[Note: This is not a new post. I originally wrote it in the spring of 2012. It probably got listed as a new post when I was rereading it and noticed a few typos. I fixed those types, clicked "update," and saw later that it became a "new" post.
As it happened, Jane transferred to another school when that semester ended. I never heard where she went. She'd be in the final year of high school now.]
One of the joys of teaching is that no one day's ever the same as the next. Monday's conference with a student sparked this post.
The military has a rule that says "Always obey your commanding officer." Teachers have a similar, yet unwritten rule that says "Always support your fellow teachers. Do not contradict them unless you absolutely have to." Teachers need to back up other teachers to establish consistency both within the school and within the classroom. To contradict or go against another teacher means that the student(s) can exploit a weakness and play teachers against one another. It invites power struggles. Power struggles are never good because all parties invariably lose face.
Being the foreign (Guest) teacher only amplifies this point because the language barrier and not knowing all ins and outs of school culture can lead to students playing the Guest teacher against the Korean teacher(s).
I thought of this rule when a student, Jane, came to my desk yesterday to ask about an exam question. It seems she thought the question had more than one possible answer. Right away, I knew I had to tread carefully because although I proofread the exam, I did not write it. I didn't know the answer to that particular question either because Ms. J the co-teacher had written the instructions in Korean and had said not to worry about it. I asked her to explain the question. She did. She asked about whether the expressions she used were right. In my mind, I knew they looked okay, but I also knew that the co-teacher had had a different answer in mind. To say I agreed with Jane would mean contradicting Ms. J'a answer.
After she finished talking, I said, "Okay, I understand, Jane, but I can't help you here."
She nodded and asked, "But, isn't this the right expression?"
"It may be. I don't know. I didn't write the exam. Ms. J did."
"Yes, but you're a teacher too, and I thought you could help..."
I thought she might say that because she didn't know the difference between my job and the Korean teacher's job. We're all English teachers to her, and while yes, we all do teach English, my status as an Guest English Teacher puts me on a different plane than the other Korean teachers. Guest English Teachers follow different procedures than Korean English teachers. For instance, I'm not officially obligated to write exams or record grades for my classes. It's possible, but I don't have to. This alone means that I have no say with other teachers' exams.
This would be hard to explain to her, but I told her, "Yes, Jane, but the rules for me are different. I cannot help you here. You'll have to talk to Ms. J."
I had no real sway in the matter. To do otherwise would be to put Ms. J in a bind because Jane could say, "Well, Ben said this, but you said that" and put her on the spot. She persisted anyway. She wasn't arguing to argue--quite the contrary, as a passionate learner*, she's dedicated to knowledge for its own sake and simply wanted further explanation. And I couldn't give that to her. Jane eventually said "Okay" and let it go. She thanked me for my time and walked out of the office.
Fellow teachers: back up your colleagues.
*Jane transferred to Gimhwa HS from a high school in Chuncheon recently. She's a teacher's student: she comes to class early, takes good notes, beams a smile everywhere she goes, and studies hard. Her English is nearly as good as the Korean English teachers themselves too. Her advanced abilities play into why she came to my office because students rarely ask me about anything in their regular English classes because they lack the English necessary to explain themselves. They go to their Korean teachers instead.