Crossing the Water: Eighteen Months on an Island Working with Troubled Boys–A Teacher’s Memoir by Daniel Robb: A Book Review

1457748I have been teaching Koreans for seven years. There are times that I also teach non-native speakers from Asia and Africa. I have not taught my fellow Filipinos yet although I dream of it.

There is a big difference between teaching other foreign students and teaching my countrymen: It is a matter of cultural differences. When it comes to Korean educational system, Korean students, especially in these days, have academic competition. Their parents work their butts off to make sure that their parents can afford to send them through expensive academies and schools. In fact, it is a quite common thing to do that they are supported in school overseas. In other words, what all students are supposed to do is to focus on their studies while their parents are away, busy with their jobs. Consequently, based on my observation, students tend to experience psychological and physiological effects. Physiologically, they are always tired and sleepy during class because they always stay up very late , busy  pulling an all-nighter. Also, some of them tend to have short attention span. Meaning to say, they can easily lose patience under slow circumstances. I have learned that students, or I guess my student then and  I coined it ourselves , “ Bali-bali syndrome”, an expression in Korean  which  means, “ Hurry up!”Psychologically, without offense, some I have taught have delinquent behavior. Some were rude to me. Some discriminated against me. Some played tricks on me. Some tended to get uppity because Korea is richer than my country. So, within seven years, I always have had a hard time teaching my students. Nevertheless, I have known it all along that it has been a big challenge for me until I have learned that the best way to build a harmonious student-teacher relationship is to adapt their culture. I found that this kind of approach somehow works.

Daniel Robb, the author of the book, is an English teacher too. He wrote in his memoir about his teaching life on an island which is Pekinese where juvenile delinquents are sent to be rectified. He, along with the other staff on the island, lived with many kinds of handfuls whose lives have been complicated. He taught them academics, particularly English which is his forte, carpentry, and other household chores. The big challenge for Mr. Robb was how to catch his students’ interest, for they were predisposed to anti-social behaviors.  How would you teach students who keep on cussing you? A student who is always making a fool of you? An arson student who can risk your life while you are asleep? A student who likes to get in high? A student who likes to play hit-and-run? A sexually  preoccupied student? Or even a psycho student? Fortunately, Mr. Robb somehow managed to handle them. He tried to be tough and empathic at the same time. However, there were times that  he could no longer put up with them alike. But the longer he stayed on the island, the more he had heuristic insights into his life. There ,on the island,  he learned to understand the students’ abject misery. Like them, Mr. Robb also grew without a father figure.

Given the book is powerful and deeply moving , I really liked it  because I can relate to his pedagogical dilemma. Also, there are some parts in which he tells about some literary and historical pieces such as on Marxism and Mao Zedong. Furthermore, it is perfectly well-written giving the indication that Mr. Robb is a gifted writer. However, I just had a hard time reading some dialogues with various English accents  since his students came from different regions of the U.S.

In the end, Mr. Robb and I , maybe even you when you read it , are in the same opinion that there are juvenile delinquents because of the familial problems which come into existence at home. After all, parents should be responsible for their kids.  They should love their kids because love is a powerful element created in the universe.

Although Mr. Robb quit teaching on the island, he still represents all  teachers who have the same passion for teaching regardless of money or environment elsewhere.

For  the same theme, I suggest that you read Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man. This memoir deals with Mr. McCourt’s teaching difficulties  in a vocational and melting-pot school.


Rating: 4/ 5 stars ( I really liked it. )


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