The mystery of the continually late training course participants

I was so pissed off. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand it. How could they be so rude? There I was, busting my ass to make the sessions as good as I possibly could and there they were continually sauntering in late and turning 10 minute breaks into 20 minute bonding sessions. I sat there at the front of the room in despair, wondering what I was doing with my life.

I had recently returned to Korea to work on this teacher training course. I came from the US after spending a nice time with my family. In fact, I cut the family visit short to come train these teachers. These ungrateful teachers who didn’t respect me or the hard work I’d put and was putting into the sessions for them. It was all very defeating and frustrating.

It was defeating, frustrating, and confusing. Koreans are supposed to be diligent.Koreans are supposed to be value education. They are supposed to respect authority. How could they so easily and happily flout the rules like this?

It was all the more strange to me to see the participants be friendly, productive, active, eager (and all one would want from a group of teachers) during the sessions themselves. I’ll never forget a discussion I had with with one participant who remarked this was the best course she’d ever experienced and said it was much better than the one she’d taken last year. When I pushed for details I discovered her training course the previous year was more like simply English practice with an inexperienced teacher who happened to be white and a native speaker. I was pleased with her observation and disclosure but it didn’t help me solve the mystery of the continually late participants.

Their lateness ate away at me day by day. Standing at the front of the room ready to go but forced to watch people slowly file in was killing me. The waiting was the worst. It was slowly destroying my soul each minute. What about the children? Every minute we wasted was another missed opportunity for these teachers to capture my wisdom and then use it back at school with their students and peers. I was ready to change the world, only if they’d let me and only if they could be punctual.

I’d been planning this course for 6 months. I’d been teacher training for a whole 6 months. I had a CELTA! How could they disrespect me so blatantly? I couldn’t imagine it was anything but rudeness and arrogance. I questioned my choice to be there and wondered if maybe teacher training in Korea with in-service teachers was not for me.

I wasn’t sure what I could do to get out of this terrible situation that repeated itself thrice daily. I decide to suppress my rage and hurt and just talk to the participants. After all, they were teachers who have classes of their own. I thought maybe they could relate to what I was feeling. I tried not to blame. I calmly explained that I was ready to go on the hour and I’d really appreciate it if we could all start at the same time. I mentioned how I’d ensure there plenty of breaks but starting on time was important to me. I told them for me it was a matter of efficiency and I prefer not to keep people waiting or to wait myself when I am ready to go and I’d much prefer to follow the official starting times. The participants listened with interest. One person mentioned she had no idea I was ready to go at the scheduled times and another said she thought I preferred to start a bit later. Nobody seemed to have had any sense it was so important to me.

After this 2 minute talk everyone was on time every time.

Through this experience, I felt like I’d learned a few valuable lessons. As I am wont to do, I’ll let you,  dear reader, take and make your own lessons from this story if you wish. Thanks for reading. Recent experiences blogging tell me I should state I don’t actually believe much of what I wrote above and I don’t think I was very reasonable till end of the tale. Exaggerations might have occurred. A tongue might have been firmly  in cheek while writing certain parts of this.


As luck would have it, I have a presentation/workshop coming up this Friday. The title is Cultural Explorations for Teachers: Beyond Confucianism and Excuses and this story might even get mentioned. Details on the workshop and event are here.



  1. David Harbinson

    Hi Mike. I know the situation that you describe exactly. I think this is something that is not just isolated to teacher trainees but also to Korean students in general (I say Korean because that is the only context with which I am familiar – I wonder whether it is the same in other countries too?) I find that a good proportion of my students come to class late, but I have noticed that it tends to be the same ones. There are some who are there on time, every time. Some who are late some of the time, and some who I wonder whether their watch is just constantly broken or something?! Perhaps rather than being a cultural thing, it’s an individual thing? Maybe an individual thing within the culture?

    I did find it somewhat amusing/confusing at first when my students who were also teachers were the ones turning up late. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ‘luxury’ of teaching regular classes, so can’t really do a group discussion/explanation on the topic. Maybe next time I’m scheduled to teach a persistently tardy student, I’ll come to class 15 minutes late (Wish I could do that)!

  2. Zhenya

    Hi Mike

    I really enjoyed reading this post! On the one hand, I understand that it is (a bit?) exaggerated, especially when you describe your reaction? On the other hand, I can identify with what you are saying a lot. Even more so: this summer I realized that to me personally, it was/is easier to manage the time and lateness in Korea than in Lebanon, for example. In fact, this August I had a course when even on week 4, even after my short and not-so-short talks with the group, teachers were still late after the coffee/lunch breaks. I am still reflecting on possible reasons (and might write a blog post about it) What I would love to try is using this example (attitude to time) and your post for a possible reading and culture discussion on a course for teachers/mentors in the future. I am wondering how much of this mystery is personal, or cultural, or even situational? Thank you for the thought-provoking post, and good luck with the coming workshop!


  3. Brian

    Thanks for writing about this topic. When I first started teaching here, I also noticed this not only among the students, but my co-teachers as well. Even in my current school, I see teachers routinely walking into classrooms 3-5 minutes late which is just unfathomable to me. Growing up in America, I was taught (at least in all of my own schools) that being late was practically a cardinal sin that would bring detention or worse if you were even a few seconds over the line. Here in Korea, I was once urged by a colleague to be more lenient with the late students because she told me it was one of the cultural differences between Korea and America (I ignored this suggestion and am glad I did). However, I see it like this… I only have a relatively small amount of time with each class each week. Time spent tracking down late students, or students who come in late and disrupt the class, waste EVERYONE’s time. As Americans we are conditioned to be punctual, especially in school and business settings. I am very clear about my tardiness policy with my students from day one. I’m very clear about the reasons for my policy. And I’m very clear about the consequences. And after seeing the difference in the classroom atmosphere when comparing classes that start on time versus classes that get off to a rough start with students streaming in at leisure, the benefits (after being pointed out to the students) for having a strict tardiness policy become apparent. So, I think that if clear guidelines pertaining to punctuality and the reasons behind those guidelines are explained upfront, it will benefit both students and the teacher.

  4. Pingback: Dealing with students who come late to class by David Harbinson | BELTA – The Belgian English Language Teachers Association

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