Prior to teaching kids English, I had zero experience working with children. I was so surprised and relived to find that the kids I teach here are very smart and well-behaved for the most part.
Still, though, they can be difficult. At first, the difficulties were the expected ones. Some kids would be disruptive, and my own lack of experience in classroom management was an opening for them to become even more so.
After a couple of months I got the hang of things and those initial classroom management problems went away.
But, the kids can still be hard-work sometimes. Surprisingly (for me), it turns out that the most difficult kids can actually be the ‘smart’ ones.
When I say ‘smart’ here I mean it in a certain sense. Not the kids who can do their work well or who are good at English, because most of the kids are smart in that way, and it’s what makes teaching so easy on the whole. It’s the kids who are smart in those extra ways, who have a deeper psychological and intellectual understanding of things.
For want of a better word, these kids tend to be the ’neediest’. Teachers naturally reward and love very smart students. You can always turn to them for answers and engagement. This also means that they are more sensitive when they are neglected or when things are moving too slow.
Even though being super ‘smart’ in Korean schools is a little different to Irish schools, in that it is much more respected and encouraged by peers, smart kids still suffer the age-old problem of social exclusion/conflict. Being extra-clever means being different. It means having different priorities. It means putting studies before socialising. Certain types of very smart students will become anxious if the class becomes too ‘conversational’, they want to return to the book. Even though learning a language means learning to communicate well in it, they are smart enough to understand that they aren’t really there to learn a language, they are there to learn a set of rules and practices for doing well in language-exams.
Smart students will punish themselves more for mistakes. After all, their whole identity depends on their ‘smartness’. This is what their parents and teachers love about them. They might think that if they aren’t ‘smart’ any more, this love will be withdrawn. And, to be honest, they are probably right about that. Thinking back, I do find myself being tougher on the good students when they make mistakes. Some part of me feels that they ‘can take it’, even that they ’need’ it, that true brilliance needs to be constantly challenged and pushed harder than the rest. This is how I instinctively react, but I know, in my heart, that this is not fair at all. In fact, these students need more of a break than anyone else.
We think of these students as ‘gifted’, that intelligence is something bestowed upon the lucky ones, through genetics or the grace of God. But, of course, any smart kid worth their salt worked their ass off to get to where they were. Yes, maybe certain aspects of studying come more ’naturally’ to them than to other students, but being ‘gifted’ entails a host of other kinds of labour. There is a famous book on this point; The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. I read it years ago, but its insights have always stayed with me. In the case of the book, ‘gifted’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘intelligent’, it means the ability to ‘hide’ or ‘mask’ ones difficult/negative thoughts and feelings. The gifted child emerges under the shadow of an insecure parent or parents. The child, a hyper-sensitive being, can sense when the parent is ‘upset’ or ‘disappointed’ and they do their best to avoid this situation by developing behaviours that ‘please’ their parents and shield them from negativity. They try to act ‘positive’, hiding their anxieties or doubts, lest it trigger negative reactions in the parents. In short, the child becomes a sort of ‘care-giver’ to the parent, when it ought to be the other way around.
But what does it mean to care for a child? We all know the classic arguments about how certain pursuits later in life - becoming an international concert pianist for example - demand rigorous, early training. Parents who understand this and want the best for their child push their children hard to attend lessons and work hard. This is understandable. After all, consider the alternative - a four year old child cries and wants to stay at home watching Youtube instead of attending his piano lesson. The parent, who cares deeply for their child and can’t stand to see them in pain, reluctantly gives in. The child then spends hundreds - potentially thousands - of hours of their childhood watching Youtube, playing video games, etc. Later in life they become angry at their parents for not pushing them harder and for letting them waste their childhood on predatory technologies.
We can agree that a parents responsibility lies not only in providing for the child and their needs, but also in training the directionality of these needs themselves. Encouraging good habits, discouraging the bad. This can only go so far, a child will pick up all kinds of habits from all kinds of sources.
However, it is also important to think about the limits of ‘smartness’. This is where a more ‘spiritual’ form of care enters. For example, there is a well-known story told by David Foster Wallace, arguably one of the ‘smartest’ writers - and people - of the past many decades. Early in his career, he was hospitalised for alcoholism (among other things). He reflects on this experience and draws an important lesson from the AA adage - “my best thinking got me here.” For Wallace, the complex, academic ’truths’ he had been brought up around and which he could express so magnificently, could only take him so far ‘spiritually.’ What ‘saved’ him - temporally at least - were the banal, simplistic truths of AA. These were truths that could not be understood through intelligence, but only through experience and suffering.
How can we teach children this lesson, a lesson that underscores the limits of smartness when put against the simple fragility of being a human being? To be honest, I have no idea. As a teacher, all I can do is my job which, in my case at least, means preparing students for exams.
Perhaps the real lesson of David Foster Wallace’s AA experience is that truth is found in unexpected places. For Wallace, who was highly educated, the banal and un-academic truths of AA were different and novel. They were messages from outside of his lifeworld and experience. Perhaps it’s simply this that we should strive for; encounters with otherness - different ways of life, different traditions, different modes of thinking. Encounters which take us outside of ourselves. These kinds of encounters can certainly be achieved in the classroom. The struggle is finding ways to make these encounters genuine, resisting the contextualisation of them as simply food for good performance in exams or increased ‘smartness’.
The problem is that when you are very smart, to the point where your whole identity revolves around this ‘smartness’, it takes time to learn the value of being ‘wrong’ and being ‘vulnerable’. The smart kids who are already psychologically robust don’t care when they make mistakes. They just want to learn. Learning comes in many forms, and they understand this. They understand that making mistakes now means avoiding them later. They understand a classroom can be a space for experimentation and continual adjustment. The smart kids who are less psychologically secure are the opposite. They tend to fall back on established patterns when something goes wrong. They choose familiarity over genuine discovery. They perform well, but lack initiative. They rely on a system of authority for validation, and when that system doesn’t give them what they want they act out.
Anyway, this is getting far too long. All I really wanted to say is that over the course of my, admittedly short, time teaching kids, I learned that being in a classroom means being in a complex, dynamic environment (duh), where you are lucky if your only worry is identifying ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kids. That’s pretty much how class seemed to me when I was a kid. There were the ‘bad’ kids, who were funny and entertaining but who seemed like they wouldn’t go far, then there were the ‘smart’ kids who seemed to do so well with little effort. Most kids, like me, were in the ‘middle’ - Just showing up and trying to do our best while surviving.
I always thought that a teacher’s job, in terms of classroom management, revolved around the two poles of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kids. They developed strategies to ‘control’ and ‘punish’ and ‘save’ the bad kids, and they loved and adored the good kids (the teacher’s pets). In my experience on the other side of the equation, it isn’t like that at all. There is no clear graph of good and bad kids, the picture is constantly shifting. Children’s needs are vast and unpredictable. The psychological/spiritual work involved in being a teacher is never-ending. There is nothing as heartbreaking as a dedicated, ‘smart’ kid suddenly loosing their drive and ‘giving-up’, just as there is nothing as uplifting as a ‘bad’ kid surprising you and turning everything around (turns out that doesn’t just happen in the movies). Then, the next week it happens all over again. The reversals are endless. All you can do is try your best to be their for them regardless of how they are behaving on any given day. To strive to be at least a stable and welcoming presence in their ever-shifting experience of life.