good morning" and "Good evening" and "Nice day, isn't it?" true communication becomes superfluous and information sharing downright dangerous. No need to become overly friendly. We all know what we have to do. We all know what our social obligations are. And so we must never question them. Never ask why. Never seek alternatives. And always know and accept our place in the social hierarchy.

In an educational system where not one student fails, we all do. Everyone fails. Everyone fails because we have let everyone down. Everyone fails because not everyone can pass, or deserves to pass. Everyone fails because we educators are too stupid or too lazy to consider an alternative to a system that perpetuates a self-fulling prophesy of social stagnation. Remember, people don't fail systems. Systems fail people. And the educational system under which I'm currently teaching is a complete and utter failure.

Now I am not here to change their system. To be quite blunt, I don't care enough about them to think about how I would change it even if I had the chance. It is up to the local people to change their own system if they truly want to. At my age, life is tough enough just getting out of bed in the morning and walking to my school. I am here to work within the system and hopefully make a positive difference in the process. If we were here to fight and change the system, that would make us linguistic invaders and cultural imperialists, not ESL teachers. And we should never be linguistic invaders or cultural imperialists. To speak for myself, I am not fighting to change their educational system whether in Korea, Thailand, or anywhere else. I am here to take my rightful place within their educational system. As a professional ESL instructor, I am fighting for my rightful place "at the table."

The fact of the matter is, regardless of where we ESL instructors are in the world, we are not seen by most of the local population as professional teachers. This is especially true with regards to the local English teachers. Here in Korea we native ESL teachers are constantly insulted and excoriated by media reports that we are "unqualified, unprofessional, unprepared, not dedicated, and sometimes downright stupid." We are told that we graduated from "sub-par universities" and that many of us are here because we "cannot find jobs in our own countries." The insults have been know to become very personal. Some of us, according to media reports, have "deep emotional problems" and "issues with our parents."

While it is commendable that many of the locals are concerned about our emotional well-being and the issues we have with our parents, I'm not sure how all of this concern will help our students learn the English they need to either get into a very good university or to get the well-paid job that they seek. Remember, all of this media criticism of foreign ESL instructors trickles down to those very same students who need us to succeed.

While there are occasions when we ESL teachers contribute to this media smack down by not being on our best behavior, far more often the media and local teachers feel threatened by us. A case in point: Recently I read a story in one of the local papers which asked the question, "Are native speakers of English qualified to teach English?" In the article, ESL instructors were referred to as "Native speakers" 13 times, while we were called "Western teachers" only once. It was quite interesting the terms used by the author to frame his argument.

Are native speakers of English qualified to teach English? That depends on his or her qualifications and experience. At the moment I have two Bachelor's degrees, a TESOL certificate, and eight years ESL teaching experience in four different Asian countries. Does that qualify someone to teach ESL? How about someone with a Master's degree in Linguistics with no experience? How about someone with a Bachelor's degree, no experience, and a TESOL certificate? How about someone with no university degree at all, but with 60 years of living experience and a burning desire to help people and make a positive difference? The permutations can go on indefinitely, but who's to say who is qualified to teach ESL and who isn't? Especially in an environment where ESL instructors are much maligned and vilified in certain media outlets.

"Native speakers" is a very vague and nebulous term. Not all native speakers can be teachers, but all teachers are native speakers of their own language. The term native speakers connotes a certain amount of alienation from the society in which the ESL instructor teaches. Native speakers are constantly on the outside looking in. We are not a part of the system, but a part from it. It is exclusionary and demeaning to us and the teaching occupation. We are not seen as real teachers and therefore not a threat to the local population or the educational system.

The terms "native teachers" or "Western teachers" is inclusive. It is inclusive by dint of the fact that the word teachers is being used rather than simply speakers. And because we are teachers, the alienation we sometimes feel in the society in which we teach is lessened to a degree. We are now on the inside. A part of the educational system, not a part from it. By being called--- or calling ourselves--- real teachers, we are seen as a threat to the population of local teachers and their educational system. This is why we are constantly being criticized, excoriated, and ridiculed by certain members of the local media and having our qualifications and dedication called into question. It continues to happen in Thailand, in Korea, and everywhere we ESL instructors are currently teaching.

That many members of the local media and the local teachers refuse to see us as real teachers is one thing. To disrespect us by calling into question our qualifications, commitment, and dedication is quite another. That must stop. We must let them know--- teachers, students, and the media--- exactly how we feel. We must organize, write letters to the editor, let our co-teachers know how we feel, and tell our students about their responsibilities in class. Just as we have responsibilities towards our hosts, our hosts have responsibilities towards their guests. And these responsibilities--- mutual respect towards each other, dedication to the job, and having the teachers and students coming to class prepared--- must be spelled out very clearly and followed to the letter.

I don't care about students bowing to me when I enter the room. That is learned behavior. And whatever is learned can be unlearned and replaced with something more practical, like coming to class prepared to learn English by bringing your pen and notebook; like paying attention while the teacher is speaking; by not throwing pieces of your eraser at another student across the room; by not punching your friend sitting beside you; and by not slapping a girl in the head because she won't lend you a pencil. Again, I don't want to change their way of life. Let them bow to the Korean teachers. But come to my class prepared. I think that's fair.

I know it's not easy teaching teenagers. It's even harder being one. Korean teenagers are no different than teenagers everywhere. The angst and all the insecurities are there. You can poke holes through it with a chopstick. Insecure 15 year old girls looking into a little mirror to see if their hair is just right. Insecure 15 year old boys sniffing their armpits in hopes that it's not them who smell. All of them are insecure and hope that no one notices. Many of them are sad and hope that no one notices. Some of them are happy and hope that no one notices the silly grin on their face. And being 15, they're all horny. And, of course, they hope that no one notices.

Sometimes I feel bad for them, and I don't know why. Sometimes I don't feel bad for them, and I don't know why. I teach over 700 of these kids and see each one only once a week. So I can't get involved. But we have an unwritten rule. You give me your best and I'll give you mine. That's up to them. I think that's fair.

So they walk into class at the start of a new day. Actually, they don't walk. Teenagers don't walk. Especially Korean teenagers. They stride, stroll, saunter, march, strut, and amble their way to their seats. Especially after lunch. The only question that remains is how will they show respect to the native/western teacher? Will they give me the deep bow and silent fart treatment, then go about fooling around for the next 45 minutes? Or will they take their appropriate seats, take out their pens, notebooks, and dictionary, and silently sit at rapt attention awaiting the wisdom of their native/western teacher?

As a professional native English teacher, that's up to me. And I wouldn't have it any other way.




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