I have been teaching in public elementary schools (six in total) for over a year and a half now. Some friends back home were curious about the school system in Korea, so I wanted to reflect on some basic similarities and differences between my experiences in elementary schools in Korea and the states. These are just reflections and observations based on personal experiences, not a generalization for all schools. End disclaimer.
Elementary schools in Korea house kindergarten through sixth grade. My elementary education in New Jersey extended only to the fifth grade, but I believe there are some sixth graders in elementary schools in America, depending on the district.
The school semester begins in March and lasts until the end of July when school ceases for a month-long summer vacation. It starts back up during the last week of August until the last week of December for a long winter break. As of last year, students now come back for (a seemingly pointless) two weeks in February to make up for Saturday schools recently ending. During these breaks, however, many students come for extra classes. One program is English Immersion Camp, which I teach for two weeks each summer and winter break. More details about my recent camp here.
Students come to school around 8:30 to hang around the hallways and playground before first period. As soon as anybody steps foot into the building, they take their shoes off and put on their school slippers. Students usually opt to wear these ugly white Croc-like slippers and teachers were comfortable sandals. I am a big advocate for wearing slippers in school; everyone should enjoy comfortable work shoes, especially for those on their feet all day. In winter, you have to love the array of fuzzy slippers sported by all of the teachers. I love entering school and being greeted by the adorable children that pass me in the hallway. Sometimes, it’s a deep bow and an “안녕하세요” from students that don’t know I’m the foreign teacher. Most often, students start to greet me in Korean with a bow and then do a second-take. “Oh, HELLO LIANNE! Hi, hello!” along with a big wave and smile. They giggle to each other that they confused me for a Korean teacher. Adorable.
Each class is 40 minutes long with a bell (in my case, a catchy tune) signifying the end and start of each class. There are 10 minutes between those bells and let me tell you, the school becomes a zoo between class periods. I don’t remember getting many breaks in elementary school and we only had 3-5 minutes to rush between classes in middle and high school. Ten minutes is a generous amount. Kids roam and scream through the halls, sixth grade girls put on lipgloss and stare at themselves in the mirrors, boys chase and beat each other up.
Students always complain about being hungry. Lunchtime is a wonderful period for students and teachers. Everyone, including the principal, eats the school lunch.. It is usually mighty delicious and nutritious. It always surprises me watching little first graders eat spicy kimchi and hot peppers with their chopsticks. I also enjoy watching children raise their entire tray to their faces to slurp their soup from the soup bowl portion. The teachers also sit at the same table with their students instead of gossiping about students in the teacher’s lounge. For a thorough overview of school lunches in Korea, click here.
There isn’t a designated recess time, but students are free to play in the playground after lunch. There’s rarely any supervision. This is also a time when many students complete their chores. A handful of children usually come to the special teacher office to sweep, take out the trash, and practice their English with me. I think it’s great to give the students this responsibility and lessen the work of the janitors to learn respect by not littering (it still happens though).
I am not very familiar with curriculums, but students study the same subjects like math and social studies. Like in America, students stay in their classrooms except for their special classes. They travel to different classrooms for science, English, moral education, art, music, P.E., and practical arts (e.g., how to use a computer and sew a pillow).
When first imagining what it is like to teach in the Korean classroom, I imagined that the students would be very obedient and well-behaved. I couldn’t be more wrong.. I don’t have major behavior issues, but do have some very disrespectful and rude students. They can get very rowdy and loud when they get excited in class. I was surprised by this at first, but now it’s a part of my daily life. Otherwise, students don’t differ much in the states versus Korea. Kids are kids anywhere in the world. They love games, song, and their teacher (that diminishes when they reach the sixth grade. Teens will also be teens). Perhaps because of the language barrier, I find Korean kids to be more innocent and easily amused. They will scream and jump out of their chairs with excitement if they correctly answered false to “I have a dog”. Sometimes, it is painfully cute.
Korean kids are also quite physical with each other – smacking and holding each other (even between boys) are common. I didn’t like the hitting at first, but it’s a normal part of their lives and teachers don’t seem to care either unless there is an intention to do harm. For the most part, it is just playful. This would not go well in the states – overprotective parents can raise hell if their child has a tiny bruise. If anyone lived a life without enduring a bruise as a child, please let me know.
My English classes never go past 1:50, but I believe school ends at 2:30 for 5-6th graders. First and second graders finish after lunch. I always see them roaming out of their classrooms with their adorable puffy coats and backpacks. Korean parents seem to put a lot of effort into their kids’ outfits.
After school, most students participate in after-school activities such as musical instruments, English, and sports. Both of my current schools have a baseball team, so the baseball players always wear their uniforms during school and practice after school. I always hear them doing drills from my office.
Learning continues after after-school classes. Many students attend private academies known as hagwon. These expensive private businesses provide even more studying in various subjects – math and English being the most prominent. Some of my students have academy until late in the evening. They come home to homework, leaving little time to play with friends or enjoy hobbies. This schedule seems harsh now, but it is nothing compared to what they will endure in middle and high school. Pressure is high.
I had the opportunity to observe a few of the students’ regular classes. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I noticed that the class seemed to be more teacher focused. Drills and memorization are common methods. Students are able to express their creativity, but I believe that slows down in middle and high school when the pressure to do well on tests develops. Creativity is not something that is valued as highly as math and English.
As mentioned earlier, I worked in six different public schools in Gwangju during my year and a half here. Two schools were very tiny schools in a rural area (class sizes from 4 to 12 students), one was a gigantic school in one of the richest neighborhoods in Gwangju, and some are in poorer industrial areas. The socioeconomic statuses certainly varied – students from higher income families attended hagwons and thus their English levels were higher. Although the students at the rural schools had low English levels, they were very sweet and eager to learn English. I don’t know how money is distributed among the schools, but I don’t notice a drastic difference in terms of budget between all of the schools. In contrast, how much money a school receives in America is largely dependent upon the zipcode.
I’m glad to have an opportunity to experience school life in Korea and enjoy my job, but I only foresee myself doing this for one more year. I like to teach, but it would also be nice if I could actually communicate with my students. They are young learners with little opportunities to practice English in daily life, so their levels are quite low. It is surely a difficult language to learn for a native Korean speaker. I struggled to learn Korean in my immersion Korean class, so I have empathy for my students.
Every class is different and every day is unpredictable. Students’ smiles brighten my day as do their little notes and hugs. They especially love the foreign teacher. As much as I like this job, it is not something permanent for me, nor is this job is not for everyone. The requirements to become a native English teacher aren’t very high, but I believe it is getting more competitive. If native English teachers actually make a difference is another topic that I won’t delve into right now. I think at the elementary level, confidence, fluency, and good feelings towards English are the most important goals. It also helps for the kids to meet foreigners since their perception of westerners are formed from movies and TV. If students learn to like English and feel confident in their abilities, they will seek it out on their own. Good teachers teach students how to teach themselves.