Things That Might Surprise You About Korean Schools

During my year in Korea, I worked in a public elementary school. I feel that it gave me a great glimpse into Korean school culture. I was also able to see other aspects of culture through working with Koreans. You may know some things about Korean school already – that it’s highly demanding, that students go to private academies until late into the night (even 4th and 5th graders!), and that the placement test is basically all that matters (if you can get into a good middle school, you can then possibly get into a good high school, and then maybe get into a good university, which might help you get a good job).

My school was an older school and some things hadn’t been updated (they were working on getting an English room when I left though). It was also huge – the biggest in the district. Overall, I taught about 1000 students (9 classes of 3rd grade, 8 of 4th, 11 of 5th, and 11 of 6th). Class size was around 25 students. Every grade learns various subjects, but the students stay in the same classroom mostly, and teachers come to them if necessary (most subjects are taught by the homeroom teacher).

Things that might surprise you about Korean schools

  • Every student has a box cutter in their pencil bag. This one surprised me and kind of freaked me out. I heard of one kid attempting to stab someone with scissors while I was there, but that’s it.
  • Teachers touch students, a lot. Coming from the US, where teachers just never touch kids, ever, this was shocking. It made me kind of uncomfortable. Sometimes kids would hold my hand or hug me. I wondered if they just really needed affection from an adult figure.
  • Corporal punishment was only banned very recently. It was widely used, and despite now being illegal, is still used by some teachers. I saw a teacher hit a kid and it really shocked me. [NOTE: if you are teaching in Korea, and your coteacher hits a kid in front of you, wait until after class and tell them it makes you uncomfortable. It’s important not to confront them in front of others but you should make it clear that it is not okay to do in front of you.]
  • There is almost no security at the school. Yes, there’s a gate guard, and a guy who patrols the school checking on things. But in terms of who comes in and out, it is not very regulated.
  • It seems to be okay for kids to bring very realistic fake guns to school. I saw it mostly in terms of pens that looked like guns, but kids would point them at me and pretend to shoot me. I told them it wasn’t okay.
  • Both girls and boys walk around in pairs, holding hands and doing everything together. Touching is a big part of showing affection in Korea – don’t be surprised if a friend or coteacher touches you when you talk to them. I also many times saw two girls using the same stall in the bathroom.
  • School lunch is really delicious. Most of the time, it’s rather healthy too. In the US, school lunch is shit. But in Korea, it’s great. It was recently made free for all students. As a teacher, I paid about $2 per lunch.

These are just some of the things that I noticed. If you are a teacher in Korea, what surprised you about Korean schools?

3 thoughts on “Things That Might Surprise You About Korean Schools

  1. Ryan

    In 5 years there, I never really got used to the touching. Not so much by my students, but by my coworkers. Is it really necessary for a grown man to hold onto my arm? Oddly, none of the cute female teachers ever did it. 🙁 Ha ha.

    The corporal punishment never really bothered my. My Korean coworkers used to hit the kids all the time. I never saw them do it out of anger, though. I know. I know. There are some terrible YouTube videos out there of Korean teachers losing it and beating the crap out of the kids. What I saw was just basic discipline, though.

    It’s worth noting, too, that even if you see your Korean coworkers using corporal punishment, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to do it!


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    1. Rachel Post author

      Agreed – coworkers grabbing me never failed to be unsettling. That is worth noting – I certainly didn’t consider using corporal punishment! But I wonder if some foreign teachers think they can… Thanks for stopping by!

      1. Ryan

        I have to admit, I used to whack some of the rowdy kids with my book, or rolled up paper, or whatever else I was holding. Not to inflict pain, though, just to get their attention. They usually thought it was funny. That was back in 2003. I wouldn’t do it now! Can you imagine doing that back in the States. …end up in jail!
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