Friday, January 6, 2006

How to beat so your kids will listen

A short time after I began working at Seoul Language Academy, I noticed that the students were much more well behaved for the Korean teachers than they were for the foreigners. I remarked how drastically the classroom atmospere shifted the moment a Korean in a position of authority poked a head in my classroom. Instantly, posture was straightened, eyes were averted downwards, and all chaos came screeching to an instant halt. For a few brief moments, the students' attention was riveted on their "sonsangnim", meaning both "teacher" and "master."

So why such a shift in behaviour? Well, another thing I soon remarked was that Korean teachers carried large "whacking sticks" into their classrooms. Measuring about 1.5 feet in length and about 1/2 an inch in diameter, the teachers have no qualms about smacking the upturned palms of their misbehaved. In fact, in order to aid the discipline in my classroom, I will threaten them with Rodger, another Korean teacher who also happens to be the manager of the school. The kids are terrified of him because, as they tell me, he "hits us really hard." He is also a Korean man, a "father figure."

Speaking of corporal punishment and fathers, I recently asked my advanced class to write in their journals about their "worst experience ever." Every class, I give them a topic to write about for a few minutes, and on this day, I got a response that my delicate Canadian sensibilities had not prepared me for. One student (who also happens to be the smartest in the class) wrote that the worst thing he had ever experienced was the time he had been caught lying. His father, to teach him a lesson, beat him with a golf club so badly that he was unable to go to school the next day (and it takes a lot to get these kids to miss school). Yet the student was grateful for having been taught the lesson by his father, whom he adores.

So, if I were in Canada, and heard of such a story, it would unquestionably be my responsibility to report such an occurence to the proper authorities. But here in Korea, where it's so commonplace, beating your child or spouse, or keeping your students in line with a large stick is the norm, and they see nothing wrong with it. In fact, they wonder how we in the West have let our children rule their parents and teachers through lack of discipline.

Korea ostensibly has one of the highest rates of spousal abuse in the world, but it is not a punishable offense. And standing up to authority, or questioning authority, is, in most cases, completely inconceivable. So the wife submits to the husband, the children to the father, and the students to the (Korean) teacher, and the tradition of authoritarian rule continues in much the same way as it has for centuries, with the help of sticks and clubs.

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