Big Mother Is Watching You

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Back in the USA, my classroom was very much like an impenetrable fortress.  I think “fortress” is the right word here.  Remember when Pat Buchanan nicknamed his foreign policy “Fortress America”?  He meant that the country would close its borders and return to a doctrine of isolationism.  That’s exactly what my classroom was like.  Fortress Classroom.  The door was always shut, only rarely did anyone come in to observe what was happening, and my students, for the most part, didn’t even talk to their parents about what went on in class.  In other words, the only people who had a very strong idea concerning what was going on in my classroom were me and the students.  What happened in Mr. Panara’s classroom, stayed in Mr. Panara’s classroom.

Don’t get too excited.  “What happened” in Mr. Panara’s classroom was typically English lessons, so scratch me off your list of possible bachelor party locations.

Most of the other classrooms were like this too.  I used to tell new teachers one bit of advice: never (well, in extreme circumstances yes, but otherwise never) write administrative referrals on students.  The administration encouraged teachers to fill out a form which would refer students to them for disciplinary reasons, but in truth, teachers who wrote a lot of administrative referrals were viewed as being unable to handle their classes.  It was a sign of weakness.  Conversely, a teacher could have a complete madhouse going on behind that closed door, and as long as that teacher didn’t start writing referrals, the school’s administration would go on thinking everything was fine and dandy.  Sadly, I suppose, that was the preferable option.  Teachers who went to the admins seeking help with their classes often wound up being the ones on action plans and under tight scrutiny.  Teachers who shut up got to keep teaching their hell classes without anyone breathing down their necks.

As I mentioned before, at the school where I taught, parent involvement was pretty minimal.  Most of the time, when I called parents, they were in the dark about what was happening with their kid’s education.  Trying to set up a parent/teacher conference was as difficult as trying to get Lennon and McCarthy to sit down and discuss reuniting The Beatles.  And I don’t mean in 1975.  I mean now.

By my last year teaching at my high school in Charlotte, NC, technology was altering the “Fortress Classroom” reality, albeit only slightly.  Cell phones, and their ability to record things, absolutely made teachers more aware of what they and their students were saying and doing.  Nobody wanted to end up on YouTube with the title “Teacher Meltdown” or “Dance War in Science Class.”  Also, teachers were required to keep an electronic grade book, so parents could log into a website anytime and check out their kid’s grade.  The Internet changed things too.   Websites like “Rate My Teacher,” where students can go and give teachers a number rating and leave comments, starting popping up.  Just as with other aspects of life, technology and the Internet was taking what used to be a closed door and cracking it open a little.

None of that, however, compares even slightly to what teaching at a hakwon in South Korea is like.  In America, people on the outside are peeking into the classroom only slightly.  Here, they’ve got both eyes firmly planted on you as though you’re on The Real World: Classroom Edition.  To illustrate, I will provide a helpful bulleted list:

  • In America, the classroom is typically a closed box.  The windows only teasingly expose the sun and the beautiful land the children are not allowed to enjoy until the final bell rings.  At my school in Korea, there is no view of the outside world and the fourth wall to my classroom – the one facing the hallway – is one giant sheet of glass.  Anybody can see in at any time.  In addition to this, anybody walking down the hallway inevitably captures the students’ attention and throws them off task.  This happens about once every 10-15 seconds.
  • In my classroom in Korea (where mothers typically don’t work), there is a CCTV camera.  If you’re unfamiliar with CCTV, it basically means that there’s a surveillance camera in the classroom.  The front office has a big flat screen television where there is a live feed from all the classrooms.  Often times, I’ll pass by the front office and see a few mothers sitting in there, watching.
  • The kids in Korea tend to tell their parents everything that happens.  Pretty regularly, I have some mother call the school to complain.  The biggest complaints are that I give the kids too much free time (like 5 mins at the end every other class) or that some kid swore in Korean during class.  This makes me look bad.  Not because the kids are not working on English, but because one would think I would’ve learned the Korean curse words by now.
  • Every five months or so, teachers are required to do “open classes,” where the mothers come in and literally join the class.  They typically sit there tight-lipped and stone faced, as though they’re watching the Kony video or that Adam Sandler movie where he played his own sister.

I wonder if this is an improvement over what I formerly had.  I remember the countless meetings where we tried to come up with ways to increase parental involvement. Now, I’ve got parental involvement.  In fact, I have so much parental involvement, the mothers have unlimited access to the classroom.  And you know what?  I don’t think it’s helping much of anything.  It’s got me thinking, though, and questioning how open a classroom should be.

Maybe not a fortress, and maybe not a glass house.  I do believe there needs to be some sense of privacy for a classroom to come to life, and I also think poor teachers are able to hide in the dark for too long.  I’m sure that we’ll see how accessible the classroom becomes.  The possibilities, I suppose, are endless, if you have time and a computer.

Want to know what your child did in school today?  Click ‘Download.’

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16 thoughts on “Big Mother Is Watching You

  1. That’s a really interesting idea with the “open classroom” concept. I know that’s not your point, but I think that could be terrifying, but interesting. Far more entertaining than an Adam Sandler movie, certainly.

    • Yeah, I kind of dig it. The mothers are so serious but they say really nice stuff afterwards. I think the US should do something similar to that. Instead of Open Class, it could be called Embarrass the Hell Out of Your Kid Class.

      Thanks Byron! Keep up the great stuff on your blog.

  2. hmm i think it’s just right for parents to know what their kids do in school but they shouldn’t have too much access. it ruins the authority teachers have every time a parent comes and complains. the students might act differently too which i think will hamper growth.
    you really should learn the cuss words you know. it’s one of the vital things you should know when you’re in another country to avoid smiling at someone who has the tendency to be rude.

    • Very well put, Isabella. In fact, when I was writing this, I had a hard time articulating why exactly too much access is a problem, but you hit the nail on the head. It absolutely gives the kids a bit too much power and control; one would think they would be at just as big a disadvantage, as their bad behavior would be on display, but no one really cares about that and it’s the teacher who ends up the subject of constant criticism.

      I’m trying to learn the curse words, but they make no sense to me. I asked a Korean girl to teach me a curse once. She did and I asked her what the curse she taught me meant. She said it meant “I’ll cut your dick off.” That’s not a curse. It’s a whole sentence with a crazy threat in it. So until the curses get dumbed down for me, it’s a bit too much to handle.

      • constant criticism will always be the problem because the kids will use the teacher’s disadvantage to suit their purpose. on their minds will be: teacher’s going to get scolded coz he’s being lax, can’t control me or he’s going to get scolded juz because :P
        hahaha ask a guy for the curse words. once you get the basics it’s easy to detect the rest. you don’t really need to speak it you just have to learn how it sounds.

  3. What an interesting contrast between the educational system here and the one in Korea!In Africa, I remember we had a an opening, with no door, and maybe two windows. When it came to parent-teacher meetings, everything the teacher said was “law.” If your parents hear in front of other parents how undisciplined you were in class, then you were sure to get some whooping when they came back. This is totally different from both countries… I am not sad I graduated high school.

  4. Are you intimidated? I would be. I mean…. Asian moms…. U_U

    I’ve got an Asian Mom.

    I had to memorize 100 English words everyday when I was 6 or 7, including their past tenses. If I got one answer wrong, she’d say, “ALRIGHT, AGAIN ! FROM THE TOP !” Bring ! Response…. brought….. Fly ! … Response… Flew…. That’s how I also managed to memorize the Multiplacation Table in 1st grade. * immigrated to the US when I was 7*

    • Ren! I’m so happy you’re alive! I was thinking about emailing you to check up. When someone disappears, it means either death or you got a boyfriend. I was hoping for the latter.

      Anyways, your mom sounds kick ass. In a demanding kind of way. 100 new words a day? I mean, she did a good job, as you’re obviously really fluent, better than a lot of people for whom English is their first language.

      There’s a phrase here regarding how mother driven education is. It’s like “The Wind of the Skirts” or something like that. Want to know why Korea is doing so well for itself despite not having many resources? Asian moms, that’s why.

  5. Definitely not for the anxiety-ridden. One would freak out having Korean mothers stare you down. You must provide quality education to the future of Korea! I don’t think it is overkill, though. The way things are now with the education system in America, it would be beneficial to have CCTVs in the classroom. It may bring teachers up to task as well as monitoring wild students.

    • I wonder how American parents would feel about CCTV in the classroom. I think a lot of parents would be uncomfortable with it. I personally wouldn’t mind it. It would really shake things up, and that would be fun. : )

  6. Oh god! Helicopter parents!

    The head office of the hagwon chain I work for comes and films us teaching occasionally, which I can sort of see the logic in, but I don’t understand the moms recording or snapping photos during open class. It makes me so nervous–is it to preserve a moment, to use to criticize me, criticize the kids, or a combination of all those things? Ack!

    • Hi Alexa! It’s sort of like being in a relationship. I suppose my girlfriend could check my email, web history, text record, etc. to see if I’m being a good boy, and technically I shouldn’t have a problem with it, cause as long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to (or not doing what I’m not supposed to do), I come out fine. Yet, I would really dislike that. I think in a relationship and in teaching, there’s a lovely comfort that comes from trust, and maybe it would do a teacher good to have the trust of the administration and of the parents. Just a thought.

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