Just the other day I had a class that would try the most even-keeled person. The students were rowdy, getting up and walking around as they pleased. The surprising part of it was that they were the youngest grade students of my middle school. About 12 or 13 years old. Usually, this group is a bit scared by the new surroundings and intimidated by the older students. Not this bunch. After class my coteacher randomly mentioned that Korea had rid of corporal punishment (hitting students) about three years ago. That's all he said. He doesn't usually say much, but when he does, it's usually pretty good. His point being that if there was still corporal punishment in classrooms, the behavior problems we just experienced would not have occurred.
The whole conversation got me thinking - about Korea, about my experience as a student, about American schools. When I was in elementary school in New Hampshire, I had a principal that would hit the boys when we got way out of line. Like a quick slap to the back of the head or something like that. It didn't really hurt, but it definitely switched our focus pretty quickly. Now this is in the mid-80s (cough*) and in a small town. This principal really cared about the students. In fact, he was a bit of a father figure to many students as he also doubled as the coach for all the boy's sports. He has since passed away but I can't recall a single student of his who doesn't look back at him with admiration.
On the other hand, we've all heard of situations and seen videos of the opposite. Teachers taking out frustration on students meant more for venting than for correction. Without question, out of line and inappropriate - illegal in some cases.
So I started a mid day reflecting moment before my 5th cup of coffee. The majority of states in America, my home, have been without corporal punishment for decades. In fact, I think we're on the verge of seeing stricter penalties for "spanking" in homes. Have these decisions affected our country as the years carried on? I'm sure more than a handful of opinions exist on this issue.
But how will this change affect Korea, if at all?
Today, I decided to casually interrogate my head coteacher. A woman of 20 years at this school and now English department head. Clearly her opinion is that removing this right, or tool, or strategy has already negatively impacted the classroom. She feels that students are more prone to standing up to teachers and "rudely" voicing their opinions. I've actually seen it to my surprise, though very uncommon. Students are now aware that they can both speak and act more freely in class towards teachers and more aggressively towards other students. She also went on to tell me that in light of the new Presidency this year, teachers in Korea are joining together to petition reinstating corporal punishment in the classroom. I'm not sure if this is a formal thing or just rumblings in hallways and emails. Nonetheless, it sounds like teachers in Korea are feeling as though their hands are slowly being tied.
I mentioned to her that the students they have now are likely in a transitional phase of a long term change. Right now they are still testing the waters to see how far they can actually push the envelope. However, in the years to come as new boundaries are better understood by students, Korean teachers will see even bolder changes. In my opinion. I also said that reinstating something that has already been taken away, such as corporal punishment, is typically very difficult if not impossible.
All that being said, I have a tough time even raising my voice at students of my all-girl middle school. Some of them are really small and timid and I know I would scare or intimidate some of them unintentionally. So I rarely do. When I do yell though, it's met with complete silence - a room full of blank stares. So imagining hitting a student is not an option for me. I would assume that ESL teachers wouldn't have that right anyway, but just the thought of it is out of my scope at the moment. Though I have had numerous situations that definitely warranted some sort of corporal intervening, though not by me of course.
My take on it is this. Students are fully aware of repercussions for their actions, both positive and negative. Even the young ones. They are more wile than we may think. We were too, but we tend to forget that. I have to believe that when the threat of physical correction is removed from a situation - strategies and actions will change. In the case of classrooms, I believe it translates into the trouble students getting worse. Which would probably flow over into affecting other students as intimidation and bullying will likely be amplified.
So is there a case for corporal punishment? Possibly. Is there an equivalent or more effective alternative? That's what the argument is. Should greater safeguards be put in place to avoid beatings where corporal punishment is allowed? Obviously. But that only applies if corporal punishment is in the equation. In a country with the world's leading math students, it's no longer part of the equation.