Friday, September 13, 2013

Differences between my South Korean and midwest elementary schools

There are so many differences  - some big and some small - between my elementary school here in Korea and the elementary schools I'm familiar with back in the midwest.  It may take a couple of posts to name them all (and also some time to discover them all...), but I'm going to start with a few today so that future posts about my school are in some sort of context.

- Academic year: The school year in Korea actually starts in March and ends in February.  So when I arrived at the beginning of September, I was starting to teach in the middle of the school year.

No shoes: All students take off their shoes before entering school and they put on "slippers" (which essentially look like white crocs).  The teachers remove their shoes as well, but since us English teachers don't have a cubby we keep our slippers in the English room on the second floor.  This means that we walk up to the second floor with our regular shoes on, then change shoes in the classroom.

- Bells: Well firstly, my elementary school in Wisconsin didn't have any sort of bells, but what I like about my K-6 school is that rather than loud obnoxious bells to start and end class, it's the first few measures of Beethoven's Fur Elise.  It's quiet and calm.  You can always hear the song while teaching, but the kids don't go crazy running to the door.  They stay in their seats and you can wrap up class and dismiss them.  I really think the calm tone has something to do with their good bell behavior.

Students clean: There are no janitors/custodians at my school (or any schools in this country, I believe) because the students clean every day.  The classrooms, the hallways, the bathrooms, the cafeteria: the students do it all.

Bathrooms: Firstly, there is no toilet paper in the bathrooms at my school.  My co-teacher has some by our desks that she and I rip off when we need to use the restroom.  I'm still not entirely sure what the kids do, because I only see them enter and exit the bathrooms empty handed...  The water from the sinks is not hot, and there's usually a bar of soap near the sink.  No hand dryers or towels -- as you'll soon see, the bathroom is a wet place.  Oh, and we've got squatters!  Take a look:
Korean Squatter Toilets
Source: An American in Korea

And a close up:

Korean Squatter Toilet
Remember during my apartment tour how I said that Korean bathrooms are usually wet since the bathroom floor is the shower floor?  And that in homes there is some type of shoe located inside the bathroom so that your feet don't get wet when you need to use it?  Well, even though there are no showers at school, it's still common for everything to be wet, wet, wet.  The kids mop the floors after lunch (and I'm assuming later in the day, too), so whenever I go I usually cringe at the thought of my "slippers" walking on all that wet germ-infested water.  The counters are usually soaked too.  But wet bathrooms are normal for them, so they don't think twice before stepping on the floor.

No water/drinks during lunch: Despite all of the spicy food, no drinks are served during lunch.  My face usually gets red and I sweat while eating at least one of the items, so most days I bring a water bottle with me to lunch.  I'm the only one.  The silverware that everyone takes when they grab their metal tray are stainless steel chopsticks and a spoon (for the soup).

- No gym: Most schools here do have a gym (we play badminton at the middle school in the gym), but my elementary school does not.  The students have physical education outside in the dirt/sand yard in front of the school.  I'm not sure what they do in the winter or when it's raining.

Wangsan Elementary School South Korea
The dirt "field" in the front of my elementary school

- No special education teachers: This one is hard to get used to.  One day during my first week I noticed a boy who had only written his name on the worksheet that the class was working on, so I squatted down by his desk and tried to help him figure out the first blank.  He didn't say much, and I wasn't sure he understood what I was saying.  He had no desire to pick up his pencil and fill in the first blank.  Eventually I stood up to help some other students, but then my co-teacher called me over and said I shouldn't talk to the boy I was just with.  She described it as "he has lots of anger inside, so he doesn't usually participate in class".  The other teachers just kind of ignore him (perhaps he's been violent in the past and they're afraid of making him mad?) and let him sit in class doing nothing.  There are a few other students in the other grades/classes like this, as well.  I'm not sure if they have a mental disability, or what exactly their situation is, but I've been instructed not to talk to them during class as I would to the other students.  It feels wrong.  A fellow TTG (English teacher from UW) in a different area of Gyeonggi-do said that two of her students do have an aid with them during parts of the day, so not all schools lack special education teachers... but I think most do.

-Cell phones: Everybody has a smart phone, period.  Most of the little elementary school students all have smart phones, too.  But the thing is that it seems okay for teachers to be on them during the day.  On Wednesday this past week there was a parents' open house in the afternoon, and all of the teachers came with their smart phone in one hand.  Seriously.  Some took pictures/videos, but everyone had their phone regardless.  When the preschool teachers come to the English room with their students for my daycare classes, they bring their smart phone with them for the 40 minute class.  So basically, once I get cell phone service, the culture here will try to glue the phone to my hand.  I will try to resist.

 - Messenger: Rather than have a school email client, the teachers and staff use this instant messenger program to communicate with one another.  It's like my middle school AIM days all over again.  Unless they're from my co-teachers, all of the messages I get are written in Korean.  The first week I just ignored them, because hey - I don't speak Korean.  The second week I had a genius idea of copying and pasting the message contents into Google Translate.  The translations are terrible, but at least I have a rough, rough idea of what the message was about.
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