the life of a Korean student…

Every month at school, we do what we call “Writing Event,” where the two native English-speaking teachers choose some random-ish topic for all the classes to write about. In months past, my students have written about their dream jobs; if they could build a house out of candy; what they would do if they could go to space; and what their super power would be if they were a super hero.

Of course, every year at Christmas, everyone writes to Santa whether they’re a believer or not. (Most of them aren’t, but I demand that they pretend to be for the 40 minutes I have them in class.)

The other native teacher and I read through our respective students’ responses and choose the best from the bunch; then together, choose the top 3 for every level. Some submissions are hilarious. Once, a kid wrote that he was thankful for his family because they take him to buffets. (That kid won that month. Because that’s stinkin’ funny.)

Most are less creative than I would hope… Korean kids don’t seem to have the same kind of creativity that Western kids have. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s due to this: they’re not really allowed to be kids.

I’ll come back to that thought in a moment. For now, let me tell you about the most recent “Writing Event.”

In October, we decided to keep with the Halloween theme and ask students to write about their “biggest fear.” Not surprisingly, we got many “ghosts,” “the dark,” and various animal-related fear responses. Some said they feared my KBFF, which I reinforce because someone at school has to be scary. And then, in what seemed to be funny, some of them said they feared their parents.

We laughed in class with the students who offered these suggestions. Some of them were very lively and silly when explaining why they feared their parent(s). One of my more odd and good-for-a-laugh students was quite animated explaining how his mom is “scary.”

While I knew that some kids’ parents were rather strict and obsessive about their performance (and this is a well-known fact in Korea by pretty much all teachers), I laughed it off with my students and didn’t really think much of it. To explain my point, here’s a shot of the assignment my student above turned in:

Korean student fears mom

This doesn’t seem terribly real. I mean, I don’t think this kid’s mom “punches” him. He’s from a lower level class and as such, his vocab is more limited. I just chuckled and thought, “Oh, Spock, you crack me up.” (Yes, I helped this kid choose his name, and I’m not even a Star Trek fan.)

It wasn’t until I saw two assignments today from my highest level class that I stopped chuckling. These students are in 4th grade and they speak and write fairly well. They don’t mince words. They know how to explain their ideas and communicate pretty clearly. KBFF led this activity with them on Tuesday and I only just saw their responses today.

When I read them, my heart completely sank:

From Lea:

Korean student fears mom


From Tina:

Korean student fears mom
These are not likely exaggerations. They’re real. And for all the students I laughed with in my classes two weeks ago that feared a parent the most, these made me think differently about my initial reaction.

As I mentioned, I have known for some time that some of our students have “tiger moms.” I have had very young students tell me their mom gets mad if they don’t come home with good test scores… We take a quiz 2 out of 3 days a week and several months ago, one little boy told me his mom got very angry if he wasn’t perfect.

I had a girl in that same class, Amy, that would agonize over her answers on the quiz. She was in first grade at the time and would sit and analyze her answers until I forced her to turn in her paper. Who taught her to do that? Who instilled such an obsessive quality in her at such a young age? Because kids don’t think to do that on their own; they’re taught to behave that way on a test. I have always worried about Amy’s future. She’s one of the kids that might take drastic measures to escape the pressure…

I’ve had students cry in class because they weren’t perfect or because they had to “retest,” or stay after class to take a form of the quiz again. They come to our academy and they have at least one quiz every single day. Plus homework. And all of this is on top of whatever homework and tests they have at “regular” school.

But it doesn’t stop there. 

Most Korean students visit more than one academy a week, sometimes more than one in a single day. I have students who attend English academy (with us) three times a week. Most also go to taekwondo at least once a week. Many take music lessons – usually piano or violin – and visit these academies 3-5 times a week. They might also go to math academy, science academy, another language academy, or possibly another “fun” academy that’s physically active in the same way taekwondo is. These kids are busier than many adults.

I recall telling my grandmother about this not long after I arrived in Korea. She asked me, “Well, when do they play??”

I said, “They don’t.” 

My students don’t play much on the weekends. They go to an academy or do homework. When they’re on vacation from “regular” school, they attend extra classes at their academies, called “intensives,” to help strengthen their skills (which usually don’t help much anyway).

Korean kids aren’t allowed to be kids and the pressure for perfection is unbelievable. 

Korea is a small country and it’s insane how competitive things are here. If you want something, you better be the very best at it. You think jobs are competitive in America? Try graduating from a Korean university and looking for work. It’s tough.

Parents push their kids from an early age to strive for perfection and unfortunately, often lash out when their children don’t perform up to their expectations. Did you know that South Korea has the second highest rate of suicide in the world? (This is according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)

OECD suicide rates

Koreans kill themselves to lift burdens from other family members. They kill themselves to save face and avoid humiliation or embarrassment. Or they kill themselves because they simply don’t want to go on living. Life is too hard. Unfortunately, suicide is an all-too-common occurrence among students, too.

It may seem far-fetched now, that the elementary students I have in my classes will walk down this path. But every day I hear something like Spock, Lea, or Tina’s stories or see something like Amy’s obsession over her answers, it reminds me about the reality of my students’ lives.

For all the moments they make me annoyed or angry because they’re not listening, I remember they don’t have the freedom I was given to simply be kids.

I think about these things and my automatic response (from the very beginning) has been to give them some relief. I sing my words in class. I dance around like an idiot. I talk in funny voices. And I love when I lead games at party days and hear them whisper to each other, “Oh, be quiet! Kristine Teacher is good!” My heart melts.

When they are in my classroom, they play. They laugh. They are children. That’s what they should be allowed to be all the time, but they’re not. I see and hear things from them and all I want to do is love them. Encourage them. Tell them I’m proud of them. Do something silly so they will remember that learning can be fun.

This is what the life of a Korean student should be.


  1. Dan Antion says:

    This makes me sad. Children should play, and they shouldn’t be scared. Play is important. Unsupervised exploration is important. Being happy is important. I’m glad that you work to include some of that in your classes.

    • Thanks, Dan. It truly is sad. We always laugh when kids here say they are scared of their mom or dad, but when one really stops to think about it, one realizes how awful it is. Kids here don’t have an opportunity to be creative or play. They literally don’t know how.

      My KBFF and I once discussed our “dream jobs,” and I said I wanted to be a writer. She said, “No Korean person would ever say that. That is so interesting.”

      It truly is a different world.

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