Teaching ESL: How American & Korean Schools Differ

Korean students

There are some major differences between public schools in America and public schools in Korea. While I’ve never been a teacher in the US, I did go to public school, and both my mom, Matt and several of our family members are public school teachers here in the US, so I have enough experience that I feel comfortable making generalizations about the schooling system. The same basically goes for Korea–I was only there for one year and I only taught in one school, but based on mine and Matt’s observations and the observations of our friends in Korea, I have made some generalizations about public Korean schools. There are a lot of interesting aspects of working abroad, and specifically in Korea, but I really only wanted to touch on the things that (seemed) universally true of Korean public schools.

So in our experience, here are some of the main differences between American public schools and Korean public schools!

Teaching/Testing/Learning Styles

Students in Korea

The Korean style of teaching, testing and learning revolves around rote memorization and standardized testing. My friends and family that teach in the US are constantly complaining of our culture of “teaching to the test”, but in my opinion it’s a hundred times worse in Korea. Korean students are trained to memorize facts, and yes, they’re good at it. However, ask them to write a page essay on their opinion of something and they FREAK. It’s so beyond their training, to be asked to output material in a way that focuses on critical thinking rather than a repetition of facts. To me this was a detriment to Korean students, however, Korean students consistently score very well in national and international standardized testing, better than American students, so maybe there is something to “teaching to the test” when our intellectual values are determined by said tests. Either way, it’s a big difference and affects the way ESL teachers are expected to present material and test.

Cleaning the School

Korean kindergarteners

This is one of the most fascinating things to me–in the US, we have janitors at schools who do the cleaning. In Korea, the students are in charge of most of the cleaning. Some of you may have just thought, huh, what a great idea! It gives them responsibility, and they’re more likely to be clean if they know they have to clean, right? False. False, false, false. The schools are FILTHY! It made no sense to me to ask a bunch of elementary school age kids to clean–have you ever seen a first grader do a decent job dusting?? No? Because it’s never happened. Ask a sixth grade to mop? He’s going to run down the hallway, dragging the mop behind him. All this makes for a dirty, dirty school. The one exception is the bathrooms, which are cleaned by little old ladies, who I think were volunteers.

Teaching Limits

Andrea and Korean co teachers

In the US, if a teacher has what’s called a continuing contract, they basically have tenure, and can stay at their school as long as they want, until they retire. And they do–it’s not unusual for a teacher to teach at the same school for their entire career. In Korea however, a teacher is required by law to change schools every five years. I really don’t know what the purpose of this policy is, and frankly, it causes a lot of stress for the teachers, especially teachers in rural areas who are a long distance away from other cities, and therefore other schools. After a teacher has taught at the local school for five years, they then might have to travel a long distance to get to work for the next five years until they are eligible for a local job again. Some teachers at my school commuted from Seoul, which is over an hour away if driving, and even longer if you have to take the bus, and teachers coming from rural areas often had even longer commutes. Crazy!

Differences in Discipline

Korean kids in school

Everyone has heard the stereotype–that Asian children are quiet and well-behaved. Many people asked us if this was true, and others simply assumed this was true. I have a couple of things to say on this matter–first of all, kids are kids everywhere, and the behavior you see in children everywhere in the world is basically the same. Secondly, there’s nothing about Korean culture that creates inherently well-behaved children, in fact, I’d argue that the opposite often happens. On a whole, Korean children are less well-behaved in school than American students. There are a couple of things that I personally think contributes to this.

First of all, corporal punishment (spanking, hitting with rulers, etc.) was only recently banned in South Korea. Unfortunately, corporal punishment was never replaced with any other kind of punishments–in Korea, in public schools, there is no such thing as detention, going to the principals office, time out, etc. So how do teachers punish the students? They yell. A lot. And they hit things (usually not the students, although I did see that happen and others working in Korea saw that too), but often they’ll hit the desk, the chalkboard, etc., something to make a loud noise. But kids being kids don’t always respond to this—the more timid students do, but often the cockier students just shrug off the threats, knowing the teachers aren’t legally allowed to hit them and knowing that there’s nothing the teacher can do. This results in an overall feeling of lawlessness in the schools that isn’t as present in most US schools. This brings me to my next item…

The Role of the Principal

In the US, the principal is typically in charge of discipline for the naughtier students–if you’re bad, you get sent to the principals office. In Korea that NEVER happens. The principal is more like an administrator would be here in the US–they have almost no contact with the students. I’m not entirely sure of the role of the principal in Korea, but I just thought it was interesting that the principal had nothing to do with the students.

The Dress Code

Korean students

When I was going to school in the US, most public schools didn’t have uniforms. I know this is changing a lot, and a lot more places in the US are going to uniforms, but in Korea basically all public middle and high schools wear uniforms. Elementary schools almost never do though. The biggest difference between the US and Korea’s dress codes is the shoes. Because of the Korean custom of removing your shoes when you enter a home or school, the kids wear one pair of shoes to walk to school (outside shoes), and once they arrive at school in Korea they change into “inside shoes” or “slippers,” which are almost universally plain white, flat sneakers, like Keds or Converse. Teachers are expected to change their shoes too, but most teachers have high-heeled “slippers” instead of sneakers. I just brought one pair of plain black flats and one pair of plain brown flats to live at my school and be my “inside” shoes. A lot of the teachers and students thought that was weird…but I really hated the high-heeled slippers, and I’m already really tall, and was taller than almost everyone at my school!

Formalities Between Teachers and Students

Andrea with students in Korea

In the US, you address your teachers by “Mr.”, “Mrs.” or “Ms.” followed by their last name–like “Mr. Smith.” In Korea, the students address the teacher by their whole name, surname first in the Korean fashion–such “Kim (surname) SooHyun (first name).” For the English teachers, they adopt a different honorific, usually just your name followed by “teacher.” Therefore, I was known as “Andrea Teacher.” I personally thought this was adorable!

The other thing Koreans do in general, especially a student to a teacher, is bow. Everyone bows in Korea, it’s the polite way to address someone, and is usually just a quick nod of the head. However, students usually give a deeper bow to teachers, and an even deeper bow to the principal. What I thought was interesting was that most students seemed to realize this was cultural, and when I was walking down the hall with a Korean teacher the students would often bow to them, saying in Korean “hello” followed by the teachers full name, and then turn to me, wave, and say “Hi Andrea Teacher!” in English. Pretty cute to see their brains make the language and culture flip all in one sentence!

If you’ve taught in Korea, what other differences did you see between the schools there and the schools in your home country? If you’re interested in teaching in Korea and have any questions, fire away!

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4 Responses to “Teaching ESL: How American & Korean Schools Differ”

  1. Lori Finleu December 11, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    Thanks for interestinf insight and comparisons!

    • Andrea December 11, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

      You’re welcome, thanks for reading!

  2. kim June 3, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    Great reading your blog.

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