Figuring out Motivation

Owl Class Picture 2013

Owl Class Picture 2013

The first month of the new school year has come and gone, and so have my little Owls. They are now first graders, but unfortunately I do not have the pleasure of teaching them all again. My now fourth graders are also with another teacher. It is just part of this job that we are forced to let go of the kids sometimes sooner than we would like. I can say that my second and fifth graders are ecstatic that they get to keep me for the rest of my time in Korea.

So along with some of my familiar students, I also have a couple of new classes. I have one class with three girls who are new to the school and we have spent some time getting to know each other. Things like their likes and dislikes, naturally. What I found interesting is that these girls, third graders, have no idea why they are in school. They don’t understand why an education is important. They have no desire to learn. The only real motivator for them to learn is that they are expected to. I can honestly tell you that when I heard that, I just could not comprehend what they were saying. My mouth hung open for several seconds before I turned the question around and asked them what they wanted to learn. Why did they think an education could be important? The only answer I received after a great deal of wait time was, “I don’t know.”

As a teacher and lover of learning, that kind of response scares me. It is absolutely terrifying. And while there are obvious differences in the education systems of Korea and America, each with their share of pros and cons, this is something I find challenging to address and work toward changing. There is only so much we as teachers can do, and I know that all teachers say that over and over and over again. Every single day. It is sad how bound by the system we are, how we are not given the tools to adequately address these sort of issues.

I have some students who love coming to school because they love learning. I have some students who love coming to school to see their friends and English teachers. Seeing those kids happy to be in school, I wonder how South Korea could have the world’s unhappiest children and one of the highest teen suicide rates. I cannot tell you how many times students have nonchalantly mentioned details of an unhappy or abusive home life. It is a cultural norm here, and unheard of to report these things because then you will be the one getting in trouble. I actually had students who were surprised when they heard me say if I ever get married, I want it to be with someone I like and who adds to my happiness. That concept doesn’t cross their minds. (Of course, they also think 27 is late in the game for being single and that I should marry the first man I see. Um, no thanks.)

I have seven and eight year olds telling me they don’t go to bed until 11:00 or midnight and it horrifies me. “Teacher, I had no time to do my homework because I had elementary school homework and [insert 3 other academies here].” As a teacher, I want my students to get adequate rest, because to me, that just makes developmental sense. But at the same time, I am required to report if they have not completed or finished their homework. They are eight to eleven years old, loaded with homework from a minimum of three different schools, studying on the weekends, and I have to figure out a way to balance that in the classroom while trying to keep them awake, attentive, comprehending, and maybe throw in something fun too. The older ones, they’ve been doing this for years. They are jaded. They are given no reason, no purpose, to study this hard other than a distant idea of “success.” It’s sad. It’s the kind of sad that American graduates have about going to grad school because they can’t find a job in the “real world.” Only this is happening faster, because all this pressure has roots in a university entrance exam. They’re not even in college yet, and they spend all this time preparing on how to ace this test. But are they learning, and if so, what? I have to wonder what will happen to the US education system with the current heavy emphasis on testing and core curriculum. Will it turn out like South Korea?

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful to have kindergarteners learning a foreign language. I think it’s great that the overall student population of this country has such a high test average. But couldn’t we get the same or better results if we tried a different method, found another way? Because even though I don’t have much longer with my students, I don’t want them to burn out. I do my best to instill in them, specifically the older ones, the importance of an inquisitive nature. Don’t just do something because you’re told to (there’s the Westerner in me). Dissect it, take an interest in it, ask those “why” questions teachers find obnoxious, occasionally annoying, but are all too happy to address. You want to go somewhere? Research it. You want to do something? Try it out. I want my kids to believe in something that’s more important than test scores – themselves. I want them to believe they have the ability to go beyond expectations in a truly positive and exploratory way. I want them to develop into life-long learners not because that’s what most of their life will consist of, but because they have a hunger to ask questions, see them answered, and not always be satisfied with the result. I want them to create their ideal worlds. And the only way they’re going to get there, is if we help them realize that it is important.