Faust, inspirations, and being a teacher in South Korea

This week I’ve been having mixed feelings about my chosen career as a teacher. On one hand I love teaching children and teenagers. I love to explain things to them and see the looks on their faces when they finally understand something. I enjoy taking time in each class to update them on worldwide events and not-so-useless information such as this. (Thanks Alina!) I really love it when I spark their imagination or curiosity and they keep coming back for more.

What I don’t love is the feeling of forcing it. I am not sure if this is the result of South Korean school system or just teenagers being teenagers. I have noticed that in South Korea children are not made to think too much. It starts in Elementary school where learning involves a lot of listening and repeating instead of actually doing, and continues to high school. In high school I see all the talking in the classroom done by the teachers. Students get talked at, they do exercises, they write tests. Almost never is there any kind of discussion or critical thinking involved. So when I come along and ask students to answer some questions or make a connection between two works of writing, or even just make a full sentence, they freak out. They don’t know what to do with themselves. They shut down, pout, and say that I am being too complicated or difficult. In fact, I am simply asking them to think…just a little bit.

Maybe the feeling of pulling teeth comes from the fact that I do teach teenage girls. Learning is the last thing on their minds. They want to check out their hair, they want to talk about pop music, and they even want to get a good score on their tests; they do not want to learn. (Getting good marks and learning don’t always go together.) I have taught children of all ages starting from kindergarten to high school. I have noticed that when kids are young they get excited to learn, and as they get older their enthusiasm dwindles. I believe a lot of it has to do with rewards, pressure, and competition. When children are in grade school they don’t think about their future and how much money they want to make. They learn because it’s fun. As they get older, they get told that it is time to think about their future, university, a job, a family. All this pressure is put on children and it sucks the joy out of learning. Now school becomes a tool to earn a living; not to discover.

Of course, there is also the idea that English class is not important. I am not sure why this is a fact in Korea. The government pays English speakers so much money to come and teach in Korean public schools yet neither the teachers, nor the students seem to appreciate us. As a direct result of this, most children do not pay attention in class, do not try, and do not care. Most teachers just let students do whatever; play games, sing songs, learn basic vocabulary. I want to teach my 16 year old girls something useful but when I try, it is always met with resistance. “No, teacher, we don’t do that in English class. Let’s watch an English movie with Korean subtitles instead.”

What a great English class.  

I just want to say “Too bad, kid, this is my class-my rules.” Sometimes I do.

Other Korean teachers don’t help either. Many of them write everything off as a “cultural difference.” While I do understand that there are differences between western and eastern ways of learning, I am not trying to change that. I just want to make sure that schools don’t produce a bunch of robots. How can we function as a global society when nobody is trained to think?

I try not to think about the negatives and keep pushing my girls to think critically every day.

Last week I asked the students to write about something that inspires them. Most of them talked about members of their family or pop stars but the two girls below really stood out.

I also mentioned in this post that I asked the girls to write a paragraph answering this question:

Would you sell your soul to the devil? If not, explain why. If yes, what would you ask for?

This was an interesting experiment. While my higher level girls mostly answered with no, the lower level girls answered with yes. The higher girls mostly said that they want to achieve everything on their own and that their soul is their own and precious. They also agreed that no riches or power is worth g iving up their independence. Interesting, considering that most teenagers love to follow trends, rather than lead.

The lower level girls mostly answered that they would sell their soul and asked for regular things such as riches, power, and love. Also, many of them mentioned they just want an ordinary life.

I wonder if it is because higher level girls get told that they can achieve greater things in life, and lower level girls get told that they cannot.

What do you think?

There are also unbelievable moments when I am so glad I am not stuck in some boring office looking at sales stats. These are dances that the girls coordinated themselves, without any help from the teachers. They performed during Sports Day. Here are two of my favorites. The commentary is provided by the school’s Catholic Sister. She just keeps saying that they look beautiful. I should also mention that the Sister is one of the most interesting people I have ever met.  More on that later.

And this one.

If you are a teacher, do you have any advice about how to get out of the rut of feeling unappreciated?

I think for now I am definitely staying put with the whole teaching thing but who knows, maybe one day I will write a fantastic vegan cook book, become rich, famous, sell my soul to the Devil and live happily ever after…

Today I wish you love and respect,


Leave a comment


  1. Brad

     /  May 17, 2012

    A few years back I posed this one to my middle school girls:

    Which would you rather be:
    – very beautiful but unhappy
    – average-looking but happy

    Every girl answered “beautiful but unhappy.” I asked why being beautiful matters if you’re still unhappy. They all said “No, I would be beautiful so I would be happy.” I explained again that the terms are that they are beautiful but unhappy – nothing else. They were adamant: “NO, if I’m beautiful then I’m happy.”

    The entire debate couldn’t really get into full gear because I just couldn’t make them comprehend that within this scenario, beauty equals an unhappy life and being average-looking wouldn’t matter because they’d be happy. They just couldn’t grasp that concept, no matter how much a reiterated that those are the RULES. “No no, I would be sad if I was ugly.”

    It was something else, I tell you. Try it out.

    • Wowza! I will try this. I can just see how this will go as described above in the low level class. They are separated by their English level so why is it that low lever ESL kids think that way but not higher level kids? Hmmm.

  2. Alina

     /  May 17, 2012

    This is all fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing. And I’m glad I could contribute to the awesome work you’re doing, even if in a little tiny way :) I think it’s important and so awesome of you to make them think – even if you change one girl’s life, it’s an amazing achievement. Even if they don’t understand why it’s important, in the globalization, I bet it will give her a legup in the future.

    the dances are fascinating – can’t grasp how you can coordinate so well, and without a supervisor either! amazing.

    The girls’ English is pretty great. Do you manage to speak in English to everyone? Have you had to learn much Korean?

    • Those girls are high level girls so they are pretty much fluent. The school discourages us to speak Korean with them. I used to throw a few Korean words when I taught elementary school but now I have no need. Thanks for such support :) It’s so easy to feel unimportant when a classroom full of teenagers think you’re strange.


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