Disclaimer: This is written from my own perspective, and these opinions are my own. I’m comparing this to my own experience being a student and also a student teacher in a New Jersey public high school, but this could wildly differ given the upbringing of other Americans. The school I’m placed at is also probably not representative of all Korean schools, so take that with a grain of salt.
I’ve been compiling this post for the last 2 or 3 weeks! I’ve noticed a lot of differences between American high schools and Korean high schools, and I definitely will not be able to cover them all in one post. Which is why I’m only going to briefly cover a few aspects for now.
Ok, students truly “live” in their homerooms here. At my current school, students stay in their homerooms all day while teachers come in to teach their lessons. On average, high school students usually are in school from 8 am to 9 or 10 pm some nights. They spend their entire lives at school. As such, in their homerooms they have blankets, pillows, toothbrushes and other toiletries on hand. Most girls wear curlers in their hair while they’re in class. A small percentage of our students actually live on campus, which is not completely unusual in a Korean high school. Most, if not all students, have breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school almost every day.
The role of teachers
Since students essentially live at their school, teachers have taken the role as faux parents here. Teachers generally share similar hours as their students, and also have an arsenal of their toiletries at their desk. Students are extremely close with their teachers, and skin ship seems to be an important aspect of the teacher-student relationship. Physical affirmation, such as patting on the back, head scratching, and arms around the shoulders seems to be a positive form of communication that teachers show to let their students know that they care about them. This is especially common between male teachers and male students. Often times students will come into the teacher’s office and teachers will ruffle their hair, give them food, and even occasionally, briefly hold their hand. I’ve seen some male teacher to male student butt taps too. To my American teacher friends reading this, you’re probably shaking your head or quietly mouthing “what”. This type of behavior is something would be grounds for termination in any American school, so it’s been an adjustment to see this. I’ve even seen students call one of my co-teachers not by his name, but only by “아빠” (dad). In fact, the girl students only call him by this exclusively. Students will also freely tell their teachers how much they love them and give them numerous gifts. I’ve been readjusting my expectations of what’s appropriate conduct inside the classroom here in Korea, and I’m sure that when I eventually go back to teach in America I will definitely have to readjust back. Honestly, it’s really made me think that American teachers must appear to be ‘colder’ and more detached than teachers not only in Korea, but in other countries.
With teachers assuming the role as sort of a surrogate parent, that also comes with discipline. School may have only just started about 3 weeks ago here, but I have already seen a student get verbally reamed out in the teacher’s office at extreme levels that would never be seen as appropriate in America. I’ve heard similar stories from other ETAs as well. Other ETAs have told me that students have cried after being yelled at and run out of the teacher’s office. But ‘tough love’ is a pretty popular sentiment here. Many students understand that this is another way for teachers to show students how much they care for them and want them to succeed.
Students in relation to me
I’ll be real. The first time I walked into the school, it was on a Friday after the last bell had just rang and I felt like a total movie star. Students in the hallway crowded around me and either stared, whispered to their friends, or shouted out “Whoa! New pretty teacher!”. To be fair, I was also dressed in business professional because I had just been at the departure ceremony in Songdo. One of the first things I noticed was how much value is placed on looks. Of course, American high school students do the same thing. However it’s been elevated to a level that I find a bit unsettling. In my first 2 weeks, I asked students to write 3 sentences introducing themselves. The majority introduced themselves not by indicating physical traits- i.e. short, tall, has glasses- but instead said “pretty”, “cute”, “thin”, “fat”, and “ugly”. A few students introduced themselves by telling me that they were on a diet. A small group of students even wrote down their weight in their introduction. More students did this rather than writing down hobbies or personality traits, which would be well within their lexicon. It definitely took me off guard and has inspired me to write a self-love/body positivity lesson or unit somewhere throughout the year. Not one day goes by where students don’t comment on my looks or the looks of themselves in class. I wish they could know that I think they’re all beautiful on the inside, and have so much more to offer besides their appearance.
I have a very close relationship with my students here, but in a very different way than I did with my American students. Korean students are doting, caring, and extremely generous (but Korean gift giving culture is a whole other subject). My students love running up to the door of the teacher’s office and greeting me in English before giggling and running away. They also call me “Teacher” or “Christina Teacher” instead of Ms. Dwyer. I’m still struggling with the streams of “I love you”‘s I get from them because I’m not really used to hearing that from a student, let alone saying it back to them. My students even finger-sign hearts to me while I’m walking past them. Even with all the affection, there seems to be a little wall. I think that they put me on a pedestal and, in fear of disappointing or contradicting me, they’re reluctant to speak in class. At the same time, I sometimes feel like I’m an artifact at a museum. They “ooh” and “ahh” at me but sometimes I don’t feel like their teacher. I sometimes just feel like I’m a rare sculpture behind glass in their classroom for them to look at. I hope that with time this feeling will fade away. It could just be because they’re shy, and it’s probably because I’m older than them on the Korean hierarchy scale. But still, it’s a feeling that I’ve been finding a little hard to shake recently.