Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I never thought I'd see the day

My job is easy. I play with the most adorable kids in the country, the school makes all my lesson plans, and Hana deals with all the parent crap. I contractually can't work past five-thirty, my apartment is included in my salary, and I'm pretty sure Korea's never heard of No Child Left Behind. The other day, I was talking to a bunch of Korean friends about their jobs, and a tiny thrill of fear ran through me. I don't have a job! How will I pay my bills? ... then I realized that that thing I do Monday through Friday is, in fact, a job and my means by which to support myself.

Every few minutes, I change my mind on how long I'm planning to stay in this country and what I'm going to do after I leave. If you asked me - right now - what my plan is, I'd tell you that I want to finish out my year, couch-surf across southeast Asia, tour Israel and see all the places in the Bible that sound interesting, go home for Christmas, do a DTS in Africa (thanks, wifey), and find a non-profit that is just crazy enough to take me on staff. But that's right now. Usually I'm slightly more practical, and I think I'm leaning toward getting my master's and teaching elementary school back in the good ol' US of A (probably in the south, seeing as I've picked up more southern colloquialisms than I knew existed thanks to Jeanne and Tiffany). As an education major, I spent much of my time in college bashing the quality of the American education system and lamenting the fact that we've never taken a page out of Asia's smarty-pants textbooks to really teach our kids what they need to know. Like almost everything I thought I knew, though, I've changed my mind on this one.

I hate the Korean education system.

When I took my job here and started preparing to pack up my life, I had to explain Korea to a lot of people. My limited knowledge at the time told me that students went to regular school during the day then to a hagwon in the evenings. I always said it in a "bless-their-little-hearts-they-learn-so-much" kind of way, but the depravity of it never really hit me. Now that I'm in the thick of it, though, it's disgusting - and time isn't the worst part.

Education in Korea is really just about show. Korean parents want to get their kids into hagwons with "native English speakers" regardless of whether those speakers are actually good teachers. They pay insane amounts of money to parade a blonde white girl in front of their children for a few hours a week, and most of the parents can't speak enough English to actually confirm their children are learning something useful. Our school is slightly better in that we are all licensed teachers in our respective homelands, but still, it's all so focused on appearances that it makes me sick. The school provides all of our worksheets because none of us care to cover what we do in clip art. Everything the kids fill out has to have borders and pictures and everything must be printed in color. The content takes a backseat (think like the back of a greyhound bus) to the presentation. I made some extra math worksheets to use as time fillers, and I was instructed to never, ever send them home because the mommies would throw a fit. Right, because an accurate indicator of your child's progress is a starburst in the corner of the page.

Worksheets aren't the only things that have to look nice. We went on a field trip on Friday, and by the end of the day, I had forgotten every word in the English language except "WTF?" The kids were shuffled through the exhibits with hardly any time to look at anything, then we sat out in the blazing sun to have our picnic. (I had plenty to gripe about regarding the lunches, but when I typed it out it seemed kind of petty, so I deleted it.) After lunch, we were told to wander around and look at the exhibits again until it was time to take pictures. Pictures could be fun, right? Yeah, no. The school hired two professional photographers to document the trip. Each student was posed in various locations, staring off into the distance or pretending to enjoy a fountain. I watched with a combination of irritation and amusement until I was told I had to be in the pictures too. The photographer lined us up against a brick wall that stood on a slight slope. She placed me at the top then trotted down to the bottom and instructed the kids to step out one by one and pose. I tried to slink out of the picture, but she caught me. "Teacher, you must look lovingly at the child who is posing. No, more. Like you adore him." Uh, what? We did this over and over and over again until she thought I had achieved an expression that appropriately conveyed "the sun shines out this child's ass." I desperately tried to make eye contact with another foreigner to confirm that this was, in fact, completely psychotic, but all the other teachers had already loaded the bus. The photographer instructed us to pose in a handful of other ludicrous ways; the kids were having a blast, but I'd have rather been giving myself paper cuts. Finally, by the grace of God, she let us leave. On the way to the bus, I found Jeanne and asked her what the eff was up with the photo shoot. She smiled wryly. "Welcome to Korea, buddy."

Additionally, I've gotten in trouble at work multiple times the past two weeks:
- One of the mommies (who is really more of a caricature of a human being) was upset that I was sitting behind my desk when her son entered the room. I did greet him, but my enthusiasm level clearly stated that I thought preparing for the morning's lesson was more important than kissing his feet, which is unacceptable. She complained to the principal who promptly told me that I'm no longer allowed to sit in the mornings.
- That same mommy (it's safe to assume all "wtf" stories include her) had a long chat with me about how I did not scold her son enough in class. She told me that scolding is the way love is shown to children in Korea and that her son cries after school every day because I scold the other boys more than I scold him. I got the distinct impression that she told her son to cause trouble to rectify this horrendous issue because she insisted that I punish him, sometimes even if he doesn't deserve it.
- In Korea, the standard form of discipline is to have the children stand against a wall with their hands above their head. I've never in my life seen this kind of punishment in a school setting (or any other setting for that matter), so obviously I didn't bring the idea with me. One of the normal mommies insisted that we use this method on her son (only her son) to prepare him for public school, but word got back to psycho mommy and she ran to the principal. Moments later, the principal was explaining to me that even though that may be how we punish children in America, it is unacceptable in Korea and I need to stop immediately. She politely told me that it was clearly my lack of knowledge about the culture that led to this honest mistake, and that I should use other forms of discipline. I asked her what would be the preferred method of disciplining the kids and she replied, "Oh, you'll come up with something."
- Yesterday, I printed out my weekly letter to the parents where I had mentioned that we were coloring Halloween pictures during snack time to decorate the classroom. At least that's what I thought I typed; unbeknownst to me, I must have written something about teaching the kids a barrage of curse words while forcing them to take illegal drugs based on the way the principal came running down to my room, waving the blasphemous letter over her head. She breathlessly asked me why the children were coloring. Because... they're five? She explained that if the parents found out the kids were coloring in class, they'd be furious and pull their children out instantly. Aside from the fact that coloring is the number one way children develop fine motor skills, it's just plain messed up to not let kids color pictures during free time. They're children.

Kids here really aren't allowed to be kids, and it's incredibly painful to watch. During the "free time" we had on the field trip, Hana and I snuck the kids around to a little courtyard and let the kids play in a patch of dirt. The space was no bigger than a standard driveway, but the kids went nuts. They'd pick up rocks like they were made of gold, and every single one of them seemed shocked that the leaves on the ground were colors other than green. You could tell these kids never, ever got to play outside by the way they were genuinely amazed that there were sticks and bugs in the dirt.

At home, I used to whine about how America needs year-round schooling. It was partly because I was bitter that I had chosen to not go into the field that provides three months off in the summer; okay, so it was pretty much all because of that. But now that I've seen what school looks like on the other side of the world, I think I'd lead a protest against changing the laws. The three months in the summer aren't for teachers to drink mai tais by the pool (although that's a sweet benefit); summer vacation gives kids time to be kids. Yes, my five-year-olds know the definition of "onomatopoeia." But they don't know how to select the best stick for a sword fight, and honestly, that's more important.

*In other news, I've finally figured out how to link my blog to my facebook profile. There's an application called "Networked Blogs" and mine is now officially listed on there. You can "follow" it with your facebook account through the link on the right. I have no idea what special benefits this provides seeing as my posts arrive in your news feed anyway, but I'm currently the only one following my blog via facebook, and that's just sad. Make me feel loved. :)


  1. I guess this is another example of too much of a good thing...most people in America would be floored to realize the almighty Asian learning system is flawed.

  2. Sounds like a good trade to me! Do you have any flavor preferences? There is seriously any flavor of chocolate you could ever want here!