Today marks the end of a 5-week session at an academy that I work at here in Seoul, South Korea. These institutions, called hagwon, were originally established for Korean students who wished to improve their studies in specific school subjects. However, due to the increase in demand of English education in Korea during the past few decades, many institutions have recruited English-speaking teachers to teach English-related subjects.
In early June, I was hired as a teacher assistant (TA) at a hagwon that specializes in SATs (admissions test for American universities) and math/science courses. Contrary to my résumé (I am an international relations major at NYU starting this fall, with interests in IT and journalism), I was assigned to be a TA for all math and science courses. I was asked to help run classes that ranged from algebra II to AP Calculus, and all levels of physics, chemistry, and biology.
I had believed that, as a TA, I would only have to grade tests and file papers while the teachers did all of the teaching; however, the academy expected much more work from the TAs. The students were required to take 2-hour classes, stay after the bell to take review tests, and complete all their homework at the academy if they did not pass the test given after class. The TAs were expected to answer questions that the students had regarding their tests and homework, so we had to be familiar with all the topics that were taught in the classes. Some days I was able to teach only relying on my memory, while others I had to study and search concepts and formulas before being able to explain to the kids what they had not understood in class.
During these five weeks, I was able to learn (re-learn, I should say) much of the content for all high school math and science. However, by interacting with the parents and students who came to our academy, I was able to really soak up the thoughts and conscience regarding education in Korea. The ridiculously high expectations held by Korean parents (mostly moms) and the constant struggle by the kids to balance the academic and social pressures coexisted at my workplace, and each spoken word within the building reflected the social attitude towards education.
It was not at all difficult to find students who did not want to be where they were--their idea of a summer vacation was not being stuck in between walls, sitting and staring at vocabulary words and math concepts. It was especially saddening to see students who walked through the front doors hoping that the hours spent sitting and studying every day would hopefully bring them "success" as defined by their parents, ultimately society. Society encourages parents to send their kids to these institutions as much as possible to see the highest scores on paper, and the kids seemed to compete with each other by listing the number of hours they were stuck in classes each day.
By the 4th or 5th hour the students are in the academy, many of them can be seen dozing off or frowning at the pile of books on their desks. Tired students would ask me, "why am I here?" I would ask back, " why are you here?" Many would respond with some variation of, "so I can get into a good college." "What's a good college?" I'd ask. The answer usually concludes with a string of names of popular American universities that Korean society has labeled as "success." Some students, hoping to be free from the institution as quickly as possible, run away as soon as classes end in order to avoid taking the tests assigned by the teachers after classes.
As a TA, I try my best to urge the students to work as hard as possible to get the best scores attainable. I am not a fan of reaching only for popular brand-name labels on résumés, but I know that Korea's obsession with labels and names will not go away anytime soon. I also know the expectations my students' parents have of them, and what will most likely happen if the parents do not see numbers that satisfy their desire. I feel especially frustrated when capable students do not put in enough effort to improve themselves. One particular student that I teach acknowledges that she does not put in all the effort she can, but is unwilling to work more because it is simply "too tiring."
It is so painful to have to remind students that there are so many high-scoring students that they are competing with in order to gain acceptance into the popular colleges that Korean parents so desire to show off to others. Brand-name colleges will mean absolutely nothing to the students if they do not take advantage of all the resources available to them. However, I push the students because this is a chance to learn the same lesson early--realize the time, the invested money, and the environment given to them, and use all the resources to their maximum potential. Perhaps they will learn that they can apply the skills learned in the academy not only in academic environments, but in many other areas in life.
Perhaps the significance of these academic institutions in Korea will decrease to the point that the nation will focus the definition of success more on intangible true happiness, not a shiny outward profile decorated with popular names and labels.