Korean academies must be strict. The stricter, the better. And homework must be done.
It doesn’t matter if the student, a kid in their early-teens, remember, hardly got any sleep last night because they were studying for exams after a long day at school and academies. It doesn’t matter that they were lucky to spend eight hours at home last night. It doesn’t matter that they are dealing with the crisis of puberty, issues with friends, and parental, social, and internal pressure to get 100% or A++. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.
Homework must be done, and it must be done at home.
How to ensure a student toes the line?
“Get the stick.”
Over my first month here, it slowly dawned on me what exactly this phrase meant.
A student would come into my classroom and say, “Teacher can I have the stick?”
Depending on the student, intonation and facial expressions varied when asking this question. Sometimes they would have a look of amusement, especially if they were an older student coming into a classroom full of younger children. Sometimes they would have a look of fear. My students would react to this request with a hush or a classroom wide, “OOoooOOO.”
Perhaps because I wanted to stay in my bubble of ignorant bliss, or because I was simply in denial, I did not ask my students what happened with this stick. In fact, I naively though perhaps it was used as a pointer.
It was harder to ignore when a student would come to class without books or homework and other students would say, “Teacher hit.” In fact, they seemed almost excited about seeing one of their classmates be punished in this way.
After two or three different incidences, I had pieced it together but remained in denial. I hadn’t seen it happen. I hadn’t asked my coworkers, who are all Korean, what they use the sticks for. It could be that it was just an empty threat.
The final shred of evidence came when I read a student’s diary. He wrote, “I went to Academy. That's homework, so much, so I couldn't finish everything. So my teacher hit me. My hands was so hurt, so I rub[bed] my hands, and bl[ew on] my hands. I did my homework to finish Academy and came home.”
I could no longer deny it. My coworkers use corporal punishment.
Since the day it dawned on me that teachers were hitting students, my philosophy has been, “Ok, it happens at my school. Students get hit, but I will not participate.”
Usually I hold the idea that a bystander who lets things happen might as well be doing the action, but I’ve thrown myself into a new culture. As a lone foreigner, with “weird” ideas, I’m not sure I could make much of an impact, and I feel like I would struggle not to be seen as the judgmental Westerner who thinks they can tell people what to do.
I am rationalizing.
I have never asked my coworkers about hitting students.
I’ve heard they don’t hit hard.
A coworker said to me once, when she found a metal ruler and hit it against her hand, “Oh. Sounds good.” The emphasis being on sound, not feeling.
Friday night, in a bizarre turn of events where we didn’t end up at Noribong at 4 in the morning after dinner together, my coworkers spoke in Korean about it. I wish I understood what they had said because in the middle of conversation about students and school, the teachers started emulating children about to get their hands slapped. Students who quiver in fear. Students who try to move their hands away at the last minute. Because I cannot be sure exactly what they were saying, perhaps what I saw as black humor was just the need to make light of a horrid situation.
Regardless how I feel about hitting students and how shocked I was by my coworkers’ humor, the attitude that it’s acceptable seems fairly prevalent in Korea. If a student doesn’t do their homework, get the stick. If a student cheats, get the stick. If a student happens to get a little out of hand, get the stick. The best I can do is tell my students that I won’t hit them, not hit them, and hopefully, eventually, over soju and beer, talk to my coworkers about this policy and the philosophy behind it.