I arrive at school this morning, running slightly late as usual, to find Six-pack in my office talking to the teacher in charge of the first grade students. They both greet me as I enter the otherwise deserted office and watch with apparent curiosity as I subconsciously begin multitasking in an attempt to prepare myself for my 9:00am lesson. I still haven’t got around to tying back my hair which I am impatiently, and constantly, flicking over my shoulder.
I quickly run upstairs to the third floor to double check an error in today’s lesson and am flicking my hair over my shoulder as I re-enter my office where Six-pack is talking to the head teacher whose desk happens to be next to mine. I can feel them watching me with amused grins as I continue to flick my hair in irritation before eventually tying it back. It’s only as I head back upstairs to my first class that it hits me: I probably looked like I was trying to flirt – very badly – with Six-pack when I was genuinely just annoyed with having my hair in my face. Perhaps that explains his sudden friendliness this morning and why, when I later encounter him on the stairs with NZ2, he’s less than friendly and even scowls at me that afternoon. I chalk it up to another crazy ‘Oh Korea’ moment that I probably won’t understand as I enter my first lesson for the day.
Homogeneity at it's Best
My Korean students are generally very sweet and diligent. They also seem to demonstrate homogeneity at it’s best by all voicing the same core concerns with regard to their studies: Other students are smarter, work harder and are just generally better than all of them – especially in English. These students are encouraged to push themselves to the point of exhaustion and beyond; there’s simply no time for them to get tired or even sick. It’s probably not the most effective system but I’ve learned to accept it and just work around the fact that I’ll almost always have at least one student per class who is sleeping or otherwise engaged in work other than English; it’s not necessarily a reflection on me – it’s just part of Korean student life and priorities.
Koreans have an incessant drive for perfection and the need to excel. It’s interesting that it’s never phrased as a desire to be the best since that contradicts the collectivist approach of this society. Of course, this drive for perfection can have it’s drawbacks and create situations where the foreign English teacher seems to move into the role of masochist rather than friendly instructor who genuinely wants to help students improve their English speaking and writing abilities and confidence.
You Want Me To Do What!
The first way to torture Korean students is to make them speak English…in the English conversation lesson. I get the impression that most of my students would be more willing to write additional tests and exams than have to speak up in an English conversation class and my students are probably not unique in this avoidance. There are, of course, some students who will always offer at least a few sentences or an opinion in each class and I can understand that listening to the apparent ‘fluency’ of such students is intimidating for those who don’t feel anywhere near the same level of confidence in their own English skills. Sadly, not even my constant reassurance that no matter how poor they may consider their English to be, it’s guaranteed to be better than my Korean seems to have much effect these days. Even sadder is that this extends to many of my Korean colleagues too who genuinely don’t seem to believe me when I tell them that their “bad Englishee” is still far, far superior to my miniscule Korean skills!
Breaking Up is Hard To Do
The second way to torture Korean students is to ask them not to speak and write via their electronic Korean-English dictionaries. Announcing that students will not be allowed to use their dictionaries for a particular task is tantamount to announcing a death sentence. As I gaze back at their shocked faces, I see my own reflection changing in their eyes as I rapidly transform from the sweet, kind English teacher to a monster wielding an axe and delighting in their misery. I have yet to see a student cry at this announcement but I’ve certainly witnessed several of them close to tears and definitely in agony at the knowledge that no dictionaries are allowed. I don’t have the heart to actually physically remove the dictionaries that are still being surreptitiously used beneath the desk – who knows how that might end!