Shortly before my last class on Tuesday our middle-aged British Canadian teacher told me that ‘they’ wanted to talk to me. When I asked who ‘they’ were he said, ‘The management.’ He didn’t elaborate on this. I started feeling nervous, imagining that something unpleasant was going to happen, something that would seem almost maliciously targeted (and although, as we shall see, this feeling subsided fairly quickly, just writing about it now is recreating the sensation; this is engendered, I suppose, by my fear of what you’ll think of me).
I spent most of that final class needing the toilet, and when I finished, that’s where I headed. As I sat there, I could hear our ‘ajosshi teacher’ speaking to one of the Korean staff, wondering if I’d left. As I left the toilets, my phone started buzzing, but quickly stopped when he took me into one of the small meeting rooms. It was just him and me.
He began telling me there’d been complaints from the parents of three boys I had taught up until two weeks previously. Apparently, they’d come to the hagwon and seen the video of my last class or two with them. (This was a class I’d hated teaching because the boys, and, increasingly, the girls, just did whatever they liked.) They were now threatening to sue me for some sort of physical abuse.
Although since I’d switched classes and was beginning to forget the experience of trying to teach them, looking back I can see that by employing more and more forceful methods to get their attention and get them to behave, it wasn’t really a good strategy (not that I was thinking about strategy, of course, I was just getting progressively more pissed off with them). Firstly, it didn’t work – they just went on ignoring me. And secondly, something like this could easily happen.
It was also certainly unprofessional – but then, I’m not a professional teacher. Also, it seems to me that younger kids enjoy (maybe enjoy’s not the right word) a certain level of physical interaction with their teacher. I’m pretty sure (I have to admit my memory is bit hazy) that I didn’t hurt them (… well, maybe just a little bit); as I said, they just went on ignoring me, so they can’t have been that bothered about it. OK – what was I doing to them? Pushing them about, trying to get them to sit down, tapping them with my marker pen, grabbing them so I could look them in the eye and be quiet.
‘Ajosshi Teacher’ wasn’t making much eye contact with me during the conversation, and I might well have been imagining it, but I though I saw a hint of additional wetness in his eyes. As he told me later, Korean teachers can get away with smacking and pinching and so on, but the rules are different for us foreigners.
Bizarrely, I suppose, I was actually feeling a lot better. As I said, I was expecting something more traumatic from a very personal point of view (something like, The other teachers have been complaining you’re not wearing enough deodorant or too much deodorant (I hate being paranoid)), but this was more like a mere professional misjudgment. Well … it is an issue of professional misjudgment.
I went home feeling much happier, even though if the parents have their way I’ll be sacked and won’t be able to teach in South Korea again (unless I get someone to bend the rules). That evening, I wrote (what I hope is) a suitably humble letter of apology to the boys’ parents.
The following day, having handed the letters over to the receptionist (who didn’t seem to know what it was for), the head teacher (whose last day in the job it was) took me into the other tiny meeting room to reiterate much of what my colleague had said the previous night. She also said that they wouldn’t fire me in any case until they’d found replacements for the Canadian guy who was sacked within a week of arriving, the Korean American woman (I want call her a girl, but it feels rather sexist) who is leaving soon and
me. Apparently, if I do have to go earlier than 14 September, they will give me my bonus month’s pay.
Everything I’ve read and heard about hagwons suggests that you should trust them as far as you can throw them (and how far can you throw a building?), but apart from a few minor lies (for instance, our head teacher told the staff room this week that we won’t be having evening meals because the food will go off in the heat – which means there are too many teachers here at lunch and dinner time because of the summer intensive classes and they don’t want to pay for more food) … where was I? … apart from a few minor lies I don’t have a reason for not believing this … except for the fact that we’re talking about hagwons here.
Later on, she took me to the classroom of the boys (one was absent) in question and had me talk to them about what had happened; she translated. Then she had all six of the students come up to me one at a time, give me a pat, say sorry and then give me a hug. A pretty awkward experience for all concerned, I think.
The issue has been playing on my mind a little bit more over the last few days, but I still can’t say I’m all that worried. I also haven’t heard anything more about it. I’m taking this to be a good sign on the assumption that if these parents were going ahead with legal proceedings someone would have told me. And now my summer holiday has begun (it spans from today, Friday, to next Thursday; the fact that we have to go back to work on a Friday is the kind of stupidity that I suppose you take as par for the course in a hagwon. I also taught three classes this morning (the first day of my break); some of my foreign colleagues are teaching over the weekend, I believe).
The final irony (I say ‘final’ – what I mean is I’ve only just remembered about it and I can’t find a good place above to insert it) is that, even having done what I did in the class, I could have avoided this by giving these boys better marks on their monthly reports last week. If you were reading carefully, you’ll have noted that there were two weeks between the last time I taught this class and when the parents came to complain. I reckon the reason they’ve acted is not that the boys went home and told them about the incident – as I’ve indicated, I neither hurt nor upset them – but because they wanted to find out why I gave the boys very low marks (and bad write-ups – not that the parents would be able to read them) in their reports. I was thinking along the lines of This’ll teach ‘em, the little bastards – in the event, it seems that it was me who was taught.
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