An American Educator in Korea Part 2 – “Born Into Focus”

Click here for Part 1 of “An American Educator in South Korea”

Month 3 of my stay in Gangneung, South Korea has come and gone. The first trimester was noted “The Impossible is Possible.” This upcoming trimester will be deemed “Let it Be.”

Obviously, the education system here is unlike any Western system, because South Korea focuses solely on achievement, the business and the face value of intellect. These children don’t play because they are busy laboring on activity they are expected to succeed in. Their future is determined; training is set and standards are high. If none of the aforementioned are met, it is defamation of family character, societal standards and values, which are not tolerable or accepted. The children are bright. By far, the most intellectually inclined students I’ve ever had the privilege to teach. They prove that hard work pays off, because this culture reassures them that their education is the foundation for the future of their country. The American belief is geared towards the safety, concern, comfort and level of understanding. However, some students in America don’t believe they have a chance to succeed. This is due to the lack of parental involvement, home environment, and their level of certainty with themselves and peers. As an American educator, I preached every single day to my students that they can go anywhere and do anything as long as they worked hard. Of course some didn’t want to work and constantly complained about the level of difficulty. However, if someone , other than their parents, believed they could achieve any goal, then it was mission accomplished! There may not be individuality in South Korea, but there is one goal working for this stern exactness, where is there is no room for failure. Where individuality is absent, the knowledge of community, togetherness and are present. Complaints don’t exist, only agreement. A child will not tell a teacher there are problems at home, their vision is bad or the uniforms are ugly for that would be too much opinion. There is a recognized unison in this culture, especially the schools, because this is where the training for future success is built. This is a great thing, for the government supports all teachers, administrators and tutors, because the future of their country is of great importance. This philosophy must be implemented in our American educational system. Imagine the possibilities; the doors of success through optimistic attitudes will rise to the surface, smashing through negative situations. On the other hand, this may be a bad idea, because these children don’t have the opportunity to fail, to learn by doing, to have fun, to use their imagination and freely discover their likes and dislikes. The American child will know their opinion matters. Here, if a child shows interest in art, that student will study every artistic discipline from elementary school through college. If a child shows interest in weight lifting, every physical activity will be studied extensively by this child and graduate with a degree in this field. They have interests, but are allowed to explore only one. When I was a child, I LOVED reading, writing, dancing, playing, and painting. There was never a single focus on one subject, I was allowed a plethora of passions, and grew well rounded because of it. Here, they chose only one. Each country has a system that works for them, and both have much to learn from one another. In South Korea, the strictness is a value. In America freedom to explore childhood is a must. What I would like to see in my America, are our children to know that they are the future. They can succeed in anything as long as they are focused. For Korea, I wish for the young to be given the gift of moderation, that they may find new interests within themselves, everyday. But who am I? I’m just their foreign English teacher. I didn’t come to change the world; I came to share it!I’m saying that both work well for their own culture. What I would like to see in my America, are my students, our children to know that they will not fail as long as they are focused. What I would like to see in this country, are the students to have more fun and learn that not everything in life is hard work. Here, the focus was born when they were.

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  1. shari on July 15, 2009 at 12:34 am

    Good job! I'm proud of you! shari

  2. Anonymous on July 15, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Excellent article Maria! I really enjoyed reading it… thanks for sharing…
    Marla Coklas
    Assistant Director of IB Diploma Program, American Community Schools Athens, Greece

  3. daniel on July 19, 2009 at 4:54 am

    for the purposes of informing those living in western countries who are unfamiliar with the nature of asian education cultures or of korea's education culture in particular, it is most useful to focus on the differences between the above and an average western education culture. i trust that maria was thinking of her audience as people that have some connection to the children's museum and so presumably live in chicago and considered the knowledge of an average american when writing. as such, there are many sharp differences between american education and korean education and it can be a horizon broadening experience for those in the target audience to learn as much as possible about the differences without boring them with the information regarding the similarities.

    all well and good, but there is a problem when people fail to place the information in article in proper perspective and by doing so overlook the implied commonalities.
    the characteristics of the children in korean schools are simply one layer of the many that comprise korean culture and human society in general. when contrasted with an american school, a korean school can seem to be another world, almost unrecognizable. but one must keep in mind that there is no reason for the children, underneath that layer of education culture, to not be identical to children in all other countries. i do have more studious and attentive children in my classes than i recall there being in my own middle school experience as a child, but there are still the troublemakers; the children who can't concentrate because of family troubles; the ones trying to assert themselves as the leaders of the school; the ones who spend their whole day looking at themselves in a mirror; the ones who have body images issues and every other archetype well known to those in the west. (possible exception of punks: i haven't seen a single mohawk or pierced nose/lip/eyebrow in my time here.)

    in short, the article is not oversimplified – simply incomplete, but any educated reader can add that missing information themselves by taking a moment to remember that the children are just like children everywhere: they have hopes and dreams, social pressures to become rich and to succeed where there parents have failed, all while trying to develop friendships and discover their own identities and have fun.

    i thought the article was well-written and considered its target audience well, and that there will be more in a similar vein.

  4. Kimberly on July 31, 2009 at 9:43 am

    very well-written and well-rounded, maria! excellent work!

  5. Anonymous on September 25, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    So have you decided to quit writing and move back to Boston or are you still in South Korea?