To understand the problems of a hagwon, you must first understand the impossibility of teaching in one.
In a hagwon, the teachers wield less power than the children. When an especially bad child comes along they can make your life unbearable. These are more than just children, they’re the babies of Satan. The worst I ever taught was a girl named Serah.
For around 8 weeks, this girl was almost the sole focus of my thoughts. Serah was a chubby 6 year old with impressive English skills. At first, I thought she was a great student, but soon I noticed she had a permanent scowl on her face.
Serah started at the school in the middle of the year and that made the hagwon owner pleased. Whenever there were new kindergarten students the owner would be happy.
The reason for this is that kindergarten students bring in a lot of money. The rich parents pay hundreds of dollars to have them study at the school. The more students there are, the more money you make. It’s all about the money.
So I noticed this child had a permanent scowl. Soon her scowl got larger. The scowl turned to anger. Anger turned to arguments.
This was a child with a short fuse. If anybody made fun of her, she would often explode in a rage. Shouting and screaming at everybody nearby.
The rage was irrational. Even if she perceived some form of disrespect she would turn. The other children knew this so they continued to prod her every chance they could get. For them it became a game. Who can make the fat girl angry quickest?
After a few weeks it became clear that Serah was unteachable. This is the type of kid who would be on Super Nanny when that show existed. She was getting into fights with the other children every ten minutes. Constantly throwing tantrums to get what she wanted.
Now back home in England, there are ways to get around a problem child. Send them out of the room, expel them from school, talk to the parents. Using fair punishments and setting boundaries.
The smartest hagwon children realise that there are no boundaries.
It’s hard to discipline a child when their parents are paying a ton of money to come to school. Discipline makes a child unhappy. Unhappy children create complaints, from the parents or the child themselves. The parents see their child is unhappy and can’t believe it’s their child’s fault. Instead it must be the teacher.
Serah was a complainer. She complained about her food. She complained about her work. She complained about her teachers. She complained about the students.
The owner made a connection, if she complained to us, she could complain to her mother too. If she complains to her mother, they’ll take her to another hagwon. If they take her to another hagwon we’ll make less money. Solution: give this child everything she wants so that she never complains.
So now we have a child who is being enabled. She says she doesn’t want to do work, we say that’s fine, you can do colouring instead. She says she doesn’t want to eat her rice, we say that’s fine, you can just eat your soup.
Without boundaries the child becomes greedy, turning into a monster. Always wanting more.
For a while, I gritted my teeth. Let Serah do whatever she wanted. That’s what my boss wanted.
Then one day another child says, “I don’t want to do my work.” When I tell them they have to, you can guess what they said back to me. “But Serah doesn’t have to do her work!”
I realise right then, that I am powerless. I am nothing but a dancing monkey for these children. Now, I have two choices. Swallow my pride and continue to dance, or try and pull back the little bit of self-respect I have left.
I decide to do the latter. I start to discipline Serah. It doesn’t go well. As soon as Serah is told she can’t do or have something, she loses it. Flies into a rage, throws a tantrum.
Once these fits started a Korean teacher would arrive, talk to Serah and me. Then Serah would get her own way. She was in control, not me. More affirmation that all she had to do was cry to get what she wanted, which just made her do it more.
The whole sorry experience came to a head one afternoon at lunch. Serah was playing with her bottle of water when she dropped it by accident. The bottle rolled across the table, knocking over another child’s cup. Water spilled all over the floor and table.
The other child rolled her eyes and shouted in Korean at Serah. Both children looked at me for guidance. “Wipe that up, please,” I said to Serah. Serah looked back at me dumbfounded. “What?” she asked. I repeated,”Wipe that up, please.”
“It’s not my water.”
“I know it’s not your water, but you need to clean it up because you knocked it over.”
“It’s not my water, it’s Mary’s water.”
I stood up, grabbed some toilet roll. Held it out to Serah. “I know it’s not your water, but you knocked it over, so you should clean it up.”
It was at this point that I started to feel like I had fallen into The Twilight Zone. Somehow the accidental spilling of water was getting out of hand.
I decided to try another tactic. I took my own water and asked Serah to watch. I spilt my own water on the desk. I cleaned it up. “See, I spill my water, I clean it up.” She looked at me. I took her water, I spilt her water, I cleaned it up. “See, I spill your water, I clean it up.” Still she was adamant that she didn’t have to clean up the water.
A better man may have wiped the water up right then and there. It’s only water after all. Just forget about it.
But I just couldn’t do it. I was pissed off. I’m happy to tidy up after a baby, a baby doesn’t know any better. But this was a girl who did know better, she just didn’t give a shit!
If I wiped up the water, what type of person would I be? I’d find it hard to look in the mirror knowing I was some 6 year old’s bitch. I instead stood my ground.
“I’m going to count to 10. If you don’t clean up that water I’m going to have to take away a sticker from your sticker sheet. 1 – 2 – 3..”
“It’s not my water, it’s Mary’s water, why should I clean it up?”
“…4 – 5 – 6…”
“I’m not cleaning it up.”
“…7 – 8 – 9.”
“10! Ok, I’m going to have to take away a sticker.”
Sticker gone. Now what? I’m still not cleaning up that fucking water. Fuck this kid. Now she’s angry. She starts to cry. The tantrum begins.
I’m starting to find the whole situation absurd. I turn to Jamie who’s eating lunch with me. “What exactly am I supposed to do here?” She shrugs. I turn back to Serah. “You can cry all you like, but you’re cleaning up that water. You can’t have the rest of your lunch until it’s done.”
The flood gates open, she starts screaming as loud as possible: “NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!” She shouts the word over and over in a fit. Soon enough another teacher runs in and looks at me. The teacher speaks no English so I point at the water. The other children explain what’s happened.
Serah is in hysterics and the other teacher talks to her in Korean. The other teacher takes some toilet roll and points to the water explaining something. Serah shakes her head and continues to scream, “NO! NO! NO! NO!”
Soon the head teacher arrives in the doorway. She also speaks in Korean. By this point I’ve sat back down. I watch as the drama unfolds in front of me. A drama I don’t understand as it’s in Korean. I am now nothing but an observer, the other teachers barely look at me. The head teacher tuts at Serah and shouts something at her in anger. Serah continues to cry. Continues to shout.
The hagwon owner arrives. That’s five adults now in the room. Serah cries and speaks to the owner. The owner picks up Serah’s lunch, takes her by the hand to another room. The Korean teacher sighs and cleans up the mess. Serah gets her lunch. No lessons have been learnt. I’m overwhelmed with rage.
It’s the final nail in the coffin. I now know my whole job is a sham. I’m not there to teach English. I’m nothing but a glorified babysitter. My job is to ensure the children are happy, that they don’t complain. Happy children means happy parents, happy parents means money.
It’s all about the money.