Korea is Different

Some of the myriad differences between Korean and American schools are quite obvious.  The homogeneity of the student body and faculty, the replacement of American history with Korean history, or the kimchi served at lunch instead of pizza (which is now considered a vegetable apparently? America, what are you doing in my absence?), for example. The most fascinating, and blog-worthy differences have been those that are less obvious, and totally unexpected.

speaking of different...

I’ll begin with a major difference I am about to experience for the next 2 months: “Winter Break.” Although regular classes are not in session from December 28 – February 6, (that’s right, break doesn’t start until after Christmas)  many teachers hold winter break “lessons” during this time, myself included. I will teach a 2- week English Winter Camp, for 2 hours each day, and the rest of my 9am-5pm day will be spent desk-warming–a familiar concept in the Korean-English-teacher world. When I ask students what their winter break plans are, they usually tell me they’re “mostly studying.”

Ma gurlz.

One of my best and brightest will be attending a 5-week overnight academy in Icheon, a nearby city, where she’ll be taking 5 classes with no free time, PE, or visits home on the weekends. But, she was quite accepting of these plans as she knows this is what she must do to attain top test scores and eventually admittance to a top university. To be honest, I feel a tad guilty about the jaw-dropping expression on my face as she explained her “vacation” plans.

Some other unexpected, yet major differences I’ve encountered over the past 4 months:

1) There are major differences in educational philosophies. High school students do not write essays or read novels. In history class or Korean class, I’ve been told that students read articles or excerpts from novels, and answer content-based questions, rather than analytical questions. Students are only tested during midterm and finals seasons, and these grades seem to be tantamount to their self-worth. Top-scoring students are separated from their lower-scoring peers starting in middle school, and each group attends different high schools. My school happens to be unique in that we offer two tracks: 1/3 of the school is in a “technical” program, with students who will not attend university but will immediately join the workforce after high school, while the other 2/3 will attend university post-graduation. Guess which classes are more well-behaved…

I have to take candid pictures, or else they all cover their faces holding "V" for victory signs. (Peace sign in America.).

2) Everything is decided at the last minute. Cancelled or added classes are part of my daily routine, and if I want to ask for a day off, I’ve been asked to please inquire closer to the date. This would never be a request in America.

3) The hallways are not heated. Neither are the bathrooms.

4) Teachers may not stay in the same school for more than 5 years – most teachers are contracted for 1 or 2 years. The more schools at which you have taught (meaning, the older you are), the higher your salary will be and the more respect you deserve, creating an elaborate power structure. My co-teacher has explained to me that there is a social gap between the older and younger teachers as a result of this hierarchy, and that many older teachers look down upon the less-experienced teachers. And where does Julia teacher sit on this totem pole of educators? At the very bottom, always and forever.

5) More on the hierarchy. When discussing things like vacation time, your contract, or financial matters, the hierarchy comes into play as well. There are three teachers between me and the principal, and if I want to discuss any of these matters, everything must be approved through this chain of communication: my co-teacher, our “chief” (an older Biology teacher), the vice-principal, and finally the principal. This means that younger teachers never have the opportunity to talk, seriously, with the principal of the school.

All these explanations may seem like complaints in disguise, and okay maybe they are…just a little bit. This is my blog, I can do what I want. But the challenge is fun, sometimes even funny! Although I’m usually laughing alone.


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