The Plight of the Korean Student

I walk into my first class every morning to see students with their heads on their desks, relishing those precious few minutes before the first period bell. Most of them will pick their heads up and go through the motions of doing their English assignments. Others, sometimes half of the class, will not stir.

I feel conflicted. Do I wake the student? I should, of course. But my class doesn’t count for a grade and the student looks like he hasn’t slept in days. Should I let him sleep? If I let one sleep, does that mean the rest of them can sleep? What do I do when half of my class has their heads down and refuses to do work?

Teaching to the textbook doesn’t help. I have more leeway with the second graders because I see them more often and I can make writing assignments more interesting, but when I teach the listening section and prepackaged dialogues to the first graders, I know they really don’t want to learn it. On the one hand, I’m a teacher, not an entertainer. On the other hand, the last thing these students want to do is simulate a stilted conversation about the human body.

I recognize that this inconvenience I feel as a teacher is only a result of the much larger problems of the South Korean educational system. Though South Korean students boast some of the highest test scores in the world, especially in STEM fields, the personal costs can be enormous. South Korea has the highest suicide rate of OECD countries. Students often survive on as little as 3 or 4 hours of sleep each night. For many students, their future entirely depends on the results of one college entrance exam, the 수능.

To say that my students’ lives are stressful is an understatement.

Sometimes during my conversation club, my students ask me, “What was your high school like? What is the difference between high school in America and high school in Korea? Is it as stressful?”

I reflect. In many ways, I was an atypical high school student. Outside of the classroom and my extra-curricular activities, I spent most of my time studying. Late nights with a textbook are not unknown to me. But compared to Korean students, American students emphasize sports and extra-curriculars–often, unfortunately, at the expense of their academics. In American schools, STEM has become a bigger focus recently, but colleges still look for “well-rounded” individuals with a variety of academic and personal interests. American students often have part-time jobs. They volunteer. The tests are important (still too important, no doubt), but they are part of a larger picture.

“The school day is shorter in America,” I tell my students, abbreviating my many thoughts. “We do not have night self-study like you do, so we leave school in the early afternoon rather than 9:00 PM or 10:00 PM. We do school activities, like football or drama or newspaper club. And,” I say as their eyes widen with amazement, “we do not have hagwon.”

The biggest reason for my students’ lack of sleep is that so many Korean students attend hagwon, or a private academy after school. My host sister Su Bin goes to an acting hagwon in Busan, which means she does not come home until almost 1 AM. Every morning, it’s the same thing. I pour myself a bowl of cereal in the kitchen, and in the next room I can hear Host Mom trying to wake Su Bin for school.

“Su Bin Ah? Su Bin? KIM SU BIN!!”

My students might go to hagwon to prepare them for the 수능. English-language hagwons are especially popular. Music and art hagwons, like the one Su Bin attends, provide creative education. Several of my students want to be flight attendants. There’s a hagwon for that, too!

“He’s wasting his money,” said one of my girls during my English conversation club, gesturing toward a boy who had just left the classroom. Then she smiled proudly. “I want to be a flight attendant, too. But I don’t go to hagwon. I will go to college and learn many languages. And then I will be a stewardess on Korean Air!”

As I walk down the hallway and see my bleary-eyed students, exhausted from hagwon the night before, I realize that in some ways, my students are sheltered because their lives are so over-scheduled. This sheltering is not always a bad thing. There is no smoking on the school premises. Most of my students have never tried alcohol. Parties? Drugs? There’s simply no time.

But fun and games? Reading for pleasure? A full night of rest? These are luxuries that many of my students cannot afford.

“Which is better?” my students press me to answer. “American high school or Korean high school?”

Neither, I think. American students should spend more time in school and focus on learning, and Korean students should spend more time on activities that will foster creativity and individual expression–or at least academics that don’t strictly teach to a test.

So these are the things I think about when I see my students fall asleep in class. As I am becoming more comfortable with teaching and as my students are becoming more comfortable with me, I am having fewer problems with unmotivated students. I remember that in one of my all-boys’ classes, there was one student who slept through the first five or six classes.  When he wasn’t sleeping, he would sit in his chair with his arms folded. He refused to try any of the class activities, despite the extra help and attention I offered him during class time. I had jumped to the conclusion that he did not want to learn and that I would continue to teach the class without trying to coax him into offering answers. But for the past two weeks, he has been one of the most engaged students in that class. Last week, he did his first assignment by himself, walked to the front of the class, and slowly and quietly, he read the three sentences he wrote. It was the proudest I had felt in a while. I also realized that an outward lack of motivation might not last forever and might stem from shyness or temporary problems at school or at home.

I do not have a magic formula to motivate students, though games and movement always help. I do not have the solution to the problems that plague the Korean education system. I do not even know if my students (especially the sleeping ones) will remember me in a year or two.

But I look for small ways to make a difference in my students’ (overworked, over-stressed) lives. Even if the only thing the student will say in English is, “Teacher, you want to go to the mountain?” followed by a crazy laugh, or if the student only wants to read three English sentences aloud, the smallest actions work toward a larger progress.

“Teacher,” one of my students said about two weeks ago, “I like your class. It’s…” He searched for the word, “…relaxing. And I don’t feel stressed. So English class is my favorite!”

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