Saturday, October 13, 2007


The Korean Education System Breeds Jerks

In this term, like every other, my students took a midterm test consisting of 30 multiple choice questions and five listening. All students seem to recognize its challenges, while some clearly struggle more than others. This term, one of the latter was Peter, a young man in his 20s whose test grades up to that point in the term were consistently lackluster.

However, it was clear that Peter saw the midterm as a turning point, and realized that coasting by every day in class was no longer good enough. That's why, at the end of this class time, Peter resolved to make a change.

"I need your signature," he said, as he handed me a sheet that said "Refund Request."

There are many reasons why a student at the SDA Language Institutes in Korea may request a refund. On the sheet, it lists several possibilities for students to check, including "Teacher's Method is Unsatisfactory" and "Teacher' s Pronunciation is Difficult to Understand."

However, Peter, like the overwhelming majority of my students who have refunded, selected "Schedule Changed." This option was designed to include students who undergo a change at work or in the university classes, but most refund requesting students select it because there is no box with the words "I Know I'm Not Studying Enough to Pass, So I Think I Should Get My Money Back While Blemishing My Teacher's Record."

I figure there is no point in convincing them to continue if they'll probably repeat the course anyway. So, I simply sign the forms and enter their grades into our online database. In Peter's case, his grade for pronunciation is "Slacker," his score in conversational grammar is "Loser, " and his mark in conversational fluency is "Jerk."

Don't misunderstand me, thinking that I can' t relate to students who are feeling overwhelmed by their class schedules. Only eight years ago, I was in my sophomore year at Southern Adventist University, holding in my hand a sheet of paper signifying that I no longer wished to be classified as a pre-pharmacy major.

If I had known that the professor was going to look at me … that way ... I would have brought a sheet of tissue paper with me. Perhaps I should have shown him the knack for science I have cultivated over the years. I could have demonstrated the horror that is my handling of microscopes, or told him that "AU" on the periodic table of elements actually stands for Auburn University.

Had I done so, after I left his department he probably would have uncapped a bottle of ginger ale (this was an Adventist school, after all) in celebration. Instead, he looked at me in a manner more befitting a pre-pubescent beagle, and said, "You don't like pharmacy?"

Regardless of the situation that causes them to change their schedules, many university students are almost always required to confront their professors with sheets of paper signifying that they 'd rather be anywhere else than in their class. Why schools would persist in using this method is mystery to me, because student and teacher consider it to be about as comfortable as having freshly cooked tomato soup poured in one's lap.

In my junior year, I went to my taciturn Spanish professor and told him I had to drop his class. He signed it, and with nary a look up, said "Muchas gracias " In my last semester, I had to do the same thing about three weeks into my auto mechanics class. This was even harder, given that the instructor was not only very friendly, but fixed my car on many occasions.

"Uh oh, " he said, before thanking me for “hanging in there as long as you did.”

Until recently, I never really thought about what those professors of varied trades and temperament really wanted to say to me.

Since I became an English teacher in Korea, I've had plenty of opportunities to think about it. In this country, teachers in private institutes not only get to experience the joys of meeting students bearing memorandums signifying departure; the teacher 's signature allows the student to take back much of the money they paid to attend our classes.

For the better part of the first two years in which I taught with the SDA Language Institutes of Korea, I assumed that it was because our teachers are "missionaries," and the liberal refund policy was a way of drawing students into our program.

I could almost imagine a commercial in which a Korean inside a giant chicken suit stands in front of our school and says, "Here at crazy SDA's, we're practically giving our classes away! If you're not completely educated in six weeks, your money back!"

Later on, I found out it's actually a government policy enforced upon all private institutions. This year, Korea required that all institutes allow refunds up to six weeks after the class begins. Our classes only last for eight-nine weeks in total.

"The government is cracking down on the private institutes," this person told me. "They want to draw people to the public schools and away from the institutes."

This is completely understandable. After all, governments everywhere have done such a great job taking care of the environment, safeguarding people's civil rights, and most of all, managing relations with other governments, shouldn't they be in complete control of education, too?

After all, wasn't it the Korean Ministry of Education that cultivated the current environment, in which students study up to 16 hours a day in the hopes of attending one of the country's top universities, none of which are ranked in the world's top 50 schools of higher learning?

It's enough to make one pity the young people of this nation. Well, except for Peter. He's a jerk.

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