It’s December and most students are preparing for exams. From elementary to university level, students are studying, cramming, and turning into nervous wrecks.
There are many things about Korea that I admire but one of the things I admire the most is Korean’s dedication to education. As a teacher it’s hard not to appreciate such diligence and commitment to furthering one’s self academically. However, I am perplexed by the level of stress that students put themselves under. Why?
I completely agree that exams are important and should be taken seriously but I do feel that maybe there is too much emphasis on the importance of exams. So where does this pressure come from? I often hear students say their parents expect nothing less than an A. This puts incredible pressure on students and possibly, ironically, impedes their ability to achieve such a feat. I’m not suggesting we lower students expectations, but I do feel we could do more to encourage and support students who do not reach the (sometimes unrealistic) heights of academic achievement that are set out for them.
For example, I went to a good university – it isn’t considered to be the best but has a good reputation – and I finished with pretty good scores. Now I am a teacher in Korea and I am incredibly fortunate to have an amazing personal and professional life. So, if I had gone to “the best” university in my country, how would my life be different? Would I really be any more successful or happier?
In Korea, there is a common perception that if you want to be successful you must get a job at a big company such as Hyundai or Samsung. This will ensure financial stability for the future. In order to get such a sought-after job, you need to graduate from a “top” university. Most of these “top” universities are in Seoul and are extremely hard to get into. Hence, exams have become so important.
To me this implies that professors/ lecturers/ instructors at other universities outside of Seoul are less qualified in some way; that they are not as good as those in universities in Seoul. I am an English instructor at Chonbuk National University and, although I wouldn’t consider myself the best teacher, I feel I am just as capable of doing my job as any other English teacher in any university in Seoul. And the same applies for other English teachers in CBNU and English teachers I know working at other universities in Jeonju.
Recently I showed my students the results of their Mid-Term Exams. On several occasions I had students who seemed really disappointed because they got a “terrible” grade. When I checked their grade I was completely shocked to see that these students received 92- 96%. I did my best to reassure them that getting an A in a second language, a subject that is not even their major subject, is an incredible achievement and something that I could never do. These students left with a smile on their faces but I couldn’t help feeling that they didn’t fully understand the sincerity of my words.
I honestly don’t know what I or we can do to change the mentality of students today, especially with the current economic climate putting even more pressure on students, but I hope I can make some small difference to the students I meet. I want to encourage their creativity, their sense of individuality, as my parents did, and hope they see the bigger picture; life.
My father told me this story about when he was a child:
A teacher asked my father a very simple question – If someone offered you a job that pays $5 a week or $50 a week, which one would you take? My father replied with the upmost sincerity that he would take whichever one made him happier.
This story really affected me and my outlook on life. So, as students clamor to class clutching their coffee cups looking worried and stressed I ask myself again – why?