Having taught English in Korea now for three years I must say that I have learned a lot about myself and a lot about Korea. However, I have especially learned that there is a huge difference between where I come from and the Korean way of life. I’m from the United States and I am part of a generation that was tainted to a certain degree by a series of unfortunate events. My generation had to undergo Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombing, Jeffrey Dahmer and OJ Simpson. Our society is becoming less innocent and more terrorized and paranoid. So it’s quite obvious why a typical westerner coming over from my generation and generations thereafter might experience a somewhat difficult time adjusting not only to Korean society, but particularly the Korean education system. There is a vast difference in teaching western children and teaching Korean children.
There is a sense of innocence that still exists in Korean children that I think has been robbed from western children. Argumentatively because of the exposure to American society’s increasing crime rate and readily accessible information that may not be appropriate for children. Though Korea is modernizing more now than ever and globalization is playing a greater role in exposing children at a young age to sex, drugs, violence and corruption there’s an undertone of innocence that still exists among Korean children. With this said, there is one particular culture difference that I think is very important to address regarding western teachers and Korean students. This would be the level of open and reciprocated physical affection between teacher and student and teacher/student relationship dynamic. In western culture, again I can only speak for the United States, physical affection of any kind is discouraged and some teachers and authority figures have suffered serious consequences due to their inappropriate behavior.
Korean students (especially very young children) expect their teacher to be receptive of their physical expression of love for their teacher. This is often uncomfortable for western teachers. On the flip side, by no means is it okay to go around inappropriately touching and kissing your students! In Korea, however, there is a certain expectation that students have for their teachers. They expect that their teachers will receive their hugs, pat them on the shoulder and praise them when they’ve done well. Often times with my kindergarten students I would pat them on their heads or lightly pinch their cheeks while they were studying. This kind of affection is acceptable and in a way expected. Some students may feel that you don’t like them or care about them if you refrain from receiving their affection and meeting their expectations. For western teachers I know this is a challenge and a difficult balance to achieve. We have been taught to never touch other people’s children especially our students. Again, there is a line that should never be crossed with children, but often times even hagwon (private academies) and public school principals have complained that their western teachers don’t “care” about their students enough. Generally this means that “they lack physical affection” which in the Korean mind translates to “they lack compassion for their students”.