Sunday, October 01, 2006

the break

I have this upcoming week off. Thanks to a rare confluence of Gae Ch'eon Jeol (Heaven Opening Day, celebrating the nation's birth) on October 3 and Ch'useok (Korean harvest/thanksgiving festival), which runs from October 5 to October 7, I've got the entire week off. Smoo decided to cancel all classes for the week, which is a relief for yours truly, given the stress of the previous week. Three things that had bothered me:

1. My Level 3 Reading class's near-total lack of preparation this past Tuesday. Almost no one had even attempted the reading, so of course I chewed them out. This resulted in lower attendance on Thursday, because Korean students are immature.* On the plus side, the five students who did show up Thursday were far better prepared than they had been on Tuesday.

2. One Level 3 Reading student's attempt to complain that the work was too hard, despite her not having done any work. The nerve.

3. The general bitchiness of my Level 4 "advanced" Freshman English class, which includes a disproportionately high number of droolers this time around.

What chaps my ass about (3) was that I've had to dumb the class down to accommodate the slower students (more than half the class would fit this category). The result? One student apparently complained to her father that the class was too easy, and that she wasn't learning anything new. My boss passed the complaint along to me. This infuriated me, to be honest-- not because it was a complaint (teachers get complaints from someone every semester), but because the student specifically ignored my admonition to see me first about any problems she might have. I had given the class The Lecture on the first day: "I'm your teacher-- not your parents, not my boss, not your classmates. If you have a problem, you see me."

I wrote my supervisor a pissed-off email and said I wanted to speak with that student as well as with her father. I also noted that I have no tolerance for sneakiness. Having taught high school, I'm more than familiar with parent conferences; in my opinion, it's best to get everything out in the open instead of engaging in this stupid, cowardly, round-robin nonsense.

My supervisor visited me in our office; her response to my email was a giggle and an "Oh, Kevin, you're taking this too seriously!" I disagree. If a student actually wants to do more work in class, I welcome that. But ignoring my instruction and going behind my back simply isn't going to be tolerated, and it's bound to make me go all Catholic school on your ass. Sure: students whisper all the time. But in most cases, that grumbling amounts to little more than background noise. In this case, a parent and a supervisor were involved for a completely unnecessary reason. The complaint itself isn't even much of a complaint.

On the day this happened, I asked my supervisor which student complained. "I don't know her name," she said. That turned out to be a lie: the very next day (after she'd had a chance to read my email) my supervisor suggested that I meet privately with the student, whose name she suddenly knew (but didn't reveal). I said that was fine, but-- as I had written in the email-- I was still planning to lecture the students again about approaching me directly. "Oh, don't do that," my supervisor said: "I remember when I was a student, and one student in our class cheated, and the teacher penalized the entire class, and we all felt really bad."

My supervisor seemed to be missing the point. I wasn't going to make everyone pay for one student's sin: I'm neither a drill sergeant nor a prison warden. I was, however, going to give notice to the whole class that, when a student pulls a round-robin, it destroys trust. My supervisor, in offering her example from years ago, seemed to want to pin the problem on her old teacher, as though his action had harmed the students' trust. My own feeling is that this current problem started with the student: I had covered my ass by laying out my policy on the first day, and the student chose to ignore what I'd said.

Some might feel that it's too much to expect a teenager to be brave enough to walk up to her teacher and make her feelings known. I say bullshit: if you're catty enough to be whispering behind people's backs, then you've got enough spirit to face the teacher directly. Don't be a fucking coward.

That Freshman English class sucks in general. It's easily the worst of the FroshEng classes I've taught, and my opinion hasn't changed since the first day. Maybe my luck had run out and the law of averages had caught up with me: my previous advanced-level classes were truly advanced, and we accomplished a lot in five weeks' time. This class represents a sudden downward swing in the IQ curve, and that's not a reference to English skill: it's a reference to the class's general princessy, airheaded character.

So this week I'm glad to have a break. I'm hitting Bukhansan with friends on Tuesday and visiting Jang-woong and his wife and child later in the week. I'll be continuing to work on my manuscript, and I hope that, by October 8, I'll be mentally rested and able to face my students on the 9th. Two more goddamn weeks of FroshEng after break. Six more class days.

A final note: my style in handling the Frosh student problem is unrepentantly Western. My supervisor really didn't want me to lecture the students about the complaint, but I did it anyway. In her opinion, indirectness is better than directness. I think that's true some of the time, but not in this case. Problems only get bigger when they involve an unnecessary number of people; it's better to nip the problem in the bud than to let it fester through silence. From my boss's perspective, I may have become a loose cannon, but so what? Fuck it.

*As a comparison, take my French drama class when I was an undergrad. Our director was stressed out of his mind because our class had 30 people and we were staging an enormous production at the French Embassy. We were often snapped at and even occasionally sworn at, but we always showed up for rehearsal. Skipping is a problem with college students everywhere, but in comparing American and Korean students, I'd have to say it's pretty hard to find even moderately serious Korean students. To be fair, though, I'd say the proportion of truly serious, dedicated college students is about the same in both cultures. Most of us live out our lives having quietly resigned ourselves to normalcy, obscurity, and mediocrity.


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