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So… It’s another day of rice and kimchi at the office.

SK's Education is tough. Even on fictional bears.

SK’s Education is tough. Even on fictional bears.

Today, along with my three fellow teachers, I sat in a meeting in which we had videos of our teaching played back to us. Apart from making us all cringe at our respective classes, the idea was to demonstrate what the school’s style of teaching is, which is supposedly an interactive style that relies heavily on class preparation. Or at least this is what I understand from the school’s director.
His idea of teaching is that it should be non-stop, should change rapidly and should be very interactive. Since he hasn’t any teaching experience himself, he doesn’t actually realise that this would involve a great deal of preparation and would be very taxing on the teachers’ energy levels, so I nod during the meeting with the intention to keep to what I do on a daily basis.

I still have trouble understanding my boss at times, so it can be a bit surreal at times, but does make meetings quite entertaining. A lot gets lost in translation and I misunderstand a lot of what he says and vice-versa. For example, as he explained techniques for better interaction in class, I thought he said something quite different from what he actually did say. I heard, “Teachers should make competition between student, because Korean have competition mind. It’s very strong so when student give teacher handjob, teacher choose student.” As it turns out, he said hand up, but as I was only half listening to him at the time, it sounded very much like that. It was only after he said it for third time that I understood what he actually said.

Our boss keeps pushing us to carry out really futile exercises such as book reports or book recitals, which I’m not sure are really helping them learn the language. In the case of both the book reports and book recitals organising these kids to do the work is difficult to say the least. The book reports rarely get done and when they are, they usually just copy the words straight from the book. The book recitals take up way to much time in class and nothing is actually gained by doing them.
The best report and the recital both get a cash prize to encourage them to actually do it. The best report is judged by the director, whose English his limited, and the criteria is that you’ve A) done a report, and B) you haven’t won previously. This means that even if your book report is no more than toilet paper, but you’ve handed it in and haven’t won the prize before, you have a fair chance of winning. The logic behind this is that everybody gets a chance to win and it encourages competition, but it seems like a bit of a non-sequitur to me. If I consistently work hard at producing the best book report and I have already won it once, I am unlikely to win it again until my number comes up. If I do close to no work at all, but am last in line to win it, I am highly likely to win the prize. In my mind this does not make for competition, but on the contrary makes for despondent kids who are reluctant to make an effort in the future, because hard work and success are not correlates.
The recital is even worse. It requires the kids to recite a storybook in their entirety (600-1200 words) each month in front of a video camera for the director to host online for the parents to see. In this case the criteria for winning is to recite the fastest. Forget trying to make it sound nice and poetic by pacing it nicely and enunciating. If each one of those words eats the one that precedes it and nothing is understood by anyone, but you’re the fastest, you win. Still, I have to go through the motions, I suppose.

So back at the meeting, we get told how so many students quit this month (same amount that joined as it happens) and allegedly it’s because the teaching style isn’t like Chungdahm, which I am told is one of the biggest chain of English in Korea. The parents are paying vast amounts of money for their children’s education – amounts vary, but it’s about $2600 per annum – with English having a strong emphasis, and as such we really have to appeal to their concept of what should be taught. The general consensus seems to be that they want us to teach them like Chungdahm does. After all, Chungdahm is best, based on the expense; like a lot of things cost says a lot about the quality to those who don’t know any better. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
The director and his wife actively use the mothers’ random criticisms as the school’s tuning fork. The best thing I can compare this to is having someone sitting in another room from you tell another person to tell you that you to add more flour and eggs to your cake when you’re making a ragu.
Our boss, like many others, jumped on the hagwon gravy train after he decided to cash the chips from his previous business and bought a franchise. His wife wanted to own a hagwon and he wanted a steady source of income, and being that South Korea is absolutely obsessed with education, it was a viable option. Unfortunately, neither the boss nor his wife have any teaching experience and both speak very little English. This whole system makes it impossible to please anybody, so I just do what I feel is right and that’s it. I don’t want to pander to too many whimsical requests, but do try to do as much as I can within reason.

It is worth noting that most of the dropouts I have witnessed so far have been the bad kids. When I say ‘bad kids’ what I actually mean to say is the little fuckers who can spoil the best of days just by being there. What makes this worse is that we cannot actually complain when a kid is out of control, or making it difficult for other kids to learn, because according to the director the parents would withdraw their child. And of course, having tested the water a few times, the worst of the bunch know of Teacher’s impotence and play on it.
To illustrate this, a typical example exchange between myself and a student consists of me asking why homework hasn’t been done and its reply, “I don’t like [name of school], because 닉 Teacher. I not come tomorrow. I don’t care.” All this the child will say four inches from me as he thrusts his chest forward with his fists clenched. I personally find it hilarious and would love to be in the audience whilst a nine year old boy threatens a teacher will physical violence. Even more than that I’d like to be able to give him a sharp slap around his fat little face, just so that he doesn’t turn out like all those men out there who constantly find the need to demonstrate their might in order to compensate for their penis size/lack of brains.

The meeting goes on and we discuss another child. On the surface he is your average eight year old, albeit a little neurotic, but the kids in his class have set him apart and identified him as a wangtta, an outcast. People refuse to sit next to him, or to share a book with him, or even lend him stationary. He’s basically a leper. He cries every class and I have no idea what to do with him. The discussion sizzles out and resolves nothing.

Education in the ROK seems to be quite an ordeal. Sure, we’ve all been bullied. And we’ve all been pressured by parents and teachers’ demands, and had periods where we’ve had to buckle down and do some hard graft, but to this extent and this early in our academic careers? I think not. I have students who are less than ten years old and who do more work (relatively speaking) than most university kids in the UK.
But South Korea is most definitely a success story and it is no doubt due to the people’s work ethic and their sheer determination to succeed. South Korea’s nominal GDP is somewhere in the region of $23,000 (to give you an idea of growth it was $67 in 1953) and the country altogether avoided the global recession that has plagued our Western world since 2008. There is surely something driving this powerhouse, but at what cost?

To close and to allow you to make your own mind up on this one, let me take a final example: Peter, or Sleepeter as he calls himself. Sleepeter attends elementary school from 8am to 3pm and then is rushed by shuttle bus to my hagwon for two hours of class, then to his taekwondo class for another two hours, and finally to his maths tuition for a further two hours. He gets a bite or two in-between, but that’s his life essentially. Oh, and I forgot to mention that he has homework from each lesson at school and each extra tuition class, so he probably spends a further two hours minimum doing homework. He is nine years old and the poor sod doesn’t get a break to have any fun and that’s why he calls himself Sleepeter – he’s always tired, hardly ever productive and far from being the prodigy his Tiger Mom wants him to be. I honestly feel as if this ‘Education Fever’ might be robbing these poor kids of their childhood.