Teacher, students find bond beyond system’s flawsHaving taught English in Korea for 10 months now, I have become quite familiar with the flaws of the hagwon, the after-school classes that every Korean child is pushed to attend. Being a business first and an educational institution second seems the biggest drawback.
In their quest for money, many schools are willing to do whatever it takes to enroll students, either by misleading parents or submitting to their sometimes ludicrous demands. Teachers are also often mislead, or just treated poorly, which results in a disillusionment that hurts their performance. In the end, of course, students suffer the most, whether because of classes too difficult for them to understand or because they have been given a teacher who has no interest in his job.
But I hesitate to say the system should be trashed. It needs a complete renovation, one that can only be made once Korean society begins to view education as more than a means to prepare their children to get a job. The hagwon system has advantages or it would not exist. During my time here, I have had to face the unreasonable requests of parents. My hagwan has also been lax in keeping my apartment, which it provides, in order. It has not fixed my washing machine, which has been broken for three months. But I have been able to stay afloat and enjoy teaching. I have been able to do so because of the personal relationships I have developed with my pupils.
My hagwon’s classes range from eight students to one. As a result, I have gotten to know my kids and they have gotten to know me. They tell me about their exciting trips to Everland, their dogs, their favorite food. I tell them about my trips in America, my dog and my inability to order food in Korean without being laughed at. I know that Peter does tae kwon do, Sophia sings, Hope plays piano and Gina rides horses. And I am able to adapt my teaching style to each student in my class.
Much of teaching is finding a way to motivate students, and it is a lot easier to find this in a small class than a larger one. But in addition to simply knowing my students, I care for them, too. I want to see them do well. Though my washing machine has spun its last cycle, I am committed to their achievements and have a responsibility to teach my students as best I can. They trust me to do so.
Ironically, the small classes made possible by the burgeoning hagwon industry create an intimacy that makes teaching less of a job and more of the system of benefits it was meant to be. If hagwon teachers do a good job, perhaps their students will view education as something more than just a stepping stone to financial well-being, and when they become adults will work toward changing Korea’s educational institutions.
by Justin Short
The writer teaches at a private institute in Bundang.