Teacher or friend? The difference hurtsWhen I decided to come to Korea and become a private tutor, my Korean boyfriend assured me it would not only be easy but financially rewarding. After a blur of posting ads in apartment buildings, then dealing with phone calls and interviews, the time for my first class had finally arrived.
As I walked into the apartment, I came upon a table covered with food and drinks. Were other guests coming? I wondered. But no, this would be our study room! That kind of hospitality was repeated at other homes, to the point that I’m no longer surprised to be offered fruit, cakes, juice, coffee, Korean delicacies, even a full lunch or dinner.
Beyond their magnanimous smorgasbords, my students truly welcomed me into their lives. Teaching a child two or three times a week for over a year and a half works out to a lot of time together. On the flip side, they’ve also become part of my life; I’ve attended their violin recitals, Sports Days at school, birthday parties. A few have even had dinner over at my place.
Some students have been especially welcoming, making me more a part of the family than just a teacher. So you can understand my disconcertment when, one night, my young pupil just wasn’t listening to me. He was bent on figuring out what magic trick I would teach him, the materials for which were in a bag under my chair.
As I tried explaining that we’d do the magic just as soon as we finished the grammar part of the lesson, he slipped under the table, grabbed the bag and began rummaging. I responded by calling his name sharply, demanding that he drop the bag (though I was careful not to raise my voice because his family was in the adjacent room). The 9-year-old responded by pounding me on the foot with his fist.
I didn’t know how to react. I had never been hit before (siblings don’t count). Then it dawned on me that by getting close to my student, not adhering to the traditional Korean teacher-student paradigm, I had allowed the child to confuse me for his friend, not teacher. That left me in a quandary: How do I teach in a relaxed, non-traditional setting, while maintaining my role as a teacher?
That night, my foot still throbbing, I took action. First, I hugged him tightly. Then, I calmly informed him that he could never, ever again hit me. But like a teacher, I made him apologize and assigned him a dose of extra homework. I’ve come to realize that, as a private tutor, I can teach in a relaxed way, even be “part of the family,” but I don’t have to relinquish my rights as a teacher. That has made all the difference.
by Omer Mendelson
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