The first week of the spring semester has been going pretty well so far . . .

I taught my first class this past Wednesday.  This class had pretty abysmal energy and motivation levels.  This was probably in part due to it being the first full day of classes at the school and them still being in vacation mode, but I think it also had a lot to do with their attitudes towards English, and learning in general, and that they have false-beginner to low-intermediate level language abilities.

I did my best to be enthusiastic, and tried to insert jokes and easy to understand funny things.  When we drilled pronunciation of the lesson’s vocabulary I talked about “folk village” (the lesson topic was “Travel and Vacations” and folk village was one of the places you can visit on the vocab list) as a dangerous thing to say poorly in English.  I then said please don’t say, “Jason, let’s go to the f*ck village” and got a laugh from the class, and they kind of woke up out of the stupor that many were lolling around in.  I’m not above going for the occasional cheap laugh if it wakes up lower level students, and gets them paying attention and maybe even trying to learn a little too.  Also, swearing in English in Korea doesn’t have anywhere near the same degree of taboo that it does in English speaking countries.

You might think that doing so will get you in trouble with your co-teacher (and it may, so be careful–that being said, from stories I’ve heard from other foreign teachers it generally doesn’t), but in my experience they often think it is funny too (even many of the Christian and conservative teachers–yeah).  In the past when students were swearing in English in my classes the co-teacher would often laugh and do nothing to correct the student/s and stop them; I’d be the one that has to explain that it’s very rude and bad to say English swear words–especially when a student is talking to a teacher.

When I do something like the ‘folk’ and ‘f*ck’ contrast to illustrate why pronunciation is important, I also admonish the students to not use bad language in polite situations, and ask the co-teacher to translate it too to reinforce the rule and make sure EVERY student gets it.  The other reason I will use a ‘bad word’ pairing to contrast and illuminate a pronunciation target is that the emotional charge it has helps students to remember what I’ve taught them, and if they thought the teaching moment was funny they’ll likely practice the pronunciation on their own time and outside of class–a win-win in my mind.

Wednesday’s class personality, in contrast with my classes on Thursday and today, really stands out even more in my mind because I informed them that there will be two speaking tests in the semester worth 10% of their final grade for English there wasn’t much of a reaction to this information… even after the Korean teacher explained it in Korean to make sure they all understood.  This lacking makes me think that I need to find a way to adjust their attitudes towards English learning in general, and try to jump start their motivation because it seems to be pretty much near zero.

My Thursday classes, three of them, went pretty well.  There seemed to be a kind of shift in the teacher-class dynamic after the guys learned that there’d be speaking tests.  Last semester, when I taught these students I think about 75% had a decent degree of respect and a good relationship and attitude towards me as their teacher.  This semester, however, it seems like 90% now have good attitudes and respect towards me . . . though I think the fact that I will be testing them has injected an attitude/motivation booster into the teacher-class relationship.

The shift in attitude and motivation, however, reminded me how test points and corporal punishment are the twin gods of the Korean education system that every student worships.  They are the primary basis of teacher-student relationships in Korea, and in boys high schools (and I think probably elementary and middle schools too) test points and corporal punishment are the primary modes of control used to motivate students to have good behavior and study hard.

Considering the fact that native English teachers cannot follow the “When in Korea do as Koreans do,” when it comes to corporal punishment as the primary instrument of classroom behavior control that many Korean teachers use, it is often VERY difficult to maintain a good degree of classroom behavior control especially with classes that have several students who have behavior problems.  Once Korean students, especially high school boys, realize that the native teacher won’t use corporal punishment they fail to realize that they still have to respect the authority of the native teacher in the classroom.

This is a sad cultural truth about public school classroom/student behavior: good behavior is generally contingent upon a fear of corporal punishment.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that if a native teacher decided to bring a stick to class, and used it on a student, that they’d be stopped, warned to never do it again, and possibly fired too.  I have NEVER met a foreign teacher in Korea, in five years, who has not personally witnessed corporal punishment being administered by a Korean teacher.  Yet we are barred from doing this, and it makes classroom behavior control very difficult for native teachers because the students in general associate respect for their teacher with fear of corporal punishment.  I’m not saying I wish native teachers would be allowed to teach with big sticks and thwack students who get out of line.  What I am saying is that native teachers need to use alternative methods of classroom behavior management, and this can be very difficult to figure out when you’re new to the country.

The other twin god that Korean students worship is The Test.  Test points are the basis upon which students can apply to good quality middle schools, high schools, and ultimately universities–most especially S.K.Y. (Seoul University, Korea University, and Yonsei University)–the top 3 universities in Korea.

Speaking is not as of yet an English language skill that is tested in most Korean public schools (though that  seems to be changing).  As a result of this, native English teachers have their hands tied behind their backs and are handicapped before they even enter the classroom to teach.  If native teachers cannot utilize the primary modes of controlling and motivating Korean students that the vast majority of Korean teachers use it makes teaching extremely difficult.

During my first semester I discussed the lack of testing for my classes a lot with all of my co-teachers in the hopes that some changes would be made to the English class grading criteria for the next semester–and it worked, though not exactly in the way I was hoping it would.

I teach ten 2nd grade high school classes, and these classes will have 10% of their final grade come from four speaking tests this year (2 in semester 1, and 2 in semester 2).  Unfortunately, and for reasons I haven’t been able to discern, the twelve 1st grade classes I teach (to make up my contract 22) will not have a speaking test.  I haven’t pushed to find out why the grading is so different but I’m hoping there’s some kind of education-based reason for it that I don’t know . . .

I’m actually really looking forward to teaching the 1st grade classes next week because the 40 1st grade students I met during my winter camps were awesome (in spite of some zombie-esque issues with the second camp group).  In regards to classroom behavior management I’m really not worried at all, which shocks me, because their attitudes are freaking awesome.  I guess that’s part and parcel of being the top 10% of applicants to the high school.

Well, it’s time to get back to designing the speaking tests I’ll be giving the guys.  The first one is a month from now, and I need to have it done so I know I’m teaching the lessons appropriately.

Hope everyone else had a good first week too.