Thursday, 27 November 2008

Pressures in Korea

Today in my 3rd class after the usual weekly test was finished I noticed one student, a boy of around ten or eleven years-old, hadn't finished one section. I asked him why he hadn't done it. He made a mistake and quickly realised it, but by this time it was too late, test time was over. He then broke down and cried for the remainder of the class. Head down bawling wildly, almost without stopping, for over thirty minutes. It was so loud that I had to tell two Korean teachers in other rooms that basically he's crying because he screwed up. The rest of the class had no sympathy with him and most of the students laughed at what was going on - though I tried in vain to stop it. The class objectives went out of the window and little of the lesson was taught. The boy knew what was coming.

My workplace has a system where if students have a bad test, don't do their homework or misbehave etc, then they have to stay behind after their classes finish - sometimes up to 2 hours and study. It's called 재시, or Jaeshi. It can be effective and is a good deterrent at times as nobody at all wants that. Especially Middle schoolers as their last class finishes at 10:20pm.

I have become partially immune to the tears of a child (at my workplace!). Though it is never nice to see and especially if they are young and maybe have somehow hurt themselves or if they are simply someone who is a great kid, you quickly realise that children do cry and they will get over it very quickly. You do your best with the situation and try to makes things better but kids are durable. The fact is though, Korean children have to put up with things like this because they study much harder and for much longer than most other countries. Certainly for much longer than I did. But this does not mean that their studying is better. Their English proficiency rates, when factoring in how much their parents spend on English classes are appalling.

I think back to my time as a student and I don't recall any pressure from my family and there was no external pressure from society to do well, to get to a certain position in life. Korea seems to be the opposite. It gets worse the older they get, until they graduate High School with numerous high pressure situation tests throughout the years. All students go to academies after school and often come home after midnight. They cannot get much sleep and certainly have a very restricted and brief childhood with very little playtime after the age of thirteen. Some older kids are like zombies and I've seen several falling asleep in class - as evidenced by the picture below I took when I worked at my previous academy. Would I be any different?

Long have I held the view that most students here don't learn subjects, they learn what to do to pass them. There is clearly something wrong with the demands of the curriculum where they have to get goods results to get to good universities. I'm no expert on this but I can only comment on what I've seen in the three years I've been here. You don't envy them and usually sympathise with them, but you have to acknowledge that they are also in a privileged position where they have the opportunity to potentially improve themselves with extra classes. It's at times cruel but they all have to go through it but I am very glad I didn't grow up like this.

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