Korean elementary schools

I (Akasha) am a teacher at home (MN, U.S.A.) as are many of my friends.  This post is intended mostly as a comparison of teaching in Korea to teaching in our public schools.

Big Differences:
Things are very last minute here. Even after a year, I was struck by the last minute approach when the school year changed. I think that we’ve mentioned before that teachers change schools every four years.  They can only teach in the same province for eight years.  That means in a 20 year teaching career you will teach in 3 provinces. The school year starts nation-wide the day after Korean Memorial Day. This year it started on a Friday.

The Monday before the school year began, the teachers were informed what schools they would be teaching in (and therefore what towns). On the first day at the new schools, they learned what grades and subjects they would be teaching.  Then, the teachers went up by team to select envelopes.  The envelopes had student rosters in them.  They drew their rosters at random.  That is VERY different from home where we begin planning the elementary class rosters the spring of the previous school year, trying to get the right blend of personalities and academic strengths in a room.

To clarify: on Monday they were assigned to their school, drew student rosters, and were assigned rooms.  Wednesday was a national holiday.  School started on a Friday.  On Friday the school was still a mess.  Desks were in the hall, and all the old teacher’s stuff was up on the wall.  Looked like a tornado had just passed.  Crazy.

Ice cream filled rice cakes

Kids clean the building.
I mentioned this before, but it still startles me.  The kids clean the building.  While it is good that the students take responsibility to maintain their building, you can imagine that they aren’t the most diligent cleaners. (Mine keep trying to clean the tables with the brooms they sweep the floors with.)

Building layout
The buildings here have a slightly different layout, more open sided like a California school (think 90210.)  My school has 3 buildings.

A Building: Administrative offices, Nurse/Dentist, English, Ping-pong room, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades.  The library, 5-6 music classroom,  the computer lab, and art room

(Pretty garden, parking, play space between)

B Building: Kindergarten (optional 1 classroom + kinder bathroom), 1st, 5th and 6th grade. There’s also a classroom just for violin lessons.

C Building: Cafeteria and Gym (two floors)

School calendar:
The school year begins the day after Korean memorial day. This year it was a Friday, the 2nd  of March.  We teach one semester that ends in July, then have a 5 week vacation.  We return to school in September for the 2nd semester, and teach until December.  Then we have a five week winter vacation.  This keeps the schools empty (minus “camps”) during the hottest and the coldest months of the year. The Korean school year is 221 days, almost 40 days more than Minnesota’s 182 day calendar. (This is the first year without school every other Saturday too)

Graduation Day!

The odd part is that students return to school for one week in February for graduation week.  At my school we didn’t teach any content, they didn’t have any electives, but everyone was here for a week.  On Friday, K-5th grade comes to school for 2 hours, then leaves. The 6th grade held a graduation ceremony, then the teachers went out to lunch.

The school day:
The day officially starts at 9, but by 8:30 the crossing guards have left.  Yup, most kids get to school about an hour early.  Classes start at 9 and are 40 minutes long. There’s a 10 minute break between each class, but a 20 minute break after period 2.  (At Mike’s school, Wednesday’s classes only have a five minute break between periods.) Grades 1-4 only go to school for 4 periods a day.  They leave after lunch.  That’s right.  They eat a free, hot, made fresh at school lunch, then go home at 1pm.  Only grades 5 & 6 are in the building after lunch. During the free periods teachers usually go to the lounge, run errands, have a snack/ smoke.  Students are completely unsupervised for much of the day, also a big difference from  home.

Parent – Teacher Associations
PTAs are much more powerful here.  They second the text books that the teachers select and can override the teacher’s decision.  They come to observe our class (not the admin) in groups of 20+.  They are the crossing guards.  The parents can change many things in a school.  We needed 5 chaperones for a trip.  Almost 30 volunteered.  We paid to take all 30, even though it was too many adults.

Crab soup, tofu, kimch, veggie custard, and greens

Crab soup, tofu, kimch, veggie custard, and greens

Classroom management:
Behavior management is very different.  Corporal punishment was outlawed just before we arrived.  I don’t see teachers hitting students, but I do see them pulling their ears, making them do burpees, making them do downward dog on their knuckles… The most common punishment is to make a student stand at the back of the room.

Confucian philosophy affects everything here, and this means that the students are really good at policing each other.  I told my 5th graders that if every student did their homework the whole class would get a sticker.  The next period only 1 or 2 students were missing their work.  The period after that, everyone had their work finished.  They made sure that the disorganized kids got it done so they wouldn’t miss out.  I just can’t picture my US students policing each other this much.

The overall philosophy is that the children should work it out amongst themselves.  This has its positives, but does lead to an awful lot of bullying.  I would say, anecdotally, that their anti- bullying curriculum is about 10 years behind what I am accustomed to.

Socializing:
Like at home, we teachers have a “friendship fund.”  It is $30 a month.  The money goes to support teacher activities.  The entire school gets together on Wednesdays from 3-5pm to play volleyball and eat snacks. Once every few weeks we have an inter school game against three other schools , and once a semester we go out to dinner as a staff.

A teacher’s meeting

Teacher dinner is always on a Wednesday.  After the dinner many of the teachers go to the Noraebang and sing karaoke style.  A bunch go on after to have a snack and drink.  Mind you there is a lot of dinking going on at the previous two events.  The events usually go on till 2 a.m.  Then we have school the next day.

Students:

Most of this has been said, but the elementary students work hard and play hard.  They get here an hour early. They clean the  building inside and out.  87% go to private school before/after class.

My students play hard.  They have two 10 minute breaks, a 20 minute break, and an hour long lunch/free time break.  There are no rules and no supervisors during free time.  They play soccer in the halls, they play dodge ball without restraint.  They  climb on displays, out windows, and aren’t being naughty.  It’s okay.  If they get hurt, it is their responsibility.(Big difference there) They are pretty awesome.  I like’em.  My favorite time of year is camps so I can tailor make lessons to bring out the fun in them.

Subs:

There are virtually no subs.  You might be able to get a long-term sub if you put in a request in advance and one is available.  Otherwise a teacher will periodically pop-in to check on your students.  Last year a 1st grade teacher  had a family emergency and was gone for +1 month.  My co-teacher would go for a period a day to check on her 1st graders.  There was no instruction in that time.

Teachers Day:

Ah teacher’s day.  Minnesota teachers, you have no idea. On teacher’s day we cancel classes.  All the teachers go to the stadium and play a bracket style volleyball game.  My school went to the final round this year.  The men’s team played the first game at 8:30 am and they finished play 7:30 pm.  In between there were tons of snacks.  Before and after teachers day I was flooded with thanks.  Here are a few of the sweet notes I got:

Finally, here is a video I made to give you an idea of what my school is like.  Can you count how many “Hellos” and bows I get?  I can’t.

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4 Responses to Korean elementary schools

  1. Pingback: A bit of our neighborhood | Jeollanam-do Salad

  2. torie says:

    Akasha, this was a great post! I was late in joining your guys’ blog, so now that I’m doing a bit of desk-warming I’m retro-reading. Very comprehensive, thanks!

  3. Megan Wilson says:

    Hi, I really enjoyed your blog. We are thinking of moving the South-West of South Korea but can’t seem to find any information of international elementary schools for our 7 and 9 year old. We’re from Australia. Would you be able to point me in the right direction?

    Thanks,
    Megan :o)

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