Korean elementary schools

I (Akasha) am a teacher at home (MN, U.S.A.) as are many of my friends.  This post is intended mostly as a comparison of teaching in Korea to teaching in our public schools.

Big Differences:
Things are very last minute here. Even after a year, I was struck by the last minute approach when the school year changed. I think that we’ve mentioned before that teachers change schools every four years.  They can only teach in the same province for eight years.  That means in a 20 year teaching career you will teach in 3 provinces. The school year starts nation-wide the day after Korean Memorial Day. This year it started on a Friday.

The Monday before the school year began, the teachers were informed what schools they would be teaching in (and therefore what towns). On the first day at the new schools, they learned what grades and subjects they would be teaching.  Then, the teachers went up by team to select envelopes.  The envelopes had student rosters in them.  They drew their rosters at random.  That is VERY different from home where we begin planning the elementary class rosters the spring of the previous school year, trying to get the right blend of personalities and academic strengths in a room.

To clarify: on Monday they were assigned to their school, drew student rosters, and were assigned rooms.  Wednesday was a national holiday.  School started on a Friday.  On Friday the school was still a mess.  Desks were in the hall, and all the old teacher’s stuff was up on the wall.  Looked like a tornado had just passed.  Crazy.

Ice cream filled rice cakes

Kids clean the building.
I mentioned this before, but it still startles me.  The kids clean the building.  While it is good that the students take responsibility to maintain their building, you can imagine that they aren’t the most diligent cleaners. (Mine keep trying to clean the tables with the brooms they sweep the floors with.)

Building layout
The buildings here have a slightly different layout, more open sided like a California school (think 90210.)  My school has 3 buildings.

A Building: Administrative offices, Nurse/Dentist, English, Ping-pong room, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades.  The library, 5-6 music classroom,  the computer lab, and art room

(Pretty garden, parking, play space between)

B Building: Kindergarten (optional 1 classroom + kinder bathroom), 1st, 5th and 6th grade. There’s also a classroom just for violin lessons.

C Building: Cafeteria and Gym (two floors)

School calendar:
The school year begins the day after Korean memorial day. This year it was a Friday, the 2nd  of March.  We teach one semester that ends in July, then have a 5 week vacation.  We return to school in September for the 2nd semester, and teach until December.  Then we have a five week winter vacation.  This keeps the schools empty (minus “camps”) during the hottest and the coldest months of the year. The Korean school year is 221 days, almost 40 days more than Minnesota’s 182 day calendar. (This is the first year without school every other Saturday too)

Graduation Day!

The odd part is that students return to school for one week in February for graduation week.  At my school we didn’t teach any content, they didn’t have any electives, but everyone was here for a week.  On Friday, K-5th grade comes to school for 2 hours, then leaves. The 6th grade held a graduation ceremony, then the teachers went out to lunch.

The school day:
The day officially starts at 9, but by 8:30 the crossing guards have left.  Yup, most kids get to school about an hour early.  Classes start at 9 and are 40 minutes long. There’s a 10 minute break between each class, but a 20 minute break after period 2.  (At Mike’s school, Wednesday’s classes only have a five minute break between periods.) Grades 1-4 only go to school for 4 periods a day.  They leave after lunch.  That’s right.  They eat a free, hot, made fresh at school lunch, then go home at 1pm.  Only grades 5 & 6 are in the building after lunch. During the free periods teachers usually go to the lounge, run errands, have a snack/ smoke.  Students are completely unsupervised for much of the day, also a big difference from  home.

Parent – Teacher Associations
PTAs are much more powerful here.  They second the text books that the teachers select and can override the teacher’s decision.  They come to observe our class (not the admin) in groups of 20+.  They are the crossing guards.  The parents can change many things in a school.  We needed 5 chaperones for a trip.  Almost 30 volunteered.  We paid to take all 30, even though it was too many adults.

Crab soup, tofu, kimch, veggie custard, and greens

Crab soup, tofu, kimch, veggie custard, and greens

Classroom management:
Behavior management is very different.  Corporal punishment was outlawed just before we arrived.  I don’t see teachers hitting students, but I do see them pulling their ears, making them do burpees, making them do downward dog on their knuckles… The most common punishment is to make a student stand at the back of the room.

Confucian philosophy affects everything here, and this means that the students are really good at policing each other.  I told my 5th graders that if every student did their homework the whole class would get a sticker.  The next period only 1 or 2 students were missing their work.  The period after that, everyone had their work finished.  They made sure that the disorganized kids got it done so they wouldn’t miss out.  I just can’t picture my US students policing each other this much.

The overall philosophy is that the children should work it out amongst themselves.  This has its positives, but does lead to an awful lot of bullying.  I would say, anecdotally, that their anti- bullying curriculum is about 10 years behind what I am accustomed to.

Like at home, we teachers have a “friendship fund.”  It is $30 a month.  The money goes to support teacher activities.  The entire school gets together on Wednesdays from 3-5pm to play volleyball and eat snacks. Once every few weeks we have an inter school game against three other schools , and once a semester we go out to dinner as a staff.

A teacher’s meeting

Teacher dinner is always on a Wednesday.  After the dinner many of the teachers go to the Noraebang and sing karaoke style.  A bunch go on after to have a snack and drink.  Mind you there is a lot of dinking going on at the previous two events.  The events usually go on till 2 a.m.  Then we have school the next day.


Most of this has been said, but the elementary students work hard and play hard.  They get here an hour early. They clean the  building inside and out.  87% go to private school before/after class.

My students play hard.  They have two 10 minute breaks, a 20 minute break, and an hour long lunch/free time break.  There are no rules and no supervisors during free time.  They play soccer in the halls, they play dodge ball without restraint.  They  climb on displays, out windows, and aren’t being naughty.  It’s okay.  If they get hurt, it is their responsibility.(Big difference there) They are pretty awesome.  I like’em.  My favorite time of year is camps so I can tailor make lessons to bring out the fun in them.


There are virtually no subs.  You might be able to get a long-term sub if you put in a request in advance and one is available.  Otherwise a teacher will periodically pop-in to check on your students.  Last year a 1st grade teacher  had a family emergency and was gone for +1 month.  My co-teacher would go for a period a day to check on her 1st graders.  There was no instruction in that time.

Teachers Day:

Ah teacher’s day.  Minnesota teachers, you have no idea. On teacher’s day we cancel classes.  All the teachers go to the stadium and play a bracket style volleyball game.  My school went to the final round this year.  The men’s team played the first game at 8:30 am and they finished play 7:30 pm.  In between there were tons of snacks.  Before and after teachers day I was flooded with thanks.  Here are a few of the sweet notes I got:

Finally, here is a video I made to give you an idea of what my school is like.  Can you count how many “Hellos” and bows I get?  I can’t.

Snowy day!

I just wanted to share a quick video of my kids playing in the snow yesterday.  We got about two inches of the biggest, fluffiest flakes ever.

Little things to notice:

The doors to the school are open (all year-we wear coats and gloves inside).

The kids are unsupervised during recess (they have about 1hr 40 mins unsupervised time daily).

They are making and throwing snowballs at each other ( no one gets hurt either…)

Free time is so different here, but kids are the same everywhere.

School Festival!

The stage, and the camera-boy.

(Mike )

When October comes to Korea, elementary school students all over the country start practicing their special skills. Homeroom teachers become variety show producers, thinking of new skits and songs and dance routines for their students to produce. The halls are filled with the sounds of recorders playing folk songs ranging from old Korean standby Arirang to the more modern Edelweiss, from the Sound of Music.

My school, Soehae, was no exception. I’d heard the rumors from other schools whose festivals had gone before, but nothing could quite prepare me for the over-arching three-hour bacchanalia of cute and clever talents of kids aged five to thirteen performing on a gymnasium stage.

Kids in Hanbok

I went down to the gym around nine-fifteen, a few minutes before the festival was due to begin. The gymnasium had been converted to a theater, with folding chairs down both sides of a central aisle, and in the middle towards the back a platform held a camera on a tripod, and a fifth grade camera-boy, to record the whole show.

The parents were just starting to file in. As is the custom, you are not supposed to wear shoes inside a school, even if it is a gymnasium that has been worn smooth by thousands of sneakers. The parents hadn’t brought the indoor shoes, so they did the alternative: The stuck their feet in plastic baggies and tied them shut at the ankles. Imagine if you will a room full of parents shuffling around with their feet in plastic baggies. It was even odder than you’re imagining.

The show started, as it must, with a cute couple of kids welcoming the parents to the show. Then, a group of school-kids came out to play arirang on the recorder. Then, first-graders in traditional Korean outfits called Hanboks came out. They danced, and lip-synced to a Korean popular song whose lyrics were a complete mystery to me. Then, every five minutes, there was another show: third graders sat on the stage holding soda bottles containing beads; they shook them and pounded the floor in a percussion show. Then came some more third graders, all in yellow shirts and wearing faux American Indian headbands. They knocked together wooden sticks to the beat of a song I can’t remember.

Parents' row

For many acts, the parents moved up front, crowding the pit in front of the stage, and thrusting their cameras up to film the action. I though at some point there were more photographers than performers. I suspect the scene is familiar to anyone with kids in America.

There were no solo or duet acts. Korea isn’t big on the idea of individuals showing off, at least not at the public school level. The smallest group of kids was about six, who came out in berets and played their accordions in unison.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the classes lined up for their turn on the stage and frazzled teachers tried to keep the show together. It went on for about four hours, until finally, the crowd thinned out to the final sets of parents, the show closed and we all returned to our classrooms exhausted and ready to go home.

(Akasha )
School festivals are awesome, so different from MN school festivals.  (One day I’ll do a US/ ROK elementary compare and contrast entry) My schedule was rearranged for a month as each class rehearsed during 6th period for the month.)  Classes were cancelled the day before the big show for dress rehearsal.  All students sat in the gym and watched the dress rehearsal.  It was the noisiest, most rambunctious “watching” I’ve ever seen.  During the actual production the teachers were busy watching/ helping the show.  Classes that weren’t on stage or in que were supervised by one teacher per floor,  a 1/120 adult/ student ratio!

Kindergartners exiting performance #2

Most of the performances were very similar to Mike’s school festival.  The big difference and most memorable was the “play” the 6th graders performed.  It went from birth to death.  It covered being born, first day of school, first day of middle school, studying for national exams, graduations, fun with friends, going to college (Harvard), compulsory military service, falling in love, graduation,  getting married, having babies, a soju rage (professional men binge drinking and questioning the life, very existential and ugly, usually around age 60) getting old, and dying.  It was awesome and the one the kids really paid attention to.  Super fun, if not a little depressing.

soju stupor

The performances were spotless.  The parents seemed pleased, and the kids had fun.  None of this would have happened back home, it was strange and wonderful.

School field trips

I’ve been waiting for this day since I first heard about it, the teacher field trip.  One of the great differences in South Korean and US schools are the field trips.  The students go on two field trips a year.  A weekend long trip and a day trip.  Most schools have teacher field trips. Our school went to Chan Gwan mountain last week.  We started classes 10 minutes early and taught 4 classes back-to back, ate lunch, and at 12:30 we got on a tour bus for an hour+ drive to the base of a mountain.

Each person had a snack pack on our seats including a bottle of water, several oranges, dried squid, dried octopus, a few almonds, and korean sausages.  The sausages look like a pink goo paste and are not on my list of things to try. My lead teacher kept offering me shots of soju and his unwrapped sausage, I declined the sausage. In explaining why, they made me homesick for Kramarczuk’s Polish sausage.  The staff sang karaoke versions of traditional songs during the 1 1/2 hour long ride.  Most of them were able to sing well. There was no ironically bad singing on this trip.  Everyone was trying to impress the principal.

Okay, so we arrived at the base of the mountain a little bit tipsy.  Each teacher was then given a can or two of beer, and sent up the mountain. (2:30 pm)  We hiked up the very steep mountain.  We stopped twice to rest along the way.  Each time, we lost teachers who went down to rest and wait.

After hiking up the path we summited at a beautiful field of paintbrush grass and a lookout.  We stopped for group photos and to drink the beers that were brought up, and then we rock hopped down the eastern ridge of the mountain. The mountain was seaside and the coast was dotted with islands.  It took me quite a bit longer to get  down than to get up since the eastern side so was so rocky/ muddy.  It was a cool, sunny, beautiful day.  I wish we could have lingered.

(Side note) There is a huge difference in how Americans and Koreans hike.  Every hike I’ve taken here I’ve been startled by their style.  As a rule of thumb, they dress to the nines in high tech gear and carry full, five course meals in the packs. They travel in large, quick paced groups, talk or sing loudly, and listen to music/ watch TV on handheld devices as they hike.  At first I found it off putting, I like a little solace when I hike, but it is hard to find solace on a Korean mountain. Now, I just try to go with the flow.  I avoid the popular hikes like Wolchulasn during peak hiking season.

When we got to the base we took off for dinner at a grilled beef restaurant.  It was awesome.  I love our teacher dinners.  We sat with a few teacher friends, grilled beef, abalone, garlic and mushrooms.   Of course, there was beer, soju, rice, a variety of kimchi’s, perilla and lettuce to wrap it in.  It was delicious.  We poured shots for our supervisors, who kindly returned the favor.  (I take small shots, maybe .3 oz, that soju is 20 proof.)

I teased Eun Kyong, the special ed teacher, because she looked beautiful climbing the mountain, and fabulous after, while I looked harried, sweaty, and disheveled. She and Eul Ji, the 3rd grade teacher, always look good.  Dinner was followed by rice soup, of course.

After our meal we hopped back on the bus for more karaoke.  This is when things got serious.  I particularly loved Benji, my fabulous co-teacher, and the principal singing and dancing on the bus.    I wish you could be here to really appreciate a Korean party bus.  Big screen televisions, light shows, speakers, frilly curtains, a sober bus driver, and noreabang, Korean karaoke.  It is a thing unto itself.  The bus took us home where Mike and Remi met me, at 8:30 pm, and walked me home.

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Museum Day!

It’s days like Friday that make me really love my school.  I know, it’s the end of the semester, I won’t see most of my students for a month, but they are awesome people and if you met them you would understand why they merit this run on sentence.   Friday we had a visit from a traveling museum.  It was amazing.   All my classes were cancelled and Benji, my co-teacher and I decided to drop in to the exhibitions and visit with our kids.

sixth graders in tea ceremony

So here is how it broke down:

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My classroom became a Korean calligraphy classroom.  I sat in with a class fifth graders and learned how to create K-style calligraphy.  I folded the paper and wrote the names of my family members and their titles.  Totally wowed my kids by knowing how to write in their language.

The art room became an exhibit on how to make tie dyed scarves.  I love that in the photos you  can see the kids jumping off the tables.  Kids are assumed to be more disciplined here, but they are kids and jumping on and off furniture all the time.

The gym became an art museum.  There were paintings, sculptures, photos, and fossils.  Curators took the kids around and helped them.  It was nice, because they could still be bouncy, noisy elementary kids, but they got to see cool regional art.

A sixth grade room was a green tea exhibit where women in traditional clothes taught the kids how to have a tea ceremony.  They saw Benji and looking around and gave us a private lesson on tea ceremonies in front of the 6th graders.  The girls took my camera and took a million  photos.

1st grade was taught about the local fossil digs and how fossils are made and found.

The science lab, I know our elementary has a huge lab with refrigerated chemicals and a separate storage for other tools I’ve never seen in a K-6 school, was turned into a class on how to make traditional soaps.  Kids made glycerine and sea salt soap with orange oil.  That floor smelled awesome.

It was a great day to learn more about Korea and to develop relationships with my students.

After school we went for the end of the semester teacher’s dinner  mentioned in the previous post.  The fish dinner was great, as was the view of the bay and the new suspension bridge.

It is hard to top a weekend so cool.  Remind me to tell you about Saturday’s day trip to the Muan White Lotus festival soon…

A different day in the life

So I begin my day by walking Mike past our friend Kelly’s school, to his school,where I don’t kiss him good-bye (cause opposite sex people don’t kiss in public here),  then cross a super busy street and walk “through” a mountain past the fields and orchards,  past two abandoned houses, and down a city street to my school.

I enter on the kinddegarten side of the building.  I’m still amused by the building configurations.  One building is kindergarten and 1st grade  on 1st floor, 4th and 5th on second, and 6th grade on the 3rd floor.   My building has Administration, broadcast, and English on 1st floor, 2nd and 3rd on 4th floor, and  Special ed and library together.  There is a newer, third building, for the gym and cafeteria.

I get to school and put my shoes in the cubby marked “English teacher,” and I walk to class.  I teach a class or two, then when we have a break between classes we go and bow to the principal, vice principal, and anyone in the “teacher’s office,” finally we go to bow to the administrators.  There are three administrators that take care of the finances and ordering of the school.  At home they would be in the superintendent’s office.  There is no secretary.  There is a school assistant and the school “nurse teacher,” sometimes they answer the phone.  The rest of the administrative duties that would be done by the principal’s secretary and office staff get done by the general teaching staff.  (more on this later) Nurse teacher is the school nurse and health teacher.  She teaches sex-ed, smoking prevention, and other “awkward” classes.

Like Mike, I teach 22 40 minute classes a week.  I teach kindergarten,  5th and 6th grade.  There are constant schedule changes.  I have worked my assigned schedule one week in the 3 months we’ve been here.  All other weeks classes have been cancelled or rearranged.  We teach out of the national curriculum. Lesson one is always listening activities and introducing vocabulary.  Lesson two is speaking activities.  Lesson three focuses on reading and lesson four focuses on writing.  It is still mainly just copying sentences into a d’nealian print form.     I co-teach with a great guy named Benji.  We try to to teach using the 50/50 model and we have a pretty good relationship.

I teach until lunch time.  At lunch time the English department (3 of us) meet in our office, walk to the cafeteria and wash our hands, then butt to the head of the line for lunch.  Everyday we have a large pile of rice, usually with  beans or grains in it, a few types of kimchi, and some broth based soup.  There is often a piece of fresh fruit, sometimes a few pieces of fish or chicken.  The meat/ chicken is always an “odd cut” of meat with bones and skin.  After 3 months, I am still a novelty and the students wave and call out to me trying to get me to look up and call back. We eat with metal chopsticks and a spoon.  Meat is served “on the bone” you eat it with chopsticks and discard the bone on the tray when you are done.

After lunch I take a stroll around the garden and chat with kids on their break.  A group of kids comes to”clean” my classroom.   I play k-pop for them and chill out as I make sure that they are “cleaning” the room.  Usually they push the dust around.  Kids are responsible for cleaning the whole building.  You can imagine how well they do.

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I then go and teach whatever classes I have left.  I have 2 hours between the end of classes and the end of my contract day to prep, but there are always extra things popping up along the way.  On Wednesdays we go to the gym at 3 and play volleyball.  This is very big among all the elementary schools in my city.  My co-teacher stays after school to practice until 7 pm every night!  There are snacks during volleyball, the overall goal is to develop and maintain harmony amongst the staff.  I don’t play volley ball, but I chill out, cheer, and have fun.  If I’m back logged on planning I’ll just stop by for a few minutes, then pop back to my desk.

The kids stay around the building until 5 or so working on projects and playing games.  The soccer team practices outside my window until after 5 every day.  They are some of my brightest, funniest students.  I love our chats through the window everyday.  They are amazing boys.

We also have a staff dinner every month.  Some foreigners dread this, but I like it.  My co-workers are friendly and we work to piece together a conversation.  I like Korean food, and don’t mind spending a few hours after work with them.  This week we went to a fancy restaurant in the Shinan Beach Hotel to celebrate the end of the semester.  There are several rituals that are involved in these dinners that I am constantly trying to get right, but still am a little clunky at.  After we’ve eaten we all take turns going to pour drinks for the principal, v.p. and admin.  Each shot you pour gets reciprocated.  There is an order to who is served first and who eats first.  I’m okay at the obvious stuff, but the nuances are too much for me.

I’ve enjoyed these first few months.  This summer the kids go on vacation, Mike and I will teach four weeks of “English Camp,” then have a short break ourselves.  Who knows what second semester will hold.  I hope to write about the differences in schools overall soon.  There are some seriously huge differences in how schools function that I think are very interesting.

A day in the life – Seohae Elementary School

I (meaning Mike) teach at Seohae Elementary School, which is just a few blocks from our apartment building, so the walk is pretty short. But the path leads past another school, Yeonsan Elementary, so the sidewalks are pretty full of kids most mornings. And it’s now the rainy season, so the sidewalks are full of umbrellas held at my chest level, which is amusing, as though I’m walking through a field of giant, Oz-bright mushrooms.

The side entrance of Seohae Elementary School

So this morning I got to school around 8:30 and barely had time to put my hat and umbrella away before one of my speech students came in looking for practice. There’s a citywide speech competition on July 9, and we’re sending two students. Each of them has chosen a speech to memorize and answer questions about. My student this morning was telling me about Susan Boyle, and how she never gave up on her dream to be a real singer, even though everyone laughed at her. I helped her with her sentence cadences, pronunciation, then asked her a few questions the judges might ask her. We finished up around 8:55, meaning I had to get ready for my nine-o’clock class.

Usually I teach five classes of fifth grade on Friday, but today, two classes have been canceled for memorial services in remembrance of the Korean war. There’s a lot of fluidity to the schedule here – I’ve been teaching about six weeks now, and there hasn’t been a week yet that has stuck to the schedule. There’s always some reason to shift things around, like field trips, or sports day, or the homeroom teacher wants to finish up a lesson. You learn not to mind, and to roll with the flow.

I taught the fifth graders a lesson on how to propose an activity. You know, “Let’s play baseball” or “How about swimming!” Then they learn phrases like “Sorry, I can’t.” Or, oddly enough, “No Problem” or “Why not? I can swim well.” You’d think they’d learn, “Okay, let’s do it.” I could go on and on about the phrases they choose to teach, but won’t. It’s a whole other post.

That’s fifth grade, which I teach pretty much alone. Sometimes the homeroom teacher sticks around, grading papers in the back, but usually they leave the room, and I’m at the mercy of the fifth graders. It’s not like sixth grade, which I teach on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I have a co-teacher who goes in with me then, and we trade parts of the lesson. I try to speak to them as much as I can, and hope they pick up a few things here and there. It’s funny when I think about how little English they hear in their lives – they get three forty minute classes a week, and I’m only there for one of those hours, so they maybe hear a native speaker for twenty minutes a week (unless they go to Hagwon, which most of them do, and that’s another post entirely).

For some reason, I think you’ll find the slipper situation interesting, so here I go.

My work shoes

When we get to work, we all change out of our street shoes and put on ‘slippers.’ I don’t know why I say slippers, they’re more like sandals – hard-soled sandals with a strap over the top. Mine are ten dollars, black, with cheap fake leather. Some of the guy teachers wear what you’d call beach shoes, of even cheaper plastic, like you’d wear in the dorms on the way to the shower. They’re sold on the street for three bucks. Even the principal and all the support staff, every morning they come into the entryway, put their regular shoes into a cubby and take out their sandals for the day. The women wear what wouldn’t even be called sandals – many of them wear 3-inch block soled mules with a strap and little flowers pasted on. Very stylish. I’ve yet to notice anyone having different sandals for different outfits, but it may or may not happen.

The kids all have sandals, too, but they’re more like shoes. They’re white, with pink soles and trim for the girls and blue soles and trim for the boys. Every morning they come in and take their shoes off at the door, then carry the shoes up to homeroom, where they swap them out for their sandals. Elementary kids don’t wear uniforms, but they all wear the same shoes.


Mmm... lunch

Lunch here is pretty fantastic, tell the truth. It’s all made from fresh ingredients in the kitchen on the second floor by a staff of about ten lunch ladies and the head nutritionist. You can look into the kitchen and see huge drums where they mix the food. All the lunch ladies wear white coats with pink collars, pink aprons, pink caps, and pink rubber boots. They also wear masks, but don’t think it’s necessary that the masks cover their noses, which is both amusing and disturbing. Kids help with the food service, too, putting on masks and hats and strawberry-print aprons to hand out fruit, or take your tray at the station in the back.

Wow I didn’t mean to go so long here, and I only got through half the day. So, let me sign off now and continue some other time.