Education in Korea

Today was the day I’ve been fearing for weeks. It was the day we were scheduled to teach in a Korean high school. I was nervous.

I’m not kidding when I say that I was nervous about this day. I’ve known about it for months and it was bothering me. I was surprised that it was getting to me because I’m in front of students everyday. What I realized was there was a lot I didn’t know — for example, the students’ English proficiency, their interest in school, their willingness to have an American teacher come in to do some song and dance that wasn’t related to their regular classes. Plus, I did feel a little more was at stake if it didn’t go well, as if the students and teachers would think poorly about American or the American education system.

I decided on a final plan for my lesson over two weeks ago. We were supposed to have all of our materials lined up before we got to Korea. My “plan” was really more like a thinly plotted outline that involved getting them to practice speaking English and me talking a bit about American geography as I told them where I’m from and where I live. I wasn’t alone — there were the three dozen other teachers on this trip with me, but when I asked around about their lesson plans for the day, it made me feel worse, not better. Several people had fancy maps, decorated with two-dimensional features; others had sophisticated props. One guy was planning to do a document analysis from Susan B. Anthony’s diary. Good grief.

The rain from the last several days broke this morning and was replaced by the hot sun. It was out early this morning as I jogged by the river, and so when I returned to my room to get ready, I had a good, it’s-really-hot-out, and a I’m-really-nervous sweat going. It got cranked up a couple of notches after I put on my shirt, tie, dress pants and shoes, and wool sport coat. Yikes. I sweated profusely all forty minutes in the bus to the school. I tried to psych myself up to be the ambassador of good will and education as we rode along the highway. I went over my plan in my head, chatted with a few others about their plans until their superior organization started to make me feel self-conscious again. I consoled myself by thinking that the students wouldn’t know that much English, so going slow was a good idea, and simple was better.

We arrived, and a welcome committee greeted us in the parking lot. There’s a specific student-guide assigned to each of us, and mine, Seokjoo, walked right up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “Hi Mr. Ranson, welcome to our school.”

Shit, he speaks perfect English. Sweat was rolling again in sheets down my back, and for the first time today I was happy to have a thick sport coat to hide my soaked shirt. I commented to Seokjoo that his English is very good. He thanked me and replied, “I lived in Boston for a couple of years. Most of the students in my grade have lived in America.” Now I’m thinking the document analysis might be a good idea, and my lesson plan is totally hosed.

We were ushered into the auditorium, which is one of those gems you’d see in an American high school built in the Eisenhower Administration, where the auditorium, gymnasium, and theater are all in the same space. The Vice Principal addressed us formally with a speech, then three students, speaking excellent English, led us in some trivia games about the school. They also showed us a video and then we are off to our classrooms.

Another teacher and I were to share one classroom and time period, so we gathered outside the classroom in the hall. Our room was at the end of a long corridor, so as we walked down it I felt the buzz from the other rooms as teachers entered each one. My student guide told me that the two teachers should enter the room first when he opens the the door, then without waiting, he flung it open. In we went, and, to my surprise, they cheered like crazy.

I could get use to this.

The lesson went fine: the students were a year younger than my guide, and it turns out that only about ten percent had already spent time in North America, although they all seemed to both get and like my jokes, which is a rarity with my English-speaking constituents. This group gamely practiced speaking English, and were fascinated to hear that I live 3,000 miles from the place I grew up. They were enthusiastic, attentive, and willing to engage with me. I was very pleased, maybe feeling a little triumphant, thinking that I had fulfilled my unofficial role as ambassador well. The time passed very quickly; actually, I was disappointed it ended so soon.

My visit today taught me a couple of things. For starters, the typical Korean high school goes from 7am to 11pm, six days a week (although they get out early on Saturday). Students eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at their school, and they don’t typically know students from other grades. Evidently the school officials discourage mingling between classes because they fear the students will develop social hierarchies that will cause trouble. I also learned that school quality in Korea is determined solely by the number of students who gain admission to the three top-tier universities in the country. Nothing else matters, and for that reason, the students are not permitted to play extracurricular sports (they don’t even exist). They are to study constantly in order to gain admission to the best universities possible. Most high school students sleep less than five hours per night. Seokjoo said he didn’t like school and was basically miserable (although he said these things cheerfully) because it was such a grind. Then it dawned on me that the reason the students cheered so mightily when I entered the classroom was they were really happy to have a break from their normal, intense routine.

Over the course of my time in Korea I have heard Obama’s comments about Korean Education (in 2009) referenced at least five different times by the Korean professors in our seminars. They all took issue with Obama because he praised a system that produces a lot of college graduates, but is also unbelievably stressful on students and parents alike. Education isn’t a joke here. Students’ jobs are to study, and that’s it.

This pressure isn’t really new, although more are feeling it than in previous eras. For centuries, education has been seen as the way of increasing the prestige of the family. Men could raise the social, political and economic status of their entire family by passing the civil service exam, which was a tough test; more recently, women with college degrees would garner the attention of the most desirable husbands. Today, 80% of Korean high school students go on to graduate from college, but while the graduation rate is impressive, the cultural road to get there is rough beyond what is accepted in the U.S. in most cases.

At the end of my visit today I met a dozen or so students who chatted with me during a break between classes. Three of them had lived in the U.S. for long periods of time — one not far from me in Maryland where he’d spent six years. All three longed to go back to America where education isn’t nearly as stressful. The kid from Maryland talked openly about the tension he felt between living in Korea, his homeland, and wanting to go to school in the U.S. where the stress wasn’t so punishing and the stakes weren’t so high.

American education has taken a political (and economic) beating recently, and it still has a lot of issues to work out. I have often said recently that American education is in crisis. Those sentiments were contrasted sharply today by these students who were miserable in this high-stakes education society. I was and still am struck by how much they wanted to go to American schools. It was a little perspective that I don’t often get, but, today, as I sweated through my coat, I was grateful for it.

We were told that these students will always remember our visit today, but I think I’m the one who will never forget it.

 

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