Em in Asia!

My Experiences Living and Teaching in South Korea

Too Much of a Good Thing?


Time Magazine recently published an article entitled “Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone” which dissects the problems in the Korean Education System.  It’s an interesting read, and with midterms at school coming up, the issues in this article are something I’ve wanted to address for awhile.

At CPHS the first class technically starts at 8:50 am, but every single student is at their desk at 7:30 doing a listening class through the Educational Broadcasting System, or EBS for short (한국교육방송공사) which is an educational television and radio network. This is not something that’s just limited to school – EBS has their own radio station which I’ve heard blasting in cabs and in teacher’s cars, and at any point in the day you can go to the EBS cable channels (that’s right, channels) and view educational material. While there’s nothing wrong with having educational cable channels, this is a good indicator of how important education is considered in modern Korean society.

After EBS classes, students have normal classes from 8:50 am until 3:20 pm, with a short break for lunch. They have twenty minutes for lunch, and the rest of that hour-long lunch period is self-study time. Afterwards there’s a thirty minute cleaning period, followed by more late-afternoon and evening classes, which I do not teach.  I’m honestly not sure how late students have class, but from my apartment I can hear the bell ringing until ten pm.

The majority of the 850 students at school live in the dormitories because some of them come from very far away to attend this school, but also because it gives them a chance to study. They live in eight-person dorm rooms, but rarely spend any time there because they study until at least midnight if not later in the classrooms or in self-study rooms located all around campus. Then they wake up and do this again.

My students don’t have weekends – there are classes on alternate Saturdays, and even on free days they stay at school and self-study. They can go home about once a month, but some students can’t because they live so far away, and therefore only go home on major holidays. They spend three years doing this, my poor teenagers, so that they can get into the top universities in Korea.

The article mentions that the government is putting restrictions on hagwons (private companies where students go after school and study some more either one-on-one with a tutor or in a small class) and stopping them from operating after 10 pm, however many student who attend boarding schools or schools in the countryside don’t go to hagwon so this restriction will not change anything. Though the government is taking a good first step in reducing those hours, ultimately it’s not going to stop students from studying, as is evidenced by my students. We have to change the mindset that 14 to 20 mindless hours of study a day is better than 8 hours of sleep, and we have to relieve some of the pressure that the students are under.

I have midterms this week. This puts me in a bit of a strange situation, as it’s a time of rest for me, because not only do I get to travel during this time period, but I’m giving students self-study time for half of the class, which means that I get chunks of 25 minutes where I’m sitting in class reading a book and observing the students either frantically study or pass out. Homeroom teachers and subject teachers are also stressed because they have to write the midterms, prepare the paperwork, and because how well the students does reflects on their abilities. I’m basically the only relaxed person in the entire school besides perhaps the cafeteria staff.

I just finished teaching one of my first grade (high school sophomore) advanced boys’ classes. Half of them fell asleep, and half of them started studying. One student started snoring which was the catalyst to start a conversation with the awake boys. We talked about midterms, their dormitory life, their studying and sleeping patterns, and how nervous they are for this test. At the end of class I wished them luck, and one student said “thanks for the self-study time. Please pray for us.”

It is no longer 1950. Korea in the past had such a short amount of time to industrialize, so every single person was valuable and had to do as much as they could. I remember an old-quote about Korea in the post-war period – “Most countries work 9 – 5, we work 5 – 9.” Korea is developed, while it is important to keep up the Korean work ethic that has come to define this country, we can’t put all that pressure on students. Something has to give.

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안녕하세요! My name is Emily and when I started this blog I had received a 2010 – 2011 F*lbright grant to teach English in South Korea.  I then decided to apply to renew my grant, so I am now staying in Korea until July 2012. This blog is not an official F*lbright Program blog, and the views expressed are my own and not those of the F*lbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.

I graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a degree in Philosophy Pre-Law and Classical Civilizations, and found myself 3 months later teaching English at SGHS. The town that I taught in, SG, is a small town of 12,000 people, an “읍” (eup) rather than a “시” (shi – city), and though it was sometimes hard teaching in such a small town I really enjoyed the unique experience of being the first foreign teacher SGHS had ever had. I lived in the largest part of the county which is significantly bigger (40,000 people) than the town the school is situated in, but is also considered rural by Korean standards.

During my second grant period (2011-2012) I decided to change schools and I currently teach at CPHS which is located in an even smaller town than previously, in Jeollanamdo.

This blog is meant to serve as a reflection not only of being a Native English Speaking teacher in Korea, but also of living as a foreigner in rural Korea.