Thursday, 1 July 2010

Sicks and Sticks

I'm all for cultural sensitivity. In fact, after having lived in three very different countries in my lifetime, I can say that giving people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their traditions and customs comes quite naturally to me.

However, an incident at my workplace earlier this week made me seriously call some of these so called 'cultural norms' into question.

It seems that in Korea, teachers are revered as higher powers. They take the role of parents while at school, monitoring students' behaviours, grades and habits. And by the same token, these students can approach the teachers and make similar requests of them as they would with their parents. They run the gamut from "Teacher, can you buy me lunch?" to "Teacher, give me your phone number so I can call you when I have problems."

While the teachers help guide these teens down the right path, preparing them for high school and university, they are also given a lot of power -- especially when it comes to discipline.

I was well aware when I first moved here that punishments involving hitting the students were not only practiced, but condoned. I owned it up to the fact that this was part of their culture -- a tried a true method that no one seemed to question. Having lived in India for the first part of my life, I realized this was the norm within a lot of eastern countries. As a child, I too was on the receiving end of many flying sticks, rulers, and sometimes, even my own compass case. Again, I chalked it up to the values and discipline methods of that society. And I would keep this in mind as I'd sit in the teachers room at my job in Korea.

From what I've noticed there seems to be one main disciplinarian at my school. He's an older man, who sits at the opposite end of the staffroom from me. He's respected by the staff (despite many not liking him), because of the years he's devoted to this school. Even though a lot of people tend to question his practices (as noted during numerous school lunches with the female teachers), no one dares to say anything to him for two reasons: first, he's a man, and second, he's got tenure.

On any given day, this teacher uses his stick about a dozen times at least. It seems like the punishment for arriving late at school is the same as the one students receive if they're caught cheating on a test -- a brutal beating on their knuckles and calf muscles, for as long as the teacher deems fit.

I never condoned this form of punishment, nor will I ever. I believe there are other ways to get through troubled students and teenagers, without resorting to physical violence. There should be degrees of punishment, and a student who arrives late shouldn't have to pay the same price as a student caught smoking on school property. Apparently I'm the only teacher who thinks this way at my work.

I suppose I'm wondering where's the line between cultural norms and corporal punishment? How far is too far, and at what point do the people witnessing this say, "enough is enough!"?

On this particular day the teacher had made his way across the staffroom and proceeded to lay into a couple of students just two feet behind me. I couldn't help but wince and shudder every time the stick made contact with their skin. The sound was unbearable and I couldn't even turn around. I just sat there, crippled, as he took turns with each of them. From my understanding he had caught them cheating on a test, and had brought them to the staffroom to be punished. At one point I heard a crack, and I realized that the man had actually managed to break the stick on one of the students.

As this unfolded, a few teachers mulling around the busy staffroom looked at me apologetically. One young, male teacher even came up and said, "You think this is wrong, I know. I am sorry...". However, not a single teacher, male or female, stepped up and said, "Enough!"

I should state here, that I've seen some of the female teachers hit the students as well. Bearing in mind that I work at a girls middle school, this seems less brutal than what usually transpires with that one male teacher. The female teachers are maternal, and discipline coming from them stems from a place of concern and worry. Their punishments involve things like kneeling in the staffroom with their hands in the air, or cleaning the classrooms after hours. And sometimes, a single, well-placed slap for the ones caught messing up time after time is also quite possible.

But no one ever resorts to what this man does. And it's apparent that none of the teachers agree with it. Yet, in the entire time I've been here, no one has said a word.

So, I understand it's a cultural thing. I've brought this issue up with friends who've said it's part of Korean society and that I need to learn to be OK with it. So why is it that I can't? I've seen both sides of the coin - studying in India and experiencing teachers hitting students for failing tests; and studying in Canada, where a mere misplaced look from a teacher can mean lawsuits and parental wrath.

What is it about Korea's patriarchal society that allows such behaviour to be considered the norm? It's not normal... it's archaic and vicious. Especially when it's a man doing this at an all girls school. And the fact that it's a society where people know it's wrong and still feel they can't say anything? Well, that says something. If Korea hopes to be a global leader in the 21st century, they really need to start looking at some of the things they deem as 'normal'.

I know a lot of you will have something to say about this post, so please feel free. I'd love to know your thoughts on the matter, so I'm opening the topic up for discussion. How far is too far when it comes to disciplining students in schools?



  1. -- coincidentally, that fits in with my blog entry today as well.

    In my case, it was a teacher kicking a student 10 years ago.

  2. interestingly enough...Korea wasn't always a patriarchal was with the introduction of Buddhism where many years of women in leadership and power were overturned... Often though, it is the older practices that often are winced at..and something does need to be said...but then again it depends on the individual, the school, environment. I do agree that that teacher is overstepping himself...but then again, no one will ever really know until they talk with him (if that is possible to have an actual discussion).


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