Friday, March 9, 2012

Furthest Reaches - Korean Education

To really understand what I am doing here in Korea, I should perhaps explain what my role is in the Korean education system. To understand that, you have to have some grasp of Korean culture and the importance of Confucian philosophy. It is this central driving philosophy that promotes the bettering of oneself, if not for your own sake than for the sake of the group. To put it simply, if you ask a kid what he wants to be when he grows up, every one of them will say they want to be a lawyer, a doctor, politician or CEO (yes even 7 year olds know what a CEO is). The thing is they are told what they should be by their parents. Parents push everything on their kids, to excel and to be the best they can. There is no caste system. So your place is society is only determined by the effort you put in to it. So education becomes everything. Children here put more time and energy into learning than most grad school students I know.
Most attend a public school, where class sizes can reach 40 to 50 students. This makes it hard for individual attention and so some students struggle while others may be bored waiting for them to keep up. In an English language class, a second grade class could still be working on the alphabet while perhaps half the class can already read short books. This is where private academies come in. They add to the amount of work the kid has, but they give the personal attention they need to get ahead in their studies. And in the end it's all about getting into the best schools and get the best jobs.
These private academies are called hagwon (pronounced “hog-won”) and usually have class sizes of ten or less students (some of mine only have 2 or 3, this can be a blessing and a curse depending on the students).
Universities require English language proficiency. So the kids have to prepare for a fluency exam as part of their entrance. It is part of the CSAT (think the SATs but 9 hours long). This is where I fit in. Some of the private academies kids can attend are for learning the English language. I work at one of these schools. I teach children of various ages and skill levels after they finish attending their public school. My class sizes (I have 24 of them) range from two students to about twelve.
If you think you have a long day, imagine being twelve years old getting up at 7am, getting to school by 8, leaving by 2 or 3pm, only to get ready for your second stint in a classroom. By law all students must be on their way out of the school by 10pm. This is to get them home to eat, and have time to study and finish those piles of homework (many students do not get to bed again until at least 1 or 2am). It is a hellish thought in comparison to our western education system, but you can see the effects of it on these students. It is hard not to feel bad when a student tells you how tired they are, or when you realize they often have no hobbies or life outside of school work. So we do our best to make the classes fun and entertaining and break up the monotony of the day, but it isn’t always possible to have fun and get through the required material as well.
And that's the basics of it really. That is what I do here in Korea. That is why I flew over 11,000km to the other side of the world. Well, okay, that is what I was hired to do. Let’s face it, no one would come all this way solely for that! I am here for my own reasons of course. But my personal reasons will become all too clear in this blog.

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