A Comparison of Korean and American Education

April 18th, 2016

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Written by Kelsey Nestel, Fulbright ETA 2014-16

In the last 5 years, I have taught 8 elementary schoolers about emotions, 50 sixth graders about the voices of diversity in the Harlem Renaissance, 22 struggling seventh graders how to read, 74 advanced tenth graders the morality of science in an evolving society, 63 frustrated super seniors the importance of literacy, 49 transitional international students how to ask questions, 16 international adults how to speak to their landlords about the leak in the kitchen, and now over 700 Korean high school girls how to see the beauty in themselves. I am an English teacher.

So the real question – “Is teaching in South Korea really all that different from teaching in the U.S.? The short answer is “YES!” First, let me clarify that in the States, I taught English with a big E. Regardless of the student demographic, I saw at most 90 students a week, and I worked with them closely every day on topics ranging from literature, to comma splices, to writing 5-paragraph essays. In South Korea, I teach English with a little e (p.s. you should always capitalize the e), but let me explain. In South Korea, I teach English as a foreign language. Not that big of a difference? You’d be surprised. I’m not their primary English teacher. I am the brilliantly weird leader of their fun, once a week, conversational class. Nothing I can’t handle. Oh, did I happen to mention that I teach exactly 489 students? And that they are all girls?

After I recovered from the little surprise that I was actually teaching a completely different subject, it was easy to settle down into the consistent pattern of daily teaching. Just kidding. The Korean class schedule often feels erratic (unless you have a rockstar co-teacher), specifically in the spring with last minute changes for festivals, sports days, class trips, and the ever important testing. Teaching here has certainly taught me to be flexible, but my coworkers have also always been extremely kind and helpful. The administrative side is also a bit different. The U.S. is currently pushing towards more rigorous standards, greater accountability, and more administrative oversight. Although this might only be because I’m the foreign teacher, in Korea I’ve never been asked for a curriculum plan, a lesson plan, or been observed by anyone other than a few timid mothers (open classes where parents can come and watch … this is a thing).

Other differences in the schedule include the proliferation of down time. In the U.S., you can only expect to have one free period for planning each day while here in Korea I might have anywhere from 2-4 free periods a day (this is at the cost of longer work hours). While U.S. teachers are typically expected to be either in the classroom or in the office during this planning time, Korean teachers take advantage of their bonus hours to take naps (we even have a designated nap room), go out to lunch, or run errands. Catching an American teacher asleep on the job is a faux pas.

As for students, they are the real pleasure of this job. I have always loved my students, but there is something truly special about Korean kids. Behavior management is completely different in the Korean classroom. In the U.S. I might expect tardiness, talking back, cell phones, being unprepared, and overt rudeness. In Korea my biggest, struggles are talking (but not because they are ignoring you), sleeping, and cell phones. When you’re in-classroom management fails in the U.S., you can usually count on the school to have a behavior management support system in place. My school here doesn’t seem to have any kind of system, or at least not one that I have access to. I typically take care of concerns in class through clear expectations, routines, and sheer force of will. Class presidents are also handy for stepping in when the class gets too noisy.

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In addition, the students here are under an immense amount of pressure. Between long school hours, night study, and evening academy they have far more seat time than U.S. students. Although my girls spend so much time at school, they are still willing to give so much of themselves in a way that most American students would be too “cool” for. They continuously surprise me with their enthusiasm, their energy, and their love.

After hundreds of hours of research, planning, aligning content to state and national standards, assessing for learning, adjusting for learning differences, and grading, it only took me 5 years to realize that teaching isn’t about the English.  It is  about finding the humanity that exists in all of us, from the 8-year-old boy who knows more Chinese than Korean, to the 14-year-old girl who insists that her math teacher hates her, the 16-year-old girl wondering if it’s safe to be herself, the 19-year-old working extra hours after school to help feed his siblings, the 20-year-old pixie-like Indian girl who never stays down for long, to the 40-year-old Pakistani man learning enough English to work a drive-through because he left his physician’s license back in his home country. Teaching is about building students up and giving them the love, support, and confidence they need to succeed.

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