14 April 2014

It's Not About You.

This week was a tough one at work.  It's so easy to become complacent with your hakwon job here in Korea.  People back home see you as a teacher, but when you take a step back to consider the actual work you're doing here, you realize that you are serving a much less dignified purpose.  You are thought of by this society as a glorified babysitter at best.  You are a cog in a poorly oiled machine that cranks out test score improvements to appease angry mothers, and if you fail to do so the system will attempt to reprimand you but will not have a solution for you because it is so poorly organized and haphazardly balancing on it's last leg that it can barely stand much less come up with answers for its own issues.

I've considered writing a blog about this for a long time now, and have refrained mainly because I didn't want to turn an entire post into some sort of bitch fest where I rip apart the system I've been working in for nearly the past two years.  With my contract coming to an end in a few short weeks, I decided that now would be an opportune time to really sit down and allow myself to decompress and think about the reasons why I've been so unsatisfied and irritated with my working environment here in Korea.  On a typical day, I will blame the people in my office for being incompetent, or not knowing how to deal with children, or for being terrible teachers.  All of these things are true of some folks to a certain extent, but that's not addressing the bigger picture.

I have a student whose English name is Sammy, and yes he is just as precious as that name implies.  He's about 13 years old and I've had him in classes on and off since I stated teaching in 2012.  He is a killer kid, he's got a great sense of humor, a unique personality, he's a loyal friend, and of course he's a little bit of a shit head but what 13 year old boy isn't?  In our typical Chungdahm classes, the students are required to take two tests: a vocabulary test (read: they memorize the words and spew them out onto the paper as fast as they possibly can and hope they're in the right order), and a reading/listening quiz (read: typically filled with very minute and detailed questions that aren't actually that applicable to the overall reading or passage they had to listen to, but are supposed to help increase their comprehension skills by god knows what means).  Both of these grades are shown to the parents, and if a student falls below a certain cut line they are typically punished at home, in some cases to an extent that I actually don't like thinking about.

Anyway - Sammy.  He doesn't do very well on tests, he just seems to blank or get really anxious or hit some sort of mental wall that prevents him from achieving the grades he deserves on tests.  He's wicked smart, can articulate his thoughts beautifully in his second language at the age of thirteen and is a critical and logical thinker among other things.  But his test scores just aren't that good.  As a Korean student, it doesn't particularly matter what else you are good at, if you can't achieve a high score on a test you're more of less out of luck as the system would have it.  The cool thing about Sammy is that he finally leveled up in our system to a class called Vision Essay, where all they do in the class is read short stories, discuss the literary aspects of them, and then write a short essay.  No tests.

And this kid is an essay writing machine.  He cranks out two page essays faster than I used to when I would write weird little stories on the first computer ever invented when I was a kid.  He is imaginative, thoughtful and creative.  His stories crack me up.  I take pictures of them and save them on my iPhone, sometimes they're so good I have to share with other people and I post them to my facebook.  He's just so darn clever and cute, with a winning combination of personality and intellect.  If it weren't for this Vision Essay class, Sammy probably would still be achieving mediocre grades in the hakwon (and by mediocre I mean B's, which are considered pretty damn good in my world).  But because his scores are based solely on his essays, he has one of the highest overall grades in the class, all the while being one of the youngest and definitely smallest students among his peers.

Sammy's lucky, though.  Most kids don't have outlets like a Vision Essay class to cultivate their true talents.  Most students aren't encouraged to chase after a dream they have, whether that be literature, art, sculpting, acting, or comedy.  If it doesn't fit the mold that their parents have designed for them, it isn't deemed applicable to their lives, and therefore is swept right under the rug and forgotten about.  This kid might have stayed thinking he was a sub-par student, frustrated by his lack of ability to measure up to his peer's test scores, had he not been able to be valued and judged on the basis of something he excels at.  I understand this problem is not specific to Korea, but being in this system and seeing the pressure placed on such young kids to be the best at everything all the time... it wears you down and it bums you out, to be perfectly blunt.

Our hakwon owners tell us to smile more, then when we get student complaints that the teachers are 'too relaxed with the students' we're asked to be strict.  When we're strict and little MinHyuk goes home and tells his mom that his teacher was mean to him, we're reprimanded and told to be nicer to our students.  When a student is caught cheating, we're instructed to send them to the front desk to speak with the Korean staff.  After sending the same student multiple times in one month to the front desk, they ask us to please find a different way to deal with the cheating problem in our classroom.  The lessons are all completely planned out for us, and all we're required to do is come in an hour early to print some bullshit tests that measure how quickly the students can cram 20 random words into their heads before spewing them out onto a paper and promptly forgetting about them the minute they're finished with the quiz.

As "teachers" in this system, we aren't allowed freedom of choice.  Aren't given the ability to deviate from the norm or create a different sort of learning environment for our brilliantly overworked students.  We're punished for things that have nothing to do with our job duties as the supposed educators that we are made out to be.  Parents want us to tell them one thing their child can improve on every few weeks, even if that thing doesn't necessarily exist.  They need something to hold over their heads.  The hakwon manager needs something to drill into us once a week.  Some new problem, some non-solution, some blame game, some end of week debauchery to try and forget that this is actually what you're being paid to do.  A façade.

Korea is an incredibly fascinating country. Most of the people are quite nice. Some of the food is quite good. A portion of the landscape is quite lovely. The peninsula's history is rich and compelling.  But the English education system here should be thought of as the biggest shame of the country.  A complete farce; under qualified white faces, confused morals, uneducated mothers dictating what their children should be learning, no passion, no drive, soulless eyes of children, weekends spent in libraries, standardized testing, one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the OECD.

I'm getting the hell out of this system in a few short weeks, but I can't help but think of all of my amazing students that will continue to be stuck in it.  So little joy, so few ambitions apart from those that are forced down your throat.  It makes me cry thinking about what some of my kids have to deal with day in and day out.  We all know it's hard enough being a middle school student, that is one of the worst times in a human being's existence.  Stack on top of that a confusing family structure where dad is only home one day of the week and mom is the woman who yells at you and leaves bruises on your arms.  Add in more school after school, having to learn a second and sometimes third language, hours upon hours of homework, being in a classroom until 10pm every night of the week.  I feel for them so much, my heart hurts thinking about what they're going to have to endure as Korean students.

I don't know where I'm going with this blog, but it's been a long time coming and it just feels good to finally get it off of my chest.  My job has not been all terrible and awful, actually it's been phenomenal because I teach some of the most talented and beautiful young people on the face of this Earth.  The system is what makes me sick, the machine is flawed and I think it's time to scrap the whole thing and rebuild a new one.  One that works.  One that doesn't take advantage and hurt.  One that educates and doesn't dictate.  One that is concerned for the well being of children, not our own pocketbooks or plastic surgery funds.  One that I most definitely will not be a part of, but hope to see in the very near future.  Because if it doesn't change, I'm afraid of the consequences.


  1. Beautifully written. I couldn't agree more!

  2. I don't know if you're an American but this letter from a teacher in NY won't make you feel any better....admittedly kids in the U.S. are not nearly as burdened as Korean kids but test taking and using that as a measure of success has become a crippling burden to the education system. Our kids aren't committing suicide they're just going straight to prison. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/04/new_york_state_ela_tests_sucking_the_love_for_learning_right_out_of_my_students.html