Andrew Farrell is an Irishman teaching in South Korea. In the second of a series of Huffington Post articles providing a detailed exploration of foreign schools, Andrew shares his often amusing, and occasionally poignant, experiences.
Since partition from the poverty-stricken North in 1948, South Korea has emerged as one of Asia's most affluent countries. The current president Lee Myung-bak's vision to boost growth and South Korea's profile to compete with neighbours Japan and China may explain the 10-hour schooldays and "brutal" vying for university places.
"The education system is an eye-opener for all foreigners who come here," Andrew, who teaches at a public school in Hwaseong, a city in Gyeonggi Province, explains. "It is impossible to think any students back at home are subjected to the same level of pressure as their comrades in Korea."
According to the 27-year-old, one of the main "oddities" about working in Korea are the English names given to students.
"No-one ever told me I would land in my first kindergarten class to find 10 seven-year-olds giddy with anticipation and hoping I wouldn't call them Lee Jong-beom or Choi Jong-un.
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"Yep, here was Wayne, Rachel, Tom and Sarah."
"The English names don't mean a whole lot," Andrew adds. "And you get some real crackers. Dragon, Europa, Megatron and Urban surfaced at one point.
"As did a bunch of Harry Potters. And one Lightning Potter.
"That was one cultural hurdle," he says. "Shortly after that discovery, the school's director threw another curveball in my direction.
"I don't remember the exact wording of the conversation, but it probably went something like this: 'Now, you know the seven-year-olds you are teaching? Well, they're not really seven at all. They're six, or maybe five.'
"You see, here in Korea, they consider the time spent in the mother’s womb to be worth a year. So, when a baby is born, he or she is actually one year old. If a Korean person tells you their age, it might be worth, as everyone else does, querying whether that is 'Western age or Korean age'."
But, the confusion doesn't end there. On 1 January everyone in Korea ages by a year. "They'll celebrate their birthday as normal," Andrew continues, "Whether it be 2 February or 18 August, but their actual age won't change until the nation's age collectively increases in early January.
"Well think how a child born on 31 December 11pm must feel. In most countries, the baby will be mere sixty-minutes old by the time the clock strikes midnight; in South Korea, the baby will be two years old at the same time (one year for the womb, and one year for 1 January)."
"Once you've got your head around that, the experience of teaching in the Republic of Korea is what you make of it."
Andrew says getting a job as a teacher is "as easy as crossing the road".
"Here I am, with a BA in History and Geography and no teaching experience, TEFL or education certificate. My qualifications are of little use in Austerity Ireland."
But in South Korea, Andrew's linguistic skills play an integral role in his job.
"Periodically, we - the English department - are required to test the knowledge of the students in one forty-minute class.
"The focus in elementary English lessons is primarily on speaking and memorising and this is how we are required to conduct our exams. It appears as long as Betty and Fred (yep, they know the Flintstones here, and will give their son and daughter those names too) can remember some vaguely important phrase, without being able to understand or write it, that’s alright.
"There are normally two 40-minute classes a week of English lessons. This is in addition to a further two hours of English three days a week...oh, and an hour of piano lessons followed by taekwandoo.
"On alternative days, add maths, science, another musical instrument and sometimes a third language.
"Every second Saturday the students are back in their public schools and some will be subjected to more private school throughout the weekend."
"All (or certainly most) students attend public elementary, middle or high schools and virtually all attend private schools in the evening, mostly for English, maths and science. The education system is an eye-opener for all the foreigners who come here. It is impossible to think that any students at home are subjected to the same level of pressure as their comrades in Korea."
Andrew recounts one occasion when a 10-year-old girl wore the t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Kill the whites".
"She had no idea. I've seen some other odd examples: 'Please don’t feed the boats'? Or 'Strictly…..for my ninjas' and – back to Korea’s smothering obsession with Christianity – 'Jesus…Lords of all Lords'.
"But," he adds, "In fairness, the standard is exceptionally high. Our most recent lesson centered on speaking in the present tense – this is easy even for these children."
Despite the high standards, English lessons are not a priority with younger students not having to sit the usual English exams in December.
Often," Andrew says, "It's the subject bumped for other school events, such as the time all English classes were cancelled one Friday because the principal wanted the walls of the school cleaned – but students will spend a good month “study but no sleep” for Korean, maths, history and social science."
"No two students have similar academic requirements but escaping with fewer than ten hours of class time a day is considered rare.
"Competition for university places is brutally high, and this, sadly, leads to daily reports of pressure, stress, and, in extreme cases, suicide. As a Korean friend remarked now the bitter winter is setting in: 'I remember when I was in high school and my friends used to joke that we lived under the stars. We’d see them going to school in the morning and by the time we were finished academies [private schools] in the evening, the stars would be out again. We never saw the sun.' "
"And yet," Andrew adds, "Remarkably, the level of positivity and goodwill from the students is breathtakingly high. They never fully grasp the seriousness of their educational demands, even when met with facts about other countries.
"It says a lot that students, of all ages, can be bribed to keep quiet by a solitary piece of chocolate candy and then not abuse that position by always looking for it."