I feel like this needs a disclaimer in case someone gets mad at me? I want to start off by emphasizing that I live in a countryside town in South Korea. Experiences in other, bigger towns will differ. My comparisons are coming from my own middle school experiences in a suburban Texas town. Not every middle school is the same, not every student is the same… This is more the experience of my students. Also, it’s important to note that middle school in South Korea are called 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. So, if you asked what grade they were in at school, they would maybe say “1st grade middle school.” 1st grade is equivalent to 7th grade in America, 2nd is 8th, and 3rd is 9th. Elementary is 6 years, middle school is 3 years, and high school is 3 years. Okay, let’s begin!
Before school, it seems majority of my students wake up around 7-7:30am. Breakfast can range from a full meal of soup, rice, meat, and eggs; to simple rice and kimchi. Other students will stop at a corner store (CU or GS25) to get maybe a bread, kimbap, or some other snack food. Most students get to school on their own by walking, bike, or the city bus. There aren’t separate school buses like in America. Students have to be at school by 8:20am. There is a teacher and students at the front of the building to greet teachers and students who come into school. One of the students is in charge of checking off when a student arrives at school (like an attendance list). My school is very small with a total of 90 students so this is something other schools probably don’t do. But as far as I know, there are always students who are assigned to greet others as they arrive to school.
The School Day
This is one of the places where middle school completely differs from many, if not most, schools in the states (as far as I know). The class schedule for each day is different. Not block scheduling, but each day is totally different. First, I want to break down the time schedule for the day. The time schedule never changes, but the amount of classes each day does.
Students have to be at school by 8:20am.
From 8:20-8:40am – homeroom class
1st Period – 8:50-9:35am
2nd Period – 9:45-10:30am
3rd Period – 10:40-11:25am
4th Period – 11:35-12:20pm
Lunch – 12:20-1:05pm
5th Period – 1:10-1:55pm
6th Period – 2:05-2:50pm
Cleaning Time – 2:50-3:10pm
7th Period – 3:10-3:55pm
8th Period – 4:05-4:55pm
Okay, now that that’s out of the way… I mentioned before that each day has a different amount of classes, right? Remember that? Okay… Now I’m going to explain what I mean exactly
Classes Per Day
Monday: 1st to 7th class, with an optional 8th class
Tuesday: 1st to 6th class, with an optional 7th and 8th class
Wednesday: 1st to 8th class
Thursday: 1st to 6th class, with an optional 7th and 8th class
Friday: 1st to 7th class, with an optional 8th class
In all honestly, I’m 90% sure my class on Mon, Tue, Thur, Fri in 8th period is the only one available. So, there is really only 3-4 students who stay for that and the rest go home. Now, I’m going to show you, as simply as possible, the weekly schedule for my 1st graders this semester. For my optional class, 4 second grade students come on Mon and Tues, while 3 1st graders come on Thurs and Fri.
Example of Weekly Schedule
Monday: 1st-Korean, 2nd-Art, 3rd-PE, 4th-Careers, 5th-Math, 6th-Social Studies, 7th-Homeroom
Tuesday: 1st-English, 2nd-PE, 3rd-Korean, 4th-Careers, 5th-Music, 6th-Science, 7th-Optional After School Class
Wednesday: 1st-Chinese Writing, 2nd-Korean, 3rd-English, 4th-Careers, 5th-Math, 6th-Social Studies, 7th-Science, 8th-Club Class
Thursday: 1st-Music, 2nd-Korean, 3rd-Math, 4th-Home Economics, 5th-Science, 6th-English, 7th-Optional After School Class, 8th-My After School Class
Friday: 1st-Art, 2nd-PE, 3rd-Korean, 4th-Social Studies, 5th-Home Economics, 6th-Math, 7th-Chinese Writing, 8th-My After School Class
As you can see, it’s completely mixed up. Oh, I guess you’re wondering why I said the weekly schedule for 1st graders this semester and not for one student this semester? That’s because classrooms are different here.
Classrooms in South Korea don’t belong to the teachers. Teachers here don’t have their own rooms, excluding more elective classes like music and art. All the teachers at the school share one office. At my school there are 14 teachers (including me) and we all have a desk/computer in the office. Three of the teachers actually rotate schools. The art teacher is here on Mon, Wed, and Fri; while the Music and Ethics teachers are here on Tues and Thurs.
Back to the point, students stay in their classroom all day. All the students in that one class stay together and have all the same classes all day. This makes bullying a problem since students never have a class or chance to be away from someone who bullies them. The most teachers can do is rearrange the seating chart. Because the classroom belongs to the students and not the teachers, the students are the ones who decorate the classroom together.
Teachers will bring their books, other supplies, and laptop to the classroom. They connect the laptop to the TV so all students can see the materials. Most teachers have a basket or baskets that they use to bring their things to each room. If there is a lot to carry, they usually find a student from that class during the break and have them help carry the materials.
Lunch for students is free, totally free. Because it’s free, you never see any students bring a lunch. The word among the teachers is that our school lunches are awful compared to the schools around us. I used to eat the lunches and while they weren’t great, they weren’t horrible either. Now that I’m vegetarian, I opt out of the lunches. Teachers pay for lunches, but it’s cheap and charged on a monthly basis. There are times when the cafeteria runs out of food. Their policy is more along the lines of making too little than having anything left over. If they run out of food (not a usual issue, but it has been known to happen), they will cook up something else like eggs, fruit, or anything extra they happen to have in the kitchen. Most of my students complain about the lunches, but they all enjoy Wednesday lunch. Wednesday lunches are “special” in the sense that it’s typically junk food and a juice box or dessert cake.
Responsibilities and Cleaning Time
At the beginning of each semester, students are given certain chores and responsibilities around the school. Some responsibilities include:
- Greeting everyone who comes in the front of the building (students should come to school early)
- Taking attendance at the front of the school (students should come early)
- Picking up trash outside around the school (students should come early)
- Getting the daily milk boxes for students and bringing it to homeroom class
- Going to the teachers’ office and picking up the laptop before class and setting it up in the classroom
- Cleaning the blackboard after each class
- Class president
- etc. (I’m sure there are more that I’m not aware of)
During cleaning time, each student has a chore they have to do. Usually, you’ll see the homeroom teachers walking around the school and checking to make sure all the students are doing what they should be doing. Some of the cleaning chores are:
- Taking out the trash
- Taking out the recycling
- Cleaning the bathrooms
I want to note that the sweeping, mopping, and taking out the trash/recycling isn’t just for their classroom, but the whole school. There are students assigned to sweep the hallways, mop the teachers’ room, take out the trash from the principal’s office. Students are responsible for cleaning the whole school. My school doesn’t have a janitorial staff. If the students get something dirty, they are responsible for cleaning it up. There have been times when a student would spill their milk during class. If that happened they would go out to get a mop and clean it up themselves. While I don’t think students necessarily take good care of things at school, I do think they are more conscience of the messes they make.
You would think that after school would be pretty varied for students, but it’s not. If you ask a student what they did after school, they will likely say one of three things…
Academy or hagwon (학원) is basically after school tutoring. Most students go to academy after school and its almost seen as a necessity in Korea. The idea is, if you child isn’t going to academy, they won’t do as well and won’t get into good schools. It doesn’t come cheap, so not all of my students go since I live in a poor area. Academy is pretty much school after school. Kids may walk around town for a bit and buy snacks before going to academy, but once they are there it’s back to class. Typical academy classes are English, Math, Korean, History, and Science.
Most of my students stay at academy until around 8pm, but some stay as late at 10pm. I believe there is even a law in Korea that states middle school students can’t stay at academy past 10pm. Because students stay so late, snacks or dinner is provided. One of my students loves Friday’s dinner because it’s always a hamburger from a restaurant called Mom’s Touch. Some students going to academy on the weekend as well as during school holidays/breaks. Personally, I don’t like the academy culture. I think it’s too much for students and they don’t have any time to develop interests or hobbies.
Sports teams in Korea are not like they are back in America. The only sports team my school has is Shooting Club. Shooting, you say? In Korea? Yes, in Korea. Guns are illegal in Korea, however, these aren’t real guns, but very very very impressive airguns. I went to shooting club a couple times and the guns are super heavy and look and feel like a real gun. There are two guns that they use: rifle and handgun. More specific than that, I really couldn’t tell you. My schools Shooting Club is part of the high school Shooting Club. Well, only in the sense that they share the same practice space and guns. But the ones who are in shooting club in middle school, continue on in high school. My students in Shooting Club are very good and typically place 1st or 2nd in national competitions. Those in shooting club usually exercise for 45 minutes after school then have shooting practice for around 3 hours. When they have a competition come up, they will spend most of the weekend practicing for the competition.
As for other sports, I know the other middle school in my area has a boy’s soccer team.
Those who don’t go to Academy or aren’t on the shooting team do one of two things, go to the PC room or go to Karaoke rooms. The PC Room (or PC Bang) is just a big building with a crap ton of computers, comfy chairs, and headsets. You pay money to sit and use the computers to play online games. Usually they also sell snacks there. Karaoke rooms (or norebang) are individual rooms for people to go in and sing songs. You can get smaller individual rooms or you can get bigger rooms for larger groups. You pay for time and choose your song from a huge book of songs, Korean and English. Obviously, there are more songs in Korean, but some of my students always enjoy telling me if they sang an English song.
Well, there we go! This is a day in the life of a South Korean middle school student. There is so so much more I could have put in here about school policies and how the school year is set up, but I think I’ll cut off here and share those stories for another time. Thanks for taking the time to read!
Lack of Information
One day last month, all the students and most of the teachers went on a hiking trip! Trips and other school events are shared with the teachers through the weekly meetings and through the school messenger system. I’m at the weekly meetings, but I don’t speak Korean. Similarly, I am not able to have the school messenger system on my computer. Therefore, my co-teacher has the responsibility of sharing such information with me so I can know schedule changes. However, my current co-teacher doesn’t seem to give a crap and continues to not tell me things.
Student Story Time
So, it’s Thursday and I’ve got my after school class with three 1st grade students. Before class starts, one of the students asks me to wait before I start the game so he has time to get back. I agree and one of the other students has conversation with me while we wait. She asks me if I know what the students are doing tomorrow. I tell her that I have no idea and she proceeds to tell me that the whole school is going on a hiking trip.
I’m sitting there like “you’ve got to be f*ckin’ kidding me.” The week before the hiking trip my co-teacher and I were scheduling the student’s speaking test and he tells me, “We can’t have speaking test that day. There is a special event.” That leads me to believe that there will be some sort of assembly in the auditorium. Because surely if the entire school was going on a hiking trip, he would tell me something like that… Nope. He didn’t and I had to find out from another student.
This is a side story and totally unrelated to the hiking day, but it’s really too funny not to share. Remember how I said that one student asked me to not start the game until he came back? I thought that maybe he wanted to go to the bathroom or needed to talk to another teacher or something along those lines. Instead, when my student comes running into class, he’s got chicken. Yes, fried chicken on a stick. This kid sprinted out of school and went to the store to buy himself some chicken and sprinted back to class with chicken. He sits down and he is panting and I’m in utter shock. Then I start laughing, a really good laugh. I haven’t laughed this hard in a really long time.
He proceeds to tell me that he was starving and couldn’t wait 45 minutes for class to end before he got something to eat. The rest of the time he was eating his chicken and playing the game, I would laugh each time I looked at him. I was full of giggles. Finally, he finishes his chicken and I think that’s the end of it. Instead, he starts pulling candy out of his pockets! I started laughing again and I really couldn’t stop. He shared his candy with everyone and honestly he made my day so much better. I was bitter that my co-teacher didn’t bother to tell me about the hiking trip, but this one student managed to end my day on a really great note.
I get to school and practically no one is there. There is the P.E. teacher, art teacher, secretary, and career teacher. I don’t really talk to any of them so I felt a little awkward. Well, I do talk to the career teacher, but she stays in her own room and not the main teachers’ office. After sitting for a bit, one of my students comes into the teachers’ room and turns in some paperwork to me. I find out that there are 4 students who weren’t able to go on the hiking trip and had to stay at school in the library. I felt kind of bad for them, so I decided to give them my computer and let them use my Netflix account to watch a movie. They chose a Korean movie and I checked on them a few times to make sure they were okay.
During the morning I worked on my blog. The students offered for me to watch the movie with them, but I don’t think they noticed that there weren’t English subtitles so I declined. But I wanted to work on my blog. I was really excited to start everything up and was planning on spending the whole day getting lots of work done. A little before lunch time I went to the teachers’ sleeping room and took a nap through lunch time. When I came back from lunch I was the only one in the teachers’ room and had no idea where anyone else was. I figured they were probably still out to lunch.
Soon, the student who turned in her paper this morning came into the teachers’ room and asked to sit and talk to me! She said that she thought I was lonely since she knows that my current co-teacher doesn’t talk to me. Actually, it felt really nice to see that the students noticed how my current co-teacher interacts with me. My last co-teacher and I were really close and talked a lot. She also was responsible and told me all the things that were going on in the school, even things that weren’t important like student gossip. But knowing that other people could see the lack of daily conversation I was getting really made me feel good.
Anyway, she started to talk to me and it was really really nice! Sometimes when I talk to students it can be awkward and fumbling, but she is really great at continuing conversation and it was really smooth. Of course, we had some language issues, but other than that there weren’t any awkward pauses. Soon, the three other students came down and talked to me as well.
Everyone Came Back
Around 2:30pm, the students and teachers came back from the hiking trip. Previously, the girl told me that she had to stay until 3:30pm and that she would stay and talk to me until then. However, once everyone got back, the principal decided that those who went on the hiking trip could leave for the day, and the 4 students who had to stay behind could leave too. She felt guilty leaving, but I told her I would be fine and that she had made me happy.
I was a little disappointed, but decided to get back to work on my blog. Soon, my principal came in and told me about how they were cooking pumpkin pajeon in the Home Economics room. (Pajeon is almost like a vegetable pancake. You take veggies and slice them very thinly and coat them in flour and egg, then fry it in a pan.) At first I said I wasn’t hungry, but I decided I would go check it out anyway. Why be such a downer?
Pumpkin Pajeon and Makgeolli
I go and see who is in the room and I find the shooting coach! Him and I get along really well even though his English is really bad and my Korean is really bad. So, he sat me down put some pajeon in front of me. The career teacher was the one who was cooking and she told me that I should eat a lot because pumpkin was good for a cold and I had a really bad one that had been lingering. She also had the shooting coach pour me some makgeolli (Korean rice wine) because it has probiotics and would also be good for my cold.
They kept pouring makgeolli and putting pajeon in front of me. They wanted to make sure I felt cared for and I did. I could feel their friendship and I wanted to cry because I had been feeling ignored at school. I sat there for an hour and a half eating, drinking, and talking with other teachers. After everything was gone, I offered to help clean, but they pushed me out and wouldn’t let me help.
Time to Go
Finally, it was time to go and I was surprised to find myself happy. I had expected this day to go by so slowly and to have no one talk to me all day. What I found was that other teachers do enjoy my company and do care about me. Plus, students wanted to make sure that I was happy as well! I had no idea that so many people at the school cared about me like that. I had let my co-teacher’s negative attitude infect me. This day really helped to remind me of why I love working here and why I continue to stay.
Now, I try to go into work with a clear head and think “this is going to be a good day,” instead of “I don’t want to go to work today.” Since then, that one student has me sit with her once a week during her free period and talk to her.
Lesson learned: Don’t expect the worst.