“Mean Girls”

A screenshot of the offensive text message (I smudged the student’s name to maintain her general anonymity]

First, I’d like to preface this post by saying that I generally enjoy teaching English grammar and math to my students. I like planning the lessons and interacting with the kids and while I might leave work fairly tired (emotionally and physically), I also leave feeling happy and as fulfilled as one can living thousands of miles away from friends and family back “home.”

Well, last night, during my most difficult class (a 90-minute intensive grammar and writing course for 7 middle schoolers who generally refuse to speak to me in English), a not-so-nice thing happened. I had given Sophia (one of the students) my Kakao Talk ID (an instant messaging service) so that she could send me a picture for an assignment. Having given both my phone number and Kakao Talk ID to students before, I didn’t even think twice about handing it out this time. At most I figured I’d get requests to play social networking games or get asked questions about homework. However, she quickly passed my ID onto 4 other girls in the class and all of them proceeded to blow up my phone with hundreds (literally… hundreds…) of messages– most of them gibberish or cutesy emoticons. Eh– a silly, if not a bit annoying, jibing at the teacher. But Sophia sent me well over two hundred messages, each of which containing a large text bubble filled with the following expression repeated and repeated and repeated: 저주. Cute!

For those of you who don’t know, “저주” means “go to hell” and is particularly offensive when you take into account the Korean culture which says that one must ultimately respect ones elders (which would include teachers). Now, as some of you would be quick to point out, I am not Korean and as such a line is drawn more or less by the students (and others in the community) as to how much “respect” they would show me/have for me. Ultimately, I understand this and more or less accept it– I am an outsider in their community; I don’t speak Korean and have only lived here for 5 months. I also readily acknowledge that as a westerner I often receive special treatment and consideration (gifts, a relative “cushy” job, free services, extra food, etc.).

At any rate, when my co-teacher Julie found out what Sophia had sent me, she went into the class and yelled at her and the other girls for texting me as they did. She admonished them for not showing me respect as their teacher and for thinking it was funny to send me inappropriate messages in Korean just because they thought that I wouldn’t be able to read them. She then took my phone to our boss and showed him Sophia’s offensive messages. The thirteen-year-old was quickly yanked out of class and she was ultimately forced to apologize to me as she sobbed in a kindergarten classroom (she had been told that we were going to forward the messages to her mother). For someone like me, an introvert at heart who tries–desperately at times– to avoid confrontation, the situation was miserable.

The whole event affected me strongly and left me upset in the teacher’s room after class. In Thailand, where I was teaching before, I spoke enough Thai to know when the students were saying rude or offensive things to me– and I could check them on it immediately (and in Thai no less). But here, in Korea, I am only just beginning to learn the language and only have a handful of vocabulary and useful expressions under my belt: 우유 (milk), 자기요! (Excuse me! You there!), 아이 (child), 추워요 (it’s cold), 여우 (fox), 맥주주세요! (beer please!), etc. So if the students chose to say something disrespectful or to curse at me, I’d really have no way of knowing. And I guess last night, after it happened, I just felt… ugh. I try so hard for this class– it is without a doubt the most difficult one at my school due to the age of the students and their general apathy (I’ve actually written about this class before).  I handmake their homework packets each weekend, I use multiple methods to teach fairly difficult grammar concepts (articles, auxiliary verbs, countable vs. non-countable nouns, continuous verbs vs. non-continuous verbs, prepositional phrases…)– hell, I even try to introduce them to popular music and movies coming from the west to try to liven things up in class! Now, of course, these are things that most teachers do for their students… no need for me to wax magniloquent… But I guess I feel like I try very hard to inspire them to do even the smallest amount of work and yesterday’s event left me thinking that even after all of this effort and consideration on my end, it’s very possible that they disrespect me to my face and I am none the wiser. I suppose, also, I feel embarrassed to have received the messages.

Teaching ESL has certainly increased my respect for teachers everywhere– bad days at school can be just nasty, like a distorted version of Mean Girls. Thankfully, shit days like this are often followed up with days where your favorite and infinitely adorable 5-year-old student asks you to marry him once he finishes kindergarten (I told him that I’d think about it…).

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2 responses to ““Mean Girls”

  1. Look if you’ve taught before (even in Thailand) then you know that classroom control is important. What the student did was way out of line, disrespectful, and undermines your authority in your own room. Now I assume you work at a hagwon, so your students most likely dont want to be there, but the line between sleeping/no paying attention and texting your teacher to “go to hell” repeatedly is not exactly “fine.”

    I would not feel a twinge of guilt and in fact I would be extra hard on the entire class for remainder of the semester.

  2. My friend taught at a top rated elementary school in Cheonan and had 6th graders like your students. She worked EXTRA hard like you and they hardly showed any appreciation and disrespected her by talking during the entire 40 minutes of their class, every. single. week.

    What she did that straightened them up (and it was actually for every 6th grade class) was give them the ‘talk.’
    She put together a PPT about how they are wasting their own time.
    She kindly and firmly reminded them of all the money their parents spend on them to learn english + all the hours they sit through English lessons. From elementary to the end of high school it was well over 4,000 hours and the money was a scary and huge figure. A lot of these kids could afford to spend a summer in Canada or America.

    She talked about all the new Konglish words and how the Korean language is changing because of English and all the wonderful jobs they could have… but needed to know English. And basically told them that the world could be theirs if they stopped wasting their time, her time, and everyone’s hard work in English class and tried harder. For themselves and for her.

    Another great thing to point out is all the companies, sports teams, Kpop bands, and restaurants in Korea that had English names.

    I think a few 6th grade girls cried a little and a lot of the boys yelled out that they loved her and they were sorry. This teacher even told them that she extended her contract just for their grade. She wanted to see them finish elementary school.

    I was able to observe her for an entire day and I was lucky to see this lecture. I think if you can speak passionately to this class about how much you care for them… even if they drive you crazy, and you want them to do well in life, they might finally listen.

    If you’re into this idea, put together a PPT and get together with your co-teacher so she can help translate to the students. I don’t even think you would have to bring up this Kakao thing during the lecture… those girls will already know.

    Good luck! FIGHTING!!!!!!!

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