One Year in a Hagwon: The Tug of War


No matter how much you learn about kids, it means nothing until you work with them.

To work with children you need a lot of patience and that’s something I’m completely lacking. If a child is annoying me, I find it hard to ignore, my anger is unleashed, and I become a petty arsehole.

Worse is when I feel a child is being disrespectful. To be a teacher you need to be comfortable laughing at yourself and I often found myself annoyed at the children for laughing at me.

I became convinced for a time that the children didn’t respect me because I wasn’t Korean. In a way, I was correct. As a white person, I was a novelty, not somebody to be taken seriously.

Knowing this got to me. When a child would ignore me or break my rules, I would take it personally and the red mist would appear. I’d become irrationally mad and try to do anything to convince myself I had some power in the classroom.

I would be unfair to the children (another thing a teacher needs to be – fair) and would often find myself in ridiculous situations and arguments about nothing of meaning. The children themselves would often get into such arguments about everything and anything. Each time this happened it would prod at me.

Say, for instance, the children would start arguing about a pencil. “Rocky has my pencil, but won’t give it to me.” I’d try to get them to talk it out and solve the problem together. It never worked though the kids would soon start shouting at each other and me about the pencil. I would be standing there thinking – for fuck sake, it’s just a pencil.


I’d soon decide that to get everybody to shut up I’d have to confiscate the pencil. So I’d say, “Okay. Give me the pencil,” which would obviously be met with a stern “No!” I’d count to ten. Most times this would get me the pencil. But the most stubborn of children wouldn’t give.

What would follow is the most embarrassing ordeal that exists for anybody working with children. The tug of war. You find yourself trying to take the pencil, but the kid won’t give it. You’re pulling on the pencil, the kid is pulling back. Your face is getting redder and redder.


You’re getting madder and madder and suddenly this pencil is the most important thing in the damn world. You need that pencil in order to reassert your authority. If you let this kid win, all the other kids will think you’re weak and they won’t respect you (not that they respect you anyway!) So you start pulling the kids fingers off the pencil one by one. GIVE. ME. THAT. PENCIL!

Suddenly the kid lets go and you fall backwards. All the children start to laugh at you. This isn’t supposed to happen, stop laughing at me!

They keep laughing of course, so you think FUCK YOU! I’LL STOP THE LAUGHTER! You take away some smiley faces and they go quiet. Or you go even further than that and take away their stickers.

Afterwards, you realise you’re a petty idiot. It was just a pencil, as you had originally thought. The kids don’t respect you even more now because you’re unfair and a dick. Oh, but you got the pencil so that’s one small victory.

Korean hagwon students playing at a museum.

In actuality, the pencil situation should never arise because the Korean teachers are meant to deal with any problems in class. It’s easier for them as they speak the same language as the children. But doing this would never happen because problems are so constant that I’d have to spend every moment of my day going to the Korean teachers for help.

Going to another adult for help with a child doesn’t exactly make you look like you know what you’re doing. Even though you clearly don’t know what you’re doing, it’s good to pretend you do! So you continue to have your tug of wars with the children and from time-to-time a Korean teacher will peer in to see it happening. They’ll knock on your classroom window and the child will look up at them and let go of the pencil immediately.

You look up to the Korean teacher with the biggest feeling of shame. Yes, you just caught me trying to pull a pencil from a five-year-old’s hands.

Yes, I am a pathetic specimen of humanity.

Yes, I am going to take a sticker off this kid for making me look bad.

Shit rolls downhill, I guess.

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