Navigating the Teacher – Student Relationship in Korea (Part 1)

Amanda Segal, an expat and world traveler, gives her thoughts and experiences of navigating the teacher – student relationship in South Korea.

Culture shock and cultural curiosities often come together. Regardless of the reaction, it’s always good to hear from someone who’s been there before. Originally from Glen Ridge, New Jersey, Amanda is currently living in small town South Korea teaching English to high school students. While not representing the Western world, she enjoys making people laugh, going on spontaneous trips, taking long walks to new places, and going to the movies just to eat the popcorn. She blogs at:

The Arrival Store - Amanda SegalGrowing up it was hard to imagine my teachers having lives outside of the classroom. Running into a high school teacher on the street was usually awkward for both parties involved, like two parallel universes accidentally crossing. Aside from the token “cool teacher” with whom I might occasionally have a personal conversation, I treated my teachers as distant authority figures and engaged with them through formal interactions.

Though some students back home had closer relationships with their teachers, many of the interactions that comprise the teacher-student relationship in Korea would be grounds for dismissal in the States. I do not say this (or anything else) to pass judgment, but I want to emphasize the level of difference in accepted teacher-student interactions. Teachers in Korea are much more like parents. Touching, texting, playing, and even corporal punishments, are all a daily part of Korean school life.

I don’t just mean hugging or patting. Teachers in Korea will shake, pick up, and even hit their students, no matter what their age. Corporal punishments were only recently made illegal in public schools. Many teachers, especially of the older generation, will still hit (somewhat gently) their students on the back of the head when they are falling asleep in class. Teachers also give physical punishments like standing in a corner. One time my co-teacher made a student repeatedly lift a fire extinguisher like he was lifting weights.

On very rare occasions, I’ve heard of students getting into physical fights with their teachers. If you witness something like this, it will surely be uncomfortable but it’s best to stay out of it. Schools deal with severe punishments much differently in Korea. There is no such thing as detention. It is an absurd concept to them that that one’s punishment for wrong doing is simply doing nothing (it does seem a little backwards the more you think about it huh?). Harsher punishments vary. At my school for example, really bad students will have to do community service at a nursing home.

When it comes to teaching in any classroom, you will gain the student’s respect if you are composed and know (or at least act like you know) what you’re doing. Although it’s tempting to be the “cool teacher” and level with your students, it’s hard to get back control once your students begin to view you as a peer rather than an authority figure. Luckily though, since hierarchy is highly valued in Korean culture, students tend to be respectful regardless, and the fact that you’re a foreigner will certainly make them interested in getting to know you. As I also mentioned in my previous post, students will get to know you by asking personal questions such as “How old are you?”, “Are you married?”, etc.

Of course you can answer these questions and more, but don’t be afraid to be clear about where your boundaries are in general. I know foreign teachers whose students will call their cell phones after school to ask about homework, meeting up for extra practice, etc. I sometimes eat lunch and take walks with a foreign student who is having a hard time at my school. Where you draw the line still means using common sense, but such interactions between students and teachers that might be frowned upon in the States are not unusual in Korea.

Click here to read Part II