South Korea: Where a kid can’t be a kid

Note: I guess the novelty of living in a foreign country has worn off a bit. I don’t see something I can consider weird or noteworthy every time I leave the house, so my posts depend on how long it takes for bigger ideas to bubble to the surface. This post has been percolating for a while.

In case we haven’t made it clear in previous posts, private English education is big business here in Korea. The schools are called “academies,” or “hagwon,” and can have many different subjects. There are math academies, science academies, language academies, sport academies, etc. It seems like there’s an academy on almost every block in Bundang. I work for a well known national chain of English academies and its latest marketing strategy is to promote an image of caring for each and every student.

This marketing effort means extra work for my coworkers and I. We must call every student on the phone, to say hello and gauge their conversation skills, as well as pull every student out of class to praise and encourage them. We also have to enter some of this information into a computer so their parents can see that we talked to them. See? Proof that we care!

Whatever. I do what my contract tells me I gotta do. I wasn’t excited about calling up students to make awkward conversation — what kid wants to talk to a teacher on the phone? I decided to make the best of it.  Unless you are a Czech telemarketer, how often do you get to call a wide range of people at their homes in another country?  If nothing else, this was a chance to learn about kids’ lives.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that I am not in any way claiming the superiority of the US or non-Confucian educational standards and institutions, nor the state of intellectualism within such cultures. If you’ve followed the Texas school board flap, it’s obvious that we have our own systemic problems, such as a significant portion of the population who lacks a basic understanding of science (– I’ll leave it at science). Also, beware that macro-scale assumptions might be made based on a micro-level observation of hagwon students in one neighborhood of an especially affluent city.

The first thing I noticed that was odd was the time of day in which I was to make these calls. Children come to our academy after school, so our work day starts at 2:30 pm and ends after 9. To make sure we get all our calls made, we usually stay until 10-ish. Eight, nine and 10-year-olds are not only awake at 10 pm, they also take phone calls! The parents don’t even think it’s strange. That’s just our youngest kids – older students, who leave at 9 pm, might not get in the door until almost 10.

As I talked to the children, I would ask them how they like our school, how they like my class, etc. Nearly all said they didn’t like it. The top reason? Detention. Even my best-behaved students listed detention as their number one complaint. Why? It turns out they must memorize 20 new vocabulary words before each day of classes at our school. If they fail this daily test, given by their Korean teachers, they get detention(!).

The amount of homework these kids have to do is staggering, but I’m told their parents actually demand more of it. I’m unofficially required to assign homework for every class period, every day. If we get through all our material for the day, I’m still supposed to post an assignment online so the parents can log on and see that homework was assigned.

My students haven’t even entered the middle school meat grinder and they are already pushed to extreme amounts of work and study. The 1980s apparently came with great reforms in the education system, but it doesn’t seem to have affected this generation of kids.  They don’t have time to be kids.

The call that really got to me was to a student called Alice, after 10 pm. When she answered the phone, she sounded tired and annoyed. Once she realized it was her teacher from school, she tried her best to be polite but she still sounded like I’d woken her up. I asked if she had been sleeping, but she said she was studying for history. She wouldn’t go to sleep until after midnight.

Her daily schedule is roughly like this: Wake up and go to school, then two afternoon academies, then home study until she can’t keep her eyes open. She only comes to our academy a few days a week. On other days she’s at a different one.  This is the norm among my students.

After that call, I began asking all my students how late they will be awake studying. The latest was 2 am, but midnight or 1 am were more common bedtimes. I thought I was just bad at teaching, but now I understand why so many kids just put their heads down on their desks or sneak food in class – they don’t get enough of either. (Alas, the question remains open as to my teaching skills.)

After all this, you’d think Korean parents are sadistic and don’t care about their childrens’ wellbeing. Ironically, the opposite is true. Remember Lenny from “Of Mice and Men”? He loved his pet mice so much that he hugged them to death.

From my Lonely Planet- and Wikipedia-derived understanding of Korean culture and society, this happens for two reasons. First is the deeply ingrained Confucian mindset which places a high value on education as a form of personal and social betterment. This is taken to an absurd end: If your child stays awake all night studying and losing sleep in the process, you are a great parent for instilling him or her with a moral value.

Second is the intense level of competition for economic success. A degree is essential to being considered “middle class.” Parents want their children to earn a place at one of Korea’s three prestigious universities, or even better, an Ivy League school in the US. My students routinely tell me how they plan on going to Harvard, Yale or Dartmouth and when out in public, I commonly see knockoff hats and shirts with the names of various Ivy League institutions.

My coworkers have differing opinions on how to deal with the situation. Some say, “Fuck it. The kids are in this system and they’re expected to do the homework and deal with the stress, so I’m going to assign it and not feel bad.” This was my initial attitude but it’s becoming much more difficult to maintain. Especially after I learned that South Korean teenagers are the least happy in the developed world.  Jen doesn’t believe it because her kindergarteners seem so full of the joy of life.  I tell her they’re too young – they haven’t had their spirits crushed by the system yet.

Of course, this system has its positives too.  In most areas of study, my students have much more knowledge of the world than their American counterparts.  This mindset also pervades their hobbies — kids practice and hone their skills with a shocking degree of discipline, whether it’s playing violin or second base.  They take things seriously — though one can argue for inclusion of the word “too” in that statement.

Now I’m trying to find a more balanced approach to assigning homework and making class bearable, at least for my older kids. With my phone calls and hallway counseling, I make a point to extend my hand and offer support and help. My older students have my email address and phone number and I tell them to get in touch, whether they need help with an assignment or just want to rant. This may backfire or cause its own set of problems, but I’ve actually received a frustrated email rant over a difficult textbook.

I try to make them understand that I see them as more than book-reading automatons. At least one class gets it and their in-class behavior has improved dramatically. On the other hand, another class exploits this and has devolved to the point where if I want them to learn at all, I have no choice but to participate in the crushing of their souls.

I’m sure that where I live and work contributes to the situation. Everyone tells me that Bundang is known as one of the richest cities in the country, so it’s populated by people who believe in the system because they’ve come out near the top. If children achieve anything less than their parents here, it would be looked down upon.

The end result of this system is an alarming teenage suicide rate, as well as the highest overall suicide rate among OECD countries. I suspect it’s helped by the widespread, but laughably pitiful, delusion of money as guarantor of happiness. More than one of my students has asserted this belief, which I assume comes from parents and other cultural institutions. For example, the Business section of one Korean-language newspaper has an English title: “Money and Riches.”  Despite the differences in education systems and underlying social philosophies, the lust for money makes this place feel eerily similar to the US.

At the end of the day, I can’t change the system, nor do I want to.  That’s for Korean people to do, and many are seeking that change.  I do care about my students, though, and I want them to enjoy learning English.  Assigning them more homework, then calling them to interrupt their studies, seems like the wrong way to go about it.

I’d love to hear from Koreans or other teachers in the comments — am I way off base here?

-Daniel Daugherty

The amount of homework these kids have to do is staggering, but I’m told their parents demand more of it. I’m unofficially required to assign homework for every class period, every day. If we get through all our material for the day, I’m still supposed to post an assignment online so the parents can log on and see that homework was assigned.



Filed under Culture Shock, Employment Details

9 responses to “South Korea: Where a kid can’t be a kid

  1. Don

    Very nice article. Enjoyed it!

    Asian cultures are number and money oriented. The thirst for the almighty coin is widespread throughout Asia. More so than in America.

    Japan also has a very intense and rigorous academic agenda.

    You can see that you’re American, as they all wear their hearts and emotions on their shirt sleeves. Americans also tend to have vastly open hearts, and this influences your emotional desire to “give them a break” so to speak.

    Where I am in Saudi, they are all expected to better themselves, albeit there is no self-discipline and cheating, scamming, lying and manipulation are key tools to their armament of academic social skills. Plus here, they use (BAC-SHEESH) tribal relations and family status to make things happen for them. A mafia type form of nepotism.

    Ever notice how hard and industrious kids from poorer countries are? How is it that a kid that speaks no English at all, comes to America from India, and wins the nation spelling bee competition three years later?
    Wow! That is impressive!

    Let me see, I before E except after C…?

  2. It turns out that sleep in Korea is not seen as all that important. Kids from good, middle-class households stay up super-late studying, but guess what farm-kids from families too poor for Hagwon are doing at midnight? PC Bang or texting friends or watching TV, but probably not sleeping either.

    I’ve noticed Koreans catch sleep where they can, be it on the bus or with their heads in their desks at 1pm. If I were still an office drone in the homeland, and my boss saw me snoring for 20 minutes every afternoon, I wouldn’t have a job for long. In Korea, it’s normal.

    Going on 3-5 (lucky!) hours of sleep a night prepares middle school and high school students for the grind of Korean salarymanhood. Oddly, the time in their lives when they’ll get the most sleep is university. They work non-stop through elementary school to get into the right middle school, through middle school to get into the right high school, and through high school to get into the right uni. Then it’s over. Life is sweet, and university, even SKY unis (SeoulU, KoreaU, YonseiU) are a joke. Time to sleep, make connections, and enjoy life for just a little while before moving onto the Korean office, and late-night work + late-night binge drinking with the boss/team. Goodbye sleep until retirement.

    It’s not an ideal system, but those middle schoolers studying history at 12am? They’re in training to be the leaders of 21st century Korea. Spartans all.

    “This. Is. Korea!!!”

    • Daniel Daugherty

      So I guess I should never describe my own educational experience to students … Then again, they’ve probably all been told how slack it is.

      You’re right, though, I do see people catching sleep in odd places. Though I doubt they’re hitting their REM cycles. Also, kids studying university texts on buses and subways. Not what I’d call ideal study environments but at least they’re willing to add that downtime to their schedules.

      I’m curious, though, do you assign as much homework as parents apparently demand?

      • Actually, that’s a really good question: I wonder if Koreans have trained their brains to hit their REM cycles more quickly even while falling asleep in public places. I wouldn’t be surprised if Korean brains could slip into REM at the drop of a hat, just like you or I would if we stayed awake for a couple of days straight first.

        As for me, I never assign homework per se, but I sometimes tell them there’s going to be a test, and they study for it at home, preferably by doing the worksheets I give them.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention South Korea: Where a kid can’t be a kid « TEFL Or Bust --

  4. chris

    I dont know what this is going to sound like because I am not Korean and I have not been there but…

    I feel like you are not documenting some of the things that they are learning from their intense schedule. While the Korean kids are not out living it up so to speak, at least they are learning discipline, dedication, patience, long term gratification, the importance of finishing ect. These are a lot of important character traits that you don’t learn by hanging out at the mall after school.

    Maybe its not so important that they become polished little work-aholics, but rather that they experience the journey toward that destination…?…your suicide stat is rather compelling though…

    • In terms of discipline, patience, long-term gratification, etc., that was certainly true of the parents of the current generation. The Korean economic miracle is really a miracle of that generation saving like madmen (mostly their wives, actually), and then reinvesting their savings into their country and their kids.

      The current generation of young marrieds, on the other hand, having a savings rate almost as abysmal as the North American one, preferring to spend on fancy cars and swanky condos. I’m not sure where all that discipline or delayed gratification went, but, looking at the me-me-me kids around here, I don’t think it’s coming back any time soon 😦

  5. This makes me so sad. :o/

  6. Cindy

    Great BLog!!
    Well, this is coming from the view of a mother.
    No sleep? I remember when you boys were little, I wanted to make sure that you got plenty of sleep. People cannot be who they really are if they don’t get the right amount of sleep. One becomes grumpy, easily frustrated, and hard to deal with.( I know I get like that when I haven’t had enough sleep) Also, That was what I had to deal with when you and your brother were tired. How can the children concentrate on anything when their eyes are constantly closing? and drifting off to sleep?
    My psychology book says that there are 4 stages of sleep, and then yu backtrack through stages 3 and 2 and then pass into the REM sleep. Stage 1 lasts: 1-7 minutes Stage 2 lasts: 30-45 minutes Stage 3 and 4 sleep lasts from a few minutes to an hour.(the deepest stage of sleep) then back through 3 and 2 perhaps 45 minutes, then REM. You pass through this 5 or 6 times through the night, and each period lasts 15-45minutes. then you pass back into non-REM sleep. is like a roller coaster!
    There are reasons we sleep. During the day we deplete key factors i nour brains or body that need to be replenished, and repaired. This is when we heal. Sleep deprivation can lead to serious health problems. Starting out with compromising our immune systems. Then things can really go down hill from there. But that is important. Our imune systems go down, and we can’t fight off anything. Very interesting point that my book makes is that it puts our bodies in high alert, increasing the productin of stress hormones and elevates blood pressure. that is serious!

    So I wonder what are the statistics of health problems in that country, and can we see a correlation to sleep deprivation? do you notice behaviour problems that could be related to no sleep? or not the right kind of sleep?

    All the comments were good.

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