Written by Samantha Morrow ETA’10-12

On the eve of the new semester, I sat down with my co-teacher as she shared the results of a survey about me she had administered to all my students. This was not surprising to me, nor was it unfamiliar. Two years of education courses and a year of student teaching in the U.S. had seen me on the listening end of countless feedback sessions. I have always thought that multiple perspectives on pedagogy are important and that considering them can help me become a better teacher, but nothing could have prepared me for what my students shared about my classroom.

According to them, Miss Morrow was strict and intimidating. She liked her classes to be very calm and would stop in the middle of teaching to turn a cold stare at a student who was out of line, frightening the whole class. She was “too authoritative.” They also found that addressing me by “Miss Morrow” instead of “Samantha” or “Sam Ssaem” (the Korean abbreviation for seonsaengnim, or teacher) was overbearing, formal and confusing.

My co-teacher was under the impression that it was Fulbright’s desire for me to go by a formal English title, but I informed her that it was my own choice. It made sense to me that students would follow English protocol for addressing their teacher in a conversational English class. I explained that some Korean friends had also advised me not to go by “Sam Ssaem,” since it sounded too much like the “Konglish” expression “same-same” to be taken seriously.

She nodded and continued. “Our students learn grammar and English reading from the textbook. We want you to be English outside the textbook for them. We want them to talk to you in English. Right now, they are too intimidated to speak to you outside of class. We want you to be more of a friend to our students.”

“So you think I should ‘loosen up?’ ”

“Yes,” she nodded enthusiastically.

I had my orders and hours of existential contemplation ahead of me. My school had great intentions for me as an English resource, but it was clear that my teaching persona was directly conflicting with the school’s goals for me and its students. What was my role here? Was my teaching getting in the way of the students’ learning?

I had worked hard crafting “a fair but firm” discipline persona in the U.S., with master teachers ever encouraging me to be more strict. The eyes in the back of my head were trained to bring every tardy, gum-chewing, sleeping student to task. The “cold stare” my students so hated was a basic component of my non-verbal classroom management. I countered this strictness with extra efforts to become familiar with my students as individuals inside and outside the classroom. As an American classroom teacher, it took me less than three days to memorize the names of all of my students, and about a week to find out what activities and clubs they were involved in. However, in Korea, I had to accept aspects of student anonymity with the reality of encountering hundreds of students in the classroom on a weekly basis.

Were the demands of the Korean system really so different that my American teaching persona translated into strict and unapproachable? Or had I changed upon my arrival to Korea in an attempt to fit into the role of the native English teacher? What was the same, what was different?

My answer came as I reflected upon the overlapping memories of two conversations: one in Korea, one in Los Angeles. Both were with high school boys who towered over me physically, but neither of them could look me in the eye as I inquired why they were sleeping in my class.

“You’re a good student, but you haven’t been able to keep your eyes open lately. What is happening outside of class that is keeping you from staying awake in my class?”

One answered, “Well, I’ve been busy.”

The other shrugged, “Well, I try, but it is so difficult here.”

I prodded for a clearer answer from both.

“Well, I’m working an extra job after school and I get home late. My girlfriend is pregnant and moving in with me, so I have to provide for my family,” Jose* said finally while looking up at my face with a steady gaze.

“I study all the time. I sleep during class because I am tired, and the teachers get mad,” Jae Woo* ended with a mutter as he subconsciously covered his face with his hand, a bad habit exhibited anytime he was nervous or ashamed.

“I need to stay in school to get an education so that I can be a good father.”

“My parents and the teachers expect so much, but no matter what I do, I fail.”

I’ve spent the last eight months trying to adapt to the foreign nature of the Korean education system while maintaining my own identity as a teacher and a person as well. But now, I remember that I am allowed to be the same person I was in the U.S. because my students are the same on either side of the Pacific. They are tired, stressed, thinking about whatever happened to them thirty minutes before my class, and wondering what will happen two hours after it is over.

With this in mind, I’ve started the new semester with some changes. I continue to meet my own goals of maintaining a classroom where students are accountable: participation is recorded daily, absences are noted and follow-up questions are asked later. However, I’m also accomplishing my school’s objectives for me: I’m learning my students’ names, slowly but surely, and wish them happy birthday on a weekly basis. I let them see me laugh at their antics before I tell them to settle down… and I let them call me Sam. Or Sam-Ssaem. Because really, I am the “same-same” teacher that I’ve always been.

* Student names have been changed.