In light of President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address (which can be found here, and is well worth a viewing), I thought I would toss in my two cents about the Korean education system, which was highlighted in his speech.  For those just tuning in, I am currently teaching in Seoul, South Korea as an English teacher, so I found his words especially intriguing.

“In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders.’  Here in America, it’s time that we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect… In fact, every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: if you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child- become a teacher.  Your country needs you.”

I have really mixed feelings about this statement.

I knew, prior to coming to Korea that teachers were held in high esteem and that education so valued within the nation that it is not uncommon for children to attend private academies after school, sometimes until late at night, in order to further their learning.  The Korean government pours millions of dollars into recruiting native English speakers to come and teach in Asia, and parents work their children hard, so hard that it borders on insanity, to ensure that they can get into a top school when the time comes.  But does this hard work and pressure to preform well academically translate to respect for teachers?  Yes and no.

Koreans as a people are amazingly generous, and that generosity translates to constantly being showered with gifts from my students.  I am always amazed (and slightly ashamed of myself) when I see how willingly my students will share with their peers, and how hard they try to equally spread the wealth.  If my student is eating a clementine, it’s highly likely that she also brought one for her teacher, or a fellow student.  Whenever a reward is given to a student for their performance, they will always split it among friends, no matter how small.

My students will call me ‘선생님’ (suhng-saeng-nim), the respectful title for teachers, and bow to me in the hallway, but that doesn’t mean that they are beacons of obedience.  They will still text in class, talk over teachers, refuse to do assignments and give attitude to their elders.  I had one student say ‘F*** you!’ to a teacher when he asked her not to sit next to a friend.  It’s hard to get a good perspective on how obedient students are, considering a ban on physically beating students as a means of discipline was only put into effect this past October.  Teachers carrying around wooden sticks to hit students with would not be well received in the West, but that’s the reality of Korean education.

All foreign teachers, especially those who teach young children quickly learn the words ‘똥침’ (ddongchim), which roughly translates to ‘poop needle,’ as students will make their two pointer fingers into a gun, and ram them up the anus of an unsuspecting victim.  Many a foreign teacher has learned to clench their butt cheeks in fear as they hear the war cry of ‘Ddooooooongchiiiiiiiiiim’ coming from behind.

For those of you who have experienced ddonchimming, you have my sincere sympathy.  For those of you who haven’t, I’ll warn you know, you age five years after your first ddongchim, and there’s no way to unknow the things you know.  For those from the East, this is a playful game.  For those from the West, it’s a shocking form of  personal violation.  South Korea’s model for education respect does not always translate into America’s.

It’s great to admire another country’s educational system, and take pointers on where one’s own can be improved, but it would not be prudent to follow the exact model of another country.  The structure of our educational system does a lot more than teach us basic arithmetic; it dictates how we express ourselves intellectually, how we analyze information, how we form educated conclusions, how we respect those older than us, and how we deal with people of opposing view points.

Imagine the difference between schools within the US.  At my high school in suburban New Hampshire, students were encouraged to sit on the couches brought into classrooms, or drop in on an art class, even if we weren’t registered to take it.  This more liberal approach to education has dramatically shaped who I am, but would not necessarily work in downtown Detroit.  The same applies with countries.

Hands on learning- bringing Western values into Eastern education

South Korea has an education system that works well for its students.  It plays up cultural attributes that Korean are raised with, such as diligence, obedience and determination, and uses Korea’s uniqueness to its advantage.  But this doesn’t mean that it should be accepted as the new international standard.  No government is without flaws, and no one has education ‘figured out,’ but there are things to be learned from each country.  This is why South Korea invests millions each year in sending unqualified workers to teach in their schools; in an ever globalizing world, it is important for countries to have a better understanding of one another.  My job isn’t so much to correct pronunciation and teach spelling as it is to make my students feel comfortable talking to a foreigner, and introducing some of my more Western ideas into my school’s curriculum.

Instead of looking solely to South Korea for a new academic model, we should also look to success stories within our own nation, and find what will take American education to the next level.  I fully agree with what President Obama said, perhaps indirectly, in his State of the Union Address.  Teachers in America are not given enough respect for the tremendous work that they do, and that needs to change.  We all need to look at examples of inspiring teaching within our own community, and see how that can best be replicated to serve our country for years to come.