Lets get physical

This past week I’ve set out on the daunting task that is applying to PGCE courses from abroad. As part of my application I need to compose a glowing personal statement so, like a good student, I’ve been doing my homework and bringing myself up to speed on the UK teaching environment, which has inevitably prompted me to compare my current classroom environment.

There are some fundamental similarities but on the whole Korea does things rather differently, and there is one practice in particular that I know I’m going to miss.

In the UK any physical contact between teachers and students – in particular teenagers – not deemed absolutely necessary is strictly prohibited. This applies to female teachers to a lesser degree than their male counterparts, but contact is still very much restricted. Like so many other British cultural norms it’s not something I’d ever really questioned; I understand why the restrictions are there and have no doubt that countless potential victims have been protected as a result of their enforcement.

But then I moved to Korea. Korea,  where everything is topsy-turvey and you suddenly see everything you once took for granted in a new light. Where it’s OK not only to rest a reassuring hand on a student’s shoulder, but to give them a full-on embrace. I first witnessed one such episode a couple of weeks in. A student came into the teacher’s office, visibly distressed, and reported to his home room teacher, who took one look at him, gathered him into his arms and cuddled him close against him. It was a genuinely touching sight, but it surprised me.

Over the coming weeks I frequently witnessed similar physical displays of affection between teachers and students. I saw teacher’s giving students’ heads fond ruffles in passing in the corridors; a teacher softly holding a distressed student’s hands between theirs while the student confided his trouble; and even a teacher jokingly hand-feeding a rice cake into a student’s mouth; in class, teachers massaged sleeping students’ shoulders to wake them.

Without being a Korean student on the receiving end of a head-ruffle or a hand-fed rice cake I can’t say for certain that this practice of unrestricted touching definitely has a positive effect, but from my observer’s perspective it certainly seems to. And that applies to the teachers as well as the students.

This tactile approach is reflected in all Korean relationships. You’ll regularly see old men walking down the street arm in arm, or a couple of old girlfriends hand in hand. On a recent school trip I thought my heart would explode when I saw my (15 and 16-year-old) students happily walking hand-in-hand with their mothers and fathers.

I know I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions my fondness for the bromances I see being played out in my classes. In the last decade movies like I Love You, Man have made closeness between young  men more socially acceptable in the west, but  back home I never saw such natural displays of affection between my younger brother and his friends, as I do between the boys in my classes.

You’ll very rarely find a boy on his own. Generally he will be glued to one body part or another belonging to his best friend – it may be an arm loosely slung around a friend’s shoulders, or a hand absently running through another boy’s hair. If they’re seated in class they may be holding hands, and sometimes feet (this I’m not so fond of if they’ve just had PE). They’ll sometimes offer a pat on the backside to show their support when a friend is called on to present to the class.

If Korea sounds like a homosexual haven, sadly it isn’t. In fact, Korea is still getting used to the idea that homosexuality might not be an exclusively ‘western problem’ after all. In general, Koreans simply don’t interpret physical closeness between members of the same gender as anything other than a demonstration of platonic feelings. And it seems to be this blind rejection of the existence of gay Koreans that has allowed this tactile culture  to flourish.

Sadly there is another huge drawback. It is the aspect of Korean teaching that I dislike the most and the one thing that I just can’t get used to. Though it does seem as though with each generation the popularity of physical disciplining is fading, judging by the experiences of friends and acquaintances, it is still very much an issue in Korea today.

As Korean educational culture begins to incorporate more and more western-style practices and methodologies it’s likely that the acceptance of positive physical contact between teachers and students will become prohibited too. But perhaps not. Perhaps the Koreans will do what we didn’t in the UK and find a way to retain the good, while throwing out the bad. It’s a nice thought.


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