(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.
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.
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.