The love stick that motivates

Confusion and concern rushes through me whenever I hear comments like these:

I know my teacher cared because he hit us with his stick when we didn’t get the answer right.

If I fail a quiz, my teacher hits me with a stick. I don’t mind this because it makes me think of what I’ve done wrong.

Although I didn’t like it at the time, when I look back, I know he hit me because he loved me and wanted me to learn. This is how he motivated me.

Both Korean teachers and students have shared such stories with me, and each time I hear them, I’m left baffled. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the equations: hitting=love and hitting=learning. 

Maybe I react this way because I put myself in the shoes of the student being threatened or hit. There is no way that my 12 year old self would understand these equations. I’m pretty confident that 16 year old Josette would rage with hatred if that stick of love came down on her palms. And I’m equally sure that 10 year old Josette would cry home in shame.

I also realize that not everyone would react like me. For the sake of trying to understand, I’ll set aside my prejudices for a moment. What if students want to this type of punishment? It seems some believe they do.  But what about the Josettes in the class? If my intention is to show care, I would need to make sure that my students respond to this kind of care. Would teachers need to get feedback from students to determine if they need the “stick of love” discipline? It surely would make for an interesting needs assessment:

Circle the answers that match your needs.

I want to be hit with the stick of love when I make a mistake or fail a quiz/test.

  • Yes
  • No

If you want to be hit, how many times do you want to be hit with the stick of love?

  • 5 strokes
  • 10 strokes
  • 20 strokes

If you want to be hit with the stick of love, where do you want to be hit?

  • posterior
  • back of the legs
  • palms
  • soles of the feet

I don’t think this kind of feedback is being collected.

My intention isn’t to make light of this. I know it’s a sticky subject and will conjure up plenty of mixed feelings. I just needed to write this out of concern for students who don’t respond positively to the love stick (so hard to write that sentence. I can’t imagine anyone truly responding positively. What about the long-term consequences? What does this do to their spirit? “Squelch it” comes to mind.) And of course the question comes up, even if they think they need the stick, are they capable of making a rational decision at this point? I know students out there who don’t want to be hit. They want love. They want warmth. They want to feel safe.

I have a hard time believing this boy would respond well to the stick.
* image from “Korean Students Speak” at

I also know that there are teachers out there who just don’t think they have an alternative. I have heard many times that this is part of the their tradition. This is how Korean teachers have been motivating students for centuries. They can’t imagine another way to encourage students to study. Plus, taking away the stick means giving the stick to students. Check out PRI: The World for more on this point: South Korea debates students discipline.

I think there is an alternative. I think it involves listening to students. I realize there is a lot in that sentence. What does it mean to listen to 30 students who don’t want to be in English class? What does it mean to listen to students when they are depressed, and you are exhausted because you have far too much paper work to do and still need to monitor students until midnight?

How do we listen? It’ll take a major shift in the system, but I think it can happen. It needs to happen. Too many students are in pain. Too many students are chronically depressed. Too many students are dying.

The stick of love won’t suffice. I think teachers and administrators need to learn about the power of compassion and understanding. They need to be trained how to listen compassionately. They need to learn how to see students as human beings. More counselors are needed whose only job is listening and caring. Of course, a lot more than this needs to happen (maybe a complete overhaul of the system), but this could be a start.

I think everyone in the Korean educational system could benefit from being heard. I think everyone could benefit from a little more love…minus the stick.

Other article related to this topic:

29 thoughts on “The love stick that motivates

  1. I just watched the video and read through the comments here. There is a lot I am thinking about and most of it has to do with ego. I’ve been rereading Tolle and remember his idea of egoic action: “As long as the ego runs your life, most of your thoughts, emotions, and actions arise from desire and fear. In relationships you then either want or fear something from the other person. What you want from them may be pleasure or material gain, recognition, praise or attention, or a strengthening of your sense of self through comparison and through establishing that you are, have, or know more than they. What you fear is that the opposite may be the case, and they may diminish your sense of self in some way.”

    There are definite cultural factors at work but when I see these teachers lashing out, I see it as feeding the ego or the idea of superiority over students, control over students and cruelly reminding students that they are inferior. In some way, I also see these teachers feeling as if they are failing themselves and maybe the system when students don’t know answers or are not “in-line”. Their egos are in overdrive – power, control, ability, knowledge, position, privilege – “don’t question me, don’t resist, don’t show weakness, I’ll show you”.

    Also, there is a generation right now whose ego is grounded in anger and retaliation because of these acts that resistance and loathing abound. You can see it in the video when some students try to grab the stick or when other classmates flinch because they want to help their classmate especially in the vid of the young girl. Something is stirring. Negativity breeding negativity? Uprising? Compassion? Not sure.

    Do we want students to be critical thinkers? Do we want students to question unfair acts? What exactly is clashing with cultural tradition?

    East or West, one nation or not, I remember when teachers and principals were allowed to hit students in Canada. I sure as hell don’t remember what I learned that day but I do remember the screams, the crying and the shame.


    1. Darryl,

      I was/am grateful for your thoughts and personal story in relation to this incredibly difficult issue. I regret taking so long to respond. I wasn’t sure when to bring this topic back into focus. I got a sign yesterday, so I thought it was time to respond. :)

      You brought up interesting points about these desires for control and superiority as being led by the ego. What comes to mind is that they are surely not driven by the joy of learning. Your questions at the end really brought that home: Do we want students to be critical thinkers? Do we want students to question unfair acts? I would bet that many people wouldn’t know what to say, but in the end, in secret, they might whisper “no”. My experience with the participants in our program, and just observing the state of society here in Korea, critical/creative thinking seems to be seen as a luxury. It’s not part of the program. Control is part of the program since the test is king.

      You brought up another great point about the uprising. What is coming up? As I listen to colleagues, and pay attention to the media buzz, it seems like rebellion is coming up. Rebellion and hopelessness. I found this article the other day and was confused once again: Another Teen Suicide in Daegu They feel like they have no way out. They rebel against society, or they rebel against themselves. Incredibly sad. How is it that administrators can’t see that benefit won’t come from creating a new test (NEAT), but will come from really taking care of these precious beings?

      I guess my questions now is, what am I (we) going to do to make these changes happen? Slow steps.


  2. Thank you for posting on this topic. It’s so important to bring to the open and it’s an issue that so many have to deal with, a reality in many countries.

    I saw this video a while ago ( about the debate on corporal punishment in Korea. One of the teachers says that hitting and teaching go hand in hand. A mother says that not hitting the kids is neglecting them. And the video seems to show that the only alternative to hitting is chaos. This makes very little sense to me.

    Now I want to suggest something crazy: what if teachers practice being strict with compassion, rather than punishment? What if we abandon the love stick for our real presence in the classroom? And, because this is the world our students live in, why don’t we teach resilience rather than fear?


    1. Anne,
      I just clicked on the video. Seeing that teacher beat that small child was very hard to watch. I couldn’t finish it. I thank you very much for adding it here. As titled, it is a “Painful Lesson” indeed.

      But more than anything, I thank you for adding these thought provoking questions to the discussion. I would like to honor your questions by dedicating a post to them. Like you, it doesn’t make sense to me that the alternative to hitting is chaos. I think it doesn’t make sense because I’ve seen an alternative. I’d love it if others could share the alternatives they’ve been lucky to observe. Many shared their stories of being hit, but what stories are out there about the power of compassion and presence? And what a wonderful concept of teaching resilience rather than fear.

      I would also like to put out a challenge to all educators to share their answers to these questions. Let’s start sharing hope rather than regret and confusion.

      In deep gratitude,


  3. Hello Josette,

    Thanks for sharing such an important post and thanks to all for sharing thoughts and experiences on this. I thought I’d share some thoughts from a student of mine. In class yesterday we were talking about culture and school and any number of things. He (a Korean student that is probably in his 20’2) sort of innocently mentioned being hit by some teachers when he was in school. After recasting “She hit me” instead of “She hitted me” (yes I actually did that) I asked him about this privately during the break time. He sort of mentioned the love aspect and it went something like this.
    1. These are my words and interpretation of what he said
    2. I offer this not as an excuse (or even as an explanation) but just as another voice on the issue].

    There were lots of students in class. There were lots of bad teachers that didn’t really care about students or teaching. They would just come in and put on a show of teaching and not really care about teaching or students. They would just lecture to the blackboard until class was over and then leave. Students might feel that teachers didn’t care about them at all. Some teachers, however, cared about students and made sure that they studied hard. There were some teachers that were able to show their caring without hitting but many teachers were not good enough for this. So, students felt that teachers that hit actually cared (as compared to the previously mentioned ones that just put on a show of teaching).

    Thanks again,


    1. Mike,

      I’m so glad that you brought this up. This is the point that has been nagging me throughout this whole discussion. No matter how “bad” we think this is, many Koreans who have experienced this “love stick”, generally don’t complain about it. It all comes back to that perception of care. I can’t help but feel judgmental by saying it’s wrong, despite the slight sense of repulsion in the pit of my stomach when I admit this.

      After reading your comment, I shared your student’s thoughts with a Korean friend. I described what your student said, and also shared my feelings. His response, “yeah, you just won’t be able to understand.” He made a clear distinction between teachers who used the stick to enforce rules versus teachers who abused it. He said he can’t remember the teachers who used it to reinforce their studies, and only remembers the teachers who hit him in an abusive way. I’m not sure what this means, but it meant something to him.

      I can’t deny the cultural awareness that comes into play here. Despite this, there is still the basic level of respect for the human body and mind that gets in the way of me embracing this method of discipline.

      Thanks to your student for sharing his experience with you, and your willingness to share it with us.


  4. Four stories of corporal punishment from my life:
    I was hit by my mother, and talked at by my father. The latter was waaaay more painful – at least it was only a few hits (with a ruler) or a couple of slaps, while the talking went on for ages, covered at least three generations of family history, and left me feeling lower than a worm.

    Our Hindi tutor used to rap us over the knuckles with a ruler if we hadn’t learnt the list of 40 vocab words we had to memorise daily. That didn’t make it any easier to learn or remember the meanings of the words. One day, my mum saw him hit us, rushed up, grabbed the ruler, broke it in half, and threw it down the stairwell. He was allowed to leave through the front door, and not allowed to return.

    I found out from my aunts and my mum, that my gran (my lovely loving Supergran) used to regularly break a bundle of canes over my mum, every day. If we look at this generationally (as my dad loves to do): gran’s generation – hitting teaches obedience, hit a lot (didn’t work); mum’s generation – hitting reinforces the message, hit a little; my generation: don’t have children, that way, you’ll never be tempted to hit them.

    In boarding school, one of my classmates was caned (over her back, broke the skin, couldn’t rest her back against anything for days afterwards, or sleep on her back) by one of the nuns for supposedly changing dorm beds without permission. (She hadn’t done so, it was someone else.) I thought it was pretty cool of her parents to take her out of school when they found out – though am still surprised they found out, cos the nun who hit her was also the nun who read all our mail, and demanded rewrites if we didn’t say nice things about our time there.


    1. Maria, I am very grateful that you shared these four stories with us. When I read them last week, I was touched by the honest description. What struck me was the variety of perceptions. Although your mother hit you, it wasn’t okay for the tutor to do the same. Your mother may have hit you because she was hit by your gran, but for you, this form of discipline has become a type of birth control. However, do you think the cycle can truly end? I don’t want to push you to answer, but I’m curious to know if you feel confident about this.

      The common thread between all of the stories is the sense of confusion that seems to transmitted. Although one person interprets corporal punishment in one way, it doesn’t mean the other will see it the same way.

      The other thread is that hitting is connected to obedience, and it seems that for too long obedience has been equated to learning. I wonder when these two will finally separate.

      Again, thank you for bringing yourself to the discussion. You truly enriched it.

      All the best,


  5. A lot of food for thought (as always) both in your blog and in the comments. Let me share two stories. The first comes from the series QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, and basically tells us that it wasn’t that long ago in England, America, etc. knowledge was also ‘beaten’ into children. One headmaster kept detailed records of such punishments, and if his figures are to be believed, more than 400 beatings a week were administered at his school. When I say not that long ago, I mean even into the 1960’s and 70’s in parts of the Western world.
    Secondly, an incident that took place at one my schools just this week. Two girls were playing around outside of class, and hoisting each other on their backs. One saw me and said that her friend is very heavy (fat). I said that I’d like to check that, and put my arms around her waist and lifted her. Immediately I was called a bad teacher, who had hurt her, her back was now hurting, it was terrible. I apologised (may I say that I am a female teacher, and that I put my arms around her from behind, not face to face.) Thinking about this later, I realize that the kids do flinch from any ‘kind’ touch, hugs, etc. Is it because that kind of touch is only associated in Asian with sexual matters and is taboo for normal interaction? Or that they just aren’t used to it? Or that Westerners are seen as taboo? Or simply that hitting with a stick (never your hand) is the ‘love’?
    If so, as you rightly say, what about those whose spirits would either rebel wildly or be crushed? And then there are those who revel in flouting the regulations, take their stripes and become hardened to it, and as ‘discipline’ it no longer has any effect.
    Finally, my parents beat me and my sisters regularly, and I must say there were times when I lost my temper and smacked my own kids, incidents of which I am deeply ashamed to this very day.


    1. Leonie, thank you for sharing these stories with us. They help us understand what students and teachers are facing these days in relation to this topic. You bring up interesting questions about what it means to be “touched”. It is something I am still not sure about. I find myself occasionally wondering if I’ve gone too far in putting my hand on the shoulder of female participants who are older than me. Although my intention is to show care, kindness, and sometimes understanding, I am aware that it could be misconstrued. I realize that this is very different from your experience, but still brings to light the cultural miscommunication that seems to come from this topic.

      And what of the students who become hardened as you say? A very good point. The stick simply becomes another routine to get used to. Nothing more.

      Finally thank you for sharing your personal story. I realize we put ourselves in vulnerable positions when we share difficult stories about our past, but we grow so much from releasing them and from letting others learn from them. I thank you for allowing us to learn through you. Your story touched me as well as other readers.


  6. Many teachers that would be horrified to hear of “the stick” use a verbal stick every day. The physicality of this story shocks us all, but surely it is just as bad to show derision and a lack of respect for students’ efforts verbally or with body language? This is something that is unfortunately standard behaviour by teachers in the Western world, and although criticised by many, not to the same extent as corporal punishment. I imagine that many students who suffer the stick become more upset knowing that they have “failed” their teacher than because of a whack on the fingers.


    1. Hello Michelle,

      First, happy to meet you! And thank you for stopping by with such an important point of view. The “verbal stick” as you said, may be the least shocking, but definitely very pervasive. This is a topic I hold dear, and have dedicated some of my research to this exploration. How can teachers become aware of how their language (body language) affects their students? Especially when we consider judgmental language, or language of abuse, how can teachers learn to change? I wrote my thesis on this topic, and also did a presentation here in Korea. You can check it our at the top of the page if you’re interested.

      I look forward to continuing this talk with you. :)



  7. I was stunned by your post, Josette. I knew things were strict in your teaching context, but didn’t know this happened. I agree that it’s perhaps too easy to come in from outside and make judgements, but if a stick represents love, then other ways to show love need to be found, surely?


    1. Of course, but that’s got to come from education. but if even education teaches them that the stick is love, then what do you get? I’m tactile, I’m affectionate and that’s how I show my love; maybe I’m lucky and I could stop the “tradition”; maybe it’s because I hated it so much that I can’t bring myself to accept it. Still, when I lose my temper, I feel like lashing out; normally it’s something like a table or whatever that’s around that suffers. I certainly have never used a cane nor a ruler, for that matter. It’s like conscious control. So, is that feeling natural or has it been passed on to me?

      You see, I have the benefit of experiencing Eastern & Western culture, even Islamic & Latin and I’ll tell you, Rachael, the Orientals are generally not tactile people. Perhaps that has got something to do with it – I don’t know; I’m not a specialist in that area. The sociologists & the psychologists among us may have something to say.

      I’ll tell you an anecdote, Rachael. I have a friend from Singapore whose father is Chinese, of if not, has the mentality of the older-generation Chinese. My friend was working as a sales rep in Dior. One day, he had to go to the airport to welcome the Parisian rep, a middle-aged lady, heavily made-up. They greeted each other with a kiss on each cheek, and a hug – that’s all so normal with us, right?

      They then proceeded to a hotel bar where they had a few drinks. Also normal to those accustomed to the Western ways. When he arrived home, his father was waiting for him. As soon as he got out of his car, he whacked him with a heavy metal rod! Cracked his skull, he did. Blood everywhere. He still has the scar.

      Why? A friend of the father’s – of the same mentality, no doubt – saw the ‘event’ at the airport, rang him & reported it. They’d figured that my friend was a gigolo! Can you beat that?

      Not once did he ever apologise to my friend. And yet, my friend says he loved his father. Dearly.

      If it were me, I think he’d never have seen me again!


      1. Hi Chiew,
        Your friend’s story is almost unbelievable. I guess though if that’s how you’ve been brought up to show love… But, like you, I experienced some hitting in childhood, but have never hit my children, so it certainly isn’t unavoidable. It sounds to me like your friend’s father was just consumed with fear, and perhaps that’s at the root of it all…fear of losing control of someone’s behaviour.


        1. Chiew,

          From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate your willingness to share your stories here: first your own story of being hit as a child and also your friend’s. You have opened up an important discussion. How does the cycle of violence really end? What resonated for me was that although you are appalled by the act of hitting someone, and you would never dream of doing such a thing, when you are pushed to a certain degree, you have a desire to lash out. Although it could be easy to say that this is expected behavior, one can’t but wonder if it is a reaction that is learned. This question deserves to be asked and examined with care. Let’s keep asking ourselves this question. Hopefully someday, we won’t need to ask anymore.

          I also like the idea of flipping the question: if a person has never been exposed to physical abuse (discipline?), will this person have the same reaction when their temper rises? I’m sure there are studies that show this, but I can’t find any at the moment. If anyone on this thread knows of any such research, please link it.


          It is shocking, and I appreciate the important question you raised, “if a stick represents love, then other ways to show love need to be found, surely?” Absolutely. And the more often I hear these stories the more I want to go out into the world and help others understand these different ways. It seems like this is something you, Chiew, Kevin, Michelle and others who have commented on Twitter or Facebook, are also interested in doing, and are probably doing already. For this I am grateful. I would also like to extend that I am very interested in keeping such a dialogue alive with all of you. How can we show love in ways that honor our students’ bodies and spirits?


  8. Josette,

    I read this post yesterday night and then read it again on the train this morning. I’m not sure what to say. I just know that the idea that you can beat a student towards doing better, smack them into being a better person, just makes no sense to me at all. People can say that there are cultural differences, that corporal punishment produces results…they can say whatever they want, but physically damaging a student because a test result did not meet an expectation (and whose expectation exactly? And how was it set?) is pretty much indefensible as far as I’m concerned. The fact that you are there, are engaging people in this conversation, and willing to put in the time and effort to try and make change… thank you, that’s all I can think to say. And any students who stumble upon your blog will thank you as well, I’m sure.



    1. Kevin,

      Thank you so much for sharing your voice. Your experience as a parent, as a social worker, and as a teacher brings so much to this discussion. I agree, it is indefensible. I also see sadness in this. What went so wrong in a person’s life that made them believe such a thing? It seems like such a confusing belief to hold: love = pain? This wrapped up within a Confucian mindset where children learn to not question and accept what an elder says or does. It overwhelms me just thinking about it. I can’t imagine what it feels like being in it. (and then a small voice says, you just don’t get it. It’s not your culture…hence, more feelings of confusion.)

      As always, I am grateful for your support. It gives me strength to keep talking about the tough stuff.



  9. I am not an advocate of the stick but I still believe hat the Korean way of life has a respect for the family and authority that we seem to have lost in north american culture. You need discipline in any society but repect for others is probably the key.


    1. Thank you so much for adding your thoughts to the discussion Guy. Yes historically and culturally there is this the type of respect that you mention, yet at the moment there is a shift in how that respect is being cultivated. It is a transition period of sorts. I agree with you, and Anne (LivingLearning) that there needs a kind of compassionate discipline that respects all parties involved.


  10. I found the “Korean Students Speak” site very powerful. It would be a nightmare for someone creative and rebellious like me to go through such a school system, and I truly hope it will change for the better. I have a lot of empathy and respect for my Korean students because of what they endured going through school. I think, ultimately, that Koreans are genuinely respectful people. That even though respect is literally beat into them, most of them are not bitter, and do truly respect their teachers – or at least their foreign teachers (Weigook sangseingnims!) I could be wrong though :(


    1. Yes, I was very happy to stumble upon this site Hailey. I’m glad you took the time to browse a bit. The power of some of those voices really rings through. They scream out the need for change in the system. As you reflected, it must be very hard for creative souls to exist here. It seems to me that respect has a much higher value than creativity. I guess we can easily say the same thing about many educational systems. Imagine the difference a little more art, and a little less standardization would do. Mind blowing really.


  11. It seems like a violent and abusive punishment that does not fit the “crime”. As Ralph Waldo Emerson aptly put it, “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil”.


  12. I’d been hit both by teachers & family, but no way did I think that it was for my own good. In fact, if I remember correctly, I was always left with a feeling of bewilderment, injustice, hatred, etc. – all negative feelings. Did it screw me up? I don’t know, really. Perhaps it did. Did it do any good for me? Absolutely not.
    OK, there are probably students with discipline problems, the cause of which can be very complicated, but I’ll bet that the majority of those that were smacked are just good kids trying to do their best. If they don’t reach the standards their teachers want, it’s not always because they don’t want to, but might be because they can’t? Whose fault is that then? Who smacks the teacher who smacks?


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