From the Mouths of Students
Teaching is hard.
I know it's not what you want to hear, but it's true. A good portion of my students on any given day don't give a crap about learning English. When I first started teaching, I really let that get to me. I sincerely care about these kids, I want them to learn, so every student who talked or napped through my class was like a personal wound. Right in the feelings.
It also makes you wonder..."Why am I here?" I don't have a teaching degree. I'm just another idealistic English major dreaming of making a difference in the world. Do I have any right to make my students to pay attention in class? Am I helping them at all? Is it morally okay to be complicit in forcing English into their brains? Am I worthless? The constant articles about "The end of foreign English teachers!" and emails from the local Education office about budget cuts are no help in this area either. You read about a Korean group railing against the necessity of foreign teachers and you start to think, yeah...maybe...you're right...I'll just go...am I really any use here anyways?
As a career worrier, these are the sorts of questions that start to assail me after a week of difficult classes. It wasn't even entirely my fault. Teaching with a cold benefits no one.
So, after a week going into a deeper and deeper slump, a recent conversation with a student just revived me like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.
I've always felt that it's important to get to know your students outside of class, because the way they act in class can be entirely different from their true personality. It's easy to pass over very smart or talkative students, just because they aren't as motivated in class. This is all too true in the case of Taehon, the main character of my story.
On Lacking Mutual Respect
Taehon is a third year middle school student, the equivalent of a freshman in high school for any American readers out there. That puts him at...what...15 or 16 years old? In a class of 36 students, he doesn't stand out at all. Average height and looks, unlikely to speak up in class, but secretly a passionate and driven student, with big dreams for the future.
After our first class together, he came up to me to apologize for his noisy classmates, explaining that they "lack mutual respect." I was floored. I know American middle schoolers who don't know the words "mutual respect." I still can't decide if I was more shocked by the vocabulary or the sentiment.
Since that day, he'll occasionally linger after class to ask horribly complicated grammar questions in that quiet, thoughtful voice of his, but we never had a real chance to talk until today.
I don't have any classes this week due to midterm exams, so I was bumming around the English room cleaning and organizing during lunch today, hoping that someone would come visit. My wishes were granted! Taehon wandered in, offered to help clean, then asked his usual difficult grammar question. By the way, explaining the difference between "to" and "for" in simple English is hard. I think I confused him more than I helped.
Be the Change
However, after we muddled our way through grammar, the real questions started to come out.
"Will you stay in Korea for long?"
"Yes! I love Korea. I love teaching."
"Good! Korean schools...need you."
I get this question a lot. "Will you stay?" When I say yes, I want to stay here long-term, no one believes me. It's just so common for foreign teachers to spend one or two years before returning to their home countries to start a "real life".
"If you want to know Korean history or culture things, I will teach you."
"Wow! Thank you so much! I will ask you."
"And, please teach me about American culture."
This led to a bit of a comparison between Korean and American school life, and the fact that American students have lots of free time, since after school academies aren't really a thing, shocked him. I also mentioned how happy I felt to know him, to have such a curious and smart student.
He then brought up his month studying abroad in New Zealand, and the fact that the students there "Had the attitude to learn. They want to listen."
My theory about many Korean students and their lack of focus in class in that they are just plain tired. 8 hours of school followed by afterschool hagwon work until as late as 11 PM or midnight? How can you expect them to have the energy to actually learn when they're spending so much time working?
This brought out the best thing I've heard from a student in a long time.
"I think...Korean education is not good. I want to change. So, I want to be in politics. If you can vote in Korea someday, please vote for me."
This kid is going to go far. If I can ever vote in Korea, I know I would vote for him. There's hope for the world yet.