As I am coming to the end of my 3rd semester teaching in Korea, I have decided it is time to reflect and report on what it’s like to teach here. I teach at the all-girls high school in Jecheon, a small city of about 120,000 people that is located 2 hours south of Seoul. My school is the only all-girls high school in the city and it is where girls from Jecheon, and its surrounding towns and villages, hope to attend if they want to go to university.
Like most of the school systems back home, the Korean school system is divided into three levels: elementary, middle and high school. Elementary lasts for six years while middle and high school last for three years each. Grade levels here are different, however, in that they start back at grade 1 in each school level. So, students are 1st graders three times. As you are reading, when I mention 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade, you can equate these to 10th, 11th and 12th grade in the USA.
About 1,000 girls attend Jecheon Girls High School. Each grade is divided into 10 classes with about 35 students in each class. The official school day is 9:00 am-6:00 pm, however, all students arrive for the 8:00 am ‘zero’ period and most students stay after dinner to attend classes and study until 10:00 pm, when the school building closes. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the school cafeteria and most students stay for lunch and dinner.
Since my school is the most prestigious for girls in Jecheon, it has a dormitory on campus where about 200 students live during the week. Most of the students who stay in the dorm live outside of the city (maybe 30-40 minutes away) but others live nearby (maybe 5 minutes). Dormitory rules mandate that dorm students stay awake studying in study rooms until 11:30 pm. If they are caught sleeping, they are written up; an accumulation of write-ups gets you kicked out of the dorm. Students are woken up by a speaker system at 6:30 every morning and go to breakfast at 7:00.
When the school building closes at 10:00 pm, many of the students who do not stay in the dormitory head to a doksoshil to study for a few more hours. Doksoshils are rented study rooms. One large room is separated into 8-12 cubicles that are rented out monthly to middle and high school students as well as university students and adults that need a place to work or study. Students will stay until 1:00 or 2:00 am on weeknights and return on weekends for half or full days of studying (depending on how close exams are).
Some students do not stay at school after 6:00 pm; however, it’s not because they are going home to relax and hang out with their family. No, they are heading to after school academies called hagwons. In elementary and middle school, students might attend hagwons for art, music, sport, or traditional school subjects like math, English and Korean. But, by the time students reach high school, they only seem to attend math, English or Korean hagwons. These students are popping around to different hagwons until 10:00 pm (on days they don’t have hagwon, they remain at school with everyone else until 10:00 pm). Most students also attend hagwons on Saturday and Sunday, usually from 9:00 am-12:00 or 1:00 pm.
All of my students report an average of 4-5 hours of sleep a night. Some get a chance to play catch-up (but can they really catch up on all that lack of sleep?) on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
At the end of each semester, students take final exams. During the 3-4 weeks preceding finals, students start studying even more intensely. How do you get more intense than the usual 16 hours a day of lessons and studying during the week? You go to school on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 am-5:00 pm to study more. Followed by doksoshil, of course. Final exams take place next week and I am sure there are students who have come to school every single day for the last 3+ weeks. It gets even more intense one week before finals. Again, you should wonder how that’s possible. Well, during the week leading up to finals (which is right now), teachers allow the students time to study; all I do as a teacher is go to the classroom and hangout at the podium while the students do what they do best: study. Lucky me.
While you are reading this, you are probably wondering, “what are they studying?” I still wonder what exactly they are studying beyond knowing it’s a school subject. While I know they sometimes write papers for history, science or Korean, homework is not regularly assigned; so, all those hours really are spent studying. Though, I think a better word than studying might be practicing, because, I think they simply do loads and loads of exercises.
|There are standing desks at the back of all classrooms for |
students to use when they are feeling sleepy.
|Happy 3rd graders. They finished sooneung in November and only |
come until noon everyday. I think that all they do is hang out.
As I alluded above, I only teach 1st and 2nd grades, seeing each class once a week. That comes to 20 classes and 700 students every week. My biggest obstacle is to actually get my students to speak in class. Korean high school students are used to being passive learners in the classroom because Korean teachers generally stand at the front of the classroom lecturing from the book, never leaving the podium to walk amongst the students. Students are often allowed to sleep or work on other subjects while the teacher lectures. As this is what students are used to, it has been and continues to be a struggle to get my students focused on actually speaking English. When I ask questions, students just stare. I know they understand every word I say but they refuse to answer. I have actually never had a student raise their hand to answer a question. Never. This doesn’t stop me from pointing to a student to illicit a response, however. (Side note: many classes have one or two students that answer my questions quietly but willingly, however, I can’t and don’t let them answer every question every day). Students’ unwillingness to engage in conversation has led to lots of role-play, much to their dismay (they hate having to move).
Teaching is also made more difficult by the fact that students stay in the same classroom all day, with teachers moving to them. I feel that this gives me less authority because I am like a visitor in their classroom rather than the other way around. While I don’t generally have behavior problems, I do have students who constantly try to sleep (can you blame them?). Moreover, classrooms are a wreck! Seeing as students spend the better part of their daily lives inside that same room, classrooms are like a home. Being a home to 35 teenage girls means they are jam-packed with crap! Classrooms are chock-full of haphazardly stacked books, pillows, bags, blankets, toothbrushes, cups, empty milk cartons, mirrors, candy wrappers, and anything else you can imagine would be in a teen’s bedroom. Most students keep a blanket and small pillow at school to catch some Zs during breaks (or as I have already mentioned, during class) and every student keeps a toothbrush to use after every meal (teachers also have toothbrushes at school—it’s a Korean thing). The state of the classrooms makes it difficult to walk around the desks or move the desks for group work (not to mention the distraction the mess creates). I do the best I can but often trip over stacks of books on the floor as I roam around the students.
|The students just moved classrooms so they are actually clean. |
I am disappointed I couldn't show what they usually look like.
Finally, there are two school holidays, one in winter and one in summer, each lasting about a month. Calling it a holiday is misleading, however, as the students continue to go to school for most of each break. There is only one week during each holiday that students actually stay at home (My guess is that they aren’t actually at home, but studying at doksoshils or attending hagwons). The only differences that I have surmised, between regular school and holiday school, is that there is a change of schedule during the 3 weeks of holiday and students don’t have class before 9:00 am.
I sure have painted a pretty banal image of Korean high school life. However, I want to point out that while many of my students wish they could sleep more, have more free time or have the ability to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, they still appear to be pretty happy. Everyday during lunch and dinner, each of which last an hour, I watch my students fool around and laugh with each other just like any other teenager. I think it helps that they are all in it together and can look forward to finishing Sooneung and going to university. It’s not entirely dismal for them.
|Students playing during lunch.|