Getting Medieval

A few minutes after I’ve entered the room, and greetedthe students, there’s a substantial number of them still chatting among themselves. No, scratch that, it’s not the chatting that pisses me off. It’s the fact that they’re ignoring me, rather rudely. I’ve repeated my question to them a few times: “How are you?” trying to be friendly although I am, at this point in the term, and especially after their atrocious exam, disgusted with this particular class. They’re my outright worst class, hands down, and even the best students in this group are kind of dragged down into mediocrity by the majority of crappy students.

The chattering continues as I take out the attendance record, on the back of which the exam grades are recorded. There are more Fs on this class’s paper than in any other.

“Excuse me,” I say loudly.

The chatter continues. It continues as I lift the podium up in my hands, and it continues as I narrow my eyes.

I slam the podium down into the ground, and it finally stops.

That’s how thick-headed some of the students in this class are. I don’t know why they’re like that. A number of other mediocre-at-English classes at least have the intelligence to recognize that I am trying to teach them, offer them something during classtime, that I’m on their side as much as a professor can be.

While these science majors keep chattering until I slam something into the ground as hard as I can.

Then they look at me to see what the hell is going on. And what the hell is going on is that I am getting medieval on them. I am hollering, finally, after weeks of hinting that if they don’t quit it with the chattering and the bullshit, they’re going to tank on their exam. I am fed up with being disrecpted by these children, who are the same ones whose loudest classmate lied to me about copying homework and who do their best to avoid participating in class.

Yes, I am yelling. This sort of thing happens in my class, very occasionally. I absolutely hate it. I hate it with a passion. I am not their father, not their babysitter, not their elementary school teacher. But with this particular class, language barrier and I think a certain sense of disdain for a foreign professor, and for a language requirement, have combined to render them absolutely useless in my classroom. They respond not at all to ridiculously bad exams, to being made responsible for saving themselves from embarrassment when I call them up to the front to perform the dialogues they’re supposed to memorize for the exam, a mere two days before the test day.

They only respond to one thing: an orchestrated temper tantrum. Nothing else, it seems, gets through to them. So I dig deep into my memories of elementary school, draw upon what I’ve seen in various Korean movies, and cobble together a performance that, based on a few previous tries, seems to work.

It begins with the podium slamming down HARD onto the floor. Students all stop, looking shocked at me.

“Tell me WHY this class had more Fs than any other class I am teaching in this University. Why did this class do so badly on exams? Tell me! Why?”

They stare.

“You know why? Because you CHAT all class. It starts before I come here, and it continues until after I leave. All you do is speak Korean for an hour. Do you want to learn English? If you don’t want it, don’t waste my time. GET OUT NOW!”

Nobody moves.

“I mean it! GET OUT NOW!”

Still no movement.

“Fine. You want an English class?”

A few scattered girls say, “Yes.” The rest stare at me, realizing that if they’ve not left, it’s a tacit yes. And that, if they do tacitly agree, they must agree to the terms I set out in the next few sentences, at least for the remainder of the week.

“Then you will stop chatting in class. Because you know, I really don’t care if I give you an F because you can’t speak at all. I don’t care if you don’t learn. It’s my job to teach people who want to be here. You want to fail English, don’t try. But if you want to chat, get out of this room right now. It’s RUDE.”

They stare at me. The ones with better English know most of what I’m saying. The ones who don’t follow are perhaps more affected, though; all they can see is that I’m pissed off, and unable to hear the reasoning going on in what I say, they may even think I’ve lost it. Knowing the university system here, knowing after the drop date has passed that a man upon whom the final grade in one of your required courses has lost it is scary, I think.

“Anyone who still wants to get out now, leave.” They know the drop date has passed. They know this means playing by my rules or getting an F. “By the way, why are you all chatting in my class? Do you do that to your Korean professors?”

They look at me silently, and one of them finally answers, in a very soft voice, “No.” I can see it on some of their faces, their realizing what has just happened… Shit. He knows we aren’t supposed to act like this, that we’d never get away with this in other classes. It’s not as if I demand the regimented strictness that a certain (perhaps, according to student friends, common) sort of Korean professor would expect. I would never want that in a classroom, I think it’s too uptight in a lot of ways and probably not conducive to learning a foreign language. Language study involves making a lot of mistakes, and when profs routinely shame students, students are rarely willing to make the kind of mistakes that are necessary to make real advances in learning a language. My best classes respect me and still know that there’s a certain amount of room for playfulness in the classroom, as long as it’s playful engagement with the subject of study.

But I don’t need students talking when I am taking attendance, or trying to hammer out a grammar point with them, or get them to practice some question-and-answer formulation. I really don’t need them thinking that disrespecting me is fine and dandy. And I really don’t need the headache of dealing with a class like that twice a week.

So then I stand there and look at tell them, one last time, “If you don’t want to learn English, get out now. Today. And don’t come back.”

Silence, all around.

Then I smile, and say, “Good. Now let’s have a real class. I’m happy, so you’re happy. Please open your books to page 32…”

Maybe it’s the university. I know that the quality of the students at this school isn’t as high as at many universities, though that’s common of many private universities. Still, it’s shocking sometimes what students think they can get away with.

I wonder if I’ll have to yell again next week, too.

6 thoughts on “Getting Medieval

  1. I like your site and your writing. Please keep it going. I do not comment often and never leave an address when I do, but I have read your site a few times now. Thanks for doing it.


  2. Strange. I never understood anonymous comments on a website, but ah well. It’s nice commentary, so I’ll just accept it with my own thanks. It’s nice to get feedback.

  3. I must admit that I have been forced to give similar speeches to quite a number of my classes. I think you nailed it when you said ‘Do you do that to your Korean professors?’. That is a phrase that has echoed in my classroom many times. I made the serious mistake of being a really nice guy in my first few months teaching here in JeonJu. I have spent the remainder of my time attempting to establish myself as threat. It is unusual how many Korean students seem to feed off the fear they have for their teachers. Without that fear they have little motivation and show very little respect. I have the added difficult task of teaching many young students who are spoiled and have little desire to learn anything, especially TOELF essay writing at 11:00pm. Have you taught back in Canada? I have and I can say that the experience is completely different.

  4. I just realized how stupid that last line sounds without more detail. I mean, of course it’s different. Anyway, to make a long post short, back in Canada it was a case of earning the respect of your students by showing repect. Here in Korea, respect is assumed until proven otherwise.

  5. Joel, wasn’t it? Yeah, I find it very different from in Canada that way. Tripping out like a jerk seems to get more cooperation in the classroom here. Because, I think, students are unfortunately conditioned by their teachers to react to horrid treatment in this way. Also, at least at my school, a lot of kids seem to have no sense of the fact that they’re lucky to be taking expensive classes… because after all for most of them, their parents are all paying for it. Funny that the kids who say, in the “Tell me about your family dialog”, that their fathers are taxi drivers, are invariably students who try hard in class.

    There are other problems with discipline for a new teacher, here… Throwing a kid out of the room is less effective than humiliating him or her before his or her classmates, for example; in Korea this seems normal. If you throw kids out too easily you’ve lost your trump card. Then all that’s left is calling the parents and good luck if you try that in a hakwon. “My boy is smart! He is not a bad student!” say the mommies who understand anything you say at all.

    Then again, I do miss the days of teaching elementary-school kids. They were (with the exception of a few adult classes) the most motivated and creative students I’ve ever had in Korea.

  6. Just come across your site and loved it. And it has confirmed that I am never going to teach in Korea. Anyway, Ive been teaching out here in Brazil for the past eleven years and this particular incident struck a chord, though when you ask a Brazilain student if he chats in his/her normal lessons the answer is invariably: Yes! Its the way that schools are set up here, the respect a teacher gets is what he earns, and normally by playing the clown for the duration of the lesson. Though I manage to get something meaningful into the lessons, it just becomes harder as you get older.

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