I would like to begin this post by saying that I am very grateful for my job as well as the opportunity to gain experience working abroad. I love it, but like any job, it is not without difficulties.
With that said, there are some issues with the education system here that are very hard for me to wrap my head around and I feel compelled to write about them.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, there are generally two ways for a native English speaker to become an EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher here in Korea. One is by finding work at a public school, which is run by the government. The big programs are EPIK and GEPIK. The other way is by finding work at a hagwon, or a private school. These schools are businesses (“academies”) that parents pay to send their children to after they finish public school.
I work at a hagwon. It happens to be a chain; the closest comparison I can make is something like Huntington Learning Center in the States. I found my job through contacting a Korean recruiter who was based in Seoul.
Anyway, my first class begins at 3:20 in the afternoon. I have to be in the office 30 minutes prior to start planning my lessons and activities. My first part of the day is spent with my elementary students who are, for the most part, absolutely lovely. They are adorable and energetic. They love reading and speaking. I have students who hug me, hold my hand, and give me stickers. It fills me with complete and utter joy to be in class with these kids and watch as they learn new ideas and concepts about the English language. I genuinely believe they enjoy being there.
After dinner, though, around 7:30, the entire dynamic of my classes changes. The evening is when most of the middle schoolers come in for lessons. The majority of them are terrified to even look me in the eye, let alone speak or participate. They literally sit in their chairs with their hands in their laps and their heads resting on their desks. It is like pulling teeth to get them to answer questions. Others are defiant. I’ve had some call me a bad teacher and tell me how horrible their days are because they are in class with me. It’s not fun.
The other day, I had one class where only two students showed up. Since it was so small, I let them play games on the board and practice answering questions with each other. At one point, I asked them how long their regular school day is. Eight and a half hours was the answer. Then, I asked how long they come to “academy” for. Four hours was the answer. These are 12, 13, and 14 year olds who have a 12+ hour day. I don’t know adults who work that long! It was so sad to hear this because you can really see the exhaustion on their faces. For most classes, I start off by asking how they spent the night before or what they did over the weekend. The answer is almost always study or sleep.
I know that there’s nothing I can do about this. I know that this is part of Korean culture. I just wish that my older students had the energy and enthusiasm of my elementary kids. Many of them are so bright, but they don’t make any effort because they are tired and don’t want to be sitting in a classroom at 9 o’clock at night. On the other side, though, it also makes me sad to know that in a few short years my lively youngsters will be in the same position as my middle schoolers. There is no winning.
That was my rant.