If I were a shoe, I’d be a flip flop

June 14, 2010

So, most of the blog so far has been focused on recapping what we’ve done and telling funny kid stories.  But one thing I haven’t blogged about is my regular internal struggle.

First, I need to give a little lesson on the Korean education system, so that the rest of this blog will make sense.  Most kids attend public schools…which seem to be much like public schools in America.  They start in the morning (around 8 or 9) and finish in the afternoon (around 2).   Then, after school, many kids attend one or more private academies.  There are math academies, science academies, art academies, sports academies, Chinese character academies, english academies, etc.  We work for an english academy.  Most kids seem to spend 1-2 hours at each academy that they go to.  The younger kids come to our academy early in the afternoon, the older kids come later in the evening.   As for the kindergardeners, some of them go to private english academies that are only for kindergardeners, and their schedule is much like a public school.  At the kindergarden we work at, the kids start at 9:30 and finish at 2:10.  The ages of these kids ranges from 3-6.  Some of the kids then go to another kindergarten academy where they spend a few more hours learning English.

The kids here seem, to me, to be really over-worked.  I was talking to one of my second grade classes the other day about their daily schedules.  Two of the boys told me that they are at public school from 8:30 until 1:15 or 2 (each day is different), then they go straight to an hour-long piano lesson, then they come to english academy for 1 or 2 hours, then they go home to eat dinner, then they go do Taekwondo for an hour.  Once they finally are home for the night, they spend most of the night doing homework (and I know this is true because I check their homework).  They also go to public school every other Saturday.

I was talking to the older kindergardeners the other day, the 5-year-olds.  I found out that a lot of them come to our english academy on Saturdays for what they call “side class”.  Our school doesn’t offer classes on Sunday, so some of them go to another english academy on Sundays.

In my middle school class, I talked to a boy who is in school everyday until 11pm.  After public school, he has a few hours break (which he uses to do homework), then he comes to english academy for 2 hours and then math academy until 11pm.  I asked him when he wakes up in the morning.  7am.   And these stories aren’t unusual.  I decided after talking to a few of the students about their daily schedules that I wanted to do a little research.  I spent one week asking all of the students in my classes what they do every day when they leave public school.  Most of the kids seem to have similar schedules.  Their time after school is filled up with things like: piano or violin lessons, Taekwondo, baseball, soccer, english academy, math academy, private tutoring, art academy, study rooms,  homework, homework, homework…..  And it’s not like what I experienced as a child, where I took a violin lesson once a week, or had a dance class once a week, maybe softball practice twice a week.  No, they do these things everyday during the week.

I feel very conflicted about being a part of the system that keeps these kids so busy.  It’s a struggle I have daily.

Kids fall asleep in my classes.  None of them want to.  It’s not like they are doing it because they are bored or disrespectful.  No, these kids DO NOT want to fall asleep in class.  I will watch them fight it and fight it and finally, they can’t stay awake anymore.   I let them sleep.  The other, awake kids will point it out to me because they know that a student shouldn’t sleep in class.  “Teacher, look.  Robin is sleeping.”  But, I’ve heard the stories of kids staying up until 2am to study for an exam.  I know they go non-stop every day.  I know they are legitimately tired.  So, I let them sleep.

The younger kids are antsy and chatty and disruptive.  And I know why.  By the time they get to me, they’ve already sat through a whole day of public school, and maybe a piano or violin lesson, or an hour or two at a study room.  And now they are sitting in a desk again.  I feel so torn because I know that in order to be an effective teacher, I have to keep the room under control.  I have to minimize distractions so that everyone can hear me and pay attention and learn.  I’m supposed to keep them from speaking Korean to each other (only English in English Academy!), and make them participate.  These are the things I am getting paid to do.   But, honestly, I want to let them chat and play and get up out of their chairs.  I want to be silly with them and laugh with them and let them have some fun.  I know their brains are tired and their bodies are ready to get out of a chair and DO something.

Usually the result of this internal battle is that I flip flop.  Over the course of the week or the day (and sometimes over the course of one class) I go from being a strict-ish teacher who is focused on teaching and learning, to being the fun teacher who lets them speak some Korean and get off topic and play a little.  I like being the latter kind of teacher.  I like laughing at things I shouldn’t laugh at.  I like singing along with them when they start singing the Korean pop song that I hear every time I go to the gym.  I like making faces and letting them draw on the board.  But then I feel conflicted.  Cassie, you are here to teach.  Whether or not you agree with the educational system doesn’t really matter. So, I flip flop.

For the most part, the kids seem incredibly resilient to the pressure to always study study study.  While it’s obvious that most of them do not want to come to english academy everyday, most of them seem like happy kids.  They smile and laugh a lot.  They play and joke around with each other.  When I ask the kids about their schedules, a lot of them don’t seem to think they are overworked.  Especially the younger kids; they seem to like doing lots of things.  (On the other hand, some of the older kids do think they are forced to study too much.  This is probably because as the kids get older, their after school activites change somewhat.  Most of the older kids have stopped going to tae-kwon-do and art academy….now they go to science academy, and math academy instead.)  So, then I wonder, is this a case of me imposing one of my cultural values onto another culture?  Are they really “over-working” their kids, or do we Americans under-work ours?  As I’m hearing about the kids schedules I’m thinking “when do they get a chance to just be kids?”  But, maybe the Korean standard of “getting to be a kid” is just different.  When I walk by playgrounds, there are kids playing…it’s not like they never get to play.  When I walk past arcade rooms, I usually see kids.  They seem to still find time for fun between the studying.  So, my mental battle goes on…I don’t really know what to think of the kids’ situation here in South Korea.  I don’t really know what my role should be in this educational system.   And, I imagine it will stay that way for the rest of the time that I’m here.  For the next 8 months, I am destined to be a flip flop.


3 Responses to “If I were a shoe, I’d be a flip flop”

  1. Mom Says:

    Hahaha. I love the title of this post. And a very thought-provoking post it is. I understand the struggle. And I think it’s okay to flip-flop. Just my opinion.

  2. lindsey Says:

    ah cassie that’s a repeat of so many conversations we’ve had … and it’s a huge reason we won’t sign on for a second year, just because as hagwon teachers we’re supporting that system, in a way.

    i’ve talked to enough (sort of liberal, i guess) adult koreans who’ve said that the kids ARE overworked, they don’t have time for extracirriculars, they don’t have time to develop themselves or their personalities or their own interests … that i don’t think it’s our american-ness intruding. but it is what we’re hired to do.

    ok. too long for a comment. whoops. 🙂

  3. Jenny Says:

    Hey Cass, I love this blog and can’t wait to hear mom’s reaction. It is a struggle that you will continue to have and I remember hearing similar concerns when i was teaching in jeff co. schools. “Over-worked kids”. Anyway, I think that you can find a way to do lessons that involve getting up and moving – do it in a structured way with meaning, but yet still movement and fun. Lessons can be fun and student can still learn. The key is to still keep control and not to let the lesson last a long time, but maybe have movement mixed into your lessons. Children do need to get up and use their muscles it will be helpful. I look forward to hearing if you have luck creating fun lessons that involve movement.

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