In March this year I transferred employers and so I also had to transfer to a different high school. The high school I moved to is one of the most prestigious in Seoul, and as such I consider myself lucky to have some of the highest level students in Korea, they are motivated, polite, respectful and active in every class. They have mostly adapted to my teaching style well and seemed to have enjoyed the range of activities they have been provided with. There has, however, been one class that have not responded well, and over the eight weeks we have entered into a vicious circle of disrespect, disobedience and then punishment, which in turn has lead to more disrespect and so the circle continues. I’ve been reassured by my co-teachers that this isn’t something I should worry about, that my other 18 classes are really happy, that this particular class also has problems with all their other subjects and that their Korean English teacher had to change last year due to the stress of teaching them. I still, however, found myself leaving school every Tuesday with the feeling that not only was I failing the students, but I was failing them more and more every week as the cycle continued.
I decided this week I had to try and break this cycle, for my sake as much as the students. So I started thinking of how I could do this. My co-teachers had made some great suggestions, such as trying to bond with them more and develop rapport by either playing games for a class or taking them in a treat, but this just didn’t sit well with me as I strongly believe these are things that need to be earned, and I wanted to get beyond the carrot and stick approach. I eventually decided to have an intervention reflection style meeting with the students, I was going to ask them to reflect on the class and, in doing so, I hoped they would realise that despite how it seemed, they are just as important to me as all my other students. By treating them like the young adults they are (2nd grade high school) and giving them the respect that comes with this I was optimistic we could come together to reach a respectful agreement as to how we can move forwards as a class. I decided that no matter what complaints they made about the class and myself, I would respect them and neither disagree nor argue. If they told me, for example, they cannot complete activities as my instructions are not clear enough, I would not point out that much lower level 1st grade classes are able to understand the instructions and complete the activities, so why can’t they?! The questions I posed to the students were:
1) Respect – How can I respect them more? How can they respect me more? What would the result be?
2) Problems and Issues – What problems do they have, what are the solutions? What problems do they think I have, what are the solutions?
3) Moving Forwards – What can they achieve? How can we help each other to achieve it?
I removed all the tables and created a circle of chairs (see pic below) in order to encourage the students to get involved. I started off by asking them why they thought they were sat in a circle like this. The students very quickly figured out it was something to do with the problems we had been having in class.
We then moved onto respect, I asked them to think of two ways they thought I had been disrespectful to them and vice-versa. They came up with some interesting answers, from themselves they identified sleeping, not listening to instructions, being late for class, not doing homework and not taking the class seriously, from myself they felt I had not listened to them enough, that I take the class too seriously and that my classes were too ‘tight’. I was reasonably happy about this response, although I consider myself an extremely friendly and approachable teacher I think that in my attempts to correct the behaviour of this class I have become a bit more cold and stern towards them than I am in my than other classes. Regarding the ‘tight’ issue, I feel this is due to cultural expectations in the Korean education system of the role of the native English speaking ‘teacher’ as an entertainer, not an educator that takes their students learning very seriously. Something I try very strongly to disprove!
We then moved onto problems and issues. To begin with this descended into exactly what I didn’t want; the highlighting of problems (or more like excuses) that didn’t explain why they are the only class in the school that do not participate in lessons, such as not being able to understand instructions, that conversation class should just be for playing games and gaining their interest in English (this was what they meant by too ‘tight’), that they have to do too much writing and that the class is too hard. At this point I couldn’t keep to the rules I had set myself as I couldn’t resist pointing out that much lower level 1st grade boy classes complete the same lessons without any issues at all, and that by looking through the worksheets they actually contain hardly any writing at all. This was, however, the catalyst I needed, as once I said this one very brave young adult put his hand up and told me that the problem is none of the above, but that there are 7 or 8 trouble makers in the class that ruin the classes for everyone else, not only in English class, but in every subject, and that if we could deal with them, there would be no problems. He told me that the other students were tired of being punished because of the trouble makers and it was frustrating that my punishments focused on the class rather than the culprits themselves. He was absolutely right, in the class of 38 students a large minority were forcing me to lose my focus on the class as a whole, and this minority was big enough that class dynamics didn’t allow the others to put peer pressure on the trouble makers due to intimidation, and so punishing the whole class was completely ineffective. I then asked the class how they would like me to deal with this and suddenly 7 or 8 students became very quiet, while 30 others became very vocal. Unfortunately, their solutions mainly revolved around removing the 7 or 8 from the class or giving them physical punishments and, as far as I am concerned, if my students are not in class they are not learning and therefore I am failing them, and, well, physical punishment I certainly don’t agree with, so I had to reject their solutions. I did, however, promise the class that I would deal with this problem.
Was this intervention reflection style approach a success? I think that thanks to this one very brave student it was. Those 7 or 8 students that are ruining the experience for others now know that not only am I tired of their behaviour, but their class mates are too. If dealt with correctly, it will allow myself and the majority of the class to work together to produce a more positive learning atmosphere in the class, which in itself could help to focus those 7 or 8 students. It has allowed me to reflect on this vicious circle that resulted in me becoming more and more stern, and the effect this can have on students, it also allowed my students to reflect on why I may have become more and more stern. Most importantly the students can come into class next week knowing that I care about them and I can enter the class knowing the majority of them care about learning English.
This leaves me with one problem, what am I going to do about those 7 or 8 students? Any suggestions would be extremely welcome indeed! It has certainly left me with something to reflect upon for the next 7 days!
Please leave any suggestions/comments below, and don’t forget you can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh
Hello mate, great post and it’s made me think a bit about a nightmare class I have here in the UAE. Unfortunately their English level probably isn’t good enough for the intervention approach to work, but it’s a similar dynamic in terms of 6 or 7 students out of the 30 instigating the trouble; most of the rest are either trying to work or just lazy but not disruptive. Reading your blog and the posts above has made me think I’ve definitely been guilty of punishing the whole class the same instead of singling out the troublemakers. I’ll definitely give it a go and see if isolating the bad kids at the back and working with the rest has any effect.
Best of luck with your next class, and keep up the great work with the blog!