After 2 full years treading the boards at my Korean High School I thought it the right time to summarise what SK needs to do to engage its disengaged or disenfranchised kids. It’s really about teacher training and an acceptance that subjecting them to the “rote” learning system advocated by the UK’s Gove, amongst others, truly does not work. Initially rote learning has a place, particularly in relation to vocabulary building but even the vocabulary lists in SK are crammed with words that they do not need to and will probably never encounter again.
The single biggest factor in engaging kids is to build strong relationships and that is most likely to happen if they are taken out of mainstream classes where they fight for recognition and placed in a different but supportive environment.
Relationships are built outside the classroom, each student is different, and the moments spent chatting at lunchtime or between classes are invaluable in getting to know them as individuals. I found it’s important to accept that their behaviour will at times border on unacceptable but my humour that is the most productive tool in changing their attitude. Bad behaviour has been exacerbated by an inability to engage with the traditional Korean teaching methods. This may be due to an unidentified learning difficulty, bad experiences in their early school years or an outdated teaching methodology. These students are often socially deprived and may have missed school or even work to contribute to their family economic situation.
Inside the class let them laugh with you and at you; engage with their popular culture and give more praise than you could ever contemplate being necessary. Use positive body language particularly eye contact and make sure they understand you have trust in their ability to succeed. Once that trust is in place issues like “no pens” disappear. If you set achievable targets whilst giving praise and support you will see the goalposts move; they will want to observe you and challenge themselves more.
It’s also important to let them talk about things they are interested in, if they like K-pop, why do they like it? Who do they like? Forget about making an issue about grammar; let them expand their vocabulary learning single words. Once they’re engaged and not worried about making mistakes the other stuff will improve with practice. If they start to look drained change the topic as they essentially have a 15 minute attention span and typically you only have 50 minutes a week with each group. In an open letter to the SK government I would have specially trained teachers engaging with them full-time and if they react particularly well to the Guest English Teacher then give them more hours with that teacher.
Treats work as rewards, the carrot not the stick; everything takes time but things will improve as joint-trust becomes embedded. No activity should last longer than the sacred 15 minutes and the kids should be encouraged to move around, sitting them in rows is restrictive and demoralising. It’s fine to challenge inappropriate behaviour and they’ll respect you for having fair rules. I have a 5 minute rule for loo breaks and some I know are going to puff on a fag but if the engage for the previous 20 minutes and the next after the fag, I’m not going to challenge that. After a while as their ability to concentrate improves the fag breaks disappear. Be the adult, show them positive social norms and they’ll respond.
The most important thing is to praise, praise, and praise and to celebrate success. Engage them in team activities and promote healthy competition; recognise the leaders and praise them for showing leadership qualities but give equal encouragement to those workers in the team or those making a significant step forward in improving their own learning and performance.