Disabilities and the Korean School System: A Lesson in Culture and Kindness

12:28 AM Jmo 0 Comments

[The following post contains my own personal experiences, opinions, and observations. I do not speak for all schools, teachers, or administrations in Korea.]

Working with students who have mental or physical disabilities can be a challenge. Adding cultural and language differences into the mix, as well as a school system that is in its infancy stage of addressing such issues, adds an entirely new, and often more complicated, list of challenges. Culturally, especially in Korea, it is difficult to navigate these waters. Korean society aims for physical and mental perfection. South Korea has the highest rate  of plastic surgery in the world and it is said that up until the early 2000's it was rare to see a mentally or physically disabled person out in public. There were to be kept out of sight. Plastic surgery clinics, private tutors, and after school programs are booming businesses. Every Korean strives to be the best. And strives to be perfect. In turn, mental disabilities or illnesses are rarely discussed and considered taboo. Attitudes and expectations reflected on these issues here are different than that in The States and it weighs heavy on my heart at times. I've been told by some co-workers to "ignore" students because they are "weird" and to pass over students that are slower and need a little more time writing something down. I can't. I don't. And I will not.

I'm all for weaving in and out of the patchwork fibers of my Korean-expat existence, but there are some things that I can not, and will not, stray from. So. How to manage this moral struggle in your current role and current cultural situation? How do you find your place? Most of my co-workers are sympathetic, compassionate, and considerate enough to care for the needs of these children, but because of the busy and, at times, hectic nature of the Korean job-culture, it is nearly impossible for them to set aside time to act on it. So there's you: eagerly left to pick up the pieces.

My school is small, understaffed, and in a poorer area of the city. We do have a few 'helpers' and special classes set for some special needs students, but for the most part they are left in the back of their homeroom classes. It's a complicated situation muddled with social and cultural layers, like I said. But. I'm a firm believer that people are people and kids will be kids. So, with that in mind, here are some tips and suggestions for if and when you find yourself in a similar situation.
[Notice: I am not a certified Special Education instructor. These are just my personal opinions based off my own personal experiences on how to handle learning disabilities in an ESL classroom.]

How Do I Teach Them?:
Just like any other student. Include them. Include them in everything, even if your coworkers tell you not to.
I've had a few experiences lately where I was encouraged to ignore and pass over a few students to keep the flow of the class moving. I thought this was ridiculous. Set an example for your students. If you exclude them, what makes you think that their peers wont follow your lead?
I have some students with various stages and types of autism that have difficulty speaking or communicating, in Korean let alone English. But that doesn't mean they are not listening. I've had coworkers tell me to ignore them when I kneel down beside their desk to get them to hold a pencil and write. I might not get them to write something, but at least I make an effort to make them feel included. And you know what? One 6th grade boy surprised the hell out of me, my coworker, and his entire class when one day  he told me "Goodbye." before leaving the classroom. Never give up.

Take the Time and Find a Way to Connect:
I have a student with Downs Syndrome in one of my fourth grade classes. He is really well behaved but gets bored pretty quickly and I really can't blame him. And, like any other student who gets bored, he starts to disrupt the class. So, I've found that showing him simple little tricks is an easy way to bond and gain good behavior. The best example of this was when we were learning body parts. He isn't able to grasp the English translations of words, but he still wanted to participate and kept holding up his hand when I pointed to my hand to elicit the English word from students. So, when it came time for the activity portion of class, I showed him how to trace his hand. He absolutely loved it! I read an article a while back about methods for teaching Downs students and came across the suggestion that introducing and integrating sensory stimuli, like touch, increases the level of brain organization.  -Simply put, tracing around his hand was a sensory act that produced a synaptic connection (a memory), and he had fun doing it! He wanted me to do it over and over until I finally put the pencil in his own hand and he went for it. I labeled it "hand" for him and he kept it tucked away, proudly, in his notebook. He later asked my co-teacher if he could trace his head! hehe And now whenever he sees me, he smiles. Success.

Make Them Laugh:
This one might seem like a no-brainer. If you are in the teaching profession, chances are, you have a way with kids. Physical comedy is not only a way to reach through a language barrier but it is a great way to bond and make yourself seem more approachable. And, pssssst, I'll clue you in on a little, not-so-well-kept secret: Koreans LOVE physical comedy.

Don't Let It Slide:
One thing that I always tell people that I miss about teaching in The States is being an advocate. But Jessica, you were only a substitute teacher back home. What difference could you really make in a day or two? Well, for one, you are a fresh set of eyes. You can pick up on things that maybe their regular teacher has gotten used to. And in the ESL classroom (and living abroad in general) reading body language is part of the job. And if you see or feel something, act on it. Korea has a school bullying culture just like in The United States. What makes it different here is that the rules are loosely enforced, isolation and outcasts (Korean has a specific term for outcasts:  왕따 wangg dahh)   are the norm, and like I mentioned earlier, mental health issues are just now beginning to be addressed in Korean culture. Step in if you feel like someone is being bullied. More than likely your students want to win your favor and approval. If you stop them dead in their tracks and show compassion towards the student being bullied, it can only have positive effects.
And don't be afraid to challenge  cultural norms on certain issues. I'd say: Pick your battles. And this just happens to be mine. Perhaps (for older students) compare this issue in Korea to how it is handled in your home country. Now, I'm not saying that you should present however you or your country does things as the correct and the only way they are to be done. Because honestly, that's the easiest way for your opinion to be discarded. But, it's a fact that many Koreans want to travel abroad (London and New York City being two popular destinations). So, if you are consistently having a problem with bullying or the outcasting of certain students because of disabilities or otherwise, bring up this cultural difference in a lecture and let them know that this type of behavior will not fly outside of Korea. -'Change your ways now before you embarrass yourself.'

Sure, there was some doom and gloom that brought about this post. But! In the short time since I've been in Korea I have noticed progress. Buildings are more handicap accessible, co-teachers have stopped and corrected students who were being disrespectful to others with/and without disabilities, and it seems to me that these issues have come more to the forefront instead of being tucked away in Korean culture. But there will always be battles to be had and, hopefully, won.

Feel free to comment below with any other suggestions or success stories you may have regarding this topic. I'd love to hear them. Happy teaching! Happy exploring!


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