No, this post is not about any discontent that I might feel. It’s about the discontent I have observed in my students. At my school, I am in the unique position of being an outsider, a teacher who is closer in age to my students than most of my co-workers, and a person who speaks a different language. This combination of factors has led to some students feeling more confident about expressing their opinions, and especially their discontent about their school lives or other aspects of their lives in Korea. The stories below do not represent all students’ opinions, but they have given me a greater understanding of my students’ social or political perspectives and how they manifest in the EFL classroom.
Several months ago, I asked a student to do an interview about his school life for a project I was working on. He eagerly agreed, but quickly frowned.
“Can I be critical of school?” he asked seriously. “There are many problems.”
I told him he could be as honest as he liked, though the interview questions did not give him much of an opportunity to criticize the Korean educational system.
A few weeks later, the conversation club that I lead wanted to discuss Korean education. I asked the students their favorite and least favorite parts of school. “Friends,” “festival” and “lunch” were generally the favorites, but the negatives outweighed these few beacons of light.
“We don’t like night study. We can’t sleep,” said one student.
“I am here until 11:00 PM!” said another. “And then I have hagwon.”
“Too much work,” complained a boy.
“Maaaaaaaaaaaaath!” wailed one of the girls.
Although the conversation ended when the bell rang, these attitudes seeped into my classroom during a writing lesson. When I taught similes and metaphors, I told students that they could choose any topic they wanted for their free-writing assignment. Not surprisingly, several of the students chose to write about school. After the third or fourth time I taught the lesson, I came to expect the following dialogue with at least one student:
“Teacher, what is word for…” Then the student would pantomime handcuffs or shaking the bars of a jail cell. As I spelled the word, I saw the following sentence form on the paper:
“School is like a prison.”
At the beginning of the semester, I put my students into groups and asked them to write a travel brochure for a country they created. While most students wrote about places called “Girl Land” or “Volcano Island,” one brochure was titled “Hell Chosun.” “Chosun” is another word for Korea.
Inside the brochure, these students drew a map of the Korean peninsula and wrote facts about Korea (“The population is 50 million. Our cuisine is kimchi. There are many mountains.”). They finished their brochure with, “You should only visit our country if you have money.”
My co-teacher for the period frowned, reprimanded the students in Korean, and made them re-do the assignment. I kept the first brochure they made as a reminder that my students will have opinions that I, as a foreign teacher, might not realize.
During my acrostic poetry lesson, a female student volunteered to write her piece on the board. Confidently, she strode to the front of the classroom, picked up the marker, and wrote the following:
President is captain of Korea
Really, she doesn’t do anything.
She is an
Do not trust her.
Earn tax from cigarettes
Next president should be
I saw my co-teacher’s lips purse slightly as the student read her work aloud. The girls in the class applauded as the student finished, approving her work. After class, my co-teacher told me that this sentiment was “common in Korea” and dropped the subject, not wanting to discuss the student’s piece further.
A few weeks later, during my club class, one of my higher-level students, Bang, wanted to talk to me so he could procrastinate doing his assignment.
“Do you know Korean president?” Bang asked. When I said yes, he made a face. “She’s a tax stealer.”
“She made many promises,” added another student, Seok Hee. “But she lied.”
Deciding that this conversation was more worthwhile than the assignment they were currently doing, I pressed them to tell me more about what they thought. Our conversation moved back and forth from Korean politics to U.S. politics, and I was surprised to see how animated they were when discussing these issues. Though it is my personal policy to keep overt discussions about politics out of the classroom (unless specifically prompted or asked by a student), I wondered if students expressed the same sentiments in some of their other classes. Do students feel comfortable expressing their opinions to Korean teachers? Or, due to my age and foreignness, just to me?
Though they are students now, this is the future generation of Korea. Their opinions matter. As with my own generation in my own country, I wonder how these opinions–and the actions that ensue–will shape our respective countries in the years to come.