10 shocking facts about Korean schools

10 shocking things about Korean schools, teaching in EPIK Korea, teaching in a korean classroom
As a foreigner teaching public elementary in Korea, I’ll readily admit, there are many differences between Korea and the U.S. Each day is far from boring.

To the Americans Teaching in Korea

 My mother has been an elementary teacher in the public school system all her life so my experience in elementary school comes from having helped her in classrooms, as well as having worked in U.S. businesses and having taught other types of adult workshops due to my Master’s degree. I’ve studied at universities from St Louis, Los Angeles and New York City. However Korean culture and the language is obviously very different.

When I went through my EPIK teaching orientation program in Incheon, we learned some of this more intricate stuff I’m sharing about the government public school system. It was to prepare us for the varying conditions and types of schools we would be sent to teach in.  Each school is run slightly differently. You have principals and teachers who manage their schools and classrooms differently.  EPIK teachers went to various cities- Daegu, Busan, Jeju Island, and more…- go to affluent areas of the city ; others may go to lower income or even rural areas.

As excited as I have been about being here and my Daegu apartment and neighborhood, teaching in Korea comes with its rough bumps. My initial welcome to my job placement did not start very warmly. As many of us are very new to Korea, we are dispersed to different cities and even different schools in the city, we started a Facebook group to share lesson plans, insights and mild anxieties with our new teaching system.

Wanna know what it is like living and teaching in Korea, see my So you Wanna teach in Korea page?

Within the first month of my living and teaching in Korea,…

Here’s 10 shocking facts I learned about Korean schools:

1.  Korean high school students have a 16 hour school day

Just how strongly do Koreans feel about education? It would shock you.

The average high school student generally has class from about 8am until 9:30pm or 10pm. For the average Korean high school student, the goal is to get into good college and often, the competition is high.

As a result, many will attend a agwon (aka a private after school learning program) to accelerate their learning. Hagwons are private entities, which help reinforce higher education and English skills, so there is often a high demand for them. Often, they are run strictly like a business, running one class after another, prepping students for exams and drilling skills into them from the textbook. For students, this is perhaps, their one social outlet and way to meet other friends.

Due to education being the main extracurricular sport, the average teen doesn’t get home until midnight. Thus, dinner is actually served at school.

Middle school is a bit more lenient, as classes end around 4pm, with a possible hagwon learning afterwards. Read a 2018 BBC post on the pressure regarding university entrance exams for high school students.

Read my YouTube video: EPIK vs Hagwon: Which is better?

2.   Koreans have school on Saturdays.

If you think Korean students have the weekend for recreation, think again. The official school days were originally Monday to Saturday, which didn’t make for happy students or teachers.

Since 2010, the school schedule, has changed and loosened up. Now the Korean public school system has two Saturdays per month, off.

Update: A volunteer from the Korean Culture and Information Service(KOCIS) has informed me that “…since 2012, Korean public school system has every Saturdays off.”

3.   Teachers are respected in Korea

In Korea, the saying is “Teachers are as high as God“.

You wouldn’t guess that from their pay scale, but teachers hold a valuable and respected place in society.  Korea emphasizes education and schooling to the power of a hundred. As a result, Korea possesses a high regard for its Korean teachers as being pillars of the schooling system.

Retirement age isn’t until 65 years old. Seniority means increased pay and the overall work hours, holidays and vacation benefits are said to be better than regular office jobs.

4. There is a Business side to Teaching in Korea

Whoever thought I’d be making Powerpoint presentations (download a sample here) and saving files on USB memory sticks for my teaching job? Those tools sound like an office job. But these are tools of the trade in my school. I am so glad I knew the basics of office Powerpoint!

Dress attire? Professional to office casual attire is recommended, starting at elementary school.  Korea is a fashionable and stylish culture. A nice suit with jacket or blazer is a good starter as one must look respectable when teaching.

I haven’t worn so many slacks and office blazers since well,… working in an office temping! Teachers in the United States must dress tastefully, but in elementary, they also dress comfortably. I’d say Korean standards of dress are more office casual to office professional compared to U.S. teachers who dress a cross between a tasteful soccer mom and office casual.

Read: A Day in a Life of an Native English Teacher in Korea
teaching in EPIK Korea, teaching in a korean classroom

Classrooms in Korean Elementary schools come with a computer, connected to an overhead projector or an LCD flat screen.  This doesn’t mean all teachers are tech saavy, though.

teaching in korea, teaching at EPIK Korea, working in Korea, Korean computers

We were told Korean students learn better with learning games so many English lesson plans incorporate Powerpoint games, where ESL teachers alter. Sometimes, we design our own powerpoint games to project on the screen and play for classes. Unfortunately, Powerpoint software on Korean computers are all in Korean language.

5.   There is a  five year teacher-principal rotation cycle

Teachers rotate schools every five years.  It doesn’t matter if you love your school or not.

After each five year term, the teachers, vice principal and principal undergo a lottery system and have to change schools. Thus, each year, a school may get new staff.

This system is born to give each teacher an equal opportunity to work at good schools and bad. All teaching staff is subject to a valuation system and receive points for exams they take, workshops they attend as well as, receive incentive points for how well their school ranks in the district . Also, there are certain schools which are known to be model schools (these are the schools that Korean teachers want to teach at) where they have high performing students and other Korean teachers (and native English teachers like me), will make a trip to see how they run their classes and organize their programs to get their students to focus and learn. Learning is a serious business!

Korea's model schools, PCs in Korean, workplace computers in Korea, teaching English in Korea, what is it like teaching English in Korea, teaching schedule in Korea, English lesson plans in Korea

Model schools in Korea are schools that many Korean teachers want to teach at. They breed excellence in their curriculums and students are high level learners. ESL teachers and Korean English teachers visit other schools to review teaching methods to see what practices other classes are employing.

 

6.  Role playing lessons can be very Hollywood style

Some schools have blue screen technology and/or rooms with “role-playing sets” for kids to enact situations in.   One class example we saw was a market checkout scene.. they had aisles, shelves and a real conveyor belt.

I eventually even worked at a Korean musical camp and we had role-playing rooms from traffic school (I had to wear a police hat and jacket and set up traffic cones) to a hospital room, with eye charts, stethoscope, height and weight scales, examination table, wheelchair and a doctor’s lab coat!  Chincha?

role playing in education, roleplaying for learning, role play games, PCs in Korean, workplace computers in Korea, teaching English in Korea, what is it like teaching English in Korea, teaching schedule in Korea, English lesson plans in Korea

Role-playing and skits in learning: Aren’t they adorable? I love teaching English to my Korean students

Blue screen

7.   Corporal punishment is still alive (although quite hushed)

While in the U.S., corporal punishment of children blares “immediate lawsuit”,  the Korean educational system and parents have less of an issue with physical discipline in school classrooms.

Corporal punishment used to be allowed, and now, is somewhat tolerated,  covertly. It is 2010 as I write this.  The school system is cracking down on this abuse, but it still happens in some schools. One of my fellow foreign teacher friends said they have a disciplinary stick in their school, that Korean teachers have named the “magic wand”. Usually the disciplinarian is a male teacher.   Click here for an article on the subject (although it is a bit dated)

Korea has however, employed physical discipline for disobedience in the past. The one below is a hands-off method I’ve seen used in some classrooms, as a way to make the students reflect on their wrong behavior, by challenging their mental endurance. But in the U.S. this method might still alarm some American parents, who are quick to see any type of physical suffering as abuse to a child (let alone, any punishment can be questionable by American standards).

 

corporeal punishment in Korea, discipline in Korean schools, teaching English in Korea, Korean classroomCommon punishment (though not corporeal) for young ones is hands out or raised in air.
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8.   Why do some Korean students have “English” names?

Korean folks with English names are often very proud of them. Alice, Lola or Angelina… Some just make you want to hold back a giggle, because they’re either dated or feel like “roleplay names”.  But ever wonder where Koreans get their names?

Well, you can blame it on the foreign English teacher that gave it to them!

Some school English programs and hagwons suggest students be given English names for better immersion and occasionally it’s up to some twenty-something half-grown EFL teacher to do so! In my EPIK teacher orientation, one  lecturer told us we might want to have a fishbowl of at least 25-100 English names for kids to choose from or to assign to students.

Then again, some teachers let their students pick their names!  So if you have a student that comes up to you and introduces himself as Robocop (true story!)  you can probably guess what happened.

 

 

9.  Students take responsibility for the cleanliness of their school.

One thing I admire about Korean values is that the Korean school system teaches students to be responsible for the care of their school. While employed janitors tend to major chores… trash on the school grounds, are actually done by students each morning  before the school bell rings!

10.    There is Shoe Etiquette in the Korean Classroom

You know that Asian tradition of taking your shoes off when you enter a house?  Yeah, well I practice it in the U.S. with my family in Hawaii.

Korean culture and etiquette has a similar tradition as many Asian cultures, as they consider the feet to be dirty; so dirty that in fact, they wear house slippers at home.  But the shoe etiquette goes beyond the house and into the classroom. Students and school staff must remove their outdoor shoes and change into “school slippers” upon entering the building.

Read 10 quirks which will shock you about Korean culture

10 more shocking facts about korean schools, teaching in Korea, teaching at EPIK Korea, 10 shocking facts about korean schools, korean culture10 shocking facts about korean schools:  My outdoor shoes & my school sandals .
(Below) School Shoes for Kids

Bonus video:

Watch my first day at my Korean Public Elementary School.

How different is Korean culture from your own? Know of more shocking facts about Korean schools?  Care to share any idiosyncrasies you’ve experienced?

More about Korean culture:

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My week of EPIK Teacher Orientation in Korea
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Being Vegetarian in Korea (Part I)

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165 Comments. Leave new

  • a sixth grader shouldn’t be cussing

    Reply
  • Avatar
    suzuki shimada
    June 10, 2019 8:42 pm

    helolow

    Reply
  • all wrong folks

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Gabrielle Hadad
    January 30, 2019 4:28 pm

    Thanks! This was so helpful. I’ve been reading some Korean mangas and I had a couple questions.

    Reply
  • actually this is wrong; we don’t have schools on Saturday, we come at 8:00 and study until 4:30… but 6,7,9,10 is right. Nowadays, we can report bad teachers to the cops or to the principal.

    Reply
  • […] average high school student has a 16 hour school day, from 8am to […]

    Reply
  • It is difficult to think that you have worked as an elementary school teacher, knowing these information. Unfortunately, (maybe fortunately for Korean students) most of these information is wrong. Many are corrected by other students above. However I see you haven’t fixed them.

    First of all, most students don’t stay in school for 16 hours. Most of them go to hagwon instead.

    Second of all, there are some schools on Saturday. However, it is only for students who would like to come for additional lessons. They teach stuff like ping pong and cooking, but you’d have to pay for it.

    Third, respecting teachers is a part of culture. From your writing, I highly suspect whether you have actually lived in Korea. Anyone who has lived temporarily in Korea would know that it is a tradition (although being damaged recently) to respect others. One of the four saints of the world, Gongja, referred Korea as the ‘polite country on the East’. Besides, you have said you worked as an elementary school teacher; students don’t treat teachers like god. There also is no such saying. If you had thought it as a surprise, it’s just due to difference of culture.

    Fourth, you don’t need a powerpoint to teach. It’s just style of teaching. The reason they have dress codes is to respect others. Some Koreans think that it is impolite to wear specific types of clothes. Besides, it is not strict.

    Seven, corporal punishment has been banned. Since September of 2011, it has officially been banned because it violates the rights of students.

    Eight, you have wrong reason for why Korean students have English names. My name is 유진, and it should be written as Yoojin. Since many foreigners have difficulty pronouncing ‘Yoojin’, and I don’t like to be called by strange names, my name is ‘Eugene’. Even though ‘Eugene’ is a boy’s name, more foreigners are pronouncing my name correctly.
    You may say that it is easy to pronounce ‘Yoojin’. But let’s take my sister’s name for example. Her name is 예원, and you write it as ‘Yewon’ (not available to put it in English completely due to lack of alphabet; it is pronounced completely differently). Isn’t it easier to write it as ‘Noel’?
    English names are made for you, foreigners, and for us. It does not stress you out because it is difficult to memorize the names. Foreigners do not have to be stressed out due to difficulty in pronouncing the names. We aren’t offended by awkward pronunciation of yours. It is a culture of respect. If Korean names were similar with English names, no one would have made English names.

    Nine, students don’t clean the school completely. For kids, parents volunteer. The outside of school is cleaned by teachers and volunteers. People are hired to clean bathroom. There are also other people who also work to clean the school.

    Ten, it is not because we consider feet to be dirty. It is our culture. Ask any foreigner who has lived in South Korea long enough. Due to system called ‘Ondol’, Koreans have warm floor. To benefit the system fully, Korean culture is often sitting on the floor. Therefore, there was no need for shoes inside the house. This is why we don’t wear shoes.

    Reading your writing, I seriously was confused because I did not know that foreigners can have such point of view toward South Korea. However, thinking about it, I doubt you having seen the high school at South Korea. Please email me if you think I am wrong. However, please change the wrong information; some can be offending to Koreans.

    Reply
    • Thank you Yoojin!!!

      Reply
    • What a cocker.

      Reply
    • I highly appreciate your saying Yoojin… Thank you so much for your comments and making it more clear to me now… I am glad that I read your comment

      Reply
    • Thank you for explaining Yoonjin ^^

      Reply
    • Thanks so much for clearing everything up! I was watching a K-drama earlier and was curious about the school systems in Korea. I’m glad you had corrected everything because sixteen hours of school did seem…unbelievable. At least, sixteen straight hours did. Best regards, a fourteen year old American. 🙂

      Reply
    • My old school in Korea required evening classes, but now I just do a lot of hagwon and after school activities. As for cleaning, we clean our own school up most of the times.

      Reply
  • everything here is not true or like informatino from 10 years ago lol this website is a scam IMO LOL

    Reply
  • The 16 hours is not compulsory: normal high school hours are from around 9-5. Students can choose to attend those extra sessions. Furthermore, those classes are usually not as strict and have a much more relaxing atmosphere than during the normal session, plus they are not graded.

    At first I thought the rotating teacher rule was bad, but after experiencing private-public schools where they don’t have to do that, I kind of agree. It helps to keep teachers updated with their curriculum and on their toes, plus it was designed that way so not all the best teachers would end up in one place for long periods of time. I have taught in schools that did not have to follow that rule and seen teachers that still teach the same way they did 20 years ago.

    The business aspect: I do not know why this is unusual. A teacher in the states nowadays creates PPT’s and uses computers and smart-boards. It’s 2016.

    Teachers are not as high as ‘god’, that is an old saying, but respected nonetheless. I think from an American perspective it might seem unusual, but should it be? The fact is American teachers do not get enough respect and I think that is skewing peoples’ perspective.

    The punishment aspect has been diminishing and a teacher can get in serious trouble for using it (physically). The other ways, such as holding out a students hands, or holding up their arms are largely laughed by the students.

    Reply
  • Korea is pure hell if you live there as a student. The competition and pressure is just too damn high. Korea is also not the place to live in if you love nature. The nature here is way too overcrowded and boring as fuck. The extreme temperatures also make Korea a horrible place to live. Air quality is shitty as well.

    Reply
    • Hey dude! Chill out bro, it’s not that bad here. I agree with the pressure, but we do have a whole lot of forest-y (I know that’s not a word) mountains, about 70% of korea are mountains, and the extreme temperature thing isn’t that bad as you say. At least it’s better than some countries, and for the air quality, really? If you think Korea is shitty, then try living in China. Now that’s what you call shitty air quality.

      Reply
      • You are right about China! I taught English in Beijing, and you could have cut the air with a knife, the pollution was so dense. It was not like that everyday. Some days the air was crystal clear, but the pollution in South Korea was definitely less. When I visited Seoul in 2015, friends thought I looked ill. I returned to Korea and had more fun there. There are indeed lots of forested mountains and islands in South Korea. I tend to see the extreme versions of “hagwon culture” as an extension of the obsession with overwork, that some people have. It’s not just about getting into the 3 or 4 best Korean universities. Within living memory, the country was a wretched third world dictatorship whose leaders believed the only escape from poverty was relentless discipline and working 12 hour days. That’s still an aspect of life, but it is slightly less now.

        Reply
    • Avatar
      Late night studies
      August 19, 2018 7:00 pm

      True…..

      Reply
    • F*ck you. Who the hell do you think you are? I love South Korea and it is absolutely beautiful. I’m in 6th grade and I can see amazing qualities. Also I think its not the life in Korea but its your own life thats boring. It must be, when you are spreading hate like that. Go do something else.

      Reply
  • Hell.

    Reply
  • it make fun i think?task in your life made you more responsible ?and give give a big courage for facing your problems in life ❤ this life is small so you may enjoy and be serious for some matter ?

    Reply
  • hii i’m 16 and i am in first year of junior colleage . so could tou tell me ageof the students according to there class

    Reply
  • There education system is as similar as indian education system? .i’m also a student of high school and i want to study there i think it made fun ?alot for me ? but i don’t know about ?how i’ll be applied in high school of southKorea Can any help me for that ????

    Reply
  • hey this is as similar as to an indian education.i am student of high school and i want to study in south korea . It will make too much fun to study there and hope just i’ll be studied there ohh god how i applied for that i don’t know so what i do for that

    Reply

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