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Discipline in the Korean Classroom

Discipline in the Korean Classroom
John Morgan - Sep 05 2015

My name is John Morgan and I taught English for 13 years at Hanyang University in Seoul. I currently work as a recruiter hiring teachers for school positions in Korea. I loved living and teaching in Korea and I hope through these blog posts to offer some advice to new teachers on working and living in Korea so that they may get the most out of their experience.

If you are an inexperienced teacher or you are just a bit of a wimp like me, one area that you may have difficulty with is classroom control and maintaining discipline in the classroom. Many teachers come to Korea completely unprepared for what they see in the classroom (examples below). The image that you might have of Asian students sitting quietly in rows is a notion that you might like to get out your head before arriving in Korea because in my experience that isn”t likely to happen. You are going to encounter unruly classes.

My first day teaching in Korea would have to go down as one of the worst teaching days I have ever had. As I entered the classroom there were 12 grade 1 students running around screaming and wrestling on the carpet. I spent the first 20 minutes of a 40 minute class trying (and failing miserably) to get the students to sit on the carpet. Kids kept getting up and wandering around the room. But the worst was when I was first introduced to the “Dungjjim”. I had turned to write something on the whiteboard and had just starting writing when I felt a sharp pain in my bottom. For those that do not know, a “Dungjjim” is when someone comes up behind you and sticks their finger in your buttocks. Yes, you read that correctly. Needless to say I quickly learned that teaching kids was a lot like avoiding a tidal wave – never turn your back on them.

I spent the first few months of my teaching career in Korea struggling with classroom control and how to get the kids to do what I want. I”m not afraid to admit that discipline and classroom control are not my strong points when it comes to teaching as these never came up during my teacher training. No one had ever mentioned what to do if a student keep hiding under the table. This really ended up affecting the classroom teaching, as you might imagine, because I was spending a big chunk of the class trying to control the students (and failing at it) instead of teaching them.

Before exploring some suggestions of how to handle these situations, it might be worthwhile to mention why classes seem to be like this. There are several explanations I think. The first explanation is that these kids do a lot of school hours and they simply don”t have enough time to be kids. They are shuttled around to extra programs after their school and they don”t have enough time to goof off as kids tend to do. As such, they see the English classes as a bit of an opportunity to horse around. The second explanation is that the students view their foreign teachers much differently than their Korean counterparts and as such are less intimidated by them. The last reason is that in some cases teachers are not supported in trying to maintain class control by their school. On one occasion when I attempted to remove a student that was unruly, which is putting it mildly since he was running around the room with everyone else”s textbooks that he grabbed and ran away, he was put back in the class again. When I tried to remove him again, he was sent back in. Students could not be removed from the class because I was told that would anger the parents. So removing students for a “time out” was not an option. I had to find other options to keep classes under control.

With that in mind, I worked at it and I would suggest the following for improving your classroom control.

1. Never get angry

Most important rule. If you find yourself getting angry with a student, step back. Never get angry should be your guiding principle. It helps to know that when students are being unruly and are out of control in the classroom, it”s not personal and you should not take it as such. These kids aren”t misbehaving because of you, they would try the same for other teachers. Also, in many cases, an angry reaction is what the students are looking for – they find it amusing that they can get under the skin of their teacher.

I tell every teacher I work with, if you ever find yourself getting angry remember that it is not personal. If necessary excuse yourself for 30 seconds and collect yourself.

2. Find a motivational plan for your students

Sometimes the simplest things worked. For me, I made a weekly chart of all of the students in the class and how they were progressing during that week. Students were rewarded with stars for finishing their work and behaving in class. Stars were taken away when students misbehaved or didn”t do their homework. At the end of the week, students were allowed to pick something from my treasure chest, a small container that I had that was full of small toys and stickers that I picked up at my neighborhood stationary store. This plan by far was the most successful idea I had. Students got really upset at the end of the week if other students received a prize for their work and they didn”t. It sometimes resulted in a few tears, but in the following weeks students remembered about receiving this prize at the end of the week.

Another teacher that I worked with made fun certificates on their computer for the students and adorned them with stickers. Certificates that said things like “Great job” or “Terrific work this week”.

Also, set some weekly goals for your students and reward them for meeting their goals. Sometimes a “reward” could be something simple like a sticker or a “good job” certificate. I am a big advocate of goal setting with students as I feel that when students have a clear goal in mind and something to work towards, they are much more likely to stay on task.

I have been told by some teachers that these kinds of plans don”t work for them, but in my experience these ideas really helped with my problems with classroom management. Students starting behaving better as they knew there was a reward for their positive behavior (and consequences for their negative behavior).

3. Share ideas with your fellow teachers

If you have an idea that works with your classes to control them better, share it with other teachers. I”ve worked with some teachers who were great about sharing ideas, but I also worked with teachers who refused to ever share any ideas with other teachers. One of your co-workers may have a great suggestion for how to effectively control the class and you shouldn”t feel afraid to ask. I would ask teachers ”Do you have any suggestions as to how I can control the students better?” “How do you handle it when students                                  ?” Classroom teaching is much more effective when teachers collaborate and share ideas.

You may also find it helpful to read up on some books on classroom control before going to Korea. There are a lot of books out there covering this topic and in my opinion, it is a great idea to read up on this before you begin teaching. Because chances are classroom discipline and control are issues that come up, likely very early, in your teaching career in Korea.

4. Every teacher deals with this

Related to the first point about not getting angry (which I think bears repeating) is the idea that when students are behaving badly, it is not something that you have done. I have seen far too many teachers take it personally when students won”t do as they ask and they shouldn”t because these kids are going to try the same behaviors with any teacher. Once you accept this thought, you can move on from feeling frustrated and angry about the lack of control and focus your energy on working on a solution. Because building on the first point (Never get angry), you are going to find it next-to-impossible to find ways to control your class if you are angry. You need to be in control of yourself and your own emotions if you want to gain control of the class.

If you are a bit of a classroom wimp, like me, discipline and control will be areas of difficulty in your teaching. I struggled with this for the first few months I was in Korea and as such my classroom teaching was not very effective. A lot of hours were lost simply trying to keep the class under control. If experience has taught me anything, it is that classes need to be under control and on task to be effective. If you find yourself spending more time trying to control the class than teaching them anything, the students are simply not going to learn.

Have a great tip for classroom management that works? Share it in the comments section and help out your fellow teachers.


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