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.
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