No Room to Grow

While talking with one of my brightest students about her high school and college and job plans, her hopes and dreams, I told her to just find the thing that makes her happy, and try to do that as a job. She looked a me for a moment, a look of confusion on her face before saying:

"I don't have that."

In our whole conversation about job goals, I never once heard any hint of what she would enjoy doing. I know what her dad wants her to do, what her teachers want her to do, and she certainly knows which jobs are most difficult to get and which pay the most. But apparently there's nothing she loves to do.

This makes me really sad.

I know it's rather old hat to complain about the harshness of the Korean school system, but I'm going to jump right in regardless. These are the things I witness on a daily basis. This is the stuff I talk with my students about. I don't know how to fix it, but I can at least give a view from the inside.

Since I teach all three grades of middle school, I'm able to see the way my students change as they move up through the school, and what I see is...not encouraging. My first years are fun, often too noisy, but braver. Or at least less afraid. More likely to shout out any answer they can think of, even if it's one word. By second year, they're less like kids, definitely turning into teenagers, with all of the accompanying difficulties. They seem more shy, less likely to answer unless they know they're right. By third year they seem almost...broken. If it's not on the test, they don't want to hear it. They're already thinking ahead to high school, to college, and all the tests that are ahead of them.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a super liberal, hippie-infested small town, with parents who were inclined to support whatever I decided to do with my life, so long as I wasn't actively hurting myself. I've never been good at studying things I'm not interested in (I lack discipline, you see), so fortunately I was in an environment that allowed me to take the choose-your-own-adventure option. In university I was able to mess around and take all sorts of different classes before landing on the thing I was most interested in.

Because of my own experiences, I find the Korean system really hard to relate to. I was never pushed to take great stock in my grades or test scores, instead focusing on participation, critical thinking, and what I learned. Some of my favorite and most valuable classes were ones where I ended with the worst grades, but I don't mind. So when my students come to me complaining about "bad" test scores and show me 95%, 90%, even 98% (!!!) I'm flabbergasted. 95% is bad? What universe are we living in?

Was anyone surprised?

I saw the above graph floating around on English teacher sites a while back, and while Korea's place did not at all shock me, seeing it put so plainly was disheartening. It's well-documented that South Korea has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD, and considering both the pressure put on students to perform and the lack of mental health support in and out of schools, I'm not at all surprised. It's depressing to be stuck in a system that I don't support, but as only one person, and an outsider to boot, there's not a lot that I can do personally to change the system. So what's a girl to do?

My strategy is tied to my core reason for teaching: if I can make an impact in just one person's life, then I've accomplished something worthwhile. I'm never going to be the person storming the castle, making big changes--I know that much about myself. So, I stick to the little things. As foreign teachers, we have a different perspective, as well as a measure more of freedom, than our Korean counterparts. I say use that.

The biggest thing I see lacking in my students' lives is the chance to be creative. Everything is about memorization, lists, one right answer. Perfect grammar is more important than the ability to communicate. Actually, one of my students who is now in high school put it perfectly:

"In science we only learn, without any explanation. Just memorizing. I like English, and learning. In Korea, people don't like to accept something different." 

All of this to say, creativity is one of the most important things to bring into the English classroom. My lesson style varies from week to week, but the one consistent thing is creativity, even the smallest bit. It's not always easy; sometimes it's even painful. Oftentimes my kids are so accustomed to finding the One True Answer that when there isn't one, when any answer that suits them is correct, they get lost. They get confused. Blank stares and cries of "teacher what?" abound. But then, once it clicks...magic is not too strong a word.

When I see a student's face light up with the realization that they can write anything, that they can choose their own response, that makes it worth the planning, the powerpoints, the ages spent explaining what to do. Either despite, or because of, the dearth of chances to express their creative ideas, my kids manage to come up with some of the most imaginative and interesting things.

I'm all about small changes, small impacts, ground level work. The Korean school system has a long way to go before it stops hurting the students struggling their way through it, and if I'm honest with myself, there's not a lot I can do to hurry it along. But like I said: if I can help one student to realize there's more to life than lists of facts, that you are not your test score, I'll be satisfied.

Teacher Pretty
Middle school ESL teacher, lover of pink, eater of kimchi, addicted to Etude House, expert procrastinator, meeter of 2-dimensionial popstars: Ana. That's me.

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