Building Positive Classroom Interactions in Busan, South Korea

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Busan Foreign School

  • Busan, South Korea
  • Private PreK-12 international school
  • Implementing Responsive Classroom since 2018

This is my second year teaching at Busan Foreign School (BFS) in South Korea. BFS is a small school in the city of Busan, located on the southeastern tip of Korea and overlooking the East Sea. There are only 250 students in Pre-K through grade 12. Our student population is quite transitional: It consists of approximately 30 percent South Korean holding foreign passports (that is, a passport from the United States or Russia), 30 percent Russian, 30 percent from a mixture of 21 other nations, and the remaining portion of students from U.S. military families stationed in South Korea. Our curriculum is based on American Common Core Standards, which does not always align well with the ideas and styles of other countries, so our students and parents arrive with a wide range of expectations and experiences.

I have been teaching for 22 years and for 20 of those years I have taught overseas in Thailand, Africa, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, and Canada, so I am familiar with multicultural environments. I have always prided myself on the positive classroom environments and relationships I have established with students, and my experience before BFS was one of good relationships with students who enjoyed our classes. But BFS had its own dynamic and unique composition, and I found my initial experience here to be more challenging than previous assignments.

BFS prioritizes strengthening school community and positive relations with students and encourages their staff’s professional development in this area. With this in mind, I was given the opportunity to attend a Responsive Classroom introductory workshop soon after I was hired. It turned out to be a blessing, because it allowed me to incorporate Responsive Classroom strategies almost from the beginning of the school year.

I started my first year with a group of strong-willed personalities who were unable to get along in positive ways. There was an overabundance of negative behavior—tattling, whining, and excluding or other bullying behaviors—happening in the classroom, at recess, and in the cafeteria. I became frustrated trying to intervene and stop the negative behaviors. I had made class rules with the students’ input and held what I thought were positive Morning Meetings. But, based on what I had learned at the Responsive Classroom workshop, I slowly began to realize that many of the students in my class lacked social skills and an awareness of appropriate ways to manage social and emotional interactions. Some students were behaving in ways they had learned in their previous schools, where physical responses such as pushing or standing close to intimidate someone were widely accepted. Other students had come from schools that had rewarded them for telling on classmates who misbehaved. And there were students who had never been taught what behavior was acceptable.

To address these issues, I focused our Morning Meetings in the first half of the year on teaching and reinforcing social and emotional skills. To back up our Morning Meetings, posters of our favorite compliments, thank-yous, greetings, and goodbyes were hung around the classroom for students to reference. The steps proved successful. My students learned to ask questions and make comments respectfully. Tattling, fighting, and hurtful behavior dropped dramatically as the class learned how to talk to each other, solve disagreements, or ask for help in a respectful manner and without upsetting each other. Students used their social skills to interact positively with each other throughout the day, and we began to spend less time on management and more time on learning.

I have not been back in front of the class since I attended another Responsive Classroom session, a four-day institute in Singapore in February 2020. When I returned from that session, our school had switched to online learning due to the coronavirus with plans to continue using this remote structure into at least May.

As we shifted to interacting with each other online, class meetings remained part of our routine. Students continue to use the skills they learned in their Morning Meetings and other activities. They follow the signal for quiet, we greet everyone as we enter our meetings, and we still have opportunities to share and do bonding activities together online. They have also figured out how to include each other in online games and Internet chats. We have even welcomed three new students to our classroom and they have made friends with the other students even though they have never met in person.

All of this shared community and support is only possible because of the time and effort we put into building social and emotional skills. The introduction of the Responsive Classroom approach has changed my classroom for the better, especially during this current time of uncertainty and the abrupt change to a new learning structure. My relationships with my students, and their relationships with each other, have strengthened, and our classroom, whether online or in person, has become a much more positive environment. It has been essential for keeping up with my students and to keep us all connected. I am so glad that I have had the opportunity to add the Responsive Classroom approach into my teaching structure.