As a non-Korean teacher I’m not supposed to have responsibility for enforcing disciplinary standards. My Korean co-workers are meant to do that, since they can do it in Korean. All I can really do is express displeasure; the pupils who need disciplining aren’t generally the ones who have a conversational level of English. However, responsibility does often fall to me because of one of my co-teacher’s personality. Sometimes she gets really riled by pupils behaving badly, but this doesn’t happen often and she isn’t much good at dealing with everyday rowdyness. So I’ve been trying out different strategies and seeing what works, and thinking a lot about the issues.

The relationship between teachers, pupils and parents of pupils is changing in Korea as it is changing back in Britain, and this change is viewed negatively by teachers. Teachers’ own judgements of how and what to teach are being supplanted by pupils and parents expecting a certain service of teachers, and thinking they know very well what this service should consist in. Though I support getting feedback from our pupils—we just got a round of anonymised feedback—and I don’t think there exists some 1950s ideal of teacher-pupil relationship to dream of going back to, in general I am suspicious of the idea that pupils have any real idea at all of what’s good for them academically. That’s kind of why we’re teaching them. They could go off and study it themselves if they were in a position to give us very substantive feedback beyond “please stop throwing packets of coloured pencils at us”, which was one of the things I got in my feedback.

In Korea, a difficult expectation that has arisen is the idea that foreign English teachers in particular are supposed to do some kind of edutainment. This involves making fools of ourselves, and trying to be comedians in order to engage our pupil’s attention. It’s seen as our responsibility to make the pupils laugh and then it’s assumed that if they’re having fun they must be learning. Of course this is generally false. There are activities that I could do that might get this reaction more often. There is a large inventory of Microsoft PowerPoint-based games available for download that native-speaking English teachers have developed over the past decade. Korean kids love them, but it’s painfully obvious how little educational value most have. I generally use them once a fortnight as a review activity.

I agree that it is the responsibility of individual teachers, in front of a class, to make lesson content as engaging as possible within the confines of the textbook curriculum.[1] We should not expect our pupils to stick their hands up and participate in the lesson if it’s boring. School is a strange kind of prison where we take away the freedom of minors in our belief that not taking away this freedom would cause all of society to fall apart. This should make us uncomfortable: this is a very significant removal of freedom and we should remain respectful of those who we have taken that freedom from, and humble about our judgement that it’s the right thing to do. So to expect and try to force our pupils to engage more than the minimum with the material, if they find that material boring, is dehumanising.

However, a line should be drawn between our responsibility to engage pupils with the content and the responsibility of the pupils and the school culture as a whole to enforce minimum disciplinary expectations. It’s totally black-and-white that our pupils have to come to school and can’t be wandering the streets instead. The stringency of this expectation should be present in the expectations that our pupils don’t wander into the English classroom late, don’t continue to throw pencilcases at each other when the teacher wants to speak to the whole class, and similar baseline disciplinary expectations.

I believe there to be three aspects to enforcing these expectations, in decreasing order of importance. The first is a teacher’s demeanour. So far as I can tell, every teacher has got to spend their first few years teaching trying to develop a charisma that induces the average pupil to do what they already know they should be doing with regard to baseline discipline. We all know that teacher who walks into the room and suddenly everyone is scrambling for their seats. This is something I’m working on, but it’s frustrated somewhat by being forced to teach side-by-side with a Korean co-worker who has a different idea of that persona.

The second is the school’s culture of baseline expectations. Consistency between homeroom teachers and the teachers who teach science, English, music etc. on these baseline expectations would make them as secure as the expectation that pupils have got to come to school every day. We have big problems here due to the general changes in pupil and teacher relationships that have come about in the past few decades, as I described briefly above. When we discipline our pupils they often act as if we’re doing something indecent. It’s true that we sometimes misjudge; if someone is late for our lesson with a totally legitimate reason then I always try to make sure that I say a word of apology after this comes to light. However, a lot of our pupils don’t expect to get punished if they are two or three minutes late and they resent my enforcing it (we make them stand at the back of the room for five minutes before taking their seats). Their attitude towards being late like this is different to their attitude as to whether they have to come to school or not. This is wrong; if the whole school were similarly strict, things would be easier. I do not believe other teachers are so harsh on latecoming.

The third factor is making punishments significant and using them consistently. This means that they have to be taking something that the pupils like away from them (generally their time) rather than just not giving them some reward. I am constantly frustrated in trying to do this. We give out points for participating in lessons and our classes compete against each other for these points, to be rewarded before the January holiday with a lesson being replaced with a snacks and movie ‘party.’ This is bribery, but it’s bribery that’s necessary when the textbook material that we can’t totally turn our backs on is as dull as it is (we can’t rewrite the textbook due to time constraints; we cannot prepare our lessons without its material, although we try to replace particularly dull parts).

This reward system is linked to our punishment system. When the class is late or isn’t paying attention, we start an audible stopwatch on our big screen and wait for the pupils to shut each other up, because the two classes with the highest times at the end of the week lose some of their points. I would like to use the stopwatch differently. Instead of merely losing points, the time on the clock at the end of the lesson could be taken out of the pupils’ ten minute break that they get after every forty minute lesson. This can be done very elegantly by setting the stopwatch up as a countdown from 40 minutes to be started at the beginning of the lesson. The stopwatch is then stopped when the class is wasting time, and restarted when they’re paying attention. Then the lesson ends when the timer reaches zero, which if they have wasted time will be after the bell for the start of breaktime.[2]

This is easy for our pupils to understand and easy for me to enforce. I already have a small HTML5 and JavaScript application that I use to time activities and record time-wasting, and I could modify it so that running the time wasting clock is just a matter of toggling it on and off with the spacebar, and hitting another key to reset it at the end of the lesson. It also draws a very clear line between the grim enforcement of minimum expectations—I am going to have my forty-minute lesson with you unless you manage to disrupt it for more than ten minutes in which case we run out of break time to take—and the more upbeat business of handing out points for participation. Unfortunately, my co-teacher won’t let me use the clock this way on the grounds that “it will make them sad because they really like their break time.” Of course that’s the whole point: they like their break time so I’m threatening to take it away from them. Though this is partly just a reflection of her personality, it’s also a reflection of the broken relationship between teachers and pupils.

One more small thing to say in conclusion. My list of classroom rules is all straight-up imperatives, most of which start with “Don’t”. I do not include “Try your best.”, “Have fun.”, “Try to speak in English, not Korean.” and the like because these are disrespectful of our pupil’s situation as a kind of prisoners. Rules are things that trigger sanctions when broken, ceteris paribus. That’s a big deal, so I limit them to the things that get in the way of getting on with the lesson, and that get in the way of the teachers doing their jobs and other pupils having an opportunity to learn. Talking when a teacher is trying to talk to the class or writing on the board before the lesson begins fall into this category. Trying your best does not. We should not have the same emotional and behavioural response to our asking our pupils to try their best that we have to having them shut up and listen to instructions. The latter is part of the psychological game of intimidation and subconscious bargaining that goes on between teachers and pupils because of the realities of the situation we’re in, but the former is an appeal to the best of our pupils, something that they have to make a choice about. I want my pupils to choose to work hard for their own reasons, and one of these might be that I’ve managed to make the material engaging. Their reasons for shutting up, too, might well come from the heart, but it’s sufficiently important that they just shut up whatever their reason that I’ll enforce it in unpleasant ways.

I guess I’ve finally found myself with some elements of an educational philosophy, eighteen months or so since being asked what mine was in my interview for this job, and not really having anything much to say at that point.

Edit 23/xi/2014: Feedback on this post on


[1] Which is very poor, since textbook-writing contracts are likely sold based on bribery, so there’s nothing driving standards.

[2] A more brutal approach is to have the clock time up, rather than just not tick down, when they are wasting time.