-My First Pictureless Post-
Now, I will be doing a bit of generalizing in this post, and fortunately the systems, statistics, and stories I write about aren't prevalent everywhere in Korea, but unfortunately, these things are true in many of the schools here, especially in the cities and major metropolitan areas.
Each year, almost 700,000 high school students take their college entrance exams at the beginning of November. As the article above alludes to, it's a bit of a stressful time. Businesses tell their employees to come late so as to free up public transportation, flights are grounded to reduce extraneous noise, middle and elementary school classes are cancelled, and basically the entire country is told to "shut up" for the 9 hours of rigorous testing.
And just in case all that wasn't enough, a student's score on that test (in conjunction with their performance on school exams) determines what university they get into. To top it all off, the university they attend directly determines what jobs they will be eligible for post university. Get in to one of the top-tier schools, and your socioeconomical well-being in basically assured. Anything less, and you're lucky to not be labeled a failure and pariah by your family and former friends.
But before we dig deeper into the Korean job market, let's rewind a little bit... All the way back to elementary school.
Now, if the stress of this college entrance exam was a onetime deal (akin to the SAT or ACT), it might be a little more understandable/excusable/necessary/tolerable (depending on your views of standardized tests). However, it's not. It's merely the largest and most stressful in a 15-year-long series of tests and exams. Starting in kindergarten, students are subjected to monthly exams, midterms, and finals. In KINDERGARTEN. And along with those tests, comes pressure.
Students are told, at the beginning of elementary school, that their performance in school will determine what middle school they will be admitted into. In turn, their test scores in middle school will determine which high school they go to, and so on and so forth. Bear in mind, these are all public schools, but in every district (in the cities), there are good, top-notch schools, and then there are the other schools.
So where does this pressure and prodding and performance-based anxiety come from? Mainly from the mothers of students. The moms are generally the ones pushing the kids to get higher scores, demanding their kids be enrolled in more advanced classes, insisting their children go to private hagwons after school until 10pm, and so on. Not that the Dads don't care, they're just typically and traditionally absent (an issue to be addressed in a post to come!)
And the result of this predominantly score-based educational system? Students of all ages who are in a constant state of stress and cramming for upcoming exams. Who have no time for friendships because they're too busy studying and because they're in direct competition with all their friends anyway. Who are only focused on getting the "right" answer for every question and have no motivation or desire to learn to think critically. Who are hopped up on caffeine and energy "vitamins" so they can make it through 10-hour days of classes (with bonus rounds on Saturday!). And who, worst of all, have no one to talk to about how this stress and unending pressure tears them up inside and makes them feel trapped and isolated in a relentless system.
I wish I was hyperbolizing here, but sadly the educational system is so intense and rigorous here, the pressure to "achieve" so great, that it leads many students to consider, attempt, and commit suicide by the time they reach the university level. With 40 suicides on average/day, Korea has the highest suicide rate amongst industrialized nations. That rate has double over the past decade, and the rise in deaths has been predominately seen in younger age groups. Last year, a former student of mine committed suicide a few weeks after starting middle school because she wasn't doing well on the harder exams and felt like she was letting down her family by not scoring higher. And sadly, stories like this happen all-to-regularly, and all across the country.
And the worst part about it, is that most Koreans realize they have a problem. They understand that their system puts far too much pressure on the youth. They know there is a suicide epidemic in the country and that it is quickly spreading to the younger generation. But their only response (at least of the ones I have talked to about this) is that, "this is the system in place, and if our children want to be successful here, this is what they must do." And so the pressure continues.
At this point, you might be asking, "what about the psychiatrists, and counselors, and therapists? Isn't there anyone these students can talk to, to help them deal with the pressure of this system?" And fortunately those professions do exist here. They've actually got a pretty great mental health system of support in Korea. Sadly, no one goes. In many cases it's seen as shameful for a family member to be in need of counseling or psychiatric assistance. And so, they don't go. The students deal with the pressure alone and without guidance.
So, where do I fit in this system? Now, I'm teaching at a hagwon, one of the private schools students go to in the evening after public school ends, to get more practice in math, science, music, art, or in my case, English. When the kids come to me, they are burnt out. They've been at school all day, they've been bused to other hagwons before mine, and they will be bused to other hagwons after mine.
And so, I try to teach them English in as stress-free an environment as possible. If they forget their homework, that's OK (many hagwons punish, scream, or discipline students in a variety of manners if they forget or make mistakes on their homework). I try to make my classes fun and relaxing, and I try to actually get to know the students (which can be really tough given the language barrier and their young age, and which was nearly impossible when I was teaching 800 kids a week last year).
Finally, and I think most importantly, I try to show them that learning English can be one of the few solid bridges to an alternative future, if they're willing to venture outside of Korea's somewhat rigid cultural, social, and educational framework. That, if they're up for the adventure, there are thousands of wonderful schools and opportunities waiting for them right outside of Korea. Not that growing-up and living in Korea is a bad thing, it can be an absolutely wonderful country, but it would be nice if students realized that there are a vast number of alternatives to being beaten down by a system that only rewards the best test takers.
So there you have it, in my mind, what is one of the major problems with the Korean education system. Sorry for the heavier subject matter this week, but as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I feel like it's necessary to address some of these issues while I'm over here and have the opportunity. That's it for now, and thanks for reading! And a very happy Thanksgiving to everyone back home and a very special thank you to all the friends and family reading this, I miss you all!
Links to the articles from above, if you missed them: