SEOUL – Larry is a bad student. He habitually doesn’t do his homework, is constantly disruptive in class and swears at me in Korean.
He is the worst student I have had during my year of teaching English in South Korea. He’s also the smartest.
Larry (not his real name), 11, can ace every spelling contest, and understands the material much faster than the other students. If he put into his schoolwork one third of the effort he puts into his video games, he would easily be at the top of the class. But he’s one of those students to whom everything comes easy, so he can manage to misbehave and not fall too far behind.
Every teacher has taught lazy students. But Larry is different. In many ways he’s a casualty of the Korean education system.
In Korea – even more so than in America – an education is vital. Parents brag about grades, pay top dollar for after-school programs and stuff their kids’ lives with academic programs in the hope of gaining admittance to a good college. What college you get into can completely change your life in a country where income mobility is relatively static. Children fill their days with violin practice, English lessons and regular schoolwork in addition to usual kid stuff like taekwondo lessons and swimming. It sounds excessive but it pays off in the end; top Korean students often use American Ivy League institutions as safety schools.
I try not to get angry when Larry misbehaves because he has to do all of these things in addition to his regular schoolwork. Is it a stretch to say he’s tired and doesn’t want to focus? Many of my students are under a lot of pressure. Several have had nervous breakdowns during spelling tests. One boy was in tears because he was afraid his mother would find out about a B on a test. Larry once leapt out of his chair and started punching another student for no apparent reason. The teacher pulled him off. It turned out that his mother had taken away his cell phone earlier and he just snapped.
What can you do with a student like Larry? In America, he would have been expelled and sent to a juvenile treatment facility. That isn’t an option here. First and foremost, after-school programs are a for-profit business in Korea. Owners are resistant to kicking someone out and losing the income. But when a student terrorizes a classroom, life can be very stressful.
I’ve come to realize that sometimes there is no solution. Everyone knows a Larry – a terrible boss, a rude family member or an uncontrollable force that you just have to accept. The challenge is how you deal with it.
Different religions and philosophical traditions have developed strategies to deal with these circumstances; Catholics I know at St. Thomas find solace in prayer, while the Buddhists I’ve met here find peace in meditation. The happiest people are able to calm themselves and deal with issues on their own terms.
Larry has made me a better teacher than I would be without him. If I can control a class with a terrible, disruptive student in it, I can do anything. And maybe in the long run Larry will learn as much from me as I have from him.
Editor’s note: Ted Keyport graduated from St. Thomas in 2012 with a degree in English writing. He has completed a year teaching at an English hagwon (a for-profit school) in Seoul.
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