It’s been about 7 months of my teaching adventure in South Korea and to celebrate, I am sharing some interesting facts I’ve discovered about S. Korean schools. The stuff noted here isn’t absolute whatsoever but rather what I have taken away while teaching in a public elementary school. These observations are based on my personal experience. Here are 7 differences between schools in S. Korea and the U.S:
1. Teacher / staff rotation system.
School staff including teachers, principals and vice principals change schools every four years regardless of personal opinion. After every four years of working at a school, the staff goes through a lottery system to select their new school. In my main school, we got a new vice principal the second semester. And both of my traveling school co-teachers will move on to new schools next year. I found this system quite puzzling when I learned about it. Can you imagine getting comfortable in your work and having to say goodbye? Every. Four. Years. Some of my co-teachers said they had a hard time switching schools in the beginning of their teaching careers, but they’ve grown used to it over the years. Apparently, the purpose of this system is to expose teachers to diverse school environments while offering the students a wide array of teachers throughout their academic careers. The bottom line of this rotation system is to provide fair opportunities to both teachers and students.
2. Teacher-student relationships.
While in orientation, we were told the relationship between student and teacher was less sensitive in South Korea than in other western countries. I witnessed how true this was as soon as I started teaching. The whole no-touching-a-student-rule-by-any-means isn’t applicable to S. Korea at all. Not that anything creepy has taken place while I’ve been here but petting the students and other types of harmless physical contact abound. For example, my students hug me on the regular. When this first happened, I internally freaked out but it’s totally normal for students to show affection to teachers, in the most non-creepster way. One of my co-teachers is so loved by one student that she constantly receives little presents and notes from the student. And this is totally acceptable and normal.
3. Students clean up after themselves.
I was a bit shocked when I began teaching and at the end of my first class, my co-teacher ordered the students to ‘stand up and clean up.’ Then they proceeded to take out their pink and blue mini brooms and dustpans to clean the classroom floor. I thought this was a brilliant system! While janitors clean up bathrooms and other common areas, students are in charge of their classrooms. This is only true for my traveling school. My main school, in which I teach Monday through Wednesday, doesn’t require the students to clean up. And it shows. The English classroom is always a bit messy compared to my traveling school. I think this is important because students really understand that if they don’t take care and responsibility for the classroom, they will end up cleaning it anyway.
4. No freedom during 'lunch break.'
In American schools, students and teachers get a much needed break from each other during lunch break. Teachers enjoy lunch in a teacher’s lounge while students eat in the cafeteria with their friends. Or alone if they’re unpopular, weird or different. But in South Korea this doesn’t exist. Students eat with their class and need teacher approval to exit the cafeteria after they are done eating. Most students are required to show their trays to their homeroom teachers and they best be empty, otherwise they will be forced to eat any leftover food. Lunch in America… well that’s just a sad atrocity so let’s not even bother talking about it.
5. It’s freezing or scorching indoors.
South Korea places great emphasis on being eco-friendly to the extent that they turn on the AC or heater in schools only when deemed necessary. As in when teaching a class of 30 but not so much in the teacher’s lounge, where on average, half the day is spent. When I arrived back in February, I almost froze despite my numerous layers, two pairs of socks and wearing my outdoor coat. I needed a snuggie. Then I almost melted in the summertime when the outside, humid temperature neared 100C. I admire the noble cause of wishing to preserve energy but it makes for a sauna or a freezer of an environment to teach in.
6. Oral hygiene matters.
I noticed something peculiar on my first day of school: both students and staff brush their teeth immediately after lunch. This is not really weird but uncommon in American schools. According to my teacher, they brush daily to get rid of the aftertaste and smell that the delicious Korean lunches often cause. I used to brush in the beginning too but now I just do it when we get served fish or another strong/smelly dish. I’ll take it though. I love Korean school lunches.
7. Parents can contact teachers directly.
Apparently, this is not an unusual practice as parents are allowed to reach out to teachers to check in on student’s progress and so on. Back in the States sending an email or calling the teacher at school would do it but in S. Korea, the parents have teachers’ personal phone numbers. This would so not fly back home. But blurring personal and professional boundaries seems to be commonplace in South Korea.