Frustrations in Korean Education

Most of the time here in Korea, I am not exactly happy, but not really actively hateful; grouchy is a good term.  I even have some happy days.  But, I do have what I call “hate Korea” days an awful lot.  Today was one of those, and I’m so glad my school let me go early, because I was seriously stressing out while fuming at my desk, and my shoulders were quickly turning into bricks.  

You see, Koreans often have trouble with the process of planning ahead.  They don’t do it.  They also are not the world’s most logical thinkers, especially when it comes to critical thinking.  It’s not their fault, it’s just a product of their education system, and, to a degree, the culture.

Public schools in Korea typically offer winter camps and summer camps for students who want to work on a particular subject.  English is popular (though the kids usually are there only because their parents make them), and so most of us ESL teachers get roped into teaching said camps during the holidays.  That, in itself, is not a problem.

What bugs me is when my school waits until TWO WEEKS before the winter holidays start to begin preliminary planning for said camps.  They don’t even know when exactly they are going to happen, or how many kids there will be, etc.  Not only that, but everyone is in the middle of exams right now, so teachers are busy with all that, instead of being able to plan for these camps, because nothing was done beforehand.

What this means for me is that this afternoon, my co-teacher/minder came to my desk and told me that I have to make 20 hours of lesson plans by Monday morning.  Not only that, but the lesson plans all should ideally be along a theme, and they should all be of such a sort that will work well consecutively, since I am seeing the same students every day for four hours.  Yes, you read that right, they expect that middle school students will be able to pay attention in a foreign language class for four hours.  Even in the immigrant classes I taught in the US, our longest classes were 3 hours, and even with those, which were comprised of adults who really, honestly, enthusiastically wanted to learn the language, by about the 2.5 hour mark, keeping their attention and energy level up was a constant battle.

I have tried to explain this to my co-teacher, and have requested that rather than one class of, say, 30, they will get far, far better results with two classes of 15, even if each class has me for half the time they would have otherwise gotten.  Koreans tend to have difficulty with the concepts of quality vs. quantity and of diminishing returns, and this is truly a prime example.  Argue as I might, she wouldn’t give in, and insisted that forcing 30 kids to try and pay attention for 4 hours is far, far better than giving 15 kids more personal attention for 2 hours.

I miss my friends back home, and my boyfriend Marc, but the times that I really think about coming home are the days like today.  I miss folks dearly, but if I were ever to “pull a runner” (leave in the middle of the night), it would not be (primarily) because I want to go back home, it will be because this country has finally driven me to my breaking point.

7 Responses to “Frustrations in Korean Education”

  1. 1 Brian December 11, 2008 at 12:46 am

    Things are a little better organized in Suncheon, but, yeah, at my school’s summer session it was totally last-minute. I knew months in advance that i’d be teaching it, but nobody knew how many students, what level, etc. The shitty thing was that I had to plan out twenty hours of material before even knowing who the students would be. Turned out the students were very low level, so most of the stuff I planned was useless anyway.

    The most irritating example of lack of camp planning happened in Gangjin. You know, during and after the final exam classes usually get cancelled as students are doing projects, festival stuff, etc. So for about two weeks there was absolutely nothing for me to do, and I studied Korean, played on the computer, cleaned the classroom, etc. Then on the last day of the year my handler said I’d’ be teaching a winter camp next month and that I need to submit twenty lesson plans by the end of the day. q234980r23u890ru023. They couldn’t of told me about this earlier and let me do the plans for the TWO WEEKS when I had nothing to do? Christ . . .

  2. 2 Driftingfocus December 11, 2008 at 12:50 am

    Yeah, my co-teacher initially wanted them by the end of the day, then Friday, and finally I got her to agree to Monday. When she initially said by the end of the day, I looked at her like she’d suddenly turned pink or grown horns. I explained that even a veteran teacher couldn’t do that, much less me. She didn’t understand until I said “Could *you* create 20 hours of lesson plans in the next 4 hours?” and she said “Of course not.” I wanted to say “Uh, then why the hell do you think I am magically able to?” but I bit my tongue, and she got the picture.

  3. 3 Jason December 12, 2008 at 1:59 pm


    Go to your nearest English bookstore that sells English teaching books and pick up, “Projects with Young Learners” by Diane Phillips, Sarah Bruwood & Helen Dunford, published by Oxford, part of the Resource Books for Teachers, Series Editor Alan Maley.

    *NOTE: Whether you’re teaching elementary (grade 5-6) middle school, or high school you can use this book–just alter the language level vocabulary and expressions, etc, that you teach them while they do the project lessons.

    Near the end of the book is a major project called “Fantasy Island,” with 11 lessons–each of which are 30-90 minutes in length. Each of these lessons can take LONGER than the suggested time, or possibly shorter (with Korean students, more likely LONGER).

    The project is basically for the kids to design and produce their own country using task-based learning through English. They make their own flag, map of the island, money, fantasy creatures, ideal homes, celebrity guests, tour of the island, holidays, elect a president, poetry book, and island news. It’ll give you something to show off at the end of the camp (I’d suggest making some kind of exhibit), your co-teachers will be able to take pics of the end product, and the kids and you will have fun doing it.

    The only work here in terms of lesson prep is perhaps making some of your own teacher notes/lesson outlines (just bare bones stuff about logistics, etc). Simply photocopy the pages from the book, add some of your own pages of teacher’s notes, and presto! Here’s your damn 20 hours of lesson plans with a theme.

    I’ve been in Korea almost 4 years and TOTALLY GET WHAT YOU’RE GOING THROUGH. Been there, got the t-shirt, and I so have had the ranting and raving like a lunatic at the sheer anarchy that is public school ‘planning’ due to co-teachers walking up to me at the last minute (it’s also especially fun when this happens after you’ve been asking them for weeks about it) and asking me to do piles of work in only a few days–if I was lucky.

    I’m not sure what the actual price is of the book as I picked it up at the 2008 KOTESOL Conference for about W26 000.

    Good luck,

  4. 4 Jason December 19, 2008 at 11:25 am

    The school is getting a book for you? THE HORROR, THE HORROR!

    Be prepared for it to be a piece of shit, and that you’ll have to make your own stuff or the kids will mutiny and string you up a pinata and beat you with the brooms they use to ‘clean’ the school with . . . .

    Seriously, if you can’t get to a bookstore, then use to make activities, to find lessons/worksheets/songs/games etc, and for worksheets, flashcards, games, and other printables that are ready to go . . .

    Good luck,
    p.s. I keep having flashbacks to living in the two-street village on Ganghwa island my first year in Korea when I read your blog–it’s funny, and scary too. . .

  5. 5 Driftingfocus December 19, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Yeah, I haven’t seen it yet, but…I’m scared. The kids are going to mutiny anyway when they find out that the school has decided to start the camp next Friday to make up for the fact that New Years is a holiday.

    I wouldn’t mind making a week’s worth of lessons, if they’d just…let me. It’s frustrating, but, hey, that’s Korea.

    I’m glad you enjoy the blog. Feel free to blogroll it, if you want, or my newer blog, that I linked to in my most recent post. I like Jindo, and I’m glad I chose this location, but I do see how being isolated tends to put me at greater risk of frustration with my school.

  6. 6 expat21 December 27, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    These are some very interesting comments about Korean education here. I wonder how Korea can seemingly do so well in the world of international business these days with this kind of mentality?

    Expat 21
    “Expat Abroad” inthe Middle East

  7. 7 Driftingfocus December 27, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    That’s a question many of us expats here ask ourselves all the time.

    By the way, you might find some of my other Korea-related posts interesting. The category is here:

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