Q&A: Education Setup in Korea

My lovely Aunt emailed me a loooooooooong time ago with bunches of questions.  Here’s my stab at answering them, based on my experiences and what knowledge I’ve managed to grab.

You can also check out my “17 Things You Don’t Know About School in Korea” if you missed it the first time around.  A couple of those overlap with what follows.

Edit: Whoops, already found somewhere I was lacking information!  Take all of this with a grain of salt, as it goes.  I just lived here people! I don’t know anything!

Do they go to school year-round?

Kind of, sort of, sometimes.  Their year starts in March and ends…well, technically in February, but really in December.  They have January off, then a random week at school (at least my school and/or other middle/high schools), then another three weeks or so, then the next year starts.

Summer break runs from mid-July to mid-to-late August.

During those breaks schools put on “camps,” where kids can–and many do–choose to attend an educational camp.

As a result, I am employed year-round.  When school is not officially in session, I work at a winter/summer camps.

What kinds of holidays do they celebrate (and get vacations for)?  Are they religious holidays?  What religion?

Well, there are two major holidays  The first is Chuseok, which changes every year but is usually around end of September/beginning of October.  This is comparable to the American Thanksgiving, and students get three-to-five days off of classes.  Around the end of January/beginning of February, they celebrate the lunar new year, with another 3 official government holidays, which I think translates into another week off of classes (if their school is in session when the new year hits–the dates change every year based on the lunar calendar).

Statistically, the country is about a quarter Buddhist and 18% Christian, so their religious holidays come from a combination of those.  Although Christmas is largely a couples’ day.  It’s basically just another Valentine’s Day.  (While we’re on the subject, they also have a…White Day I think it’s called? on March 14 where the boy/girlfriend (can’t remember which) buys presents for the other, as a payback for the presents they got on Valentine’s Day.  And then there’s Black Day, for all the singles.  I didn’t celebrate.)

In May, they have Children’s Day and Parent’s Day, as well as another government holiday in June that I think is actually a sort of Memorial Day?  In August there’s another holiday of some sort, as well.

Every school also takes a vacation day to celebrate the anniversary of their school.  I went to Lotte World for mine.

When does the school year start/stop?

Roughly from March to December/February (see first question).

The teachers think that hanging-week in February is a waste of time–the students have taken their final exams, the 3rd graders already know what high school they got into, and the teachers want to teach just as much as the students want to learn.  But like I said, I think it varies by school (like in the U.S.).

Why do they have you come in the middle instead of at the beginning?

I came in the middle because that’s just how it worked out.  The dates that native English teachers come to Korea are literally all over the board.

If you work for a public school, like me, then you will either come in February/March, or August/September.  Generally.  There are always exceptions as sometimes people flee the country and they’ll accept someone late to fill that position.  For my school, I am their 3rd native teacher.  I’m assuming when they decided they wanted a native teacher, the timing allowed them to hire for the second semester forward.  Since the contracts are for 1-year, unless someone skips out early, my school will just continue to need new teachers beginning in the second semester.

If you work for a private academy (see next question), they hire pretty much every month.  Because they operate year-round regardless of anything but major holidays–such as Chuseok and the lunar new year–they’re not tied down to a calendar.

Are all schools public schools?

Yes and no.  All full-time mainstream schools are public through middle school.  For high school, students choose if they want to attend a high school to prepare them for university, or if they want to attend a trade school.  High schools cost money–school through middle school is government-sponsored.

Now for hagwons!

My co-teachers asked me what the translation for “hagwon” is, and I honestly told them, “There isn’t one.  All foreigners use the term ‘hagwon,’ so you’re better off just using that.”

The closest translation would probably be, “private after-school tutor-based academy.”  These are expensive academies where students receive more attention (public schools usually have 40 students per class, whereas hagwons have…I don’t know, fewer?) and additional instruction.  The most popular subjects–due to informal polls I take with my students–are math, science, and English.  One friend had a student who went to “jump-roping academy.”  That is another conversation for another time!

Do they have to attend certain ones based on where they live like we do?

This still confuses me.

Elementary schools are based on where you live.  Middle schools are generally based on where you live, but districts are so big you’ll only have a handful of people from your elementary school go to the same middle school.  It’s just a huge shuffle.  (One friend teaches at the middle school that’s about two blocks from me.  I have an average of one student per class from her school.)

Do they have 4 years of high school after the Jr. High?

Three years.  Middle school is from U.S. 7th-9th grade, High from U.S. 10th-12th.

Do they all typically go to college, and is it as expensive as ours?

Some students go to technical high schools, and my understanding is they then skip college altogether and go straight into careers (think CATEC in Charlottesville/Albemarle).  Other than that, I assume college rates are slightly higher than the U.S., simply because it’s a shameful thing to not do well in education and parents push for it.

My co-teacher paid about $3,000/year for her college.  Most parents also front the cost for this–which is why couples want only one or two children, because costs of education are so high what with hogwans (private after-school academies) and being expected to pay for college.

When I told her the cost of my college and how much debt I have to pay off, her eyes nearly fell out of her head.

However, another co-T said college usually costs $5,000/semester, and his sister had to work to pay off her debt.

So it’s probably comparable to the U.S.–you can go for cheap, or you can go for expensive, and there’s a million choices in between.

What is a typical school day like?

8:40-9 — Homeroom (they get their cell phones and other electronics confiscated, and other things are discussed)

9:10-12:40 — 4 periods, 45 minutes each

12:40-1:40 — Lunch (takes a long time for 1200 students to eat!)

1:40-3:20 — 5th & 6th period.

3:30-5:10 — after-school classes (which are both mandatory and cost extra…haven’t quite figured that one out)

After school, some go home.  Others grab a quick dinner then head to hagwons until 9 or 10 or 11.  They rarely see their parents if this is the case, although if they live close enough to go home for dinner, they may see a grandparent or their mother.

When does it start/stop?

Students have to be at school by 8:20.  They leave at 5.  Hence the moans of sadness when I told them I went to high school at 9 and left at 3:30.  And then went to a job instead of more studying.

Apparently your life completely ends in high school.  My co-teachers tell me how they stayed at school until 10 or 11 every night to study.

Are they as sports-fanatical as we are (i.e., do most kids feel like they need to play a sport)?

They don’t have school-team-based sports until the university level.  Until then, schools have sports days!  My spring sports day was cancelled, because our new principal wants our students to study more since their government test scores were low last year.   I, obviously, was not pleased with that decision.

My students are more interested in becoming singers.  K-pop is a world all its own.  However, I’m at a girls’ school and that makes a difference.  Apart from the gun-club students–whom I love–I haven’t met many sports-enthused girls.

Although, the streets flooded with red t-shirts during the world cup–including my co-teacher who isn’t even a fan of sports and doesn’t know the first thing about soccer (“football”)–and you see sports paraphernalia from Manchester United, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cleveland Indians because of their token Korean players.  Also lots of Yankees gear, but mostly just because it means New York City.

After Kim Yu Na won her medal(s?), interest in ice skating skyrocketed.

So…sports fanatical?  Not as much.  Fanatical about supporting Korea in all things especially when they can be the best internationally?  More so.

Feel free to email more questions if you have any!  Especially since this little bloggy project will be wrapping up quite soon.

열심히 하세요
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