Sunday, April 13, 2014

GEPIK Workshop, Korean Education, & Change

The GEPIK Teachers' Workshop was a good series of lectures and meet-and-greets. It wasn't that I didn't think it wouldn't be beneficial, but the training addressed some topics that surprised me, including the over-demanding school system my students are a part of. I liked finding out that I am working under an organization that is aware of the problems and brought up rational points that go against the Korean status quo of more and more school time, more study time, and high test scores. That was the most important thing I took away from the training.

Held at the KSA Training Center in the middle of nowhere, somewhere near Suwon, one of the training rules specifically prohibited leaving the grounds, which, I mean, there was no where to go. Driving up the road to the main building, the bus passed a barn full of cows. But it was a beautiful location with a hiking trail, tennis court, and full-adventure arena with zip lines and climbing walls. I was disappointed we didn't partake in a team building zip line workshop, but it was lovely walking around with all the blossoms.

The cafeteria food was amazing -- definitely cafeteria food but come on, it was Korean and self-serve. It was nice to mingle with some new people, though I missed the language barrier at meal times. Self-serve, yeah I loaded up my tray! Eating between questions of, "Where are you from, how long have you been in Korea, where do you teach, what level are you teaching..." was tiring though. The last day, I sat at a table with a guy who has been in Korea five years, is married to a Korean, and speaks fluent Korean, Chinese, and English because I thought, "Hey, here a pretty well-established intellectual. He's not going to want to chat." Disappointingly, he was a really friendly dude.

As I mentioned, the GPOE or Gyeonggi-do Province Office of Education, under which the GEPIK (Gyeonggi-do English Program in Korea) functions, is starting to address the problems in the current school system, mainly the methods of getting those coveted high test scores. In the opening ceremony, the presenter brought up a picture of President Barrack Obama and quoted his words praising the South Korean education system. Those words of praise are slashing daggers to me and all the native English teachers I have met. "Obviously, President Obama has never been to Korea," says the presenter. 

It is extremely hurtful to me that a "leader of the free world" would uplift numbers without bothering to understand how those numbers exist. The average Korean child spends, I would say, 71% of his or her time in school. That's simple math, 5 days divided by 7 days -- a normal school week. However, a normal school day for an average Korean student involves attending regular school and then private academies, or hagwons, after school; start to finish, it roughly adds up to a twelve or fourteen hour day.

I have friends that work at hagwons. They work from 2:00-10:30PM. Those late night hours aren't office hours; there are kids attending school until 10:30 at night. It's especially strange to see middle school aged kids out walking home at that hour, even after seven months in Korea. My teacher friends that work at the high school level tell me that their students "don't see their mom or dad - their family - until the weekend." When they get home from the hagwon at 10:30PM, they do homework and study until 1:00AM. They go to sleep and then the routine starts all over with regular school starting at 8:30AM (blogger accounts from Julia Bass & Vanessa @ Saut√©ed Happy Family). 

This is what I know from talking with other teachers and my students and from reading a fair number of blogs. It is bleak but that's not to say that the kids are necessarily unhappy. It is what they know and I remember reading a blog post that mentioned how resilient kids are, which they are. Resilient, eager for attention, and they have this incredible thirst for knowledge. They are excited sponges -- they love learning when it's not straight-up memorization and listen and repeat. One of my 4th grade students speaks English very well, is so curious (he's constantly asking me questions about different things), and is extremely accomplished at playing the saxophone.

My classroom is full of happy joking and laughing kids. Kids are kids. But there are moments where the stress starts to show, even at an elementary school age. I do ask myself, how much of this am I applying to what I've heard and how much is "reality," and the best answer I can come up with is that I live here. I live in Korea and I see what I see and hear what I hear and process it that way. When I see the exhausted face of a student who is normally chatty and has an uncontainable laugh, it clenches my heart. When that 4th grade boy comes staggering into my extra English class with a book bag bigger than himself, it makes me feel sad but also sort of in awe of all the things he does and knows. And that's the problem. These kids are an incredible type of academic already. The Korean education system is pumping out smart, hard-working people. But at a huge, huge cost. Kids are kids but what about their childhood? What do they have to look back on? Moments of concentrated play in between the stress and pressure of school and studying is not enough. Kids need to time to play, explore, and imagine.

The human beings the students become are kind and generous. My co-workers are good people who "put up" with a lot of a lot. From what I've stitched together in my head, they are like my students. They don't have any time to just relax or really do what they are wanting to do which is teach. They have a million different responsibilities other than teaching. And I know that teachers are busy people. They have big jobs and play an important role everywhere in the world. But in Korea, built into the hierarchy, is a defined job responsibility that cuts into personal territory. 

On Friday, I was quite literally, verbally kicked out of school early ("Abby, you can leave early, and maybe you should leave right now"), because the whole school staff was attending the funeral of the 4th grade teacher's grandmother. I was wondering why my co-teacher was wearing a suit, and it was just so different. This was his and every other staff members', including the accounting team's, "job." Maybe this is a special Korean custom I'm not aware of or maybe this teacher's grandmother was some great Korean figure... I mean, I'm sure she was a wonderful person, but I think she was just the 4th grade teacher's grandmother. And that's what my co-teacher did on his Friday night. It's admirable in a way. Similar to how all the accomplishments of my students are admirable. 

The test scores. The Korean embrace of education is indeed inspiring. Last year, on the day of the "college entrance" exams, whole families stood outside the gates of the high school by my apartment waiting for their kids to emerge. Some were praying, others were nervously talking on the phone, and everyone's arms were full of beautifully wrapped presents and flowers. Put into every day, however, it translates into a tremendous amount of stress and pressure for the students because there so much money and status tied into their successes, or high test scores. This doesn't promote an expressive learning environment; it makes drilling numbers and questions with specific answers a teaching method that creates fact-spitting machines that score highly on tests.

That was one thing the GEPIK presenter brought up -- that if you ask a Korean student, "What do you think?", he or she will refuse to answer. "Tell me what to say, and I'll say it." That is on the extreme side, but it rings with a general truth. "How are you? / I'm fine, thank you, and you?" It is a running joke - my co-teacher SK says that that's what she learned when she was in grade school - and it's a second language, yet it stands for the emphasis the Korean school system has had for a long time. The GPOE is starting to make changes, beginning with the teachers. Korean teacher trainings that teach how to teach using "Student-Centered Learning," where the students discuss, communicate, and problem solve together, and Whole Brain Teaching, which gets students involved in their learning by targeting their "whole brain" through lots of physical movements (choreographed clapping, fist pumps, and other various actions) mixed with content. 

Now, these are measures that are already really present in my classes at Doam and to an extent, Doji. I have excellent co-teachers and the 1st and 2nd grade teachers I've worked have a great relationship with the kids and have disciplinary measures that have the kids clapping in rhythm when they hear a certain phrase. This Student-Centered Learning is something that I naturally employed from day one because of my background and fond memories of elementary school. It's a spectrum - on the far end, I've heard terrible stories of teachers shouting down at students until they cry and of corporal punishment, which was outlawed in Korea within the past five years (2010 I believe). I've heard about mothers having "given up on her daughter's future" because the ten-year old wasn't getting good enough marks. There are schools on both ends and all in between.

"Changing the mentality of society is hard." The GEPIK presenter simply stated that the parents push their kids because they love them. It goes beyond wanting them to succeed; they don't want their kids to fall behind. One of the small group lecturers was a Korean teacher who has been teaching for twenty-one years. She has three boys and her youngest is the first of her boys not to attend a hagwon after school. She said that her son sometimes begs her to let him go to a hagwon because he's the only one of his friends with free time -- it's a mentality that is built into society and is going to take time to break. 

I left the training feeling hopeful and encouraged, as does happen in the bubble of a two-day retreat with free coffee, snacks, and lectures from a group of ideals -- mostly native English teachers that have spent years in Korea teaching, working hard to work the system (and inevitably have married into Korean culture). But it helped ease my mind in the sense that the daily challenges I'm facing are in some effect a result of an effort towards a change that will be better for my students in the future. Those last-minute schedule changes and notices that drive me mad do reflect a changing mind set; there are going to be every day new ideas and trial and error. I do this all the time for my extra classes -- I'm constantly tweaking and changing my strategies week to week.

There are some serious problems with the school system and every day brings its own challenges, but the willingness and intensity of that willingness to change, adjust, and excel is why South Korea is the great nation it is. // 

1 comment:

  1. Abby this is so beautifully written - and filled with great insights on cultural observations. I'm definitely adding this to my "Teach in Korea" tab -- lots of useful information here. Thanks so much for sharing!