Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sleepless in Korea

Walking into a classroom every morning, I see the majority of my students with their heads down, a few coffee mugs present, a Red Bull or two.  Other students tenaciously look over their exam notes as they anticipate their dreadful exams in less than a week.  This took me back to the old yesteryears of college; however, it was not; this was middle school. 

The night before, I was jogging along at about 11pm in my neighborhood where I can hear the sudden shouting of “TEACHER RANDY---HELLO!!!!!!” permeating through the tight airspace between my eardrums and my iPod earphones playing to the sound of Muse’s “Time is Running Out.”  I turned around and saw my students still in their school uniform coming out of their private academy.  Puzzled, I glanced at the clock on my iPod, and I thought to myself, “is there a curfew for these kids?” To my kids, it was second nature.  To me, it was “Welcome to Korea.” 

I had taught English in Korea through EPIK (English Program in Korea) for 3 years (From 2009 up until the end of February of this year).  Entering Korea, I knew little about the culture and the education that would stand far apart from its Western counterpart.  As I would soon realize, I quickly began to see the effects that the Korean education system would have on these young minds. 

One day, I had an introductory lesson on “Your Plans.”  I asked my students “What are your plans for the weekend?”  Several students replied, “I have to go to school on Saturday or I have to go to my academy on Saturday,” or “I have to study all day on Sunday.”  Perplexed, I asked them “Well, do you have any hobbies?”  They simply replied, “Oh, we play computer games all day or go to the PC Room with our friends.” Certainly, not the kind of enthusiastic, ice-breaking discussion I had hoped for.  Simply, it was becoming rather evident that my students barely had any time nor the ability to be just kids. 

For centuries, Korea is a culture influenced by Confucianism. This brand of cultural philosophy emphasizes the importance of a person or family’s status in their society based on wealth, social, and job position. Education is the symbol of achieving higher status in Korean society.  It is the key that many Koreans feel would unlock the gates that would lead them to fulfilling dreams of being at the top of the mountain.  Only that getting to the top is where many students start to fall when the climbing becomes unbearable. 

According to a 2011 article in Time Magazine, “In 2010, 74% of all students engaged in some kind of private after-school instruction.”  The private after-schools are known as “hagwons.”  The article also states that these hagwons cost at “an average of $2,600 per student for the year.”  Besides the rising tuition cost, there are more private school teachers than there are public schoolteachers across the country. 

The ever-increasing influence of the hagwons has significantly decreased the influence of public schools.  I asked one of my fellow Korean co-teachers about this issue, and she simply sighed and said, “Randy, even though many parents see teachers as an important, respectful part of our society, they don’t completely trust us teaching their kids because having a hagwon means that they can continue to study more, and they have more chances to learn something.” 

As Korean parents are pulling out every penny to support their children’s education, their kids are absorbing the pressure to academically achieve to near-perfect success.  As Korean universities are becoming ultra competitive, students are competing for academic success as early as elementary school. 

It’s simply not just university entrance exams that students have felt pressure from, but there is also a high school entrance exam which can then influence the fate of what university a student can enter into. 

At my middle school, there is such a great contrast from the 1st year students to the 3rd years.  The 1st years enter middle school with their innocence, childish humor still intact but for the 3rd years, the puberty hits, the studying begins, the expectations grow, the smiling stops, and so does their childhood. 

A typical day of a middle schooler goes much like this: They get to school around 8 am, and finish the day after 3 pm with the exception of a selected weekday where they stay an extra hour.  Generally after dinner, they go to their hagwons and coming home as late as 11 pm.  They also go to their public school every other Saturday morning, and spend a good part of either their morning or afternoon at a hagwon, and in some cases, on a Sunday. 

The life of a high school student, however, intensifies.  They generally arrive at school at 7 am and study into the midnight hours nearly on an everyday basis.  It’s the kind of lifestyle that has worried me as a teacher in my 3 years at my middle school. 

Oftentimes, I would joke around with my other teaching colleagues that our students lead a much more difficult schedule than we do.  As teachers, we get to have vacation days and take time for ourselves, while my students are confined to the books, pencils, desk, and desk lamp during their vacation period. 

During cleaning time at the end of the day, I ran into one of my favorite students, Hyun-Seung.  He sat in his chair, face down, and rather oblivious to the frantic cleaning that his classmates were doing.  I came up to him, poked his back, and asked if he was alright. He slowly raised his head up and said, “No, I’m not okay.”

He then went on to tell me how his father kept pushing him to study.  I asked him, “Well, what time do you sleep every night?”  He answered, “Maybe 1 or 2 am.”  I looked at the sad, concerning look over his face.  I felt helpless as I couldn’t rescue him from the hours of anxiety and studying he had been putting in.  All I could do was listen and be as supportive as I could.

Another student of mine came to me and looked dejected.  He talked about how stressed out he was about his exams for the high school entrance test, and how he had sought out the school counselor for advice and emotional support.  Instead, the counselor focused on his eating habits and reducing his already thin social life. 

Much to my student’s disappointment, it didn’t address the concerns and anxiety he was already having.  He needed someone to listen and understand his problems.  As a teacher, I did my best to at least provide some sort of outlet that he could go to without feeling judged. It is the lack of sensitivity towards students’ emotional needs that became more alarming than my students’ studying habits. 

My former student visited our school one day.  He quickly spotted me, and was quite happy to see me.  I talked with him for a little while.  I asked him about high school and whether or not he found a girlfriend.  I enjoyed having him as my student as he was energetic and humorous, and told him I missed having him in my class. 

He mentioned to me how he missed me as well as his old middle school days.  He was unhappy with high school, his grades were low, and he was looking to transfer to a different one.  I told him to keep his head up, and that I will continue to support him.  It was the last time I would ever see him.  A couple of months later, he committed suicide.

Hearing the news, I was in such disbelief.  I couldn’t imagine any of my students taking their own life away especially when they haven’t seen what they could really do out in the real world.  However, the real world that my student had been living in felt hopeless, and that his concerns over his high school gave him no real prospect of success in college or beyond.  The expectations became too much, and the only outlet he had was to check himself off the planet. 

It’s a moment that still haunts me to this day.  It was a moment that threatened to erase my 3 years of happiness as a teacher in Korea.  I became angry at the way many Korean students are not being emotionally supported by their school, their families, and their society. 

Many Korean teachers and school counselors aren’t taught or given the resources to help students cope with their anxieties, or take pressure off of their studying.  Instead, they are faced with the pressure of making sure their students are preparing for their daily exams and from parents who want to ensure that their child has the best shot at attending a good university. 

Sadly, Korea and Japan are ranked in the top when it comes to suicides.  Facing embarrassment, judgment, and disappointment in front of their peers and family causes them to lose face.  With the lack of available resources to help those coping with anxiety and depression, there are many Koreans that turn to alcohol and smoking to numb their pain, but for others, some have chosen to end their life.

Every child desires to earn approval and acceptance from their family and society, but when they are made to feel that they haven’t earned anything, it’s a burden that they are carrying into their academic performance, but ultimately, into their personal life. 

Ironically, if it wasn’t for the country’s willingness to spend more money on education, my expat colleagues and I wouldn’t have been able to work in Korea.

So in my 3 years, I made it an effort to at least give my students a piece of their childhood back through my lesson plans, and to make myself accessible to students at school.  It was an attempt to give them a different side of teaching that they weren’t accustomed to.  It was through those experiences that many of my students, even to this day, are able to open up and trust me more than their other teachers.  They are able to smile, be creative, and act silly without restraint.

If only the schools, parents, and ultimately Korean society are able to show better emotional support rather than a hint of ridicule, I can only imagine that there would be more Korean students having reasons to smile AND sleep. 

Copyright © Randy Kim
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