Couldn’t teach today because Confucianism

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.



Here is the man to blame (image from wikipedia)

MG Notes:
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.


  1. josteele75

    I enjoyed reading your post. It was pleasurable and fine. “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 believe most students here expect a big difference in delivery from from a “real” teacher and a “foreign” teacha. That Confucian thing doesn’t apply to us in this instance; our classes (in most cases), are expected to be happy, happy, fun, fun English time!
    Thank you

    • mikecorea

      Thank you for the fun fun fine comments. I am glad you enjoyed this.
      I think you make a great point about expectations. I think we can make excuses for whatever we want. So, culture could be used to blame for the perception that we can only be the happy happy fun teacher or any number of things.

  2. David Deubelbeiss

    Hi Michael,

    I’ve heard the “Confusian” argument raised so much, it really must be wrong. That’s how my own internal “shyte detector” works – when ideas become stereotypes, they should be thrown away. Also base this perception on my own experience with Korean students and background in anthropology.

    This article of Andrew Finch, who has had much success promoting a task based, cooperative learning environment, makes the point that more important than the learner themselves (beliefs/culture/disposition) is the learning environment. He mentions Littlewood’s research (in particular, recommend as necessary reading: Do Asian students really want to listen and obey?. Truth be told they don’t want to but teachers have to remove a whole lot of factors/influences which lead to this eventuality – ).

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the thoughts and the links, David. Nice.
      I like your shyte detector idea/criteria. I think that is a great place to start. For me the Confucian thing is something to think about but is not the explanation and cause of everything and it seems we are on the same page on that. Thanks again for the links and insights.

      • ddeubel

        Hi Mike,
        Sorry for my comments being rather “dry” and not also addressing the more wider issue of teacher demotivation. I’ve been there many times too and I think it is something every, every teacher goes through and struggles with – classes which just slog, don’t seem to mesh, you are just going through the motions. Regardless of the cause, we just got to do what we can within that context. Also, I’ve always take sustenance from the small victories, the relationships that develop, the personal beyond the educational. I really think that teachers, “just showing up” and “being there” are truly doing something wonderful. We need to celebrate that basic fact, teachers picking up the lunch bucket and showing up for students that may need them.

      • mikecorea

        Hello and thanks for the follow up, David. I thought your first round of comments were helpful and insightful and it seems like quite a few people (including me) enjoyed the links.Thanks. And also thanks for sharing this positive message here. I like your point about celebrating teachers who show up and do their best, even when it doesn’t seem to be going so well.

  3. English Speaker

    A perspective from a Korean who immigrated to the US who is now an attorney and a teacher: I think your efforts are laudable but it seems to be of no use fighting against thousands of years of tradition. When you ask questions, do you call out a specific person? I think you should. I know you don’t want to embarrass anyone but if this is what it takes to learn, then you should use it (this is what law professors use all the time and it worked like a charm in keeping us alert because no one wanted to be embarrassed). You should call out specific people and have them stand up to speak. You can also do team building exercises that appeal to their competitive nature such as dividing the class into two teams and having them take turns answering questions and you can give them a score at the end of each class. At the end of the year, the winning team gets a trophy or a prize. You can do this individually as well by having speech contests or debates. Learning a new language is such a chore. I know I used to hate my Spanish class, and the way these kids are learning English in general is rather oppressive in my opinion. Try to find a way to get them to want to speak. Maybe you can even give a prize for the amount of English spoken in class regardless of whether they speak correctly or not. These kids love awards and trophies bc they entail bragging rights and making mommy and daddy proud. Just my two cents. Good luck!

  4. livinglearning

    The most striking thing about this post, to me, is the fact that I have really heard most of these things before – again and again, from people who really believe they understand their teaching context and that their context is what works against their ability to teach the students into fluency.

    p.s. I think we can blame the persistence of corporal punishment in Korean school on Confucius as well.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Anne. You said you have heard there again and again, so I am glad I was able to capture the ideas. Please let me know if there are other points related to Confucius you here, as I am trying to expand the list. You mentioned corporal punishment but I got confused if that was a real suggestion or not. Was it more or less “real” than the ideas I listed above?

  5. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    Yes, I experienced all those thoughts when I taught there too, but in spread out doses. When I thought about what “English” I was teaching, it was often accompanied by a question of what “English” my Korean students actually needed. Did they need “real English” in their daily lives? The only thing that consoled me was that someday they might travel and need some more realistic English.

    PS – You’ve now added a new example to the “because + noun” trend my colleague pointed out to me. I’m not sure I like the drop of “of” yet…

      • mikecorea

        Thanks Breathy.
        One more thing for Tyson here is that I don’t actually think of this as omitting “of” I think of it as its own construction.

        As an example:
        If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you’ll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.” –Jack Handy (Of Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy)

        I think “of” would be a bit strange here, right?

      • breathyvowel

        Right on Mike. I think the reason the ADS chose it was because you have to analyze it as a preposition, not a conjunction, in this kind of construction, and a word’s use changing in this way is fairly unusual compared to, say, nouns becoming verbs.

      • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

        Meh. The Jack Handy one is more of a reduced clause, no? “Hey, it’s a free dummy.” or “Hey, who doesn’t want a free dummy?” Something like that. Besides, this example is spoken and though it also sounds awkward spoken, we all know there are fewer restrictions than writing, rightly or wrongly and frankly, I’ve only ever seen it written.

        I’m all for adaptive language use and knowing when to not be tied down to outdated rules, but yeah, still not a fan.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for reading Tyson. I like your points here about the English needs of our students. I think it can be very easy to assume that what we are doing (and the way we wanna do it) is the most important and correct thing for our students . I think it is a nice reminder to think about the real needs of students. Maybe this perspective can make some things seem a lot easier to handle.

      As for the blog title, well, because blog.

  6. Billy

    The technique of throwing out questions and waiting for hands to raise or spontaneous responses obviously isn’t working in that class; I know we get taught that clt is the way forward, but it’s not a one-size fits all method and part of our work here is to adapt it to the conditions. I also don’t think that finding a buzzword excuse for it not working and saying it’s not your fault is a positive approach. There are universal human reasons why a student wouldn’t speak in class that you’d find in any Western setting (resenting the language, embarrassment, resenting not being in bed or just enjoying watching you squirm are all equally likely to reasons), there are tactics you can try to overcome the issue and, frankly, you have a responsibility to do so. There’ll be a sea of blogs out there by people starting from this position and gradually working out what does and doesn’t work, blaming latent confucianism and explaining why teaching is impossible seems like a bit of a lazy cop-out and the excuse may not even be an accurate one. I sympathise with the frustration, but I want to point out that the responsibility to work effectively within the limitations of the context is your responsibility and that there are ways to do it.

  7. KB

    He is working against the context in which he was placed rather than trying to work out a solution. As another reply said, he’s fighting thousands of years of tradition which is a complete waste of time and why so many native English teachers here flame out early. There are ways to work within the Korean culture to achieve your teaching goals but it seems that he’s already written them off using blanket statements. Very sad for him in my opinion but even sadder for his students.

    • KB

      Just to add, this is a classic example of someone not taking responsibility for their own teaching. Yeah, let’s just blame everyone else and everything else except for me.

    • mikecorea

      I was worried what I wrote wouldn’t seem believable at all but I think these worries were not needed. Thanks for the comments.
      Please (re?)read the part in blue if you are not following my comments here and would like to know what I am on about.

  8. Baines

    Ruining…….”if not their lives” little dramatic i think Like how the author used the word “blasted”

    • mikecorea

      Haha, thanks so much. I was very pleased with the choice of “blasted” so much better than “damned” here I think.

      If not their lives was one of the points I thought I went tooo far.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  9. Conor

    I was pretty frustrated by this once, and then I found out that the reason that no one was willing to answer was because half the class had been on MT the weekend before (it was a Monday morning) and they were, the poor wee dotes, all dying of hangovers.

    You’ll also find that the face thing effects the answerers in that they are afraid they will get the answer wrong and they will look bad. Despite reassuring them that I want them to make mistakes it doesn’t really encourage them to look stupid in front of their classmates, many of whom they don’t know.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Conor! I think your MT example is perfect, and gives us a hint of just one of the many possible reasons behind Ss performance being not what we expected. I think it also points quite nicely to trying to move beyond simple explanations like “my students are lazy/terrible/confucian drones.”
      Thanks again!

      • Conor

        Happy to check in – gave you a follow for more updates.

        I think we were all in this position, and even after eight years teaching here I still get frustrated by it, and even though I know how to get around it, I still resort to the old strategy of begging for someone to shout up an answer.

        If anyone is reading this and wondering, well all this is fine and dandy but what should I do when this happens? Well I’d say:

        1. Call them out individually and ask for an answer – best in smaller classes of under 20, or one’s that everyone is familiar with each other, secondary school for example.
        2. Put them in groups and give them questions then get the groups answers. Good with mixed levels and big 30+ learners.
        3. Don’t even bother asking questions and just tell them – because you’re going to do that in the end anyway 😉

  10. geoffjordan

    Yet another fine rant! Takes me back to the teachers’ room in ESADE Idiomas when often some half-crazed teacher would come in after class, slump into a chair and moan “I give up! I can’t do this any more! They won’t meet me half way! It’s like pulling teeth!” Not most of the time, but now and then, surely we have all felt the way you describe. Like you, we don’t always give a perfectly balanced, rational assessment of “the problem”, we’re just worn out, fed-up, ready to quit. Of course, it ISN’T just Confucian culture, or “them “, or the exam system, or whatever; but all these things (plus our own imperfections, of course) play a part.

    As usual, what you do is give people the chance to respond to your letting off steam, to share, or to be pompous and holier-than-thou if they like. Good on you, Mike! “And thus it is that we, by windlasses and assays of bias, by indirections find directions out”. I think that’s more or less what Bill the Shake wrote.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Geoff,
      I appreciate the comments. I also appreciate the kind words, and especially because with this post I was thinking I’d missed the mark. I like your point about every teacher feeling this way from time to time. I think it is just all too easy to blame it on one thing or the other. I am in some ways judging those that pin everything on Confucianism (and I honestly don’t think I have ever done much of that) but I have surely had (and surely do have) my own biases. Maybe by confronting them and stating them and such we can find some directions. Or maybe we can just have a laugh and be entertained. Thanks again for reading and commenting. This was another of those posts I wondered, “What is Geoff going to make of this?”

  11. clg

    I work in Spain and also periodically experience what you describe. I usually think “oh god, it must be me. Again!” but also suspect that perhaps historical reasons and an education system which encourages copying and rote learning and discourages questions might also be relevant. If anyone is aware of attitudinal research which has done in Spain I’d be really interested to know about it.

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks for commenting. While i think I went too far with the blaming of the culture here, I like your point about getting beyond blaming ourselves all the time and trying to dig deeper.

  12. careymicaela

    As I was reading this post for the first time, I was beginning to wonder about the voice you used. I was happy (and kind of relieved?) to see your disclaimer notes at the bottom. There was an urgency and almost squealing quality in the voice you used that just didn’t seem like your own. Excellent job on developing and maintaining a voice so distinct from your other posts. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello friend,
      This comment came at a very good time for me and I appreciate it.
      I felt like I had been a bit ambitious to try on a new voice and was pretty sure I didn’t quite make it but your comments help me see that it was at least different than usual, and other comments help me see it was perhaps believable. Thanks very much for popping by and sharing your thoughts!

      • careymicaela

        Glad I could give you some feedback. 🙂
        P.S. I was being nosy and skimming through other comments- I can’t believe you used a quote from ‘Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy’! Truly amazing. How I miss SNL…

      • mikecorea

        “You know what’s probably a good thing to hang on your porch in the summertime, to keep mosquitos away from you and your guests? Just a big bag full of blood.”

      • careymicaela

        Timely advice with summer just around the corner. hahaha
        And since we’re sharing: ‘I think Superman and Santa Claus are actually the same guy, and I’ll tell you why: Both fly, both wear red, and both have a beard.’

  13. BakJB

    I’m glad you put in a disclaimer. The piece you wrote otherwise puts you in a very negative light and embodies so much of what is wrong with many of the foreign teachers in Korea and their poor attitude and lack of respect for the culture here.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for reading and commenting. As you have seen I was trying to capture something of what I see as wrong with many foreign teachers in Korea. I guess I was seeing it from a lazy or simplistic way of just “everything that is ‘wrong’ is ‘Confucian’.” Your use of “poor attitude” and “lack of respect for the culture” seem to be one step above this and I don’t think I can really disagree with you.

  14. KB

    I would definitely make the comments in blue much clearer and on top. I passed this around to colleagues who all thought that this was you (myself included initially) and had some very unkind words to say about you until we read the fine print more closely. Just saying.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the report. I thought about moving the blue stuff to the top or adding a line about “please read all the way through” but in the end was happy enough with how it went. One guy on twitter suggested i cut the blue stuff because it was so deadpan and believable.

      I obviously think the “blame Confucianism” track is silly and a dead end but I do think it can be very easy to fall into similar traps. I wonder if the shock value of mocking/criticizing this and then realizing it was satire was worth it. I also wonder if maybe some readers will be more intune to the their own versions of this type of thinking. This might be very wishful thinking though, of course.

      • KB

        While I think most sane people would probably think this was satire, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise after a quick read through some of the horrors posted on Waygook.

  15. laurasoracco

    I remember hearing (reading) all those same arguments from a classmate in my MA program. It was the first time I heard anything about teaching in China or Korea, and I couldn’t believe what he was claiming. Later, when he also claimed that “illegal” immigrants had no place in ESL (didn’t quite say it this way, but almost) I realized all the previous stereotyping had more to do with his being a closed-minded racist individual instead of a person who tries to understand how to embrace other cultures. Thanks for writing this!

    • mikecorea

      Hi Laura!
      Thanks very much for reading and commenting. I am glad you enjoyed it. I found your comments very interesting and insightful. We could be lead to believe certain things are certain ways in certain places by people that have not taken the time to look beyond prejudices and superficial takes.

    • mikecorea

      I was about to write, “I learned that expression from your mother” but I thought it might be unclear to other readers. Thanks for the comments, Baines. Enjoy the summer and the crabs in Maryland!

  16. Pingback: The Dredge : Continued | Wangjangnim's perspective
  17. Pingback: Because grammar (and cats) | 4C in ELT
  18. alexcase

    I think the piece and its format works really well, but as we can see from the comments the problem is that people rarely read to the end of something before commenting anymore. Maybe one line at the top saying “Please see comments at the bottom of this post” or “Please read the whole thing before commenting”?

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks for the comment!
      As I think I mentioned elsewhere, I was worried that this voice/post was just too ridiculous to be believed. I fully expected people to say, “Nice try Mike but you missed the mark. Too much.” But, as we have seen that was not the case. I think a line at the top might have been helpful. Thanks again for commenting and for reading this experiment.

  19. Pingback: The Big Issues and ELT 1: Globalisation | The Steve Brown Blog
  20. Pingback: My late and short K0TESOL post | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  21. Pingback: 14 relatively unexciting things about me, this blog, blogging, this year, and so on | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  22. Pingback: The Importance of Teaching Culture to EFL Students | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  23. Pingback: 201! | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s