This morning in my English class 3 students were absent.  I asked my co-teacher to track down where they were and why they were absent because no one had told either of us that they were sick or otherwise being kept out my class for one reason or another.

My co-teacher tells me after the class was finished that a ‘counselor’ (aka the discipline guy) teacher had kept the guys out of my class in order to punish them for smoking (I’m not really sure how he found this out,  but assume he must have called another teacher).

I was not happy about this as Korean teachers often see my class time as without any value or importance due to it not being tested–but this year it is being tested.

I decided that my co-teacher and I should track down the the teacher and have a chat about him pulling students out of class without telling either my co-teacher or myself, and that making students miss a class would impact their test scores on the upcoming speaking test.

Now I’ve attended several orientations and workshops for native English teachers, and no one has ever said a word about official policies on how students can be disciplined.  Usually you’re just told to ‘let the co-teacher handle it’ (and look the other way when corporal punishment is being used).  You would think that classroom behavior management and school discipline policy might be something that a new teacher needs to know . . . but there are many things new native teachers never get a chance to learn about in orientations due to time constraints and other factors, some good and some bad.

Anyways, my co-teacher and I find the discipline teacher and we go to sit down on the couches in the teacher office where we find him.

My co-teacher begins explaining in Korean the following points.

1.  We weren’t informed our students would be missing from the class.  We are responsible for them.

2.  The students should not be absent from the class because they missed the lesson content.

3.  The students should not be absent from the class because it will probably lower their speaking test score.

4.  We want a promise that it won’t happen again.

The meeting does not go well, and the Korean teacher begins arguing vehemently with my co-teacher . . . when I get back to my office I ask my primary co-teacher about the situation.  She tells me that it is school policy, and in fact education office policy that it’s okay to take students out of classes to counsel and/or punish them.  Wow . . .

Off topic to this post but related, I should have remembered a story that a fellow native English professor told me about the national university of education where we were working.  An older male Korean professor sent a student to pull another student out of a FINAL EXAM because he was angry about something and wanted to talk to the student.  The native English professor in charge of the course and exam didn’t say a word because of this older male Korean professor’s status at the university.  I was shocked, and said I would have told the messenger student to convey an apology, and that the requested student would be sent to the professor’s office AFTER the final exam.  The other native English professor suggested that that would have guaranteed the Godfather-professor (my nickname for him) would put me on his blacklist, and that I’d almost guarantee I not be signed on for another contract.  My response at the time was that if the faculty members sided with a professor pulling a student out of a final exam, and not wanting to offer me a renewal contract because I refused to let that happen, that the last thing on my mind would be getting re-signed.  It seems like all too often in Korea the student’s rights, and the quality of education, are sacrificed on the altar of respect for your elders regardless of circumstances and things like doing what is right.

Getting back to my story about today . . . I decide to let the whole thing go.  It’ s not my ‘place’ to try and buck the system, or contravene what is seen to be ‘normal’ procedure in Korean schools.  I still, however, feel highly irritated that no one had bothered to tell Mr. X or I that they were keeping two of our students out of class.

. . . . . . . some time passes . . .

As I was writing this my co-teacher comes into the office and we start talking about the situation.  My primary co-teacher then interjects to tell us that the discipline teacher is very upset, and that he now wants us to apologize to him.  My co-teacher totally dropped the ball and didn’t ask the discipline teacher if he had pulled students out of class TODAY and during the SECOND period.  He had had nothing to do at all with our students being absent.  Now the discipline teacher is pissed with both the co-teacher and myself (and I didn’t say a single word during the discussion!).

I point out to my co-teacher that I find it puzzling that he accused a teacher of bad conduct without asking preliminary questions to check and see if he was actually the teacher who pulled our students out of class . . . he tries to side-step the issue, but my primary co-teacher and I both repeat again that he was the one who went about this in the wrong manner, and didn’t ask the right questions.

What should have been a simple and short discussion about not pulling students out my class to be punished then blew up into a royal class fuck up with shrapnel flying primarily into Mr. X’s face, and hitting me through a guilty by association proximity.  Nice . . . NOT!

My primary co-teacher and I try to convince Mr. X to apologize to the discipline teacher but he keeps making evasive responses and excuses.  Mr. X begins to see that I’m really not impressed with him and because we have a good co-teacher/native teacher friendship he promises me he’ll “take care of it.”  I’m a little skeptical as to how he’ll ‘take care of it’ because he’s the older male teacher in relation to the discipline teacher who is younger and who also is his ‘junior’ in terms of the Confucian social ranking system in Korean culture.  Older males do not as a rule apologize to younger males in Korea, so . . . . yeah.

Later, my co-teacher and I talk.  She tells me that the discipline teacher understands that I didn’t do anything wrong, and that it was Mr. X’s mistake.  I tell her, though, that I’m still going to apologize to the discipline teacher because I don’t want this particular teacher to be unhappy with me (usually we give each other a friendly ‘annyeong haseyo’ in the halls), or the school’s faculty to perceive me as being a rude and disrespectful foreigner–which is probably what has happened regardless of my lack of culpability in the situation.

The bigger issue here, in my mind anyways, is with a discipline policy that permits and encourages teachers to be able to pull students out of class–it just blows my mind.  I’m sure there are ‘legitimate’ reasons for this, but all I can think of is that no one wants to spend time disciplining students during the lunch period or after school because that impacts their free time.  I’m sure there are several other reasons, and that some of them probably make sense, but my western cultural norms are wreaking havoc today with how I see the whole situation.  If counseling did actually need to take place, I’m pretty sure the normal thing to do is to tell the students’ teacher they’ll be absent from class–but this is not what happened.

I guess now I’m beginning to see the light in terms of why Korean co-teachers are always so surprised when I say I’m going to punish students during the lunch period or after school . . . they must think I’m completely loony (insert sardonic tone here) to give up my free time to try to modify student attitudes and behavior into more positive patterns in order to try and get them learning and succeeding in the lessons and tests.   It must be a kind of ‘common sense’ that I just can’t comprehend as a foreigner to make students miss class, students who in all likelihood already have low test scores and are struggling to keep up with the lessons . . .

Update: I’d be curious, though, what would happen if I pulled students out of another Korean teacher’s class in order to punish them.  Younger teachers might not say boo to me about it, but I imagine older teachers telling me that the students need to be IN THE CLASS AND LEARNING!

. . . . . more time passes . . . .

Now the story has shifted to it’s possible the students’ homeroom teacher kept them for something . . . or they were skipping my class.

I point out that if something had happened to the students that my co-teacher and I, actually it’d primarily be the Korean teacher, are responsible for not knowing where they were.

I ask my primary co-teacher what the normal Korean teacher behavior is for this kind of situation.  Is it okay for other Korean teachers to keep students out of another teacher’s class without informing them?  I know I’ve seen students come to a class late because a teacher kept them for punishment or something, but to keep them out of an entire class? I haven’t seen that before.

I ask if it’s generally expected that one teacher should tell another if they keep students from attending a class–yes, it is.  I then ask why, if this is the case today, why no one would think of informing the Korean co-teacher or myself about this . . . no answers are forthcoming.

. . . . . more time passes . . . and more phone calls attempting to find out where these missing students were.

It seems as though the students were skipping English class, but no one knows for sure.  I suggest it might be a good idea to figure out where they were and what they were doing.

I then ask what should have happened when my co-teacher and I realized students were missing from my class (cause I already know the answer).  My primary co-teacher says that Mr. X should have left the class to track them down, or made some calls to the homeroom teacher to ask if they know what is going on.  This never happened.

Mr. X leaves still promising to “take care of ” things with the discipline teacher.

. . . . . . . more time passes and I re-read what I’ve written . . .

Now I’m asking myself the following question: “Was all of this worth finding out why two of my students were absent?”

And I find myself feeling totally conflicted.

In my own sense of what a ‘good teacher’ is I think, YES, it was worth it.  If those students had been sick, hurt, or in trouble I would have felt bad that I didn’t say or do anything to try and find out where they were, and to help them if they needed it.  If you read the Korean English news regularly you see stories of groups of students beating one or two students, and I often ask myself “where were the teachers?” when I read these stories.  This is especially a concern at an all boys high school where fights happen with more frequency.

But in the context of ‘being a good native English teacher’ according to the whole ‘don’t rock the boat’ philosophy that seems to be the paradigm in Korea, I shouldn’t have said a word about missing students at all.  I should have just let my co-teacher deal with, or not deal with it, and I definitely should not have initiated approaching another teacher about the problem because I can’t speak Korean well enough to ask and check what was going on.   Having to let another teacher “take care of” things leaves me open to too many possible problems.

All of this boils down to this: how can a native English teacher actually be a teacher in a Korean public school?

The answer is you can’t in many respects.  The complexities of Korean public school culture are so beyond our abilities to understand fully that the safest thing is to take a hands off approach and let the Koreans, who have lived and worked in the schools their entire careers, do what they do–or don’t do.  It’s that or be prepared for a lot of unnecessary stress and the situation to be blown out of proportion due to factors that are completely out of your control, and/or also a lack of understanding when it comes to the nuances of Korean culture that only a Korean can understand.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions . . . “Jason’s Expressway” just had a couple hundred kilometers added today.