A Day in the Life of a South Korean Middle School Student

Students in Class - Title Image

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

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.

 

My Middle School
The front of my middle school

 

The School Day

Schedule

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.

Time Table

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.

 

Students in Classroom
In the classroom

Classrooms

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.

 

South Korean School Lunch

Picture by Stayca on Flickr available under public license

Lunch

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.

 

Students Cleaning
Students sweeping the front entrance of the school

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:

  • Sweeping
  • Mopping
  • 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.

 

Students in the Computer Lab
In the computer lab

After School

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

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.

 

Shooting Competition
Shooting Competition

Sports Teams

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.

 

Picture of a PC Room in South Korea
Picture by Rob Fahey on Flickr available under public license

Activities

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!

Get to Know Tonks

Quick Facts

  • She would kiss your face forever if you didn’t stop her.
  • But her kisses are so gentle, you almost don’t mind.
  • If she is up on her hind legs looking at you, it’s because you have something she wants.
  • Tonks will do almost anything to be pet as a reward.
  • She enjoys sleeping above my head on a pile of down pillows.
  • She doesn’t usually like kisses, however, if I’m giving a lot to Remus then she wants some too.
  • Goes frantic over seaweed (or any food).

Selfie of Hillary and Tonks

Our Story

Why not?

It started off as a small idea.. Why not get a second dog?  Really, what harm could it do?  I’ve got one already, two can’t be much worse.  So, I took to the internet and searched for dogs available for adoption in South Korea.  I utilized two websites: Craigslist and and Rescue Korea.  Later, I sent messages to about 4 or 5 people asking about the dogs for adoption.  I didn’t want a puppy (did not want to house train right now) and I wanted to ask about a trial run to see if the new dog would get along with Remus.  After all, Remus is my first priority.  Eventually, everyone got back to me saying there was already a list of people interested, but that they would get back to me if others fell through.  I decided that since things didn’t work out, Remus would continue as an only child.  That’s what was meant to happen, right?

Picture of Tonks from her Adoption Profile
Picture of Tonks from her Adoption Profile

The Email

About two or three months had passed when I did something strange.  I decided to check my email.  This doesn’t sound that strange, but it is for someone like me who only checks email while at work.  I see a frantic email from a man named Tim.  Apparently I had messaged Tim about his dog that was up for adoption.  At the time, there was a long line of people, but all potentials fell through and he would be leaving South Korea in 2 months.  His dog needed to find a home, and fast.  I sat for a while and thought about it… Is this the right decision for me now?  I had changed my mind about getting a second dog, but now I’m questioning it.  The last thing I wanted was for his dog to end up in a shelter in Korea.  Hearing of any dog going to a shelter breaks my heart, but in Korea the conditions are worse and usually dire.  In the end, my heart won over my head.

Picture of Tonks from her Adoption Profile
Picture of Tonks from her Adoption Profile

Her Goodbye

After talking to Tim for a bit, we decided to do a pick up in about a month.  That means I only had weeks to prepare my home and figure out the best way to introduce another dog to Remus.  Eventually, I decided this couldn’t be done alone and I needed a partner.  I enlisted the help of my friend.  The plan: drive 2 hours to pick up Tonks, have her sit in a booster seat in the back with my friend, drive two hours back, drop Tonks and my friend off at the beach, go pick up Remus, and have them meet at the beach before going back home together.

I met Tim at the train station and he talked to me about Tonks and walked me through her toys and treats.  As he went to say goodbye, it truly broke my heart.  He didn’t want to leave her, but he needed to go back to his home country and take care of his parents.  One of his parents was dealing with lung issues, while the other was allergic to dogs.  Seeing him break down as he handed her over, reminded me of how I felt dropping Remus off before I came to Korea.  And I knew it was just for 1 year.  This was going to be a forever kind of goodbye.

A picture of Remus and Tonks after first meeting
Remus and Tonks after first meeting

The Meeting

Driving home felt like it took forever, but we made it!  As the dogs met at the beach, they seemed… not friendly, but not bothered by the presence of the other.  I was worried about their attitudes after going back to the apartment, but we couldn’t stay outside forever.  Remus seemed a bit confused as to why this new dog was coming with us, but he accepted her inside.  However, he didn’t want her getting to close to him and didn’t like her on the bed.  I did a ton of research beforehand and the internet says to give your original dog lots of attention so they don’t get jealous and lash out.  Also, you need to make it known that the original dog was the “alpha” and let them set the ton of interactions.  I gave tons of treats and everyone pretty much settled in!

Remus and Tonks Together
Remus and Tonks after a few days of settling in

My Misconception

I mistakenly thought that they would immediately become fast friends and be completely comfortable with each other.  It’s been a little over 3 months now since Tonks has arrived and they are still working out little kinks here and there.  Each day they get closer and close.  Recently, they are allowing sniffing of each other.  Not an “on alert” kind of sniff, but a comfortable, I-know-you-aren’t-a-threat kind of sniff.  They both sleep on the bed, albeit on opposite sides of me.  However, they do allow occasional contact in passing and will sometimes touch butts during nap time cuddle sessions.  She genuinely brings joy into my life, and I do think Remus doesn’t mind having her around the apartment.  There is still lots of room to grow, but I’m learning to be patient.

Tonks Photo Gallery

Get to Know Remus

Remus's Dog Trading Card

Quick Facts

  • Hates oranges, but always wants a piece when he sees it and says “Why would you give me that?? You know I don’t like oranges!”
  • Will put his slobbery toy on your face when he wants to play at bedtime
  • If you say “Where’s your toy?” he will frantically run around until he finds one
  • Loves to sleep right next to your belly
  • Gives great kisses
  • Checks on you when you sneeze
  • Puts his whole face into your mouth when you yawn
  • Loves tennis balls over all things and won’t drop it unless you throw a second one
  • Accidentally swallows so much sand at the beach that he poops straight sand afterwards
  • Will only show affection to others if I’m not there
  • Steals your plastic bottles when you aren’t looking
  • Likes to be praised when he eats and sometimes needs to be reminded to chew
  • Named after Remus Lupin (not Uncle Remus)
  • Prefers the squeaker inside the toy rather than the toy itself
  • If you aren’t careful, you’ll get a tongue up your nose
Remus and I at the Park
Remus and I at the Park

Our Story

Just an Idea

Back in 2013, before I even imagined living in Korea, I was a wandering millennial trying to get a job.  I landed a job at Stone Oak Family Practice in San Antonio, TX.  Not the fanciest of jobs, but I absolutely loved it!  The patients were kind and my coworkers were family.  Soon after getting the job, I moved out of my Aunt and Uncle’s home into my first apartment.  I quickly realized it was pretty lonely coming home.

I had always liked the idea of getting a dog and a lot of my friends had retired racing greyhounds.  Also, my best friend was on the puppy train as well.  I can’t deny her influence.  So, I decided I was going to get a retired greyhound!  The perfect couch potato for my small apartment.  I was seriously prepared to the point where I bought and read books on how to prepare yourself and your home for a retired racing dog.  However, a couple months later, a friend posted on Facebook that his dachshund just had puppies.  Then came…

Remus's First Picture
Remus’s First Picture

The Choice

I immediately commented claiming one.  Then, I took it back.  Finally, I decided to just go for it and I chose the only girl of the litter.  After sharing the news with friends, I was bombarded with conflicting information.  Which gender is better??  Is a boy what I’m looking for?  How about a girl?  What qualities did I want in my dog?  I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO PICK!!!  Eventually, I told my friend to just pick the cuddliest one.  I wanted a dog who would cuddle me to death.  They said, “I know the perfect one.”  The perfect one ended up being my Remus.

Remus and His First Friend
Remus and His First Friend

Rough Beginning

Let me tell you, Remus was the cutest puppy!  However, we did struggle a lot in the beginning.  He was my first dog so I didn’t know what I was doing.  Plus, he was a dachshund mix and stubborn as all get out.  Also, (totally not anyone’s fault) I fractured my kneecap the week after I got him.  That made things difficult, but we were determined.  My best friend had just gotten a golden retriever puppy the month before me, but her puppy was already house trained while I was literally begging Remus to pee outside.  No, seriously.  I was on my hands and knees crying and pleading with him to pee outside.  That was my first mistake, never show weakness.

Remus Passed Puppy Class
Remus Passed Puppy Class

The Pissing Contest

After I broke down crying, something clicked between us and he would tell me when he needed to go out.  It was magical, but the worst was yet to come.  He knew.  He knew what made me upset.  War had been declared.  I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not being dramatic.  Remus was and is smart.  When he didn’t want me going into work, he would pee on my scrubs.  Literally walk over to them and pee on them.  When I wasn’t giving him enough attention, he would stand over my feet and pee on them.  It was devastating, but I had to stand firm.  Eventually, we moved on from the pee thing, but he still remembers.  To this day, if I piss him off, he will pee on something just to watch me get mad.

Remus's First Halloween
Remus’s First Halloween

From Nothing to Everything

Having Remus changed my life.  My whole attitude and outlook changed.  I didn’t know that I could love something as much as I loved him.  I didn’t know that I could be as brave as I needed to be for him.  Because of Remus, I’m a better person.  Before, I would just stay home after work and watch TV or read a book.  After, we went to the park every day and I became social!  I was always an awkward person.  You know that weird girl who stood in the corner at parties and just watched people?  That would have been me, except I didn’t even go to parties.  But, here I was at the park, store, daycare, wherever, actually talking to people.  I made park friends and was having full blown out conversations with people, sharing future dreams.  I hadn’t ever done that before.

Remus and I with Matching Shirts
My brother put Remus in his shirt so we could match across the ocean 🙂

The Separation

Leaving Remus behind was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I decided to move to South Korea, but didn’t think I should take Remus with me to begin with.  What if I didn’t like it?  I didn’t want to stress him out if I was just going to come back after one year.  One of my aunts volunteered to take Remus for the year while I was away (this didn’t last and Remus ended up with my mom).  My doctor gave me a couple Xanex so I wouldn’t have a panic attack dropping him off with my aunt.  It was heart wrenching leaving him behind.

On his 2nd birthday, I was in Korea and he was in Texas.  I started crying at work and had to take some time to walk around outside to calm down.  I revered back to scared Hillary and didn’t go out much.  Granted, I’m sure culture shock played a part, but I know it was partially because Remus wasn’t with me.

Love Lock for Remus
I hung a Love Lock at N. Seoul Tower for Remus

Reunited and it Feels so Good

Once I realized I was going to say, I saved up the money to get him here!  He flew alone, so it was pretty expensive.  I could have flown to Texas and back and it would have been cheaper, but I didn’t want to wait for summer vacation!  Having him here felt like a dream.  I couldn’t believe it!  However, he wasn’t the same dog, not exactly.

Remus and I Cuddling
Back together after a year apart

Different, but the Same

He was, but he wasn’t at the same time.  When Remus and I went to the park together in Texas, he was friendly with everyone!  He was the dog who, when an owner threw the ball for their dog who ignored it, would go get it and bring it back to that person in exchange for belly rubs.  He loved everyone and was quick to make friends, animal and human.

However, he had become scared and timid.  He wasn’t excited to meet new people and was very protective of me.  When it was just us two together, he felt like the same dog.  But because of his lack of socialization for a year (my mom lives in a small town and works nights at a hospital), his attitude changed a bit.  We are slowly getting back to that place, but it takes time.  He’s good with other dogs now, but not with people.

Remus Covered in Sand
Remus at his favorite place, the beach

Life in Korea

Remus’s favorite place is the beach!  Since I live so close to it (7 minutes walking) we go there often.  His favorite activity is frisbee!  But, you need to make sure he is watching where you throw it.  If he doesn’t see you throw it, you’ll be going to fetch it yourself.  We also like to go to the local park (15 minute drive), but I don’t let him run around off leash there.  He used to, but then he caught a bunny and since then I never let him run around.  Maybe sometimes in the areas where there aren’t animals… We also like to walk around a local pond called Lotus Lake!  During the spring it’s so beautiful, filled with lily-pads and flowers!  He likes meeting other dogs, but isn’t interested in meeting other people.  However, we’ve had a big life change recently… One called, Tonks!

Remus Photo Gallery