Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Incident at School

This is a long post about school. You have been warned...

Things at work have been a struggle lately. This story offers a sense of why.

The past two weeks have been mostly about running my last group of speaking tests and doing speaking test review with others. It can’t help but be a monotonous activity – as I teach every student in the school, I must have 330+ of the same conversation for each of the 3 grades in my middle school, and this happens every period of every day for a two week run. This, I can deal with – with the help of a sense of humour, some strong coffee, and some White Stripes playing on youtube as students enter the classroom.

Of course, for the tests to happen at all, I require the class to be relatively quiet while students come to the back of the room to do their test one at a time. In a room of pre-final-exam stress, you might think that the pressure would cause the students to use their time to either quietly study for the speaking test they are about to have, or to study for other subjects quietly at their desks. You’d be wrong.

It’s not always madness though. It’s during a speaking test that I can really notice the varying levels to which my co-teachers have control over the classroom. On the one end, I have a co-teacher who leads the students silently into the classroom, where they sit – in absolute silence - with their text books open for the entire duration of the speaking test. On the extreme other end, well… we have the following incident…

Class 3-7 meanders into the classroom in little chunks of humanity – students frantically asking me (for the first time) to check the answers on their practice sheets, or to get an additional practice sheet (the completion of which is worth points toward the students’ overall test score) so that they can presumably copy the answers from a classmate – their last three copies of the practice sheet already lost.

The bell rings with only half of the class present. The rest of the students file-in sporadically over the next five minutes, and the co-teacher arrives minutes after that. I know that the standard for student behaviour held by this particular teacher is so low as to not really register on any of the students in this class, so – it is up to me if we are going to be able to get-through all 33 students within the now 36 minutes that remain in out 45 minute class time. I instruct students to remain in their seats and to quietly practice with their friends while I work one-on-one with students at the back of the room. As I am engaged in testing with one student at a time, my ability to assist in the classroom management responsibilities with this co-teacher is pretty much unavailable.

5 minutes into the test, the noise level is to the point where I cannot hear the student sitting across from me. Being that this noise level doesn’t seem to phase my co-teacher, I politely get the class’s attention and ask for quiet. This happens every couple of minutes.

15 minutes into the test, students are out of their desks, screaming, hitting each other and throwing practice sheets while the co-teacher leans on the counter and stares blankly across the room. Again, I ask for quiet.

20 minutes into the test, I look to the front of the room to hear yelling, then one student, who is standing over another, grabs the sitting student by the hair with his left hand, and with his right, open-palms the sitting student across the face, sending his glasses flying and knocking him out of his chair. This all occurs after I’ve asked students to remain seated during the test. At the point of this attack, half of the students were out of their seats.

I run from the back of the room to restrain the student who was responsible for the slap. He looks like he’s going to lash out again, so I stand to his side and reach around his shoulders to restrain his hands while I move him down the hallway to the discipline office. He is seething and ready to fight me, but I have a strong hold of him. I reach the office and am able to briefly explain the situation before running back to the classroom where my co-teacher leans against the counter and stares blankly at the anarchy surrounding her.

Very calmly (and with the history I have with this co-teacher, I am very mindful to be calm at this point), I ask all students to do three things for the remaining 10 minutes of class: 1) Remain in your seat 2) Put your head on your desk 3) Do not talk.

Within the next 10 minutes after I resume testing, students are out of their seats and dancing, wrestling, and pushing the swivel chairs violently across the room at each other. All of this occurred with my co-teacher staring blankly at the windows.

I am not exaggerating any of this.

I snapped – with the fury of God’s own thunder (to quote President Bartlett), I yelled for all of the students to leave the classroom at once – save for the 5 or 6 students that remained to be tested. And then I turned my fury on my co-teacher. It turns-out that she thinks I’m too strict.

I am not proud of any of this.

There are things we can control in the classroom and things we cannot, but the least we can do is try, and what we can strive for is to maintain a level of respect and decorum, regardless of what’s going on with these students - hormonally or otherwise. Yes, this is middle school, but it’s not effing Gangster’s Paradise.

The issue that I can sum-up as being one of “having different standards of behaviour in the classroom” has now been dealt-with through the proper chain of command at my school. With just over 1 teaching week left before summer camp begins, and with my departure from this school happening shortly after, this was not an attempt to salvage a single working relationship that has clearly become unsalvageable, but rather an attempt to provide for a better transition for my school’s new native speaking English teacher, who (I’m guessing) would prefer not to walk into a rookie teaching scenario where he or she is expected to deal with that level of disrespect and apathy from his or her co-teacher. I am grateful for the fairness and warmth that my Vice Principal employed in her dealing with this issue. Of the 6 co-teachers I work with at my school, there is only one that is capable of creating such a destructive and careless learning environment.


Being that this incident occurred yesterday, I had to admit that I was still smarting from the experience. I don’t like losing my cool – especially in front of students, but I am firm in my belief that my level of anger at what was occurring within the walls of my classroom was justified, if not directed appropriately at first.

Speaking with the head discipline teacher at my school today at lunch, we discussed the following, some of which I was already aware of:

The attacking student (Student A) had come into the classroom without his practice paper (something he had been expected to bring with him every week for the past month, but was never in possession of, despite having had it replaced each time). He asked Student B to borrow his paper so that he could sneak a blank one and copy Student B’s work. Student B, being one of the smallest students in his grade, was reluctant to let him copy, but backed-down under physical threat. Student B asked Student A not to copy everything exactly because it would be obvious to the teacher (me) during the speaking test. Student A ignored this request and copied everything from Student B verbatim. When the paper was returned to Student B and he could see that Student A had copied everything word for word, he said “Why?”. This is when Student A grabbed Student B by the hair and slapped him clear out of his chair.

All of this happened within view of my co-teacher, who did nothing to prevent it, stop it, or intervene after it occurred.

Student A had returned to my middle school after nearly a year absence due to his parents’ divorce. He has been back and forth with his mother and father during that time, and the stress that the situation helped manifest is making its presence known almost daily in the classroom. Student A has reported that he suffers physical abuse from both parents. When asked by the discipline teacher why he held Student B’s hair in that manner before hitting him, Student A replied that his father hits him like that.

Nobody can fix this young man’s problems, but that least we can do is provide a safe school environment where he can’t lash-out and hurt others or hurt himself. To create such an environment, I would argue, involves caring, patience, and classroom management – specifically in the form of rules and real consequences when they are broken.

I’m disappointed. This group of middle school grade 3 students (grade 9 in Canada) were the ones I was most looking forward to working with this year. But, the widening gap between the students who are striving to succeed and those who have long since given up is more and more clear. I see it in the hallways and I see it in the classroom, and it makes me sad.

There are some classes, such as class 3-2 which I began my day with today, that is the perfect mix of trouble students and those charismatic leader students who are willing to drag the others up to their level.

Then, there is class 3-7. At the low end is a girl who lost a point in her speaking test because she was unable to pronounce the one location she needed to know, learn, and speak about over the past month. Instead of saying “Nami-seom” (Nami Island), she said “Nami-san” (Nami Mountain), which is not surprising as she too was a student who lost her practice paper and had it replaced each class the month previous. When she lost the point during her test, she looked at me with purpose in her eyes and voice and told me, in Korean, to go fuck myself.

There is reason for all of the worsening upheaval this semester. Up until last year, in a Korean middle school, teachers were allowed to administer corporal punishment to their students. For most, this took the form of hitting a student’s open-palm with a ruler or stick. From most reports, this was effective more for its ability to shame than to inflict pain. I’m not saying that I agree with it, but as an observer, the transition to no corporal punishment in the schools has (ironically, I suppose) been a very painful one. Students know what they can get away with. This includes beating on each other without the threat of getting beaten on by a teacher, and the fun of telling a foreign teacher to fuck off in their native tongue – perhaps thinking that I wouldn’t understand, or more likely hoping that I would. As shown in the story above, this has led some teachers to pretty much wash their hands of the whole effort thing. People are giving-up, and as our school services an economically-disadvantaged area of Seoul, the situations within our particular walls are often challenged proportionately.

On the other end though is Ophelia, who is also the president of students’ council and, if she is able to make it out of her class 3-7 experience unscathed, could very well go on to be a successor to Ban Ki-Mun, current secretary general of the United Nations and role model to South Koreans everywhere. A month ago, when I was clearly exasperated at the behaviour of the students in her class, I found this note on my desk, accompanied by a small package of chocolates…

This is for you ~
I hope you like chocolates.
Teacher Dave
You’re the best foreign teacher I’ve ever met ☺
From, Ophelia

To Teacher Dave,
Hello, Dave. I’m Ophelia. How was your weekend? I was so busy because of preparing for the final test… Um… the reason that I’m writing this letter is because of our class. As you know, our class (3-7) is very, very noisy. I think my class is uncontrollable, too. I’m really sorry for that. I can understand why you get angry. I know you are slow to get angry… Also, I knew that I can’t use a cell-phone in class… I’m sorry. It was my fault. Would you forgive me, please? Also, my classmates…… I’ll tell them to concentrate for your class!! I’m sorry, teacher ㅠㅠ. This is my small present. I hope you regain your vigor with this. Bye Bye ~


It’s impossible for me to describe how this gesture made me feel. With one week of regular classes left in my semester, what motivates me are students like Ophelia who, despite her unfortunate class placement, can rise above it to remain a caring person and a diligent student who took the time to notice that teachers need caring for sometimes, too.

Losing my cool yesterday was something I regret, but mostly because it happened in front of Ophelia, and this was after the letter, and the chocolate, and her scoring a 10 out of 10 on her speaking test and being rightfully proud of herself. In the midst of all of the shabbiness from yesterday, I feel that I let a student down, and I guess that leaves me with just over a week to make things right with the diamonds in the rough of class 3-7.


Douglas said...

Hey Dave,

I think most people reading this blog can totally empathize with you.

Remember that we're all human and we all lose it time to time. At least your never crossed my line of saying "mother fucker". Jesus Christ what was I thinking. I should've been fired on the spot. But hey, these moments are helpful in that you learn something from it, about your limits and how you can respond to them better the next time. Sure you lost your top, but I think any sane person in the same situation would have as well.

And that co-teacher from hell, she's got an axe to grind with you I bet. She enjoy's seeing you get angry, it's got to be deliberate.

If what the trouble maker kid says is true, then my heart goes out to him as well. Lord knows what he's going through. Not to throw the stage light on him though, as many of the others in the class are also at fault.

That's really thoughtful of the one student, Ophelia. Funny though how she chose that name, I mean, as beautiful as it is, I've never known an Ophelia other than the tragic character in Hamlet. I know how you feel about the shame of letting her down, but if she's mature and caring enough to already write such a letter, she'd be the first one then out of the class to understand your actions.

Alex said...

Happy Canada Day!

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Thanks, you guys. I've got one week left of regular classes, and one class left with Ophelia. I'm honestly torn about whether or not I do my last week's lesson with that class, or just let them sit and read quietly at their desks. They will be watching videos for pretty much every other subject next week, so I won't feel bad about it. I would rather be hands-off than try and invest one more time and have it backfire. Know my limits...