Could do better.

This week, I have been mostly writing progress reports for each of my 25 kindergarteners and 28 elementary students.

Much as I like writing, I have to say I’ll be extremely glad to see the back of this particular task, not least because I’m heavily restricted in terms of what I can write. I remember when we used to get our school  reports at the end of term. You really did not want to get a bad report! Parents tended to get annoyed about these things, so woe betide the child who played the goat all term and went home with a report covered in Ds and comments like “must try harder”, “badly behaved”, “doesn’t work hard enough”.

I don’t know whether it’s a sign of the times or solely a Korean thing, but here it’s more a case of woe betide the teacher who writes such a report! The children have no fear. The threat of a bad report (and the accompanying anger or at least disappointment from parents) was our incentive to behave and work hard. And now, as a teacher, I’d like to see reports as my best opportunity for communicating with the parents. I want to sing the praises of the bright sparks who are full of enthusiasm, and the not so bright ones who have made incredible progress through sheer effort. And, of course, I want to explain to parents of the troublemakers and the lazy ones that Something Has To Change. I want to point out that their child holds the whole class back with his running around and shouting, or that if only she would listen, she could do really well. I want to mark some of them “Needs improvement” for everything and then give constructive criticism on how to achieve this. But I can’t.

There’s a list of words at the top of each report, from which we have to choose one to assess each area of the child’s work (listening, pronunciation, phonics, writing, and so on). They are: Excellent, Very good, Good, Fair, Needs improvement. When I first wrote reports I gave excellents to the children who deserved them, and felt just as justified in handing out the “fair” and “need improvement” ones as well. And guess what? I was made to change them. Anything below a Very Good is seen as risky, because the parent will show up red in the face with anger and demand to know why the teacher is saying horrible things about their child.

It pains me to think of my least intelligent, least enthusiastic, and least well-behaved students and yet to write “Very good” on all their work. It makes it difficult to write any helpful comments that might actually improve matters – why would I urge her parents to explain the importance of paying attention in class when I’ve already said all her work is “very good”? Obviously she’s doing just fine without listening to a word the teacher says!

I’ve basically had to give new meanings to the words in my head. Excellent means anything from “pretty good” upwards. Very good means “fair”. Good means “needs improvement”. And fair means “so utterly terrible that I cannot possibly use the word ‘good’ here and still be able to sleep at night”. I have used “fair” several times for some of my more problematic students, and have already been forced to change some. I am holding firm on others and bracing myself for the storm. I just can’t understand this attitude of the parents. Why do they want to hear lies? Why don’t they want the truth if their kid is being a little brat and not learning anything as a result? Wouldn’t they rather know so they can help do something about it? It’s one of those weird paradoxes in Korean life: the one thing parents want more than anything else is for their children to study hard, get lots of good qualifications, and end up in a much-coveted high-paying job… yet they don’t want to hear about it if their child is doing something that might stop this from happening. Rather than wanting to know all the details of their child’s education, they just want to see the word “excellent” on all their work, even if it’s perfectly obvious to look at it that the child doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing.

And so I’m left with this feeling that I’m spending hours and hours on a completely pointless task, since the object of reports is to let the parents know how their child is getting on, and I’m mostly forbidden from doing that. So, just for my own entertainment, here is what I would like to be writing about my least favourite student in the whole school – an elementary boy I (thankfully) only teach once per week:

John is a hateful little brat rather difficult to teach. I believe he may be genuinely on the side of evil unhappy to be learning English, and so he has very little interest in participating in class. He refuses to listen, talks and shouts over me, and makes rude gestures (at me and at the other children). Although I do not know much Korean, I can understand some of the things he says about me, and they are extremely disrespectful and unacceptable. I have witnessed him hitting and kicking children smaller than himself, and when I stop him, he directs a torrent of abuse at me. I think it would be better for him to become a gang member student of some other subject that he enjoys, as he clearly does not want to learn English, and he makes it impossible for anyone else in his class to do so. I have yet to hear him say one word in English (other than a four letter expletive), and don’t actually believe that he has learned anything here. Please remove him from the school, for his own sake as well as everyone else’s.

Instead, I marked him “Very good” or “good” for everything, and his parents will soon be receiving the following report:

John is consistent in all areas of his English studies. He can sometimes be a little distracted in class, but if he settles down and listens, he is capable of some very good work. The area in which he shows the most promise is writing. He has the potential to do very well, and has a lot of confidence, which should help him when practising speaking. If he can learn to pay a bit more attention in class, his work will improve even more!

Note the absence of lies, thanks to sneaky wording. Heheh. At least I have the private satisfaction of knowing what each of those sentences really means…!

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6 thoughts on “Could do better.

  1. In some ways they are… but mostly, no, not really! I mean, all South Korean boys have to do military training for a year once they’re 17, so they’re raising an army. Plus they do their bomb drills as I mentioned in a previous post. But honestly, the only way I know anything’s going on right now is by reading the international news. In Korea, it’s very much a case of “everything’s fine, nothing’s happening”. They don’t talk about North Korea because it’s painful for a lot of people, which is understandable. But to act like there’s no danger? Hmm…

  2. Wow. That must be incredibly frustrating. At least you get to say something, though, even if it has to be sugarcoated. In my experience teaching english in France, since my title was officially “assistante de langue” I didn’t have to do any sort of evaluation at all of my students. Which was great, because yay, less work! but eventually made my job much more difficult as the students stopped thinking of my hour with them as classtime, and started thinking of it as Super Fun Happy Shouting Time.

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