Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Want to know a secret?

I've always wanted to be called "쌤". Pronounced ssaem (like the first syllable of "semaphore"), it's an abbreviation of the word "선생님" (seonsaengnim), which means "teacher".

In Korea, teachers can be addressed by the simple title "Teacher", just like American college professors can be called "Professor" by their students. But if a student uses 쌤 instead of 선생님, it implies a closer relationship between the two. If a student is joking around with their teacher outside of class, or greets them excitedly upon seeing them, it's likely that they'll use the abbreviation as a term of endearment.

Now, my students have never called me 쌤. They call me "Teacher" or "Andrew Teacher", and some of my older students, who feel more comfortable with me, just call me "Andrew". That's what I told them all to call me, anyway, as I insist on their using only English. But I can't deny that I'd love for some of them to use 쌤 instead. It would mean a lot of different things, among them the affirmation that I am actually a legitimate teacher here, not just a visitor who's here to train them in practical usage of the English language. It would mean that they consider me if not a friend, then at least friendly and comfortable enough to be around to use a bit of Korean slang.

But today, it happened! Somewhat. Just like last week's basketball tournament that all my students were obsessing over, this week's lunchtime soccer tournament captures everyone's attention during that short thirty minutes before fifth period. EJ and CY, two likable students from one of my second-year classes, were watching their peers play from the window of our English classroom on the third floor. The game underway on the dirt field outside was very intense: two to one, and very little time left on the clock. As I entered the classroom to prepare for the next period, I heard a roar come from outside.

"Who scored?" I asked, although I already knew from the groans and frustrated yells from my second-years.

"Third grade!" said EJ, angrily. She was totally into the game, now tied and almost over. With the bell for fifth period about to ring, they had to go into a shootout tiebreaker. With every goal by the third-years, I gave a little cheer (full disclosure: I like my third-year students a lot). I told EJ and CY very plainly that I support all of my students, but I was secretly enjoying getting a rise out of EJ because she was going so crazy over the outcome of the game, literally pulling her hair and jumping up and down and all that.

So I kept cheering on the third-years and pleasantly clapping for the second-years, and finally, the third-years scored a goal, and I said, "Hooray!" and EJ turned to me and said "쌤!!!" with this hilarious how-could-you look on her face. As soon as that word left her mouth, she corrected herself and said, "Teacher!!!" still just as incredulously. But I was smiling inside, and not just because my third-years had won the game.


  1. Funny I came across your blog today. I don't know you at all or how old you are, but could that maybe have something to do with it? I started teaching in Korea about 2 1/2 months ago, and was 22 when I started, but have sense turned 23. The teacher before me was quite a bit older than me and a female. I teach at a co-ed school, so as you can expect I receive a lot of love from my girls (and boys now too after playing soccer with them for some weeks now). Anyways I don't really encourage the English only thing to the English teacher. I like when my students speak English, but I also see it as an opportunity for me to practice my Korean as well as I don't want students who aren't as good at English to hesitate trying to communicate with me, so I welcome Korean speech thrown my way. When I can I will use Korean with them. All this put together has gotten me quite close with my students in a relatively short period of time. I know exactly what you mean with the whole 쌤 thing. It makes you feel awesome and like you belong more. I am lucky enough to get it quite often now, especially from the girls. They usually use "쌤" or "닉~" my name in Korean. I hope you get more "쌤" in the future.

    Like I said I don't know anything about you, but be as open as possible/appropriate with your students, and it will come! Cheers!

    1. We're about the same age. That said, my co-teachers, who are mostly in their forties at least, are still addressed by students as 쌤 if they're close with their students. Sometimes, I do think the English-only rule has caused some kind of barrier, but given that, all the more success when a shy student *does* talk to me, I suppose! Anyway, thanks for reading! (Also, welcome to Korea!)

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  3. I came across your blog today, it's 2021! I'm a Filipina learning Korean language, and I call my teacher here, 쌤. I hope most of your students call you 쌤 by now. Wish you all the best!

    PS. great blog!