Personal Disclosure in the Korean Classroom: Do You or Don’t You?

Looking back on most of my blog entries, I realize that I rarely write explicitly about my cultural experience in relation to teaching Korean teachers. It may be because I’ve been here for a while, and I take our cultural roles for granted. Maybe I’ve become so comfortable with “the Korean way” that I have forgotten a bit of what “the Canadian way” used to mean for me. I tale for granted the little details about what it means to teach in Korea.

However, after having spent last night with my Korean family-in-law — it was my husband’s uncle’s 70th birthday (cultural-linguistic note: my adopted “Korean way” is now naturally prompting me to say “our uncle”.) – I remembered what makes many interactions in Korea so specifically Korean; it’s their need to try to make everyone feel comfortable in a social situation. Of course this will vary from group to group, but in my experience when it comes to hanging out with family or instructing a group of teachers, the moment will run much more smoothly if everyone feels comfortable.

So what does this cultural comfort look like? In Korea it’s all about knowing your position in a group, and behaving according to the rules if that position. I have to say this is one of the biggest challenges when I’m with a bunch of elder family members. Although they may have thought I was comfortable last night, I was a tad ill at ease. My Canadianess naturally inhibits me to know how I stack up on the totem pole, especially when it comes to Korean table manners. But I digress.

Most of my Korean family

When it comes to meeting people in a closer circle of interest or age, the rules may seem uncomfortable to the unknowing Westerner (linguistic note: in Korea the foreign English teacher’s nationality is quickly replaced by the status of our perceived hemisphere; therefore, we simply become known as Westerner instead of Canadian or Australian.) Questions about age, marital status, and your personal experience of Korean culture can come within the hour of your first meeting. I know the Canadian in me used to be shocked by the seemingly personal invasion.

This kind of probing doesn’t stop in my classroom. Within the first week the teachers find out if I’m married. Then they ask if my husband is Korean. When I say yes, there is a hush over the crowd. They quickly want to know how we met. I must admit that my “love story” gets better with each semester. Each semester it is dubbed as our “love story”. Throughout the next five months, similar questions persist, but they usually connect to my experiences in Korea and Canada. I hardly bat an eyelid to these kind of questions anymore.

Most of my colleagues follow the same disclosure rules. They have lived in Korea for much longer than me, and probably have also realized that this is one of the ways we can create a comfortable atmosphere in our classrooms. By accepting the questions instead of opposing them, we become part of their way of doing. This is how we have adapted to the “Korean way”.

I have heard of “Western” teachers refusing to talk about their personal lives. They exclaim that it isn’t professional. They say students/trainees don’t need to know this kind of information since they are here to learn, and not to become friends. I don’t connect with this reasoning. However, I also realize that some Korean teachers are not ready to hear about the “unique” lifestyles of their Western colleagues. For this reason I can understand their need to protect their privacy. Maybe part of cultural dance is knowing what to disclose and how to disclose it.

I don’t share my stories to become friends, although I welcome such an evolution in our relationship. I have become close with many of my past trainees, would feel sad to miss out on such connections.

KIETT Trainees and Trainers at KOTESOL
KIETT Trainees and Trainers at KOTESOL

From my perspective, by refusing to open up about myself, trainees will feel less inclined to do the same. I know how important this kind of connection is when it comes to learning in general, but more specifically when it comes to learning language. When we communicate, we express who we are and what is important to us. If we feel that we aren’t among instructors that can take gentle care of our story, then we clam up. We feel more apt to learn and share when we feel that we are in a safe environment.

Within each culture the boundaries of safety and comfort will vary. I doubt Canadian teachers would feel the need to know about my “love story” in order to learn something from my classroom. When I juxtapose my experience with training teachers in Korea, to my own experience in teacher training at SIT, I shudder at the thought of asking for such information from my professors. I can just imagine myself asking Pat Moran during Approaches to Teaching Second Languages, “So Pat, how did you and the Mrs. Moran meet?” Not cool.

But we aren’t in the same context. The teachers I teach value this kind of information because it helps them connect to me on an intimate level. When they come to our program, they feel extremely vulnerable. They have huge doubts about their language ability and how that reflects on their ability to teach English. They lack confidence, and I believe it is my job to do what I can to connect with their fears in order to improve their confidence. When I see and empathize with their fears, they learn that it’s okay to expose them because they are in a safe environment. Sharing tidbits about myself is part of this process, because that’s part of the “Korean way”. It offers them some familiarity in an environment that can feel so foreign.

There are other ways that I work with the concept of safety and comfort in the classroom, but I’ll save that for another posting. For the moment I have explored this cultural reflection to the fullest. I now leave the debate up to you:

What are your boundaries of personal disclosure in Korea? Why do you, or don’t you expose your personal life to your students/trainees/participants? How have you learned to disclose your personal stories to your Korean students/trainees/participants?

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5 thoughts on “Personal Disclosure in the Korean Classroom: Do You or Don’t You?

  1. Hi Josette

    I have just left a comment to this post of yours on my blog, but stopped by to thank you for writing so warmly about the context you are working in (can relate to what you described about responding to those personal questions so much – in Korea, especially)

    Answering your question about learning to disclose my personal information in Korea: I realized that it is helpful to tell the participants that my views are based on something common in my country, and that I am aware that things might be different in where they live. Then answer the question. I think the helpful part for me is being respectful to cultures (mine and theirs) and being explicit that Ukraine is between ‘West’ and ‘East’ in many things (with a hint that not all the ‘Westerners’ are the same :-) ) I am aware, however, that coming for a short(er) training course is different from living in the country (and building longer-term relationships with the learners)

    Thank you for the thinking time and the chance to reflect about this. Miss Korea!
    Zhenya

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  2. Kevin thank you so much for this honest and vulnerable response. It saddens me to hear about the conflict you face just because you would like to be your authentic self. As I was writing this post I thought about situations such as yours, and realized how I took for granted the ease with which I could share my story. If any sense of stigma was attached to my story, I wouldn’t feel so free to share. I agree that in your situation keeping your job is more important than talking about what goes on at home. I’m just sorry that your students won’t get to truly see the Kevin I so love.

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  3. Very interesting post Josette. Personal disclosure is a “burden” that I carry with me into each new course I begin here in Korea. I know the questions are coming, but I still haven’t found a way to answer them. Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? I always answer the same – no. My students faces all change from excitement and interest to a combination of confusion and pity. They all agree that I’m handsome, educated and almost 30 years old. How could he be single? Well, I’m not single but I can’t disclose who my partner is for fear of losing my job and the respect of my students. Just this semester I heard of a trainer at my place of work that was forthcoming about her partner – this led to a subtle non-renewal of her contract. I use the cultural “impoliteness” of these questions as a means of simply avoiding having to answer them. If I had a story to share with my students that didn’t hold such high stakes I would gladly share it.

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  4. Another interesting post Josette. As for me, how much I disclose to my students depends on the context and the situation. There are things that I would feel comfortable disclosing to, let’s say, adult students as opposed to high school students and vice versa.

    I think you said it best when you wrote “…part of cultural dance is knowing what to disclose and how to disclose it.” Since being here, I have become (somewhat) more comfortable discussing some personal aspects of my life. I don’t mind talking to my students about the things I do in Korea and about my family and my life in America. There are some times where I don’t always feel comfortable about answering certain questions, such as age (even though I understand WHY they are asking, but it’s awkward when I am around the same age as some of the graduate students I am teaching) or my dating/marital status (since my students are mostly male and the question, “What do you think of Korean men? Would you date Korean men? Do you think they are handsome?” generally pops up) can make the answering of those questions somewhat uncomfortable for me. I am getting better at handling those questions and being more open to my students, but it’s not always the case.

    So, being able to share and disclose more of my personal life with my personal life depends on the situation. Ideally I would like to share more with my students, but I can understand the reasons why not everyone is as forthcoming about their personal lives.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment Suzanne, and for subscribing!

      As I read your entry the idea came to me that safety is as important for the teacher as it is for the students. In the cases you described, I can imagine how unsafe it would be for you to talk about your love life with a classroom of men. This puts you in a vulnerable situation, which can lead to possible negative repercussions. What we disclose depends on our context. In my situation, I am a Canadian woman married to Korean man among a group of men and women adults. In this case, I don’t feel threatened to share. If I had had a negative response to sharing my story, I probably would refrain from sharing it. In this case, my disclosure would not be creating the environment I want.

      Thank you for joining in the discussion. It is a topic that has many layers, and something I often think about at the beginning of a semester.

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