Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 1 – Educating the Test Takers of Tomorrow


The words “South Korea” and “education” are synonymous with the picture of children sitting nicely in rows, hanging on every word that the teacher says, participating and interacting to the maximum. If only reality matched this perception.

The perception...

...and the reality
The biggest thing that I have learned from this year in Seoul is in regards to this seemingly “magnificent” educational system that the Koreans have in place. The high and amazing test scores that Korean students produce on standardized tests only tell part of the tale – a very small, over-blown portion. There are so many other aspects to education that are either missing or overlooked by the current system in place here in Korea.

4 hours = success, while 5 hours = failure
This saying refers to the amount of sleep that many Korean students, especially those in high school, receive each night. Their days are hectic and tiring, but not with activities like sports and drama. Instead, their days are jam packed with studying, studying, and even more studying.

A typical day for many of my students looked like the following:
0800-1600: Attend Seoul High School
1600-1700: Small break for dinner
1700-2300 (or so): Academy (aka Hagwon) for extra schooling/tutoring/help
2300-0300: Home for some more studying
0300-0700: Sleep

Repeat 5 days a week. Sound miserable?? It’s no wonder that many Korean classrooms look like this and not like the quintessential image that the rest of the world has. 


The study regime is so strenuous because their future depends on it. By the time that students reach high school, their lives become centered around one gigantic test at the end of their senior year. This test, known as the KSAT (think SAT/ACT) determines if and where each student will go to college at. So it’s no big pressure what so ever.

With all of this pressure to perform well on this one test, it’s no wonder that students spend every waking moment cramming and trying to remember important facts and numbers. However, this is a really sad and depressive way to live every day of your life for three years or so. I can’t imagine going through high school without being involved in drama, band, choir, and speech. There’s no way that high school would’ve been as enjoyable or fun. 

This is a rare scene amongst the high school students in Seoul
This is also creating a disparity between the upper and lower class within Korea. Academies are expensive. The only students that go to these extra sessions are ones that have money and are able to afford it. Since I taught in one of the richest districts of Seoul, pretty much all of my students attended these academies. This meant that they had little to no energy every day when they came to my class. Sleeping was common. Lack of response was normal. All in all, teaching was frustrating.

Lack of respect for school and teachers
The days of students holding their teachers in high reverence have passed like the setting sun. One of the things that is contributing to this lack of respect is the spread of Western culture across Korea. Students are being influenced by popular TV shows, music, and other things from outside of its borders that are contributing to this demise. Another factor is the popularity of academies and the rigors that accompany them.

One of the things that happens at these academies is the students learn material that they are supposed to be learning at the public high schools BEFORE the material is presented at the public schools. So students are coming to class already knowing what the teachers are going to be teaching. This leads to talking back, lack of participation, and overall laziness/sleeping on the part of the students.

With this current system in place, public high schools are become obsolete and pointless. Students are coming to school with the notion that they know everything and more than the teacher, which makes it hard for teachers to control their students and teach them. This frustrating problem is not going to be getting any better any time soon as more and more students are heading to hagwon following school to continue the learning process.

45 in a class – SAY WHAT?!?!?!
Imagine walking into a room for the first time. As you walk through the door, you notice that there are 90 pairs of eyes staring at you, waiting to see what you’re made of. Nerve wrecking? Just a tad. Now imagine having to do this 3-4 times a day for 12-15 weeks. Welcome to teaching in Korea!

Every week, I taught 15 classes. Compared to my subbing gig in the states (in which I had 30 classes a week), this was a piece of cake and quite nice actually. However, within each class, there were 45 Korean boys awaiting me. Most of the time they were sweaty, chatty, and not interested in anything that I had to say. Enter frustration.

Now my class was labeled as a “conversational English class.” Getting 45 boys to speak in English is a nearly impossible task. I tried everything that I could think of to make this happen. I gave them dialogues to read. I created games and put them in groups. I even went so far as to TELL them what to say. Anything to try and make this happen. None of it seemed to matter. The majority were not interested in even attempting to humor me. Enter popping veins.

It was a struggle most days to even get out of bed. I knew that this experience was going to be different. I wasn’t expecting it to be the exact same as teaching in the states. I knew that it wasn’t going to be. But going into each class feeling like there was no pint was not what I had in mind. There were some days where I just felt like a glorified babysitter. Had it not been for the amazingly awesome and supportive teachers that I worked with, it would’ve been an extremely long and tiring year.

End of one adventure leads to the beginning of another…
So my time in Korea has come and gone. I’ve been back in the states now for about a week. It’s been quite the week to say the least, but I’ll save those details for another time. Korea was an experience that I’ll never forget. The things that I learned, the people that I met, and the experiences that I had will never be forgotten. I don’t regret it at all. I’ve changed for the better and feel even better equipped for my new start in Florida!

Speaking of Florida…I am currently residing in Boynton Beach and will be participating in AmeriCorps (think Peace Corps, but within the United States) for the next year. As always, I’ll be keeping a blog of my experiences and journey as I meet new people, explore a new area, and continue on this exploration called life. The address for this new blog, entitled Living Under the Palms, is http://livingunderthepalms.wordpress.com/. Notice that this is a different address from this current blog.

Until next time…