Monday, March 3, 2014

Life of a Korean Student

This week on March 3, I begin a new school year.  A new school year means a fresh start, (some) new students, a little more experience and not being able to say I'm the "new" teacher anymore.  But along with a new school year, I can't help but think about the intense work load that Korean students are about to endure.  You may think that because I work at an elementary school, my students don't have a huge work load...but you'd be wrong.  Korean students, elementary to college, work extremely hard; they work hard so that they will make their families proud and so that one day they may have the opportunity to get into a top university, and ultimately, a good job.  The education system here is highly competitive, which is probably why Koreans have been at the top of international education scores in recent years.

I often ask my students, "What did you do over the weekend?", and I usually get the same response from multiple students, "Studied".  I've come to find this response as normal.  Korean students study, study, and then study some more.  They are also involved in numerous extracurricular activities.  Outside of their typical school day, most of my students also do piano lessons, extra English/Chinese/Math/or Science lessons, Taekwondo, etc.  Hagwons, or private schools for extracurricular activities and tutoring, are immensely popular here.  After their regular school day, many students will go to an English hagwon for extra English lessons, or go to hagwons for extra math or science tutoring sessions.  Parents pay a pretty penny to send their children to hagwons, and all so that their kids can one day get into a good university.  Koreans strive to get into one of the SKY universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University.  These universities are the equivalent to the Ivy leagues in the US.  Getting into one of these universities will pretty much guarantee your financial and working success in Korea.  Of course there are other universities, but these are the elite.    

A typical school day for a Korean student might look like this: Elementary students are in school from 8am-2 (or 3)pm, middle school is 8-5pm, and I'm not sure about high school.  After the regular school day is over, most students go straight to hagwons.  Some students are in hagwons until 9-10pm at night.  Then after leaving the hagwons, some students continue to study at home. That's a 13-14 hour day (if not more)!  It is also not unheard of for students to attend Saturday school, or at least attend hagwons on the weekends.  The school year does include 2 long breaks; one in summer and one in winter.  What do the students do during these extended breaks between semesters? You guessed it: they study.        

K-12 education in Korea leads up to one defining moment: the University Entrance Exam.  This exam literally has the power to determine your life's social and economic status, therefore it is not taken lightly.  Sometimes, students will start studying for this test as early as middle school.  Education is everything.

While I painted a rather bleak picture of a Korean student's life, it isn't all bad.  My students do have some free time in which they hang out with their friends and go on vacation with their families.  And, my students usually seem upbeat and happy.  They're raised knowing what is expected of them academically, so they don't know any different.  I don't mean to depress any of you with the reality of a typical Korean student's life, but it's worth noting the differences between the educational systems of South Korea and the US.

Here's a short clip someone made parodying the typical day-in-the-life of a Korean student.


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