5 differences between Korean and American Elementary Schools

I was recently asked to give a short presentation on my experience teaching at a Korean elementary school. I have been wanting to make more videos in and about my school, so this was the perfect opportunity! I asked two of my best students – Gaeun and Jiyeon – if they would help me out and give a tour of our school in English. They highlighted several things they thought were unique about our school, but I do want to point out that these differences are not across the board generalizations. Rather, they are differences between my current school in Korea and what I remember from elementary school in America (which was a long time ago!).

1. Changing into inside shoes

This practice is common not only in schools in Korea, but in a lot of restaurants, temples, and private homes. Teachers and students keep slippers at the school to wear as inside shoes, and change into them as soon as they enter the school. So it’s not uncommon to see students who forgot or lost their slippers that are walking around all day with just socks on or barefoot! This is definitely not practiced in American schools, as we rarely take our shoes off anywhere unless we are in our homes. I personally like changing shoes and wearing comfy slippers all day. I also don’t have to worry about wearing cute (or even matching) shoes to work because no one will see them!

2. Fingerprint security

We could talk forever about the downfalls of security at American schools and all of the tragedies that take place there. Not in Korea. Last year I was even in a documentary segment on Arirang TV about safety at my school! My school has some pretty high-tech security gadgets. All of the students, teachers, and staff are finger printed and, along with a school ID card, we can also enter the building with our fingerprints. This is really helpful for people like me who often forgot their school ID card before this system was in place. It’s rare that the doors are open and anyone can enter without an ID or fingerprint, making the school feel very safe and secure.

3. Student numbers

Every student in Korea has a number. At first I was mortified by how impersonal it made everything, but it really is just an efficient way to organize them. Their student number is also their locker number, their shoe cubby number, and is what’s used to log their grades. Many students also have the same name, sometimes even in the same class, in which case their number is used. For example, I once had 3 girls with the same name in the same class and they went by #15, #16, and #17. A similar numbering system may be used on rare occasions in American schools, but not in such a permanent way!

4. Students clean the school

Korean students have a lot of unique duties, but this one has always stood out to me, maybe because I think it’s a brilliant idea. Students are in charge of cleaning the school. In America, students may be expected to keep their desks, lockers, and classrooms tidy, but in Korea they take it to a whole other level! Each class has a broom closet where they keep their cleaning supplies, and students can be seen sweeping the hallways, stairwells, mopping the teachers room, and dusting. They even use cleaning as a punishment for kids that have misbehaved. I’ve seen a group of boys cleaning the windows with a toothbrush once! I thought it was hilarious and brilliant!

5. Greeting and bowing to teachers

This is probably the biggest difference that you’ll notice when you first walk into a Korean school: the continuous greeting and bowing. In American schools, or in life in general, you’re not obligated to “greet” anyone unless you know them. At schools you would only say hello to your teacher and friends once the first time you saw them and any other teachers only if you had some sort of business with them. In Korean schools, students are expected to “greet” any teachers they see in the hallway at any point in time. Even if they are not their students and they have no idea what class that teacher teaches. If they don’t, sometimes the teachers remind them that they should be greeted and then the student bows and greets. This is a cultural practice that stems from the importance of revering people in authority and anyone older than you.

What are your thoughts?

These, of course, are not the only differences between Korean and American schools. So, if you think of any others, please leave them in a comment below! Which of these differences do you think would be the most difficult to become accustomed to? What have your personal experiences been with these differences if you’re a teacher in Korea? We’d love to hear from you!

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