There were these three Korean girls. They walked into my college preparation classroom and I noticed them immediately. They were a great wall of frowns, a unified front, a testament to cohesiveness that for some strange reason reminded me of a cross-cultural game of Red Rover. They stared straight ahead, shoulders evenly spaced, and in a manner reminiscent of an unusually dour group of synchronized swimmers.
I began teaching in my usual style: all smiles and involvement. I shared how important it is that we become a family, and I shared how it was my goal to teach them that college was like a separate nation, with its own customs and traditions. I told them I would be their tour guide as we explored the boundaries of this new, undiscovered country. I was in fine teaching form, getting students to participate, asking them to elaborate on their own fears and understanding of college, and attempting to open them up to a new world.
But the three Korean students approached me shortly after class, single file.
“We don’t need,” spoke the shortest. “We only need TOEFL.” The others nodded in assent. They were referring to the college entrance test, the TOEFL, given to non-native English speakers. This was a typical complaint, that my class wasn’t preparing students for their most immediate need.
“Oh?” I said, “Well, I will be teaching you a lot of TOEFL techniques that will definitely help you.”
They didn’t budge. “Only TOEFL.”
For the next few weeks I insisted how my class would indeed help them for the test and beyond, but these three women (whom I grew to love, by the way), would sit in the back, arms often crossed, and refused to participate. A short time later, they began bringing TOEFL books to class, and they would quietly study. A time after that, they sat outside my classroom and studied their books during class time. I did my best to befriend them, but they were adamant. The test is what mattered. All other considerations were secondary. Their logic was simple and overpowering.
That isn’t to say they were mean spirited. They even invited me over to their apartment once. Up the steps, past dozens of American apartments, I walked into a door and was immediately struck by the smell of kimchi and the sounds of k-pop. I was in Little Korea. I asked them if they were going to the American party downstairs. I asked them if they had met any American friends. No, only TOEFL was the reply. I believe they shared this as an attempt to brag about their focus. I nodded.
I learned that they had each studied anywhere from 10 to 12 hours daily, pouring themselves into their books like ascetics would the Dead Sea Scrolls. They had put in the work. I was so impressed with them. I still am.
About a month later they came to me with triumph in their eyes. They were holding sheets of paper. Their TOEFL scores. They announced to me that they had understood all along what path would lead them to victory.
“Teacher,” said one, “We were right. And you were wrong.”
Such directness from certain cultures used to offend me, but it doesn’t anymore. And anyway, in their celebratory mood, I didn’t argue the point. You can’t argue with smiles. I congratulated them and told them good luck. They all left for the university shortly thereafter.
What happened after is something I’ll always remember. One of the students described it like this:
I went to the university class the first day. The teacher began talking and like you, really, with all the Americans talking back. I couldn’t understand the teacher and I couldn’t understand anything. When I did understand, I couldn’t share my understanding. Five page papers? How could I? What could I do? I went home and I cried. This place is not for me. It is a place I do not know.
My heart broke for them when they told me. They had attained a level of linguistic competence that was well suited for tests, but not suited for the American classroom. All three of them dropped out of school within weeks. They arrived at my tiny school shortly after.
Three Korean girls came to my office, heads slightly bowed. Several of them began speaking at once, telling me their stories.
“Teacher,” one smiled wryly, perhaps recognizing the symmetry of her remark, and said, “We were wrong, and you were right.”
Questions to Think About
1. Why do you think the Korean girls don’t listen to their teacher?
2. What do the Korean girls think a good teacher should do?
3. What does the teacher think the students should do?
4. How should we manage grade-grubbing in our classrooms?
5. How can we make English learning more meaningful and discourage rote learning?