By Shannon Noni Selis
At some point in my life I said I wanted to be a teacher. This was probably inspired by some of the wonderful teachers I had growing up. And then not too long later I said I would never be a teacher. This may have been inspired by teachers I had later in life. It could have been because I saw how horrible kids can be, as I got older. It may also have had to do with the low pay. At any rate, I said ‘Screw you’ to teaching and became a massage therapist. Over many years I took aptitude tests and they often stated my ‘ideal’ occupation is … teacher. Of course. Well, I wanted to leave the US and the easiest way to do that is with a job as a TEFL teacher. And here I am.
I spent April 2012-2013 teaching at a private bilingual school and an after-school academy in southern Thailand. The private school had me teaching eighteen 5thgraders and nineteen 3rd graders. In the after school program I was teaching mixed ages based on their English abilities. The younger class was between ages 4-7. The older class consisted of 8-12 year olds. The third graders in the bilingual school were great. We had fun. We got all of the work finished. AND they were able to learn songs by Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and other fun artists. My managers praised me for having amazing classroom management. My students did their homework. We could joke around a little bit. They even Skyped with my friends from back home. But I yelled occasionally. I’m short and often a pushover. But I can get loud (thank you theater teacher). I can get scary loud. If I have to raise my voice, I don’t get attention – I COMMAND attention. And the point is made that someone has done something wrong or made me upset somehow. Then I talk in my normal voice and everything continues as expected.
My older students weren’t as great as the younger students. These little darlings didn’t do homework, refused to speak in English, fought each other, tore my homework and test papers, said explicit words, and were generally naughty. The director of the school had to talk to them on several occasions. Parents came in because their students were getting bad reports and they wanted to know why. Of course the camera in the back of the class captured the horrible behavior of the students. Parents came in apologizing on behalf of their kids. So I wasn’t a mean teacher? Oh thank goodness. However, after the first semester, I was switched from teaching 18 5th graders to 32 2nd graders. And I had never wanted to drink more after a class. I won’t even go there.
My biggest criticism from my management that year was that I didn’t smile enough in class. I was strict and they liked that but I needed to have more fun with the students. I responded that when the students did their work and were not ‘little darlings’ then we had fun. We played games and I taught them how to sing and moonwalk. I left feeling a bit more confident as a teacher.
Now I teach in South Korea. The land where students have better English speaking abilities than some native speakers I know. I don’t teach a few different classes: I teach 7 different classes. The youngest I teach are 3rd or 4th grade and the oldest are in 7th or 8th at a private academy. These kids are in school until 10pm. I teach elementary and middle school students. The elementary students are brilliant. Yes, they have a long way to go grammatically but they are creative and attentive and are always doing their work. It’s a pleasure to teach them. Yes, I do get loud still. I have strict classroom rules and I stick to them. I let them see the fun side of me though. I make funny voices or draw silly pictures. But the work is done and the classroom is always in order.
The middle school students have been a totally different story. They have the same rules.
1. English only please. No Korean unless you ask for permission/if communication is so difficult you HAVE to translate
2. Finish homework before class starts. Come prepared.
3. No writing on the desks.
4. No cell phones in class
Those are basic rules that every classroom (anywhere in the world) has. The difference is that I apply the rules in my class. The other teachers are way more lax about it. The middle school students are at THAT age. The age of rebellion. The age of snide comments. The age where ‘asshole’ is a new personality trait they MUST explore. I get it. I’ve been there. But I’m an adult and I know better now. And I don’t accept the bullshit like the other teachers do. I have replaced a few teachers who were the ‘let’s watch videos’ type. I make my students do their work…especially after they missed a month of class due to exams. Have I raised my voice in class? Yes. Of course I have. When they talk in Korean and cheat on tests and don’t turn in homework, I get annoyed. I approach the class nicely to start and when they continue to steamroll over that, I break out the scary loud voice.
Recently, a couple of teachers have come to me asking if everything was okay. I stated yes, other than the few students who were disruptive or unprepared in class. Apparently parents are calling complaining that their students want to quit because the loud foreign teacher is mean. MEAN? Me? Yes I can be mean but never to a student and never in a school setting. Strict? Absolutely. “And that is why I hired you,” said my director, “I have your back. I am on your side. But the students must not quit.” Oh I get it. Well, why haven’t the parents come in to see me if their child is complaining? I’ll put 20,000won down that they didn’t realize their child never comes to class with homework done. Or that their child writes bad words on the desk in Korean with my name next to it. Or that their child does not even answer a simple yes or no question when called upon.
I have sat down with the middle school students and had a ‘heart to heart’ with them. I have explained my methods and my reasoning for my frustration. They even offered why I have yelled. They know they’re in the wrong. I know I could be ‘easier’ on them. Am I a mean teacher I asked? “No” they said. Except the one student who wants to watch soccer videos instead of answering the one question I assigned for homework.
I’m a strict teacher. I’m not an evil teacher. Maybe I am the scary teacher. But I’m one of the best teachers. When I asked the many teacher forums if I am a mean teacher, their response was yes: MEAN – Making Excellence a Necessity.
I’m cool with that.
Shannon Selis is an English teacher and massage therapist currently frequenting South Korean karaoke bars. When she’s not teaching, singing show tunes, or mastering recipes, she shares her experiences at wittylmt and Another Food Thing.