By Anna Lou
In August 2014, sponsored by a grant from the Korean Ministry of Education, I flew to Korea by myself in order to visit a secondary school as a teaching assistant in English and computer literacy, curious to see how different Korea’s education system was from the American system I’ve grown up in. Korean students had already demonstrated their ability in the 2012 PISA test, where they ranked 5th in math, 7th in science, and 5th in reading among 65 participating countries, far above the ranking of American students, who ranked 36th in math, 28th in science, and 24th in reading.
The first surprise after my arrival at the school was their rigorous school schedule. The school I visited was a boarding school, so students were required to wake up every morning at 6:30 in the dorm. Even with my advantage due to jet lag, it was still difficult to wake up so early every single day. After their morning exercise and breakfast, the students reported to their classrooms around 8:00. By the time they get back to the dorm at 10:00 in the evening, their classes are done. In most other Korean schools, the schedule is almost exactly the same – the students get to school at 8:00am and come home sometime between 10:00pm to midnight, depending on their study or private tutoring sessions.
The students’ schedules are rigorous not only daily, but yearly. The education system calls for a minimum of 220 school days, versus the 180 days of school here in the US. Even when their winter and summer breaks are already shorter than those in the US, the 10 optional half days during the beginning and end of each break are attended by practically all students. Each break is thus reduced to only 10 days or so.
To help improve the students’ English, I spent much time on one-on-one conversations with them. I soon learned that, despite having grown up in a different country, the students had an impressively high English level. Even as middle and high schoolers, they had no trouble engaging in daily conversations. Later, I found out that in Korea, students were often already taking English classes by the third grade.
The students I met in Korea were all very hard working, vibrant, fun, and full of energy and stories. The living arrangements in the boarding school helped bring the students even closer than they already were. When asked about his experience living in a dorm, a student answered, “We have opinions of each other so we fight, but we’re friends, so it’s all good.” On the career aspect of things, most students aspired to be teachers, surprisingly. Research, however, said that in many countries that out-educated America, the teaching profession was regarded as one of the best career choices because teachers were well supported and rewarded for excellent teaching. From what I observed, the teachers in Korea were greatly respected and even granted the same authority as parents.
Besides teaching and tutoring, I also experienced the many aspects of Korea that the country was famous for. I was able to tour the Incheon International Airport (ranked the best airport in the world for 7 years in a row), hop aboard high speed trains (with top speeds of 120 mph), use my free time to tour cities like Seoul, Namsan, and the ever-famous Gangnam, shop in street markets and a myriad of high-rise buildings, and best of all – try the food. Whether it was cooked with a Samsung microwave in an apartment or with a stove in a restaurant, the food, along with the technology, TV shows, music, and – of course – impressive education system, demonstrated once again why Korea is becoming increasingly popular.