The following piece was written for an essay contest held by EPIK, my employer here in Korea. I decided to write about classroom management, the hardest part for me of teaching in a high school.
The new English teacher in Korea faces all kinds of issues in the classroom, from indifferent and tired students to indifferent and tired co-teachers. As someone who had never taught before, my first year was spent just learning how to plan effective lessons and find that elusive balance between education and entertainment. Hey, I like to have fun as much as my students. But one element had continued to elude me: classroom management. But, thanks to two new policies, I have been able to more fully manage my classes and teach more effectively.
I teach middle and high school boys in rural Gyeongsangbuk-do. My school is academically focused and for the most part I don't have many problems with the students. They are a lot more driven to succeed than I ever was at their age and they consistently impress me with their dedication and discipline—in other people's classes, at least. In many of my classes they were undisciplined and wild, seeing it as a time to cut loose, to let off some steam in the middle of a pressure cooker day that starts early in the morning and ends after midnight.
I sympathize with them, I really do. I could not imagine having to keep up the kind of academic pace they do. But I also did not fly half way around the world to be their punching bag. Don't get me wrong. I'm not the kind of teacher that requires absolute silence. I like a little chaos in the classroom; it keeps things interesting. But there's a level of respect that I expect and for the most part, it wasn't being met.
I should stress that this was only an issue in high school. My middle school classes are largely free of these kinds of issues, for a number of reasons. Co-teacher involvement plays a large part, I believe, and my middle school co-teacher is pretty strict. But it's also the students themselves. I work with these kids in after-school classes and they're respectful and pay attention, for the most part. But they're also not under the same kind of intense pressure that the high school students are, so there's less of a need to go wild.
After a few particularly bad high school classes, in which students were actually standing up and hitting each other while I was lecturing, I decided that I needed to make some changes. I first identified what I thought the problems were so that I could find solutions. The common factors among the problem classes were uninvolved co-teachers and a large number of class clowns. It was a bad ratio. Other classes might have a lot of clowns but an involved co-teacher was there to temper their behavior. In another class, the co-teacher might be out to lunch but the class was generally low maintenance. Another problem, I have to admit, was myself. I had been waiting for the co-teacher to discipline the students, or the students to work it out themselves, but this Zen approach only enabled their behavior. I at last came to the realization that there must always be a boss in the classroom. If it's not the teacher, it will be the students.
My first solution to becoming the boss was to implement a three strikes policy. Any time the class is goofing off and not listening to me, if students are standing or walking around, if students forget that this is indeed class time, I write an X on the board. I don't yell, I don't make a big fuss about it, I just write it. They know what it means and will do my policing for me: they will tell whoever is talking to be quiet. Should the class end up with three X's on the board, the entire class is punished. So far I've only had to punish one class and that involved everyone doing push-ups in the hall. Part of the punishment is that it's in a public space. They are embarrassed, and students in other classes know I'm serious about discipline.
The three strikes rule addresses the symptom, that being unfocused students, but not the sickness, as it were. Why are the students not motivated to pay attention in my classes? Because there's no specific academic reason to do so. They're not tested on the material I teach and it only marginally relates to their eventual college entrance exams. One reason the middle school classes pay attention is because I teach from the textbook, and the material covered is on their tests. But for high school I create my own lessons unrelated to the material in the textbooks. Unless they have an interest in English there's no reason for them to participate or even pay attention.
The obvious solution would be to make my class count academically, and this is just what I did. I approached my co-teachers and explained the situation as I saw it, and asked if they would mind if I contributed questions to the midterm and final exams. I had actually assumed that they would not be interested, that they would have asked me to do it already if they were. But to my surprise they loved the idea and even praised me for taking the initiative.
The change in my classrooms is like night and day. Between the three strikes rule and the test questions, the students are much more behaved. They're focused and contribute more to the class, even the class clowns. There's also a new and palpable level of respect towards me. I have become a real teacher in their eyes, not just the foreigner with the fun-time class. I feel more like a real teacher now as well, as what I say really counts in their lives. My teaching has become more academically oriented and I find myself explaining grammatical concepts more.
Of course, they're still teenage boys and are prone to getting out of control. After a few weeks of paying attention, they forget. But the occasional X on the board serves to remind them that my policy is still in place, and that I'm serious.
As my students have responded to my needs, so must I respond to theirs. I contributed questions to the recent midterm and they were universally regarded as "too difficult." Even the top students had trouble with them (and were none too pleased with me for causing their scores to be lower than usual). This is a learning experience for me as much as for them. I have told them that because we don't use a book in my class, they must take notes, and study them. But I have also made a concession to them: I will devote the last class before the test to review so they have an idea of what to study.
Also, my head co-teacher has informed me than my questions need to be in a format that is more like the other questions on the test, which are reading-based. I had a hard time agreeing to this. Why should form dictate content on a test? I don't teach a reading class so why should my questions be reading based? But we have come to an agreement. I will create dialogues for the test based on the lessons. The questions will be long and thus conform to what the principal expects. I still think it's silly but I am willing to conform to what my school requires.