17 Things You Don’t Know About School in Korea

(Unless you are/have been here teaching, too.  Obviously.  If it weren’t for smart alec people, I wouldn’t have to include completely unnecessary disclaimers.  People like you are the reason why signs like “Warning: Hot” on coffee cups and “Caution: Do not iron while wearing this shirt” labels exist.)

(It is, however, worth stating that I teach at a middle school, so this is not necessarily applicable across the board.)


1. School starts around 8:30, and ends around 4*–but then there are private academies from 6 or 7 until 10 or 11 (if your parents can afford them).  So just think of it this way: instead of having a part-time job or playing a  sport, Korean kids study more.  Or go to jump-roping academies (<– true story).

2. Saturday classes. The 1st & 3rd Saturdays of the month, there are classes and club activities until noon.  I told my students we only go to school on Saturdays if we have detention, and they almost cried.

3. School buses. Kids take public transportation, from elementary school on up.  Buses, subways, taxis, & walking.  (Of course this could also be true in larger cities in the U.S., I wouldn’t know. But I don’t think it is.)

4. School uniforms. Not only school uniforms, but school rules on how long & what color your hair can be (teachers hold rulers outside my school in the mornings), and no jewelry or makeup allowed–unless you want it confiscated.  The jewelry, that is.  Some girls try to get away with lipstick by saying it’s just chap-stick and their lips are just surprisingly pink that day. Riiiight.

5. Schools go up, not out.  And facilities are pretty non-existant. You know how our schools have 8 different fields and 10 different courts to house all the sports? Not so much here.  Probably because they don’t have school sports until university (more on that later :)).  No auditorium either–when there’s a show or festival for the whole school, we hop on the ever-lovely public transportation and head over to the city’s Cultural Center. Most schools look like mine: a 4-or-more-storied building and an outdoor gym area. The end.

My school, in all its glory, courtesy of GoogleMaps. Oh, Google.

6. No lockers in the hallways. Not that I ever used mine anyways.  Who needs books at school?  They have cabinets in their homerooms for things, such as their “outdoor shoes.”  Yeah, those.  Maybe that should have been number 6.  You change into slippers to wear indoors.

7. Eat what’s in front of you.  There are no options in the cafeteria–you get rice, kimchi, some sort of soup, some sort of meat, and some sort of vegetable.  My students almost cried again when I showed them pictures of cafeteria chicken and pizza!

8. It’s freezing indoors! The front doors stay open, and the hallways and classrooms are filled with students and teachers in winter coats and scarves.  I couldn’t begin to tell you why, and I’ve asked.  Air circulation?  At least the classrooms are heated, and I’m too warm in my short-sleeves long before the kids in their coats are toasty enough to stop crying, “Oh, choo-ah!

9. Teachers share an office, and students have a classroom. Each grade is separated into classes (10 at my school), and each class stays in their classroom as the teachers change rooms.  There are three teachers’ offices where we all hang out, and, consequently, get barraged by students during breaks between classes.  Especially in my first week here, students flooded my office, trying to catch a glimpse of my blue eyes (thanks for those, Dad!). However, I have an English Zone at my school–expensive classrooms sponsored by the Korean government–so I have my own room and the students come to me.  So an office computer and a classroom computer, all for me!  Whee!

10. Corporal punishment. It’s actually now illegal, as Korea continues to westernize itself.  But it’s not really frowned upon.  And even if a teacher doesn’t outright hit a student, they make them do things like squats or hold a book above their head for a certain amount of time.  I haven’t seen too much physical punishment, but honestly, some of these kids wilt under a glare and a stern talking to, which happens a decent amount (10 minutes ago, in fact).

11. Janitors catch a break. Students clean the school (and mine are now supremely jealous that students in America do not).  There are still janitors for the “big stuff,” like bathrooms.  But wiping down tables, sweeping floors, emptying trash–all students’ responsibility.

12. Thou shalt study English. The only language they take through middle school is English.  In high school they can pick a second one to study–Japanese is very popular.

13. No sports teams. Not in the way we know them.  Not until the university level.  I’ll blog on their replacement for organized sports leagues in a bit–be excited. (Update: here’s the post!)  My school does have a gun club that competes nationally, though, because my students are awesome.  Another Korean friend evidently did boxing in high school, as well.  So there’s a small community of sports, they’re just limited and, again, no school soccer leagues and whatnot.

14. Very limited vacation. School year starts in March and runs until February, with about a month or so break in between semesters.  Even this limited break is often filled with academic “camps,” where students continue their studies in English and math and the like.  That deserves its whole own blog post though, especially after reading Outliers.

15. Holidays. There are two major holidays–Chuseok and the Lunar New Year (Chinese New Year)–where students and teachers get 3-5 days off of school.  Come to think of it, I think LNY usually falls within the winter vacation, anyways. There are a few odd days here and there, such as the school’s anniversary and the day when teachers have to proctor university entrance exams so everyone except high school seniors gets the day off.  But it’s not like there’s a “teacher work day” every other week.  Those were so nice…

16. No homecoming, prom, etc. Instead, they take senior trips to Japan, and middle school graduation trips to Jeju Island.  Decent trade, I think.

17. School pictures are photoshopped.  Pretty sure.  This is totally a guess.  I just got mine back, and my skin is so flawless I want to cry.  Oh Mother Nature, why must you hate me so!

Bonus: Pretty sure part-time jobs are a no-go as well.  Haven’t seen much evidence of those!  I’ve heard they’re only for students who go to vocational training schools for high school.  Everyone else just studies.

I guess the title should read, “17 Things You Didn’t Know About School in Korea”…

*Edit: As this was just Freshly Pressed, I feel obligated to make a small correction to #1.  Middle school should go until 4; however, that can vary.  For example, this past semester my principal wanted the students’ test scores to improve, so he mandated two extra periods after class–the first period for an extra class, the second period for required independent study or sign up for an additional extra class.  Therefore, most students did not leave the school grounds until 5:15.

Edit #2:  Students don’t fail classes.  They receive grades on exams and projects, but this does not affect their ability to move on to the next grade (probably a very significant contributor to their 97% high school graduation rate).  They mainly study so they can pass their eventual college entrance exam and so their parents don’t hit or yell at them.  Also, at my school, a student can be absent 70 days before it affects her record.  Of course, she still has to do makeup work when she returns and I’m not exactly sure how it all works out, but yeah.  70 days.  70.


166 responses

  1. Pingback: Q&A: Education Setup in Korea « rachelshae

  2. I have a cousin who is teaching ESL in Korea, and I love hearing her stories! They’re hilarious! Things are so different there! I must, however, say that I didn’t know Korean students had to do a portion of the cleaning…wow. Sounds like an intense place to study!

    Wonderful post and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂

    • thanks! and yes, they even come in during breaks to clean–different groups of students are assigned days during winter/summer vacation to come in and take care of garbage, sweeping, etc. My students get very sad and let out moans of jealousy when I tell them in the U.S., students never clean the schools!

      • This post is so interesting. I knew little bit about but not that much you experience. In Europe we are getting lazy and lazy every day by having more acitivities than studying. I assume Koreans will run us in the future. I am wondering ever there has been an American student studying in Korean high school.

        • yes, actually another commenter’s daughter had studied in Korea for a year while she was in high school. also, i know of many university students that study for part or all of their undergrad or graduate degrees in Korea.

  3. My wife is Korean (I met her when she was an ESL student of mine in Montreal) and was a middle school teacher there. I love visiting and hearing the school stories from my wife’s relatives. I was once asked if I had ever made my wife hold a book over her head when she was my student!

  4. Interesting. A lot of those things remind me of Japanese schools-especially the parts about the kids cleaning the school and keeping all the doors open in the winter! The biggest difference maybe is that school sports/clubs are a very important part of student life; you even student teams out and about on the weekends and during holidays!

  5. I do think kids here in US are spoil. I grew up in Indonesia and we haev a pretty similar system with school in Korea, although we do have gym though… 🙂 but same restriction as for uniform and make up and stuff like that. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Wow. I had NO idea — I’ve recently been lamenting our public school situation in Nevada (one of the lowest funded states in the nation), but your post gives me new perspective!

    • hopefully in a good way! too bad kids helping to clean the schools would never go over in the States–could help save costs. Of course, then you might have janitors out of work, so I guess it’s a catch-22.

  7. Very interesting post! I always thought our schools were a little too easy, however, Korean schools might be a little extreme in the other direction. As an American teacher in Korea, do you think their education system is better, or do you think it creates too much stress for kids and teens?

    As a side note, I’m an American who went to boarding school in the Middle East for 10th and 11th grade. It was much more difficult than public school here in the states, but according to my Korean roommate, the boarding school was a breeze in comparison. He said the suicide rate is high there…

    Anyway, great post!

    • yes, the suicide rate is very high. I actually talked about that in this post: https://rachelshae.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/dont-jump/

      as to “better” or not–they are very different. i read a study recently how students with minor learning disabilities fare very well in the Korean system because it is so structured–which also means their disabilities are largely undetected, so it’s a plus or a minus, depending on how you look at it.

      on the other side, the intense focus on testing and rote memorization without understanding limits creativity.

      i actually had a conversation with my previous V-P and some other teachers, as they asked me what I thought would be a good system for teaching creativity. A difficult concept to explain without fluency on either side! Another friend who teaches has some funny stories about trying to “teach” creativity rather than foster it.

      And yes, our schools are very easy. The man who writes the Ask A Korean blog has a post on how, when he barely spoke a word of English, he still managed high grades in all of his classes when he first moved to CA in high school.

      But while laziness is a problem, we also have a lot of innovation. Also, their work ethic towards school carries into their work-over-family mentality career-wise, which probably lends to the high suicide rate, as well, among adults. Which is a whole other post in and of itself–as this reply practically is already! thanks for the comment!

    • whoops, and i guess i didn’t quite answer your question. personally, i think it’s too stressful (although it’s impossible to fail out, which lends itself to the 97% high school graduation rate–which I wish I had known and included in the initial writing of this post). i think, as this generation grows up with their exposure to other systems, it may change. Korea changes rapidly even from day to day, so we’ll see what it looks like in 10 years.

  8. This reminds me of going to school in China when I was little, except that school photos aren’t photoshopped and school starts at 8:00 and ends at 4:00. Also one time there was severe weather so school got canceled, but they made us make the day up on Saturday…

  9. Schools in Japan, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear, are similar in many of those…except:

    >In high school they can pick a second one to study–Japanese is very popular.

    Even in high school, in Japan, students normally still study English as the chosen second language.

    >they take senior trips to Japan

    In Japan, I’ve never heard of a school trip to Korea.

    >School year starts in March and runs until February

    The school year (and business fiscal year) in Japan runs from April til March.

  10. A friend of mine also taught in Korea, though it sounds to me like she was teaching in a different type of school, maybe. She put together a little ebook of her letters home from there, if you have any interest: http://deborah-bryan.com/written-works/a-season-in-korea/

    I totally did not know most of those things about going to school in Korea, though I have to say the kids should be grateful they’re not being served chicken nuggets and pizza for lunch. It’s not exactly doing our school kids any favors. ;D

    • it’s so funny you said that! i did a lesson on differences between the two school systems, and when i showed them pictures of what i considered to be a gross school-cafeteria lunch, my students all groaned with envy! to them, just having pizza and/or french fries as an option for lunch is a real treat, even though to me it looked like a tasteless, greasy piece of cafeteria food.

  11. It’s interesting to hear about the differences, even if some of them seem a little shocking to what we are used to. I taught in France for several years and my students were always blown-away by the idea of “free refills.” Hahah.
    I love the idea of teachers changing rooms, instead of students. Seems much more efficient!
    Thanks for sharing!

    • yeah, i’ve had several commenters from India telling me it’s similar. actually, from Asia in general, which is interesting and i think speaks to the cultural similarities on different continents even when accepted societal customs and norms may be largely different on the surface.

      • Not only cultural similarities plus the high population density and low per capita income of large strata of the society plus the government’s inability to fund the education. So, there’s a handful of good jobs and rush is huge…

  12. This does sound interesting…My wife and I are going to be teaching in China for a year or so here this Sept. We were thinking about Korea for our second or third year…This gives us some insights. Thanks for the post!

    • definitely in south korea. north korea is a closed country. they allow limited numbers of tourists in on highly-structured and protected tours. U.S. citizens have only just recently been allowed on these tours, i believe. although, word on the street is north korea–in recognition of needing to keep up with global powers–wants to open universities with professors from different countries around the world. these universities would, of course, still only be available to the rich elite and governing class, leaving the rest of the population to the starvation and work in labor camps as is the norm now, but hopefully it’s a sign of change to come.

      i’ve blogged a bit about the two halves of the country (as if you look at maps in korea, they are still recognized as one whole country), so you can read those if you wish:

  13. I loved this! I actually attended elementary and high school in Korean (at the American H.S. there in Seoul) off an on but spent 10 years cumulatively there. I had more of the American experience on the military installation but my Korean cousins lived the way you describe. I recall we were the same age but I was playing basketball and taking one math and one language a year. They were taking 3 maths (more advanced than my average American level) and 2 languages with extra tutoring every night in English. My cousin, after all that, still didn’t score high enough in what was my equivalent to the 8th grade to go to a quality university in Korea. Lots of pressure for such young kids. I went to Sogang University for a semester and lived the life of a Korean college student for awhile. Such an enriching experience. Thanks so much for sharing….Ko-map-sum-ni-da! Jamee-eesoyo! You know what I mean!

  14. My youngest daughter was an exchange student in a Korean language immersion program for her senior year of high school and lived with foster families. From being an entitled American teenager to a daughter of the house was difficult for her. The fact that she was adopted from Korea as an infant made it different for her than the white kids in the program. She felt she really got the Korean home experience more. She said the family structure was more like what she saw on TV land in 1950’s shows. It was an incredible experience and she has spent this summer teaching English in Hong Kong.

    • i am envious of your daughter! Most people love Hong Kong and would love to be able to teach there. Also, I would have loved to have that kind of experience when I was in high school. The thing I am most envious about with my students is how they are expected to study a foreign language–especially one as different and difficult to learn as English–from elementary school through college. I wish I had been required that, or at least informed how much I would wish I could speak other languages fluently now, and how amazing it would have been to start studying Asian or Middle Eastern languages at a young age.

    • same! it’s too bad we can’t combine the best things from all the different educational systems, but i guess the next-best thing is just being aware of those differences and making the most of what you’ve got.
      thanks for commenting!

  15. A lot of these things, not all of them obviously, but more than half, I think, are very similar to what my high school was like – in Los Angeles. Once the population density gets to a certain point, we had about 4,000 kids on campus, things are very different.
    There were school buses for special ed and blind kids, but everyone else to the Metro (which is awful, in LA, by the way). We started earlier, at about seven and went until three something. While we were still on the American system, we had equal breaks for winter and summer, both about two months, and our teachers were amusingly abusive. Not in the bad way, just in the “I’ll stack things on your head until you wake up” or “throw erasers at you when you weren’t listening” sort of way. It was nice.
    I know in a lot of private schools that don’t allow c.p. they do similar things to Korea. At a conservative Yeshiva, I knew boys forced to hold student desks at arms length in front of them as punishment.

    I think it makes school more fun.

    • that’s so interesting! i remember back when i wrote this post, thinking how i really didn’t know too much about schooling transportation systems in large cities (such as NYC or LA). just goes to show how much more there always is to learn, even about your own country!

  16. I feel like you portrayed Korea very negatively, with a subtle, sly undertone of superficial pity. Schools in Asia are completely different, and having experienced one in Taiwan for myself, I can attest that these are indeed facts. Schools in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea have similar systems, all of which may seem foreign to Americans.

    We should admire their tradition and enforcement of rules. At least they’re not hypocrites and they enforce rules that are in the handbook. In America, there are “dress codes,” but how often do kids really stick to them? It’s the teacher’s fault in the U.S. that kids aren’t properly punished.

    As well, learning to clean up after oneself is a necessary responsibility. Not only that, but it saves money that could be used toward education rather than janitorial services.

    You mentioned more than once that the “my students almost cried again when I showed them… (fill in blank here).” I don’t understand why you’d subject your students to that. Isn’t your job to be teaching them? Seems to me you’re making fun of them, and not respecting their culture.

    This isn’t to say that American schools are wonderful in their own way. I could make a huge list of the benefits of being an American student.

    I hope, for your sake and that of the students, that you learn to embrace the culture, and stop being a “Smart Alec,” to quote your words.

    Good luck on your journey.

    • that was not my intent at all. i actually responded to an earlier comment about what i think the strengths of the education system are in terms of discipline and helping children with certain learning disabilities and whatnot. also something i didn’t mention but that i talked about in later posts is how much i admire the respect that each student inherently shows for teachers and the principal, vice-principal, etc. the purpose of telling kids differences in the two school systems was because much of my job is to teach cultural differences as well. i’ve also talked about differences in wedding ceremonies, things like how much more common it is to have a car and how many people usually have drivers’ licenses because we just don’t have as amazing of a public transportation system–things like that.

      there are strengths and weaknesses in each system, and i wasn’t trying to undercut the Korean system, just inform my family back home more of what my job and life was like here, what I was observing and experiencing, and give them a base to compare it to their own experiences. (this is an old post, as you no doubt saw by the date.)

      my students also cried when i left. the administration of the school tried to convince me multiple times to extend my contract, and my coworkers said i worked very hard to embrace the culture and understand them and they appreciated it so much, and they could really tell i cared about them and wanted to do a good job. they also appreciated my ready smile and willing attitude. and i wish American schools made students clean! have mentioned that a couple of times in comment replies already.

      thanks for your comment. sorry you did not enjoy reading this.

      • I didn’t perceive a negatve tone in your writing and grew up in Korea and am half-Korean. I viewed your observations as statement of fact, because the culture does revere intelligence, hard work, studiousness, respect for authority. The Confucian ideals imbued throughout the culture and the fact that the Yangban were supported by by the populace for the sole purpose of scholarship gives great insight to why educational standards are as rigid as they are, I think. It’s not a bad thing. I saw how my cousins’ education differed from my own. I felt badly that they didn’t know what it was like to be on basketball team in high school- But, they were also far advanced than I was in foreign languages and math ability. It was a trade-off. Even attending Sogang University as a sophomore as part of a study abroad program showed such a difference in the approach to education between Eastern and Western societies. The students were, as a whole, far more serious. There was great pride. Everyone there had tested well enough on a life-determining test years before to be able to gain access to one of the “Top 5” schools as I was told frequently by students there. I don’t know if the Top 5 have changed- but at the time, E-Wha Women’s, Sogang and Seoul National were up there with 2 others I can’t remember. Americans lack that kind of perspective. College is an entitlement. You don’t have to be particularly gifted, competitive or smart to get into or through it. I felt that this post demonstrated the underlying reasons why Korean students excel in comparison to Western counterparts. I appreciated this post very much. Thank you for it-

        • thanks for your comment. the trade-offs definitely create a fine line to dance on when comparing the two, and i’m glad i largely came across as just honestly wanting to recognize differences.
          for universities, i’m not sure what the top 5 are, but i know the top 3 are the SKY universities: Seoul National, Korea University, and Yonsei University.
          and i agree–i’ve said in another comment how the entitlement attitude really grates on my nerves!

  17. Hello,
    very interesting blog thanks for sharing your experience actually I found many similarities with Greek schools , the students have a classroom and the teachers go to them, we do continue studying after school hours till late if the parents can afford it of course, we do not have prom but we go on a trip instead but we do get a long break during the summer cause it would have been impossible to concentrate under the heat…

    • that’s so interesting! yeah i remember learning in high school about other countries that also follow the students-stay-teachers-move rule when we studied culture in my language classes, so i was very interested to see it in person.

  18. I was so interested I wanted to comment on the differences with American schools. I hope you enjoy.
    This applies to the United States, more specifically New York state Regents High Schools.
    I graduated highschool in 2006 and completed my degree in Dec 2010. While these comparisons maybe a little dated they are not that far off. Yes, compared to Korean schools we do seem to be more pampered, but Koreans do seem to have a higher rate of success because of their ways as you pointed out with the 97% graduation rate.
    I can’t remember my middle school schedule so I will do high school which is grades 9th through 12th. I’m told it’s called something different in Korea, the grade levels that is.
    1. School days start 8:15 to 8:25 homeroom with some teen news talk show playing in the home rooms. (I went to a private catholic highschool in Upstate NY that applied an emphasis on knowing the news in the morning).
    You would have to be in your home room by 8:15 with all things in your lockers unless you needed it for the first few class periods of the day. Each class would be roughly forty minutes long sometimes longer if it was a double period which was usaually about an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half.
    School would last until 2:30. All though I’m told now most schools grade one and up in my area now go until 3 or 3:30.
    2. We have no Saturday classes but there are tutoring programs available around the city. However you have to cater to the tutoring companies schedules.
    3. Depending on where you live, if you live after the milage cut off, you can take a yellow bus to school, or get a CDTA bus pass. That is Albany, New Yorks public city transportation. Most of the kids at my school either took the city bus or came from middle class families. This meant that their parents drove them or they had their own cars
    4. We did have uniforms which I hated but being from a family of lesser extravagance, it did help me out a bit never having to worry about what I was going to wear and if I looked crazy. Everyone had the same dress code.
    Girls uniforms choices: Navy blue cardigan with the schools name printed on the left breast. A yellow or white female sort of rounded collar button up top. A gray skirt with knee highs and blue or black shoes which the brands and heights of heals varied. The gray skirt could be switched out for kakki or gray or black pants.
    The boys wore the same except their shirts were white or yellow with a normal collar and they wore normal socks with kakki, black, or gray pants and various types of dress shoes. No sneakers or you get detention unless you’re in gym class.
    Any violation of dress code can lead to suspention if you’ve violated more than a few times, or detention. Jewelry and makeup are permitted as long as they are worn descretely and not stopping traffic in the halls. Which is fairs. With only three minutes between each class and four long hall wings to run through, the lesser the distraction the better. If you’re late to class, detention. If you’re continuously late to class, suspension and they hold your report card until you do your time completely in detention hall.
    5. In highschool and middle school depending on what area you live in from pre k on up, you can easily become involved in sports teams.
    Every school has at least a recess and gym field or gymnasim.
    Added note: Usually a school day consists of nine or ten periods, that’s including lunch, gym, and art classes. We only had one building though in our school, there were no different buildings for us.
    6: Lockers: yes as previously stated. But you learn to just buy 2 Five subject notebooks and carry a bag with your books, pens and everything you need in it so you don’t have to run back every class. Heaven forbid your locker gets stuck, you get it free, and the door slams on your face as you think you’re going to make it in the class room in time. Total crapshoot mood after that.
    7. My highschool, yes there were options to what you could have for lunch, the catch is, like many American schools you have to buy your lunch. The school is looking to make money so the lunch people make whats in popular demand in requests. The foods I remember :pizza, cheeseburgers, bread sticks and sauces, cheese fries, chicken nuggets, chicken strips, milk, orange juice, soda, come to think of it I don’t remember too many vegetables. Sometimes the lunch counter would even sell cookies, ice creme, or brownies.
    If you didn’t like what they served, you didn’t buy. If you didn’t buy, you brought your own lunch. If you didn’t bring anything you prayed your friends would share a little bit of their lunches. Most good friends would. Thanks girls. (The school was co ed but I sat with mostly my chick clique).
    8. Our school could be overly hot or overly cold. For some reason the smart office people would put on the heat during hot days and the cool air during the cold days it would seem. On the hottest of hot days, the air just wouldn’t work.
    9. Usually every teacher had his or her own classroom and they would tell you hours where you could visit. If you came unexpected, depending on if the teacher liked you or not, or had the patience to deal with you, they might let you in and talk. If not they’d schedule a meeting for before or after school, or one of the free periods. If you weren’t on a chatty friendly basis with the teacher, just showing up for kicks would be considered rude when the teacher has a lot to get done. If you’re smart you just aim for a study hall period with your favorite teacher.
    10. Corporal Punishment was non existant. You give the child detention or send them to the principals and or deans office to be dealt with. Here in the states a teacher can get fired for hitting, beating, overly aggressive dealings with students. You can actually lose your license as a teacher here.
    11. In my school, it was a tuition program to clean the school. Certain students could get a thousand dollars off the four thousand dollar a year tuition if they help clean and repair the school during summer vacations and holiday vacations. The only time students really cleaned was if they messed up a room horribly and it was a punishment to clean it.
    13. Sports are after school. Football, volleyball, basketball, cheerleading, tennis and more.
    For non athletes there is drama club, news paper, choir, and various subjects clubs.
    Clubs: science, English, math, spanish and so on.
    14 & 15 joined: Vacations; Summer vacation is June to early September usually ending the 4th of September. There are various holidays off through the months. In Novemeber you get three days to a week off for Thanksgiving. In December you get a week or two off for Christmas holidays. Then in March there is Spring Break or Winter Recess however you title it. Then again there are single days off throughout the rest of the year till June for various holidays.
    16. Homecoming, semi formal, winter formal, spring formal, junior prom, senior prom.
    17. I hate you for having photo shopped photos. (Not really, just all mine were bad. haha) I wish we could have had the same.

  19. A few of those are similar to many schools around the world, the hours are a bit extreme but there are not the excessive work camp-esque regime that I had expected, good old media.

    • oh the media! they’re wonderful. i think they get their spin from the private after-school academies that are so popular. when you factor those in, then yes the hours are ludicrous (8-11!), and in high school it’s worse as students get closer to studying for the national college entrance exam (unless you go to a vocational training school). of course, only students from wealthy families or with parents who work insane overtime to be able to afford to send their kids to the academies go–which i think usually amounts to over half? Two-thirds maybe? I’m not sure!

  20. Not surprised, probably because I’m an Asian and I think most school in Asia have pretty much similar situation, especially when it comes to school uniform and overall appearance – short hair for boys, hair neatly tied up/pinned for girls with long hair, no make-up, wear name tag etc.

  21. my MIL is S.korean and she wasn’t “allowed” to attend school past 8th grade, but what she tells me about sounds pretty similar. She tells some story about the “rich” kids trading her for her cornbread and getting caught and paddled… eek!

  22. Excellent post. I certainly enjoy reading about different school systems and have grave doubts that we are “getting it done” with our methods in the United States. I have many friends from other countries and when I discuss comparisons between their schools and ours they always come away laughing. It costs my wife and I a fortune but, our three boys attended private schools–all the way through college. We honestly feel the expense was worth the effort. Again, great post.


    • yes our public school education system struggles quite a bit. i wish there was some way to combine the two systems, taking the strengths from each one. however, so much of each system stems from the culture. really, you could turn this post into a book–discussing all the benefits and disadvantages, proposing small changes, and comparing systems. Korea and America on their own would make quite the discussion; factoring in systems from added countries, and you’ve got a documentary on your hands! hah, know any film makers? thanks for commenting, and i’m glad you enjoyed reading!

    • oh yes, that can be bad because red is seen as a symbol of death. if you write someone’s name in read, it’s a very bad omen. i hadn’t heard of not grading in red, but then, i don’t like red pens myself so i never came across it!

  23. Your disclaimer is hilarious. Well, I have a friend who is Korean and who happens to be a middle-school teacher in South Korea. She told me that teachers are supposed to write apology letters to their students’ parents if students get low grades.
    I guess since you are a guest teacher maybe they have excused you from this duty 🙂
    As for #6, this situation is usual in Ukraine and Poland – student carry all their stuff in their backpacks (probably not true for each and every school).

    • thanks, glad i could entertain!

      yes, parents (usually wealthier ones, as their mothers have the time, as is often the case in the U.S.) often get involved with their students’ grades. i have heard of other guest teachers being called into the principal’s office to face off a particularly angry mother and explain why they graded such-and-such a way. recently at my school, a parent complained about the scoring of a particular question, as she claimed the book her child was studying independently had a different explanation. so there’s a fair amount of that!

  24. Coming from another Asian country, the Philippines, here are the common things (at least) my school shares with yours. Well, at least back in my days as high school student.

    #1. When I graduated from HS, classes began at 7:20am and ended at 4pm. We have flag ceremony day so we typically have to be in school by 6:30am. Because I used the library after school to begin homework (before the internet era), I was in school at least til 5 or 5:30. I actually had to defend my country when a tourist (who I worked with in New Zealand) complained that neighborhoods in my country begin their days before sunrise. It annoyed her to hear noise so early in the morning. It’s really because of school. I woke up at 5:30am til I graduated HS! If a student is in a sports team, they didn’t get special treatment so they had to catch up if they spent after-school hours practicing. If one goes to a Chinese school, like my cousin, they study longer (read: stay in school longer) because learning another language/culture is ON TOP OF the national curriculum, with the exception of English. We only get 2 breaks: morning recess for 30 mins and lunch for 1 hour. School starts in June until March, but it could extend into April if we missed too many days due to typhoons in the Monsoon season.

    #2. When I was a HS senior, we had Saturday classes for 3-4 months in preparation for what is SAT in America. That’s from 720am to 12noon. Of course we were not happy about this.

    #4. Oh yes. There is also criteria for fabric, which is the annoying part for me. I didn’t like the heavy cotton ones required. Parents will surely get a notice from school if we strayed from the right color hue and fabric. Bummer. Some schools even require that uniforms be bought from them. Maybe my alma matter is like this now.

    #9. Same thing for most, if not all, schools in my country. My theory is that we have too many subjects than classrooms per level. We endure at least 9 subjects a day. Our quarterly exams range from 3 to 5 days, with at least 3 exams a day. The school tries not to combine heavy subjects, like Math and Science, in the same exam day but that’s not always the case.

    #11. Each class is divided into 5, one for each school day for cleaning. We mopped, arranged chairs, made sure we had enough chalks, and the erasers were cleaned. If a class has a ledge in front, we waxed it too. I’m sure things have changed now what with the internet and all, but those were my days! We were only responsible for our classroom, and anywhere beyond the perimeter is the janitor’s responsibility.

    #16. I went to an all-girls Catholic school and my batch (all the classes in my level) had to “fight” for prom, and we were granted. So that became a “standard” in my school. Hurrah!

    One more thing I’d like to share: we study ALL subjects every day. We don’t break subjects into semesters, like Science for the first sem, Algebra the next. We study them all so painfully at the same time.

    Despite all of the hard work put into studying in Asia, I plan to have my child study there for at least 2 years just to be exposed to it. I shared my experience as a student from a private school, so my experience may not be reflective of the public schools in the Philippines.

    • thanks so much for sharing–i love learning about differences in different countries and cultures. my eyebrows definitely raised about the criteria for fabric bit! i agree, as well, that exposure to different systems would be beneficial. i think your children will be very grateful, once they are old enough to appreciate it, and hopefully while they are experiencing it. thanks for commenting!

    • i don’t know the exact stats–Google might–but I know in my own school, our freshman class had around 400 and we graduated with…282 I want to say? so that’s what…around 70%? but there are so many different types of schools–private, inner-city, prep schools, schools from rich parts of the city, schools from poor parts of the city, rural schools, suburban schools–so i’m sure there’s a large variance in graduation rates and I’m not sure what the average rate is.

  25. i had no idea! the saturdays, uniforms, and punishment kinda kill it for me. although perhaps with a little of that i might have been an engineer or something fancy. lol. no thanks.

  26. Pingback: {16} 11 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About School in Jamaica « Red/Read Robyn

  27. I actually think that what they serve at schools over there, is much healthier than what is served in American schools. Thank you for sharing, this was an interesting piece to read (:

  28. Wow. That is really interesting. I always enjoy reading about what other kinds of schools are like. See, I’m a home schooled senior, so my commute consists of walking downstairs, and my uniform can be anything from a t-shirt and jeans to p.j’s. I don’t have any set breakfast/lunch times, and that consists of whatever we have in the fridge. I easily spend half the time that they do on my work, and still get higher grades than most of my peers in about half of my subjects. Although the home schooling laws are a pain in the butt in the the state I live in, I’d have to say it’s a good deal. I honestly think I retain more than a lot of other students because I’m very independent and able to pursue my loves more freely. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  29. Good blog post. Demonstrates quite succintly why Korean students have higher levels of academic achievement, lower levels of childhood obesity, and on average, more respectful behaviour than many of their Western counterparts. Of course, there’s a flipside too as they don’t learn some of the skills Western kids do until a lot later. But overall, one wonders who’s really go the balance right, especially in a skills-oriented world.

      • As with most things, I suspect deciding which is “better” boils down to what you actually want from the system rather than any higher truths/absolutes.

        It’s arguable that a publicly-funded education system should focus on producing economically useful citizens as a priority, in order to repay their education. The Korean system (and many similarly academically rigorous Asian education systems) undoubtedly does that in spades.

        However, that’s a fairly narrow measure of the value of education itself. And even on the economic issue alone. there’s a counter-argument to suggest a broader range of skills are more useful in the service-sector/consumer-focused jobs often found in advanced economies, where soft-skills can sometimes outweigh academic performance.

        It’s the kind of thing where one can pick and choose from the facts to support one’s own personal position on the topic, I guess…

  30. Wow. I tutored a woman in ESL who had come to Canada from Korea. Her description of the schools and the teacher-student relationship was so different! She spoke about teachers are sort of holistic advisors who helped students with their studies and also participated in family events and encouraged intellectual and spiritual growth. Maybe it was just her circumstances? Or perhaps a whole lot has changed in fifteen years!

  31. Great post! And to be completely honest I think some American schools can learn a thing or two from these more structured schools. Too often do I see kids liter and not pick up after themselves, skip class, and disrespect their teachers. Maybe more structure would be a good thing for some of the students attending school in the U.S.
    I’m not so sure about that lunch thing though… I like my cheeseburgers:)

  32. you are a teacher over there right? well that’s just sad about whats happening there, you teachers/parents who are open minded should take a step against it..the same system kinda is followed here in India..i’ll blog about it maybe take care.

    • it’s not inherently sad; the government has created the best school system it could, with a lot of focus on order and respect, as those are very important in the culture as well, and the system i’m sure will change much more in the coming years. it can foster negative effects though, as, for example, the intense focus on academic success lends to a higher suicide rate. suicide numbers jump the day before, the day of, and the day after the college entrance exam, and also the day scores are received.

      • hmm although academic success is not better when compared to overall development of mind, academic success may land you up in a better job, but a better life with a lot of play and a lot of work equally divided may land you up in a better life. that’s a possibility, it’s not like I wish to blame for excessive academic success right?

  33. Great post.. and congrats on being freshly pressed!!

    I did all my schooling in India.. and the schools are pretty much the same as you have described… We have students in classrooms and teachers in ‘staff rooms’, teachers walk into the class rooms for the lessons, students clean up the class rooms (we had a rolling trophy to be won every month for the best kept class room), a huge play ground, no gym, school running from 9:45 – 4:30; school uniforms, no jewelry/makeup to be worn,… we did have sports teams and students did fail in classes though…. I do like this system.. and do feel that we do schooling much better in India, than it is done elsewhere..

    The things are not much different in Tanzania either.. I have seen students walking to the schools, early in the morning with ‘books and brooms’, apparently they have to clean their class rooms before the class starts….

    I am in Japan now, and the schools here are kind of the same… ….

    • that’s very interesting, thanks for sharing. i’m also glad you had a positive schooling experience overall–i wish every student in the world could have access to education, and be a part of a successful system.

  34. Reminiscing the times I grew up in Korea..I came to U.S. when I was in 5th grade, going in to 6th, and all of the above you mentioned are all TRUE. One thing that surprised me was that the fact that it’s illegal to discipline the way they did. I almost forgot how different it was back in Korea and the fact that I had to goto school on Saturday!!

    Thanks for giving me the chance to sort through my memories!

    • no problem, glad i could help! it’s also nice to hear from a Korean student that i’ve done a decent job of portraying a student’s life–i always get nervous when writing about specific cultural differences because i don’t want to offend the culture, as i love learning and whatnot. so thanks for commenting!

  35. Thank you for your post. I have heard most of these things many times from my Korean students who are here in the U.S. to learn English. However, you had them all in a perfect list. Thanks! I’d like to share this with my students.

  36. I think you’ve captured it well. I think the mentality in Korea is either Study, or play sports. It’s about choosing one skill and focusing on it rather than trying different things.. which I think is a shame. I only went to elementary school in Korea and then moved to an international school in Cambodia.. but I’ve seen how my cousins grew up..
    No one else in the family understood the use in me playing soccer, basketball, flute, etc. while my cousins stayed up until 2am doing their school AND academy hw.

    • yes, my friends and i noticed that, as well. when we would speak of many different hobbies–snowboarding, guitar, painting–we noticed our Korean friends often had one main skill they focused on. if you rock climbed, you rock climbed every day for 4 hours. that was your skill. although one of my Korean friends keeps trying different things because she can’t decide what she likes doing–she’s adorable. reminds me of myself.

      anyways, it’s been very interesting to be immersed in so many differences.

  37. Hi Rachelshae, I just came back a couple of weeks ago from a 3-day vacation in Seoul. I wonder if you have seen some of the funny English signages that they have there. I even saw a resto named “Born to be Garlic Chicken.”

  38. I am from India. Schools here are just like the Korean school you said. We have a 9 to 4 class including Saturdays, school uniforms and less infrastructure. Thank god, we had a school bus, an auditorium and a proper vacation. But we haven’t had a canteen until I was 17 years old, and that canteen served only snacks, not main food. I don’t even know what a prom is. We don’t have much residential schools here. We go to school straight from home every day, and come back to homes in the evening. And we have a classroom, teachers come to our classes in each period. Teachers sit in a common staff room, not in their own offices. Even the headmistress’ (that is the principal) office is shared by some other teachers. We have classes from June to March. We don’t have any semester, only annual exam. We used to clean our classes in turns. We never fail until Ninth standard (that is when you are 14 years old). We take a public exam at the age of 15 (Tenth standard). Then we have +1 and +2, which is the pre-degree course. I like this system better. Thanks for the post. It was a good read.

    • hm, that is very interesting. our principal has an enormous office all to himself; the rest of us are separated into the different communal offices on each floor. thanks for sharing.

      • my school is in indonesia i didnt took any conversation corsees on english just saw from the tv and my school last until 12 o’clock its great although my homeworks are many and we go to school in saturday to goes to school at 6.00 am i know guess americas pretty advanced…:)

  39. Much like Vietnamese schools for me, but only big schools have sport team and big yard for practice. As least people in my city (Ho Chi Minh city) spells English right in their store signs lol.

    Truly an eye opening post 🙂

  40. Thank you so much for this post! I have always been dreaming about studying in Korea, and this just makes me want to do that even more! I know, I know, I am an oldschool nerd to want it XD

  41. Thats exactly how it is in India too. I think Asia in general has a pretty rigorous school system, and students just wait to get to College to be free birds (relatively). But considering the fact that school life is around 15 years, it is a pretty long wait.

  42. All things except 17(^^;) remind me my school days.(I’m a Korean)
    Especially, I didn’t like 1 & 10.(actually, 10 is worse).
    I think the worst effect of Korean education is to make kids be passive.
    They are forced to study hard, but never allowed to ask why.
    I hope it is changed for kids.

    잘 봤습니다.

  43. Very interesting information you have highlighted there.

    One can see how different countries/communities can learn from each other and incorporate some of these activities into their school system.

    One point that seems to stand out is that school children in Korea stay in the same classroom whilst the teachers get to move around. Wonder if that would work in the US or UK.

    Overall very good post, please visit our blog: http://translationdigest.wordpress.com/ and feel free to leave feedback. Looking forward to your future blog posts.

    • i don’t think it’s a necessary change to consider, as it would necessitate a complete overhaul of the operations of a school, scheduling of classes, etc., without any evidence (that i know of) that it would positively affect students’ learning. good looking site, by the way, and thanks for the comment!

  44. Ah, the schools in India run very much like those in Korea it seems. We too used to have one classroom allotted to us where different teachers would come and teach, would have almost 7 hours of school everyday and prom or part-time jobs?… Oh quite unheard of… if you do not watch those American teenage/ high school sitcoms or Disney movies!

  45. Irt seems like such an odd way to do things. It seems far behind in some ways. The book above the head thing went out with slates and slate pencils. Somehow I think I would have liked very little of it! Thanks for the insight!

  46. oh my god… well i’m ten and good at fighting(plus im a girl) and my dads been to japan, but,but this is WAY TO MUCH to learn i can feel my brain cracking if i was schooled there! im a lazy winner hehe

  47. It is hard to believe this is state in South Korea. But it’s believable if this is in Vietnam. Very poor educational facilities. But the cause of education is to instill the love of knowledge into kids’ souls. Facility is just a mean. Actually in the years after war, Vietnam was extremely poor. You can guess why. Read the history of your nation and you will know. But that poorness doesn’t kill the love of knowledge inside me. I didn’t learn that from school, I’ve been learning from my parents, especially my Dad.

    Finally, as far as I know Korean girls spend 25 hours per day to take care of their appearance. And cosmetic surgery is extremely popular in Korean. That’s why they look so perfect in music video!!! 😉

  48. it was so interesting to read something about the Korean education system from someone who actually taught it (and isn’t Korean!!). I grew up in Korea and only started going to school in the U.S. during my junior year of high school, I didn’t go to a Korean school, but 99% of the students were Korean!! So what I know of is not from first hand experience…

    I have to say, it was a big change to see American students!! I remember having study groups with all my classmates and friends and making extensive study guides for tests and all… I got to the states and realized that very (VERY) few American students bother…

    I can understand the Korean students after school activities though… my Mom (oh, she’s Korean) had me going to piano lessons 1.5-2 hrs a day after school for about 9 years (no special hakwons for me, though half my friends wouldn’t get home till 9 from all the art, music, English if they were poor at it, and math hakwons they went to..), and I remember whenever I got my first B like in my first year of middle school (mom almost killed me…).

    I really miss Korea!!! and I didn’t know that they did away with corporal punishment!! I remember my classmates telling me how their teacher threw chalk at them or how their older brother had to get in a push up position and stick their butt out to practically get spanked (I’ve actually seen this out on the sidewalk with some taekwondo students outside their hakwon..). Is that only true for schools? or all around? to clarify: beating your kids in the street was pretty acceptable whenever I was growing up there…

    I tutored at a private academy here in Texas while attending college, I was pretty much hired because I spoke both Korean and English. The students I tutored were honestly very ill-mannered (not all of them, but still…). I’m wondering if since the time I left Korea in 2004 till these past couple years if the students have become unruly or if the American school system has just corrupted their sense of respect (growing up in Korea and having a Korean mother, respect for your elders, no matter how much older, and especially of someone in an authoritative position was extremely important, my students seemed to lack that and I’m now wondering if it’s because corporal punishment is no longer legal… bring it back!! sometimes I think that’s what American students need… the disrespect for teachers was unbelievable).

    Well there’s my long-winded comment, but I was really fascinated. I think about teaching English in Korea, especially since I know I would love to live there again… How long have you been teaching in Korea? And how did you get your position?

    • for the corporal punishment, i know it was a very recent law change to outlaw it, and yes, that is true across the board. of course, it’s not strictly followed, as you can imagine. although i haven’t witnessed beating kids in the street. as far as disrespect for teachers, it depends. at my all-girls school, they’re fairly easy to control most of the time. at all-boys middle schools, i’ve heard it’s essentially controlled chaos. many of my teacher-friends complain about problems with discipline. the respect-undercurrent is still there–i received bows in the hallways and whatnot–and i don’t have anything to compare it to, but from the stories of discipline problems i’ve heard it may be fading a bit.

  49. Great post on Korean schooling. I’m quite fond of Korean culture so it’s interesting to read about it from a foreigner’s point of view. I love how similar their school system is to our own (in Jamaica).

    Thanks again for your comment on my post. 🙂

  50. I do wish the UK would adopt some of these school rules, especially being responsible for tidying etc. I went to an all girls grammar school (we weren’t allowed jewellery as such, makeup, funky colour scarves were frowned upon, ‘unnatural’ hair colour, we had to wear skirts and a uniform until we got into 6th form/college level) and, for the most part, the school didn’t need to keep us in check, but some of the schools I know of are just breeding grounds for bad behaviour. If it’s not kept in check at school and not kept in check at home you end up with – that’s right, the UK riots! Angry kids with poor education because they think it is ‘disrespecting’ them to expect them to behave in a proper manner and who think that they are owed things just for having been born. The teachers blame the parents, the parents blame the teachers etc. Excellent post and very enlightening, thank you!

  51. I forgot to add that most schools, if not all, in the Philippines have security guards at each gate. That is why we CAN’T SKIP SCHOOL. If we had to go home cos we’re sick, we have to present a slip from the nurse’s office. If we’re obviously sick–warm with fever–a teacher will take us to the gate where a parent/guardian is waiting.

    • wow. that’s pretty intimidating! in the states, we have cops at the school, but they are there to just regulate things and make sure everyone stays safe, not make sure kids don’t skip class. crazy.

  52. A brilliant post indeed, i’m Nigerian and in my school, there are no lockers in the hallways cause they’re right in front of our chairs in individual desks, our school uniforms must be loose and all hairs cut short for both boys and girls. Failure is not allowed so everyone is forced to study. Since its a boarding school, from exactly 6pm, boys and girls should not be seen together otherwise face expulsion. I like your school too cause despite all the discipline which might have seemed to you like toture then, you’ll only end up been great in life…

  53. Interesting post. I too grew up in Southeast Asia where my school have no lockers, jewellery & dyed hair are no-nos and no prom too. By the way, great post and congratulations for being Freshly Pressed.

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  55. Pingback: What to do if: Your lecturer is an asshole - 無我夢中で勉強

  56. Pingback: Education System – Understanding Korea

  57. hmm… we only have 190 school days in a year, meaning that about half of the year is holidays (our summer holiday is 10 weeks long, from June to August) ><

    1st and 2nd graders have class 19 hours/week
    3rd graders 22 hours/week
    4th graders 24 hours/week
    5th and 6th graders 25 hours/week
    7th,8th and 9th graders 30 hours/week

    Our principal decides every class' timetable, the school day can start from 8-10am and end between 12-15(.30)pm, but the day has to include at least 3 classes.
    So the max. hour amount per day is 7 hours (the classes are 45 minutes each, and we have a break between every class)

  58. 1 (school timings), 3, 4, 6, 17 and Edit 2 are actually all pretty similar to my school in England. Plus, two of my friends go to an academy high school where they have to go in on Saturday mornings for marching practice and sports or compulsory study (one of them gets out of it only because he attends horse riding). Because our school is so big, every year (7-11) goes for photos one at a time and then everything is photoshopped into one massive image 😛

  59. Pingback: Think Our School Rules Are Strict? Other Cultures Are Far More Demanding Of Students | WHS Lion's Pride

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