Corporal Punishment in Korean Schools

First day back at school after summer vacation and I’ve already seen 5 students getting hit by their teachers.. Obviously a great start to the semester.

I half-jokingly wrote this status on my Facebook a few days ago, somewhat recklessly. I’ve been living in Korea for six months so I suppose I’m a bit used to teachers hitting students. My friends in America who read my update, however, are not used to it. 


Source: Tumblr

I admit I shouldn’t have mentioned it so nonchalantly – or even at all – but the feedback I received definitely made me reevaluate student-teacher relationships in both America and Korea.

In most US states, hitting a student would be an outrage. If a teacher ever laid a hand on a student, they would instantly get fired and possibly sentenced to jail-time. A friend of mine posted an article that mentioned a teacher losing her job because a student had written on another student with permanent marker. This teacher tried to get the markings off with a wash cloth, which ended up leaving a red mark. The parent of this student called the media and the teacher was fired (CNN).

Yes, I realize punishing a student via whackings on the back with a stick is quite different than trying to remove permanent marker with a towel. But it’s interesting how the innocent act can cost a teacher her job in some countries.

What I think some people don’t realize is that student-teacher relations greatly vary from country to country. Is it okay to hit students in any country? I would personally say no. But the way teachers and students interact in some countries are completely opposite in others, so you might have to gain a better understanding of the society and the boundaries set forth from place to place before making too quick of judgments.

In California, no physical contact should be made. Teachers shouldn’t be “too involved” with students. They shouldn’t be involved in their personal life, unless under extreme circumstances. Teachers should never take students anywhere without the parent’s permission and teachers often have to walk on egg shells these days to ensure they are not “crossing any lines”.

In Korea, the teachers here are like their second parents. If one of my kids gets sick or injured at school, my co-teacher will leave class to take them to the hospital. If a student is in trouble and needs a ride somewhere, they’ll call the teacher to have them come pick them up. These types of things happen without parents being notified, which is the norm. Teachers and students will text and call each other during and outside school hours. I’ve seen teachers holding students’ hands, playfully “patting” them on the bottom (with absolutely innocent intentions) and giving them hugs. And I’m at a large public middle school of almost 2000 kids, not a 90-student, private school of art students. These kinds of well-intended acts might be misconstrued by other cultures and would be completely inappropriate in a different setting (i.e. America).

So while it may seem shocking that teachers hit their students, there are far less boundaries here in Korea. People don’t acknowledge the “bubbles” that we are so concerned about in America. They don’t care much for personal space. So while this means more family-like, intimate relationships, it also means teachers can hit students when they misbehave, like a mother can to her son.

I suppose both types of relationships have their pros and cons. There is often a stronger bond between students and teachers in Korea because of the high level of affection on both ends. Obviously the negative side in Korea is the whole corporal punishment thing. Some students will behave in order to “not get hit” – which also means that they will act out more in my classes because they know I would never hit them. On the other hand, some students don’t seem phased at all by physical punishment. I often see the same students in the teacher’s office getting hit on the arms or back with a stick, which completely makes sense –  “the more students are spanked, the more aggressive and problematic their behavior is” (Timewhich, by the way, is quoted from a professor in Texas – one of 19 states in the US that allow teachers to hit or spank students).

States in red allow corporal punishment in schools. Source: Topical Teaching

States in red allow corporal punishment in schools – Source: Topical Teaching

I only taught in America for a few months so my perspective is mainly student-based. I remember loving many of my teachers and professors throughout my entire education but I didn’t have nearly the same relationship with them as my students do with their Korean teachers. Maybe it’s just growing up in a society where the norm is to keep a somewhat professional relationship, so I think it would be weird any other way. I just feel like all relationships are beneficial in different ways. I don’t need my teachers or professors to be my parents because I already have those. Maybe the parent-child relationship has something to do with the teacher-student relationship here in Korea. Who knows.

What I do know however, is that when my students want to give me hugs, climb on my back, hold my hand, or show some kind of affection – it’s when I love my job most.


  1. It’s all a matter of perspective.


    1. I absolutely agree 🙂


  2. Yvie Sismee · · Reply

    Interesting! I didn’t know hitting was allowed at all in any state of America.


    1. I didn’t either until I read some articles. Most states that allow it are in the south. Out of the too 100 largest schools (primary/secondary), 97 prohibit corporal punishment in schools. Thanks for reading 🙂


  3. I do think the education system in the US and in the UK needs a big upheaval. It doesn’t work for everyone and I think this distance teachers keep is a lot to do with it – There’s a lack of trust and respect from students, and no empathy or sympathy and an inability to understand how to communicate ideas to pupils from teachers.


  4. Corporal punishment teaches us to endure some pain and stress, which is really good for learning to handle the (much worse!) stresses in our adult lives. In North America, even where there is little or no corporal punishment at school, there is often a fair bit at home, so I don’t look at the Korean attitudes surrounding corporal punishment to be very different from American ones. I think racism and language barriers play the largest roles in making us think we are different from each other.


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