I wanted to teach today but I couldn’t. I really wanted to. It was not my fault and it wasn’t even something I can do anything about. The problem is cultural.
I am from a Western culture where creativity and individualism are valued. My students are from Korea, where the opposite is valued and it is just not a good combination. I am trained in modern and Western approaches of teaching, like the communicative method, and my students and my school are stuck in the past. Beyond methods, I think the real problem is that my students are still very much influenced by Confucian culture, which is a detriment to the kind of classes I am trying to teach.
Today, like most days, the issue was that my students just wouldn’t speak without prompting and prodding. It was like pulling teeth. I am up there at the front asking questions and getting no responses. No love. Only crickets. It was something like 10 painful minutes of me asking questions to the floor and getting minimal responses. Sometimes nothing more than a grunt. I know they can speak English a little because I have heard them do it at times but today was just excruciating.
To start the class today, because it was Monday and because I wanted to wanted to get a few students to share what they did this weekend (and wanted to hear examples of the simple past) I asked the class “What did you do this weekend” and I got no responses. It was so painful I have to question if I want to do this job anymore. At the moment it’s just not worth it.
Today was especially bad but, honestly, it is not just a one day or one-time thing. The influence of Confucius is pervasive and it is ruining my classes and my students’ educations if not their lives. My students don’t care about English at all as a tool for communication. They just care about the blasted tests. This is of course a vestige of the Chosun Dynasty’s way of choosing yangban (aristocrats). Thus, my students are hyper focused on tests. I know we need some sort of tests but this is over the top. They don’t give a shit about my class because what I am teaching is real English and not just test English. When my class starts it is like they simply turn off their brains. I am trying to do my best to bring them real and natural English but they don’t care, they just care about those stupid tests like there is nothing more to life.
Similarly, my students are extremely competitive with each other and I think this is a remnant of that Confucian influence. They always need and want to be ranked, even when it makes no logical sense and there is no meaning behind the numbers or the rankings. I think they are obsessed with rankings and numbers and always need to compare themselves with their peers. I think this is perverse and also think this hyper-competitiveness does not aid in their language learning. In fact, I think it is a true hindrance to the communicative and community focused classes I am trying to create.
Confucianism also rears its ugly head in term of views of and treatment towards the teacher. In Confucianism the teacher-student relationship is a very important one. It is also a strict one and there are certain rules on how we can behave. It impacts my classes by making sure that students never ask questions, even if they have questions. This is because they don’t want to insult me as a teacher and asking a question would do that. It means that I haven’t taught well enough if they have questions. How crazy is that? Students cannot ask their teachers questions based on concerns about the teacher losing all-important face. That is messed up. Speaking of face, because I am in a position which is perceived to be high I can never admit to making a mistake. I have to pretend to be perfect even though like every human everywhere I am far from it. This adds to the stress and overall feeling that teaching here is an endless minefield fraught with danger. Finally, as the teacher I am not meant joke around and be silly because this is not what teachers are supposed to do in this culture.
I have a room filled of zombie mutes, albeit largely respectful zombie mutes, who are not learning the language I have been contracted to teach them and I have Kongzi to blame for it.
In writing this I was trying to create a text that could be interesting and useful for teacher trainers in Korea. I thought it might make some nice reading material for a sample reading lesson and/or as a starting point for discussions about culture and the role of the teacher (and even about reflection as well because I think this “journal entry” doesn’t offer much beyond blame and superficial explanations).
I think the perspective I tried to share here is a common but flawed one and I hope and believe there is a lot of room here for discussion and thought. It was quite a challenge to write as I was very concerned with the voice, trying to find a balance between lost (and maybe relatable) and judgmental and blind. I also didn’t want to go too far and make the teacher too cringeworthy. Maybe I did.
I want to be clear that the thoughts and experiences above are not mine. I don’t think it is a younger or different version of me, but an amalgamation of thoughts I’ve heard and seen around. Heck, I didn’t even have class today.
(The part here in italics was added a bit later but the whole rest of this blue section was here from the start.)
Thanks very much for reading. Any comments welcome. I’d be particularly interested if I missed any common examples of things we can blame on Confucius when it comes to teaching English in South Korea.
In case you are still interested in such things here is my previous “I wanted to teach today but I couldn’t” post.