The other day I was talking to a friend who also just stared the fall term at a university here in Korea. We were talking about schedules and plans and the weather and all sorts of things when my friend said, “I do enjoy scaring freshmen on the first day.” I was a bit surprised by this bold and potentially sadistic confession so I pursued a discussion on this by asking, “What do you do?” while not really knowing what to expect. What sort of scary tricks did he have up his sleeve? Did he dress up as a clown? Did he make them dress like clowns? Did he scream and yell? Did he make students do push-ups? Did he lecture them on the impermanence of life? Did he share statistics about youth unemployment in Korea? Did he have students march to the top of their desks or the building and recite poetry? Did he tell ghost stories? Did he explain how hard the course would be in a voice that would make a movie drill sergeant proud whilst getting bits of saliva on their first day of school outfit?
His response was not as exciting or cruel as I might have been expecting. He said, “I just use a stern voice on the first day. You know? Lay down the law.” That didn’t sound very harsh to me, and I found myself joining in, saying, “This is not high school anymore.” I think my friend could see I knew where he was coming from and he added, “They need it.”
I thought I was following my friend’s line of thinking for a minute there but then I got all wrapped up in my own thoughts. I wondered more about the scariness, thinking maybe he had students come to the front and do scary shit from minute 1, day 1.
Here I started to wonder exactly what students need at the start of the term. Do they need clarity or fear? Is fear a good way to get to clarity? Is it better to be feared than loved? Is warmth and rapport more important than fear? Is fear just a tool to help students get on board in the early stages so that rapport can be developed later on? Am I thinking too much about rapport because of the KELTchat on this subject?
I pondered the aspect of us both being “native” English teachers in Korea so maybe there is something here about the perceived roles of teachers and how serious our classes are or are perceived or expected to be. My friend sort of confirmed this by adding, “Some students expect it’s going to be a happy happy fun fun time, and sometimes it is, but they expect me to be like their HS English ‘teacha.’ Charades and all.” I don’t really have anything against charades or high school or other previous teachers but I can see the benefit in letting students know from the start that this is something different and that their previous experiences are not a always great match for the tasks and expectations here. I suppose recognition could be scary for students, yet I suppose I am still mostly uncomfortable with intentionally scaring students.
I think I can see a few benefits to (slightly) scaring students at the start. One is potentially weeding out the students that are not there to learn and thus whittling down the class roster to a more manageable number. Another thought is that it is probably better for students not to be unexpectedly overburdened with the workload. Regarding interpersonal connections, there can be a nice feeling when the barriers break down over time. I think students can sniff out teachers that are trying to be overly friendly or chummy from the start and this might be annoying or distracting. Just some thoughts, of course.
My friend seemed particularly interested in expectations and helping students change their expectations about the course. He said his first year students, “think the writing topics will be along the lines of describing their bedroom and the process of making ramyeon so I have to set a serious tone from the get go, then open up some as we go along, especially when there are so many in the class.” His points sort of reminded me of the old, “Don’t smile till Christmas” advice younger teachers used to get. I am not sure I put much stock in that but I also realized every context is different.
What do you think of all this? How do you go about balancing between a serious and friendly tone? Do you wait until issues arise before laying down the heavy and reminding students that they are in a serious place?