What is the line and where is it drawn? You undoubtedly know what I am talking about. Every person coming of age hears the words, “Don’t cross the line” at some point. The expression paints the world simply as right or wrong and in this dualistic perspective there is no space for ambiguity.
I have never given much thought to the “line”. I never really had to, I was one of those kids happy to spend Friday nights at home. (Yes, my parents lucked out if I say so myself) But I am a teacher now and I am responsible for establishing this mysterious “line”.
As a teacher I am now a part of a system that I distrust – a system that restricts autonomy, defines success, and enforces the ideas of appropriateness. Before my students ever met me they have long created a narrative of what it means for me to be a teacher and them a student. This lens of thinking is about power; who has it and who doesn’t. I was aware of this dynamic entering in the classroom. I was prepared to challenge the norm. I envisioned a co-created environment that valued curiosity and respect. But teaching and life for that matter are a lot messier than how they unfold in my head.
My first day, I walked into class and was greeted with “Hello, teacher.” That title has sadly lingered despite my students knowing my name. “You can call me, Mat or Mathew” I say repeatedly. But a few minutes later, I hear the words, “Teacher, question.” And when I do hear my name in the hallways, in the classroom, or on the streets of Naju, I do a victory dance because any step forward is something worth celebrating.
Nevertheless, I realized changing perceptions of power is not as simple as asking students to call me by my name. Action is necessary too.
A few weeks ago, our cafeteria received new tables and chairs. The old and bulky furniture was not marked for the dumpsters though and instead was designated as new tables for the English classroom. I, being one of the English teachers at my school didn’t know any of this was happening, but I stumbled upon my students outside. Being Mr. Nosey I asked, “What is going on?” as I see them throw the old English desk and chairs up against the fence. They look confused for a second and then groan. One person stands forward as the voice of the group, “We angry and so tired.” I question further, “Why?” They point to the desks and flex their arms, while saying “Carrying.” I still don’t fully understand, but I respond, “Can I help?” They look amused, like I was joking and answer, “Teacher, no.” Thankfully, being told no has never stopped me, so I follow them upstairs to the classroom and begin helping carrying one desk at a time. When students would see me, they would stop and look puzzled for a moment as trying to determine what I was doing. And all without an exchange of words, they would slightly bow their heads as we each continued moving and I knew they were thankful. When teachers saw me, they questioned students, “Why?” and students responded, “Teacher wanted” and I shook my head in reassurance. By the end of the afternoon, my arms throbbed, but I was still smiling because I was breaking barriers and connecting with students. I was even engaged in conversation with students who were sleeping in my class only hours before.
Nevertheless, I discovered there are consequences in my resistance to the “line.” I have students who shout “Teacher, girls delicious.” And despite my best efforts to explain that we shouldn’t equate girls to food and we should talk about all people with respect, but I fear my words are of little effect. There are countless more moments of disrespect. Just the other day, I saw my students outside where they asked me to walk with them. I happily do, enjoying just talking, when moments later they push me into the street and we are running to the other side, despite them knowing I hate when they j-walk because it is dangerous. Or times when they spit in my classroom and I get angry and ask them to clean it up and then only a few minutes later I see them spitting again.
Sometimes, I wonder if in my rebellion of the classroom norms I have lose their respect or if I had ever earned it. This question haunts me as I witness my students’ behavior change in the presence of their homeroom teacher. I feel invisible in these moments, like my presence is insignificant and unsubstantial, but I am also not unaware that while there is a strong narrative of what it means to be a teacher, I exist as a teacher in a unique context with its own individual meaning. I am the foreign teacher and that additional title foreign permits behavior that is otherwise unacceptable in school. I think back to my own schooling experience, I remember sub-days with excitement because our regular teacher was absent and that meant it was a free day, unrequired to learn and try hard. These similarities are undeniable and I realize I am sometimes treated like a permanent sub.
In other instances I realize my students express their respect for me in other ways. Just yesterday my students and I had a snowball fight. The hallways transformed into a war zone. Yes, the snowball fight was inside and yes I chose not to stop it. All the windows were open and we continued to grab snow from the roof’s edge. By the end of the battle I was covered in snow and very cold. But before my students returned to class they surrounded me to help clean me off and make sure I was okay and wasn’t mad. “Teacher, fun?” one student said with a hint of apprehension in his voice. “Yeah” I said and I could see relief and joy flash in his eyes and he replies “I love you.” I laugh at his comment, finding no witty or clever words to fill the space so I remain silent. Thinking to myself how are these the same students who at times drive me crazy and do anything, but listen to me?
I can’t also forget the moments when they say thank you and you feel it is created from a place of sincerity and genuineness.
Despite my ambivalence to uphold the “line” I do have limits. I do not tolerate fighting, but then again I don’t always stop the horseplay that happens because it is so pervasive (Korean culture)
The “line” is not a simple issue. This is my last week of teaching until next year (Korean schools follow the calendar year) and I question how will I do things differently and I still am unsure.
I ask these questions, because I am still learning what it means to be a teacher. I am still learning how to inspire and challenge students and to teach them to the best of my abilities. I am still learning to ask the right questions.
** This is a blog post I have been working on for awhile, hoping that I would develop an answer, but I decided to share my thoughts unfinished **