Big Mother Is Watching You


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.’



We Mutilated Our Son…Have Some Chicken


Last week, Leah called me into the main office because a parent had brought fried chicken for the teachers at our school to enjoy.  I was pumped.  I would gladly work overtime or take a pay cut for fried chicken, so this was really like a dream come true.  Apparently the kid’s father worked at the fried chicken joint and wanted to bestow a gift upon us for putting up with his son.  I sat down next to Leah and started muchin’ on a drumstick.

“He’s missed a lot of school lately,” Leah said, talking about the student.

“Yeah, I noticed.”

“It is because he had penis cut operation.”

For the sake of comedy, I wish I’d done a double take or started choking on the chicken.  In reality, though, I kept right on eating.  “Say that again?”

“What is word…” she said, thinking.  “When the skin at end of the penis is taken off?”


“Yes, he was circumcised.”

“Isn’t he a bit old for that?  How old is he?”

“He’s 12.  His parents thought it would be good.”

I nodded, reaching for a breast.  “Personally, I’m happy to be circumcised.”

Leah nodded too, using a Kleenex to wipe the grease off her fingers.  After that, neither of us talked much.

“Well, this chicken is delicious,” I finally said.  “I’m glad that boy was circumcised.”

Leah agreed, and we ate a few more pieces before the next class started.


Dining with the Tyrant


Usually my Friday nights are spent at O’Malley’s, Goose Goose, Who’s Bar, or some other smoke-filled establishment that will serve me whisky until 5 AM.  This past Friday, though, I found myself stepping off the beaten path for a moment, going out for a nice sober dinner with my co-workers.  This was our New Year’s celebration, and Boss was taking us all out for a fine dining experience.  In Korea, people often refer to each other by title instead of by name.  The teachers call each other “teacher,” the principal is called “principal,” and, since I work at a private tutoring academy (or hogwon), the boss is just called “boss.”  Now that I’ve brought her up, let me take a moment to share some background information.

Boss seems like a cool lady.  She’s in her late forties and has two sons who live in the USA.  Her husband owns the school but she runs it.  Both of them have been extremely friendly.  Boss doesn’t speak much English but tries hard (the husband is much better).  She puts an equal amount of effort into her appearance; typically she wears nice clothes and lots of makeup.  I’ve always seen Boss as a warm-hearted person.  With a lot of makeup.

At dinner, Boss sat next to me.    Leah was across from me.  Sometimes I call Leah my boss, although that’s not accurate.  She’s the head English teacher, and so what Boss says trickles down to me through her.  Leah is gorgeous, and so was the restaurant we were at.  I was thrilled to get a baked potato as an appetizer – it was the first baked potato I’d had in ages.  Boss ordered a bottle of berry wine, and Leah explained to me the side effects:

“If a man drinks berry wine,” she said, “he will have good vitality.”

“Awesome.  I was just thinking the other day that I need to improve my vitality.”

“Good.  Drink berry wine.  Many years ago, bathroom was not in house.  It was separate.”

“We had that too – outhouse.”

“People were very lazy and would pee in a bowl.  Then later they go to bathroom and dump the pee out.  When a man drinks berry wine, his pee is so strong, is breaks the bowl!”

“I’ll be careful then.  I don’t want to damage any Tupperware.”

It’s been five months now, and I’m still trying to figure out if Leah understands my sarcasm or if she thinks I’m serious all the time.  Perhaps I should try not to be so sarcastic, especially since Leah has always been honest and open with me.  I remember clearly what she told me in my first week:

“You should say ‘no’ to Boss.  She will ask you to do more work, and if you say ‘yes,’ she will give you more.  Previous native teacher wanted to sue Boss.  She will want you to work more hours and she will not pay you.”

While she advised me to say ‘no,’ she seemed incapable of doing so herself.  Poor Leah.  She is always at the academy, slaving away.  Recently, Boss cut her vacation days to 4 a year.  Leah was upset but carried on like always.  To make matters worse, Boss fired the other English teacher, Grace, for reasons that are unclear to me.  I also have been subject to Boss’ demands.  My class number has been upped from 28 to 35.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have to go in an hour early to teach a new class.  I was told I had to go into work this Saturday, but luckily Boss changed her mind and let me off the hook.

“We are all very upset,” Leah told me, referring to herself and the other Koreans that work at the school.  “It is so much work and no pay.  We are so tired.”

Jang (or whatever her name is), Mrs. Saw, and the two other Korean teachers at the dinner were getting drunk on berry wine.  We had a course of prawns, then a salad, and then seasoned bulgogi for our entrée.  It was undeniably delicious.  The teachers were all laughing and in good spirits.  Boss kept piling meat onto my plate.

“She wants you to eat,” Leah said.  “She is like your mother.”

Boss started talking, and everybody shut up to listen.  It was in Korean, so I didn’t understand what she was saying.  The table was silent and at the end everyone burst into laughter.

“What did she say?” I asked Leah.

“Boss told story,” she said, translating.  “She knows a married couple.  The man had his mother come over to house for weekend.  One day the couple went out and mother was alone in the house.  She looked through the wife’s things and found a note.  The note said, ‘The bitch is coming this weekend.’  The mother took it.  She was very angry and showed her son.”

The other teachers were talking happily and drinking as Leah told me the story.  They were in such good spirits.

“The next year, it was the birthday of the wife’s mother.  The son gave her a card, and in it, it said, ‘Happy Birthday, from the Son of a Bitch.’”

In a way, it was an apropos story for Boss to tell.  At the end of dinner, Boss paid and all of the teachers thanked her and bowed.  When Boss separated from us (she drove and we all took the bus), everyone waved goodbye as if their best friend was going away for the summer.  Like the mother in the story, Boss may be a bitch, but she’s our bitch.  She may be a tyrant, but she’s our tyrant.

I hadn’t had much berry wine myself.  I went home and, without worry, peed in a bowl.