Useful Or Not? Foreign English Teachers In Korea

During the last few years, the number of jobs available for foreign English teachers in Korean public schools has significantly decreased. According to an article on The Korean Observer, the number of foreign teachers has dropped from over 9,000 to 6,785 in three years. Meanwhile jobs at hagwons are becoming more competitive between foreigners. The question is whether these cuts are beneficial, or detrimental, for Korean students.

I currently work at a public middle school, but one which is recognised throughout Korea as having an impressive English programme; parents pay fees specifically for foreigners to teach their children. Needless to say foreign teachers are important to the school and their lessons are an important part of students’ timetables. And I think having such a system which incorporates foreign teachers is invaluable.
'¼ö´É Á¡¼ö ¸î Á¡À̾úÁö?'There are a number of reasons why. Firstly, because Korean teachers can focus too much upon English grammar, rather than speaking and writing, so that their students can perform well on tests. I recently read this article on Korea Times, which states that 7 out of 10 middle/high school students are unsatisfied with their English lessons because they’re too ‘test-orientated.’ Of course it’s important for students to score well, but it’s also essential that they can hold a good conversation and write well in English. As such, lessons with foreign teachers, held entirely in English, can greatly help to improve conversational skills.
Secondly, there are some mistakes which Korean teachers make, or don’t pick up on when their students make them. The Korea Times article mentions that some Korean teachers don’t have the English ability to teach well enough; they aren’t re-trained and don’t have their English skills evaluated properly. And while I’m not implying that Korean-English teachers are incompetent, there are errors made, even if they’re tiny ones. Errors that perhaps only native English speakers pick up on and correct. Here are some example of mistakes I hear daily from students (and teachers):

  • The use of stressed/ stressful/ stress: “I feel very stressful” “Homework is very stressed”
  • The word ‘funny’ instead of ‘fun’: “Skiing is very funny” “My vacation was very funny”
  • The word ‘comfortable’ instead of ‘convenient’: “My smart phone is very comfortable”
  • Pronunciation to add ‘ee’ sound on the end of words: “Finishee” “Changee”
  • The word ‘until’ being used instead of ‘at’: “Until 3 pm, you can go home”

Mistakes like these may not stop someone understanding the speaker (apart from the use of the word ‘until’, which has confused me numerous times), but they prevent even the smartest students from speaking perfectly. And for this reason, having a foreign teacher to correct mistakes is extremely beneficial.

south_korea_10_26_01_english_teachersUnderstanding different accents is also important; American/ Canadian teachers are the most popular in Korea, because their accents are easier to understand. As I’m English, the problem with my accent came up when I was interviewed for jobs, and I didn’t think it would be a problem at all when teaching, but I was wrong. Time and time again, students and Korean friends have found my accent difficult to understand. Similarly South African accents, Australian, New Zealand, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh. But it’s important that Koreans can understand English speakers with different accents; what’s the point in speaking English fluently if you travel to Britain but can’t understand anyone? Or if you only understand the Korean-English accent of a Korean teacher.

There are numerous positives of having foreign teachers in public schools. However, there are ways in which I’d agree things can be improved. Mainly, the fact that English lessons taught by foreigners can be seen by students as somewhat of a ‘novelty’ and aren’t taken as seriously as other classes. In my case, foreign teachers aren’t involved in English exams, we give no homework and as for discipline, we don’t have much authority: we can’t speak to parents ourselves, and we don’t have the same respect as the Korean teachers, so any stern-words aren’t taken too seriously.

Moreover, despite the fact that parents pay a lot of money for us to teach their children, we’re constantly told to ‘play games’ and ‘keep the children happy’ rather than have a strict academic lesson. Of course it’s important to have fun, but if foreign teachers taught in the same way as Korean teachers, having tests, giving out homework, and keeping the focus on structured learning, students could learn more.

A number of South Korea students go abroad to study English.
A number of South Korea students go abroad to study English.

Given the benefits, it would be detrimental to students to further decrease the number of foreign teachers. There may still be native English speakers working in hagwons, but not all students attend hagwons, and so some will miss out on valuable teaching. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the most fluent students are those who have travelled to English-speaking countries to learn the language: this alone proves how useful time spent with native-English speakers can help English ability.

No matter how good a Korean-English teacher may be, it’s a bonus for students to interact with, and be taught by, foreigners, and I hope that ten years from now, there’ll still be foreign teachers in Korean public schools.

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A Message To Korea From A Student

In light of my recent post on exam stress, I thought it was quite fitting to share a video I saw on YouTube today. The video was made by a Korean middle-school student called Jason, and it shows his message to Korea: a depressing discussion of the Korean education system. 

The video pretty much speaks for itself, but a few phrases particularly stand out for me. Firstly, when Jason sarcastically (but fairly accurately) describes a student’s academic life: “You will study for 10 hours a day until your college entrance exam. You will go to college and study more. But if you are not going to a good college, do not expect your parents to love you.”

Ok, perhaps the last sentence is exaggerated, but it isn’t entirely untrue. As is his comparison between Korean education and ‘child abuse’.

Jason continues to give an example of an 11-year-old student who has to attend 12 after-school  programmes, and has so much work that she stays up until 3 am to finish it. Oh, and she has to get up at 7.15 for school the next morning. Healthy balance? I think not. 

The most disturbing part for me is Jason’s closing remark, which compares the Korean education system to the Sewol Ferry Disaster: like the ferry, “it’s holding a lot of great people […] but all of a sudden it’s going to go down.” It’s a bold statement, but the mere fact that Jason compares education to such a horrific tragedy speaks for itself; if Jason, with his negative feelings, represent the average Korean student, then surely, something needs to change.

Education is important, success is important, but at what price? I predict that Jason’s video will have an impact on those who see it, but whether it will have any effect on a larger level is questionable. All I know is that it’s pretty horrible to watch such an obviously intelligent student with so much anger. And I hope for his sake, that things improve in the (very) near future.

Stress, Tears, and Tantrums… It’s Exam Time.

reactiongifs.com
reactiongifs.com

There’s been a pretty negative atmosphere at school during the last week, and there’s one reason why: exam week. It’s the students’ final exams before the end of semester, a time when stress levels peak for pupils and teachers alike. Luckily for us foreign teachers, we are only in charge of one written exam. Apart from that, we’re not too involved in the tests, even the English one. But that doesn’t mean we’re completely removed from the drama when it’s exam season. During our time at the school we’ve seen students crying, parents crying, arguments, breakdowns and complaints.

I’ve written about education in Korea before: that while there is no arguing with the high academic achievements of Korean students, there is just far too much pressure placed upon students which leads to intense stress and misery. And the exam period just reinforces all my beliefs about the faults of the Korean education system.

studentbeans.com
studentbeans.com

First and foremost is obviously the absurd amount of pressure placed upon the students to perform well. My parents always used to say to me ‘as long as you do your best, that’s all you can do’- this is a sentiment which I think all students should be told. Sure, it’s foolish to not work your hardest when you have important tests, but if you try your absolute best and still only manage to gain a low/average mark, then you’ve done all you could do. And in my eyes, punishing a child who has worked to the best of their ability is belittling and harsh. Some people aren’t as academically gifted as others: this is a fact which should be understood and accepted.

But from what I’ve seen in 99% of students, this isn’t the case. Even if they try their hardest, if they study from 8 am to 12 am, if they don’t score well they will suffer the wrath, and even worse, shame, of their parents. And it seems that it is only a very high score which is acceptable; I’ve spoken to students who’ve been distraught about how ‘badly’ they’ve done, when in fact they’ve scored in the 80%  bracket. In my eyes, that’s a pretty admirable result. It’s one thing to be pressured to do well, but it’s another when ‘to do well’ means getting a close to perfect score.

Another thing which I believe has detrimental consequences is the fact that students keep their exam papers afterwards, and are allowed to ask the teachers the correct answers. Why is this a problem? Because it doesn’t allow students to relax after an exam, to actually feel relieved that they’ve finished. Instead, it causes even more stress and worry as they endlessly debate with their friends whether the answer ‘to number 2 was A or B’, and then go to argue with a teacher about the correct answer. I’ve seen it happen so many times- the second the bell goes, the English office is invaded by hyped-up students demanding the correct answers and either cheering or crying when they hear it. They then go home and study the exam paper again, anxiously working out how they performed. When an exam is over, it should be over. Keeping the papers just prolongs and intensifies stress.

sodahead.com
sodahead.com

Something I find very strange, and contradictory to everything else exam-related is the attitude of students when they’re actually taking the exam. I have invigilated numerous tests- multiple choice tests, writing tests, less-important 1st/2nd grade tests, and extremely important 3rd grade tests which determine which high school students are accepted into. And one thing I have seen in every case? Students finishing the test in half (or less) of the allowed time and then going to sleep. This behaviour totally goes against all of the stress in the lead up to and aftermath of exams, and I don’t understand it.

When I had tests in school, I would never have dreamed of going to sleep- if you finished early, then you’d check your answers again and again, to make sure you hadn’t made any silly mistakes. In Korea, I invigilated one exam in which after only 5 minutes, 50% of students had finished and gone to sleep. The first time I saw this, I walked round waking up the students, not understanding what was happening and wondering why the teacher in charge wasn’t taking control, and ensuring they were trying their best and checking their answers. Now, I’ve learnt not to bother. But I find it utterly absurd behaviour, especially in a country where there is such importance placed on the exams. How would the parents react if they saw their child give up and go to sleep 10 minutes into an exam? The only way I can understand it is to assume that the students are so tired and stressed from revising, that the minute they consider themselves finished, they can’t bear to go back over the exam, and sleep instead. If this is true, it shows even more how the extremity of exam pressure actually has a negative impact on their performance.

learnenglish.britishcouncil.org
learnenglish.britishcouncil.org

Finally, I wonder whether the ‘multiple-choice’ style of exams is the best choice. When I first realised that all exams are in this format, I admit that I thought the students had it easy. I would have loved multiple choice, instead of long 3-hour essay-style exams. But now, I’ve read numerous English exams… and in each one, I couldn’t answer some of the questions. The choices are always so ambiguous that there are often a couple of acceptable answers. And what are the consequences? Official complaints from parents when their child doesn’t get a mark which perhaps they deserved. Again, this is something I’ve witnessed again and again. And if foreign teachers find it hard to answer an English multiple-choice question, what chance do the students have?

After the past week, after seeing what chaos the exam season causes in Korea, I just feel sympathy towards the students. I’ve seen one girl crying for 2 hours over 1 mark which she lost, I’ve seen a parent come into school and do the same. My co-teachers have received phone calls on their personal numbers until 11 pm from irate parents who want to discuss their child’s test. It’s too much. Exams are important, yes. Other countries envy Korea’s academic results, yes. But where do we draw a line between enough and too much? How many students will have to suffer depression, anxiety, or in extreme cases even commit suicide before things change?

There has to be balance and perspective. I hope that my students perform well after their tests this week. But I also hope that if they don’t get that top grade they wished for, they don’t spend their evenings berating themselves and in tears. And more importantly, I hope other people around them don’t criticise them either.

 

 

 

 

 

Expat Living- The Highs, The Lows, And Is It Worth It?

If someone had told me 5 years ago, even 2 years ago, that I’d move to Korea, I’d have thought they were joking: I’m  a homebody with a close family and friends, and have never really had the ‘travelling bug’ tempting me to go out and explore the world. The thought of leaving everything behind would have seemed absurd, something only someone way more adventurous than me would do. Even when I did a TESOL course with the intention of going abroad, I always imagined going to Europe and making frequent trips home.

Then, when job hunting for ESL jobs we saw how good the deal was in Korea (flights paid, rent paid, cheap bills? Yes please!), we changed our plans immediately, and 2 months later moved to Korea. Quite an impulsive move. I don’t know if other people thought we’d stick it out for the year, I didn’t even know myself. I definitely never thought that once the year was up I’d extend my contract.

We’ve experienced a whole lot since being here: the honeymoon period when everything in and about the country is perfect, the scared feeling of being in a completely foreign country where you can’t communicate and just want to see something in English, the homesick feeling when it’s a holiday or birthday of a loved one.

Over time we’ve realised that there are a lot of highs and lows of being an expat, especially in a country so foreign that you can’t even read the language, let alone begin to understand it. Here are some of the good and bad things about Expat Living:

♥ Exploring and Adventure

Let’s start with the most obvious: moving to another country is the best way to experience new places, to have adventures and experiences that you’d never have otherwise. And not just in the country you’re living in, but surrounding ones. If I wasn’t living in Korea, would I have visited Japan, Singapore, Malaysia or The Philippines? Most probably not.

× Missing Holidays

Even when you’re older, there’s something special about holidays: Christmas, Bonfire Night, Easter. It is, I have to admit, quite rubbish being away from friends, family, and festivities at these times. Sure, you can go to a delicious overpriced buffet for your Christmas lunch, but it doesn’t compare to a home-cooked meal.

♥ New Culture

It may be an adjustment, but being exposed to a new culture is not only interesting, but eye-opening. It opens your eyes to a world outside your own. Not only that, but it makes you appreciate things which you never thought twice about before: England may have many faults, but thank goodness I had a fun school-life without incredible pressure and insanely long hours studying.

×Being Ill

That horrible feeling of being ill and having no idea what any medicine is, where your nearest doctor is, or even if they speak English? It’s likely to happen at some point, and it’s one of those times you just want to be at home, in bed, being looked after by your mum (yes, even if you’re 24).

♥ New Friends

Meeting people from all over the world is one of the great things about being an expat. I’ve made friends with Americans, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and of course, Koreans. Similarly to being in a different culture, making friends with people from backgrounds different to your own opens the doors to a whole new world.

The one negative to new friends? Having to ultimately say goodbye to these people, knowing there’s very little chance you’ll see them again. Unless you happen to be flying a few thousand miles across the world, it’s hard to just pop by for a chat and cup of tea.

× Paperwork and Errands

Banks. Bills. Setting up the internet. Tasks can suddenly become a lot harder when you don’t speak the language. Like trying decipher a bill in Hangul. Or telling a plumber what is wrong with your hot-water tap. The smallest things can turn into a mission, which isn’t always fun…

♥ Food

Here I go again with my love of Korean food, but it is a definite positive to being an expat. Going to a restaurant is all the more exciting and way more of a novelty than at home. Plus, the lower prices means it’s something you can enjoy far more often.

× Food

No matter how much you love foreign food, there will be times (as I mentioned here) that you long for the comfort of home cooking: that sandwich from your favourite cafe or your favourite chocolate bar. This craving can lead to you spending a small fortune on getting your favourite things delivered. £50 on Maltesers chocolate? Guilty.

♥Less Judgement

It’s weird, but I love the fact that you care less in a different country; people stare more because you’re foreign, but I find that you feel less judged on many levels. You don’t have to worry about the latest fashion, whether your haircut is trendy, because you’ll never blend in anyway! And when you’ll always be the outsider, you don’t really care about trying to fit in. Roll on wearing a baggy man’s jumper to the gym and sporting your welly boots with pride…

× Xenophobia

So you always stand out if you’re an expat of a different race. And while the vast majority of people are friendly, there is always a small minority of xenophobic people who glare at you, disliking your presence in their country.

My most memorable experience? A little boy tugging on my coat in the supermarket, only to scream and cry (actual proper tears) when I turned around and he saw my face. Did his mother apologize or look embarrassed by his reaction? Not at all- she laughed.

♥ Lack of Responsibility

There’s a certain lack of responsibility when you’re an expat, things that you can’t take care of which are consequently taken care of for you: getting your internet set up, setting up a bank account. Instead, there is someone who speaks the language to take care of these things; after all, you can’t call up a company to complain when you don’t speak the language, can you? It’s kind of nice, like going back to a time when your parents doing things for you. Quite a relief sometimes.

× Not Knowing the Language

A pretty obvious one- the language barrier. Of course, you can learn select words and useful phrases, you’d be stupid not to. But unless you’re a genius (or know the language before you move), you’re going to find that a lot of the time, you’re clueless. It can lead to some pretty tough situations: being stranded without a clue which bus to take and no one who can help you, or paying someone else’s bill by accident because you couldn’t read it properly. True stories.

♥Independence

Nothing will help you become more independent than moving away and leaving the people you depended on in the past to move to another country. There’s suddenly a lot less people around to influence or direct you as you make a new life for yourself; it’s suddenly up to you.

× Online Access

This might be a petty one, but how annoying is it when you go to use a website (usually to watch something online) and you can’t because the website ‘isn’t allowed in your country’. Bye Bye BBC, MTV and ITV. Now I’ll just have to stream things elsewhere…

♥ Technology

10 years ago, even 5 years ago, being away from family and friends would be pretty horrible: having to spend a ton of money texting and calling people. Now, there’s so much social media to immediately share information, updates, and pictures so you feel closer to people… and it’s free. And, of course, the saviour that is Skype, allowing you free conversations and actually seeing your loved-ones too. The pain of missing people is far easier to deal with due to technology, thankfully.

× Missing People

Probably the most obvious one. Even with Skype, of course you miss people. Saying goodbye is the biggest sacrifice when leaving home. And do you ever find that you sometimes miss your pet more than you miss people? Just seeing them on Skype makes you want to be at home giving them a big cuddle.

♥ New Appreciation For Things

The last and most important thing. Being away from your home country makes you appreciate the little things: the ease of going into a shop and asking for help without any complications, only having to take a 2 hour train journey to visit a friend. You have a new-found sense of gratitude for the weirdest things, which is pretty great.

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So, with all the positives and negatives weighed out, is being an expat worth the downfalls? 100%, yes. It’s never been easier to keep in contact with people from home, unless you’re unlucky you’ll be looked after and have amazing new experiences, and if you’re a native English speaker, you’re lucky because wherever you go, there’ll always be at least a minimal understanding of your language. I would bet that everyone can understand the word ‘Hello’. Would everyone understand ‘안녕하세요’ or ‘привет’? Probably not. So if you’re an English-speaking expat, you’re in a favourable position.

And as far as expats go in Korea, I think the fact that the majority of people end up staying for longer than their planned year proves that the difficulties can’t be too bad…

Lessons For The Teacher- What We Learnt To Expect When Teaching In Korea

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We came to Korea to be teachers, to help children to learn. Turns out that working as an English teacher in Korea has taught us a lot of things too: lessons in leading, discipline, understanding and eternal patience (ok, still working on that last one…). And, we’ve learnt that school in Korea is completely different than in England; would you ask about a teacher’s relationship status in the UK? Most probably not. In Korea? It’s one of the first questions you’re asked (and repeatedly asked again, and again, and again).

So travelling across the world to teach is a learning curve, to say the least. Here are some of the things that I’ve come to expect as a teacher working in Korea:

Everyone Says Hello

You simply cannot walk down the corridor without being bombarded by greetings from students at every turn. It was quite a shock at the start, although a nice one, of course. Waving, children calling your name, sometimes even giving you a hug. So this is what it feels like to be a celebrity…

Inappropriate Questions

“Teacher, do you have a boyfriend?” “Teacher, do you live with your boyfriend?” “Teacher, why aren’t you married?” “Teacher, how old are you?” If I had ever asked a teacher their age, I think I would have received detention or at the very least a good telling-off.

And I don’t really mind the personal questions, but it’s a bit disruptive when you’re answer that  “yes, I have a boyfriend”, causes about 10 minutes of giggling from your class full of embarrassed teenagers.

Students Being In Awe 

blog.pokerjunkie.com
blog.pokerjunkie.com

You’d think that the students would be used to Westerners, having been taught by them for years. But still, they are continually amazed by a Westerner’s appearance. If you walk past students who haven’t seen you before at a neighbouring school, their stares are as incredulous (and sometimes as scared) as if you had just arrived from another planet. Seriously.

The most common feature which leaves the students awestruck? Height: if the male teachers are 6 foot or above, they are regarded with such amazement it’s as if they’re some kind of freakish giant.

K Pop Rules All

en.wikipedia
en.wikipedia

I guess working with teenagers, you’re going to expect adolescent obsessions whatever country you’re in. But the love for K Pop really is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. All I need to do is say the word ‘EXO’ in class, and the screams are so loud you’d think that the Pop Band had actually appeared in my class. K Pop pencil cases, wallets, mirrors, photos, folders, makeshift tattoos… Korean schools are definitely in the midst of K Pop mania.

Exams Will Cause All Kinds Of Stress

Exams are a stressful time for anyone, but in Korea it’s a new extreme: students crying in the hallways, accosting their teachers to find out why they lost one mark in their test. And a day of total depression the day the results come out; every student you ask “How did you do”, you’re answered with a tearful “Not good.” Surely everyone can’t fail? Well, it sure seems like it here.

The worst I’ve seen was a student in our office for 2 hours, crying over one mark in her English test; she only finally left because it was time to go home. And no, she didn’t get the extra mark in the end either.

The Parents Are Very Involved

For this reason, I’m very glad I don’t speak Korean. Parents will text and call teachers, come into the school, and again it’s usually to argue over their child’s exam score or because they’ve been put in bottom set. One of our co-teachers was called until 11 pm by parents during exam time; she is a better person than me… I think I would have changed my number! Oh, and then there’s the parent who came into our office and cried over her daughter’s exam score for an hour… which really made it quite awkward for everyone in the room.

Sleeping In Class

forum.thefreedictionary.com
forum.thefreedictionary.com

So when I was at school, anyone who dared to sleep in class would be thought of as a proper rebel. In Korea, it’s pretty weird if you get through a class without someone falling asleep (or trying to at any rate). I guess the reason for this is the long days they have studying, as I discussed in my Korean Education post.

Still, it would be nice if I didn’t have to spend half my time prodding students awake when it’s all become too much for them. And the individuals who decide to bring along a blanket and cushion to class to make themselves comfortable? That’s really just taking things too far!

The Students Have Power Over Teachers

It’s normal for teachers to write reports and evaluations for students. But in Korea, the students can get-their-own-back by writing reports on the teachers. That little terror who always disrupts class and I’m always telling off? Well, he’s going to give me a bad rating for sure!

If only I could have done the same when I was in school; some teachers would definitely have felt my wrath…

Boys and Girls Do Not Mix

I thought the ‘boys and girls hate each other’ phase was usually over when children become teenagers. Apparently not. A minority of boys and girls and friends, but the majority of students? No such luck. Sometimes if I ask a boy and girl to sit next to each other, or, even worse, work together, I’m greeted with looks of such surprise and worry you’d think I’d suggested they get married.

The one time in my class when the students found out that one boy fancied someone, there was such uproar that I couldn’t calm them down for fifteen minutes. True story. Which leads me on to my next point…

No Kissing. Ever.

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Ok, I’m not suggesting that students should be getting up to mischief in school by any means. What I’m talking about is how students can’t even talk about kissing, let alone see someone kissing on TV or in a movie. Before I knew this,I showed Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’ music video in class. When Taylor kissed someone at the end… well, the reaction was the same as if I’d shown something on an X Rated Movie Channel.

I just hoped I hadn’t scarred them for life. I felt as guilty as a parent telling their child that Father Christmas isn’t real, making my students lose their innocence. Bad move me.

Students Want Your Food And Drink

Another type of inappropriate questions which the students ask: “Teacher, can I have some of your water?” “Ooh teacher, your lunch looks delicious, can I eat some?” Um… no… you cannot get your germs on my water bottle, and you cannot eat the lunch I prepared; get your own!

Giving Food = Undying Love

tinalicious.com
tinalicious.com

This is the last, and most important thing I’ve learnt while teaching in Korea. Food is the best reward you can give, and will earn you top teacher points among students.

If only I’d known this at the start. Food is the answer to everything: a bribe to make the children work, a reward for the hard-workers. All you need to do to get a student to profess their adoring love for you is to give them a piece of chocolate. Works every time. Well, you live and you learn…

 

Korean Education: High Grades, High Pressure… Low Happiness?

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What is the point of school? To get good grades? To make friends and have fun? To teach you about life and help you to become independent? Well I think that all three things are important. Unfortunately in Korea, I have seen far too much emphasis placed on the first thing: to get good grades. Of course, it’s well known that some of the best academic results in the world come from South Korea, and Western schools could certainly learn a lesson or two from the Koreans about how to gain such success. But what the Korean Education system surely lacks is balance, and the realisation that sometimes, less is more.

qiyuan.youth.cn
Picture: qiyuan.youth.cn

Let’s have a look at an average student’s day: from 8.30 am until 4.30 pm they are in regular school (and have up to 8 classes per day with one hour for lunch). Then after school, they attend a ‘hagwon’ (a private school which 75% of students attend), which has classes until 9 or 10 pm. When do they do find time to do their homework (which is given by both regular schools and hagwons)? When they get home afterwards. The result: students overworked and falling asleep in class, stressed about their workload and therefore not working to their full potential.

“We’re too tired when we study in hagwons”.

“We’re too sleepy too study well”.

“Hagwon homework causes students lots of stress”.

These are things which my students wrote when asked what they think of the education system. Sure, children can go to school from 8 am to 10 pm every day, but is it beneficial if for the majority of that time they aren’t concentrating because they’re too tired or worried about the homework they haven’t had time to finish? Every day I have students falling asleep, or sneakily trying to complete their hagwon homework in my class. Quite often when I ask them what time they went to bed, the answer will be somewhere in the early hours of the morning. 

Even worse is when they have vacation and the majority of students simply go to summer/winter camp, spend extra time studying and still go to their hagwon every day. As a result they get no proper break during the school year. My standard response when I ask them what they did on their vacation? “Study”. And did they enjoy their vacation? “No”. I can honestly say that this is what 90% of my students say.

occupy the money system facebook
Picture: Occupy The Money System Facebook

More worrying than anything else though, is the ease with which students talk about stress, depression and suicide. I have known children as young as 7 years old talking about how depressed they are when they have tests, crying at how their parents will react to their scores and terrified at the prospect of a report card. According to Korea Real Time, a recent survey showed that half of South Korean teenagers had suicidal thoughts, and one in three called themselves depressed. (http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2014/03/20/poll-shows-half-of-korean-teenagers-have-suicidal-thoughts/)

Of course, on paper the education system is a success; Korea has continually high test scores and one of the highest percentages of teenagers who continue onto university. No one can dispute the merits of such a system, and it’s true that even the least-motivated and worst-behaved students study hard when it comes to their exams. But what they need is more balance, so that they are more focused and willing to work hard during the entire academic year. It’s true that students may benefit from a couple of extra lessons outside of school if they’re struggling in a specific subject, but going to hagwons for hours every night only makes them exhausted and stressed.

Something which confirms this to me is seeing the best students in our school. By ‘best’ I don’t just mean best in terms of exam scores, I mean the most active students, the happiest, the most engaged and enthusiastic in lessons. These students are invariably the ones who aren’t pushed into ridiculously long hours. Sure, they might go to a hagwon, but not every day and not for so many hours. The result? Brighter students who not only perform better in lessons, but enjoy school because they’re not too tired to focus.

“There is no time to do our hobbies”.

I mentioned before that what the system desperately needs is more balance, and my student’s complaint above reiterates this. Sure, it is important to work hard and achieve good grades, but it’s also important to have hobbies when you’re growing up. Whether it’s music, sports, reading, etc, children should be encouraged to live well-rounded lives. And most importantly, to have independence which sadly, the majority of students lack. Why? Because the focus of their teaching is entirely on getting good grades, being spoon fed to achieve a high score on the all-important mid term exams. Ask a student an academic question, you’ll get the answer in a heartbeat. Ask a student for their opinion and it’s much more difficult for them to give you an answer.

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I don’t want to come across as completely against Korean education, because as I said at the start, it evidently has its benefits. I am impressed that students even make it through their 12 hour (or more) days. Even better, 99% of students, even if they don’t show it in class, openly acknowledge and appreciate the importance of school and a good education.

What I think needs to change is the attitude that exams are the be-all and end-all. Not all students are academically gifted, that is a fact not only in Korea but around the world, and those students should be encouraged to excel in other fields, not waste their time in a classroom feeling ever-more helpless and stressed.

Even more importantly, the students should be taught independent thinking; what’s the use of getting into a prestigious university if you can’t cope with looking after yourself and making your own decisions when you’re there?

So what’s the ideal? An education system which pushes you to do your best, of course. But be realistic; doing your best is not working for 12 hours a day with only 50% effort. Doing your best is working for half that time, but with 100% effort. And most importantly, a system in which children feel happy.