Saturday, December 12, 2009

(Frustrating/Sad) Thing That Happened to Me at Work, Part VI

The past two weeks at work have been completely draaaaaaaaggggggggggggiiiiiinnnnnnnnggggg.
(For a general rant about Korean Education, continue on. For a quick-and-dirty explanation of why work has been slow, scroll down to the ***)

There are a multitude of reasons for this, all of which require some explanation of Korean Skooling. I teach at a private school or hagwon, though the description "private school" here isn't very helpful, in that private schools in Korea are not like private schools at home.

At home, parents choose to pay to send their kids to private school in place of public education. Unless you've been living under a rock at home, you probably know that public schools in America are perceived by many people to be failing: hence the growing popularity of private and publicly funded, selective "charter" schools. Private schools in America generally offer more resources than most public schools: smaller class sizes, religion served up with college-prep coursework that may get you into the Ivy League, and exclusive socialization with other students who are generally white, rich, and Christian. Blah di blah've heard this before.

Here in Korea, rather than completely replace public school with private, parents supplement their kid's public school education with extra private schooling at the end of each school day. All Korean Kidz go to public school from 7:30 or so to around three, just like at home. But after school, those that can afford to go directly to a hagwon, where they study math, science, Korean, and English for hours...the middle school students at my hagwon will sometimes study until one o' clock in the morning.

A hagwon's work is never done (as my co-worker Katherine would say). Not even at one a.m.

Generally, the elementary school kids that I teach are done earlier...but still, I struggle with the ethics of my job a lot here. How much of a childhood can you have when you're in school for twelve hours a day? And you're stressing out about tests/what university you're going to get into when you're seven? In one of my classes a couple of months ago, I had a student tell me she was "taking a break" from Swaton because of stress...she had lost almost 4 kgs (9 pounds or so) since the start of term (according to Jenny) and looked positively skeletal. Why all of the extra stress, you might ask? Why so much school? Well, Korea is a small country with a lot of people...there are so many students competing to go to the country's top Universities (Seoul, Korea, and Yonsei Universities). A Korean student simply can't take a study break (or even stop to eat a meal) because some other more tenacious student will be more than happy to study through the night if it means edging someone else out by getting a higher score on a placement test...thereby getting into a really good high school/university.

Happily, however, public school here ends next week for almost two months, giving (some) students a much needed rest (from normal school, at least). ***Some students quit hagwon-ing for awhile in December and January during this break time to save money/eat/sleep more than five hours a day...enrollment at Swaton has been dropping, and next week we will consolidate classes and everyone's teaching schedules will change. There's been a lot of tension and drama as we have had to readjust syllabuses and re-assess student performance. Also, the grade six students that we've been teaching for some time are "graduating" to the middle school, moving up to Samkwang (the middle school attached to Swaton).

Every teacher at Swaton had a group of sixth graders that they loathed...most of my sixth graders were either extremely awkward, super-annoying, hyper-active, or the most irritating of all, completely apathetic about English-learning. However, I did have one sixth grade class at Swaton that I was genuinely upset about letting go. Kori, Ben, and Wendy were apparently complete shit-heads to Jenny, but they were always incredibly kind to me...they were all better English speakers than most Korean adults I've met.

Though they spent a lot of time convincing me to teach as little as possible ("Teacher, no classbook today. Just play"), they talked to me the entire class time in English (a feat I've gotten none of my other classes to accomplish). They quizzed me constantly about my knowledge of Korea/Koreans ("Teacher, do you know 2PM? Do you know Lee Myung-bak? Do you know Chan Ho Park?) and were constantly forcing me to practice writing Korean in class. They always insisted that I participate in playing games with them, including Blind Man's Bluff, which made me forget that I was the teacher sometimes...I felt like a thirteen-year old kid literally running around the classroom with them.

In the past two weeks, this class had dissolved into complete anarchistic disregard of curriculum: we spent approximately five minutes per class on the class book, and the remaining 40 minutes shooting a toy AK-47 (which I purchased with them in mind) at a target drawn on the class board. And playing Blind Man's Bluff. And Mafia, which I had no idea Korean kids knew how to play. For every game that we played, for every class that we blew off, I felt better--I felt like a was letting these kids have their last moments of carefree childhood. Like lambs being fattened for the slaughter, I knew all too soon their lives would be all about homework, and studying, and the rat race of Korean schooling. So I let them go crazy.

So on the last day of class this past Friday, I bought my three favorite sixth graders their own toy AK-47s. We spent their last class shooting each other with darts, and I let them climb all over the classroom tables and generally behave very, very badly.

They also took pictures with me. For as goofy as I am in photos, I feel like these pictures prove that sixth graders are the most awkward group of people on Earth.

My most professional face.

Kori and "Bentastic" as he likes to be called.

Wendy. I also teach her younger sis, Alice.

Hopefully I luck out and get another set of kids who are equally as awesome. Somehow, though, I don't think that's going to happen...

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