All or Nothing – on Mid Term Exams
Being the time of mid-term exams, the school was quite strange today as some classes watched videos and generally relaxed, while for others, the pressure is still on. The majority of British kids don’t know what pressure is and would find student life in Korea very strange most especially as Korean kids identify with, and respond to, the term ‘student,’ (학생 – haksaeng). Even this week, in the bathhouse, a boy was making too much noise and a man close by addressed him as ‘haksaeng!’ Trying to get an English kid’s attention by calling them ‘student,’ would be pretty redundant and a great many would simply tell you to ‘fuck off!’
I have great admiration for the Korean Education system, recently cited by Obama as a model the US should emulate, but one of its major downsides is the incredible pressure it puts on young people to perform. While it’s laudable that Korean students mostly want the best marks, it is somewhat sad that there is only one best mark, notably 100%. Earlier this week I found some old photos of me taken almost 30 years ago and I was not only incredible fit, but very handsome; in fact so handsome that I could actually fancy myself. At the time however, and at every point of my life, I’ve been too fat, too unfit or too ugly and yet there I am in a fading photo with a waistline and looking very good. It’s bit of a knock when you realise that at one time you possessed something you’ve spent your life looking for, and you never knew it! The same scenario is probably true for many people who struggle with their weight, especially women, always feeling fat no matter how thin, and it’s similar for Korean educational achievement.
Asking kids yesterday, how they got on in their National English-speaking tests, even the ones who got 100% generally said, ‘okay,’ or ‘so,so;’ their modesty masking their intense happiness. And those who got scores of 99, 98, 97 etc, were equally as modest except the chances are they’ were bitterly disappointed. There were several words that confused a number of my students, ‘sea animal’ and ‘sick animal’ was one, the other was ‘ hobby’ and habit.’ I could imagine a native English speaker making an error but for those who answered incorrectly, this is no consolation and neither is the fact that many of their friends made the same mistake. A score in the 90’s is respectable and worth celebrating unless of course, you’re Korean.
So, as I left school yesterday, Ben who is 15, is sat on his own, forehead on the table, and crying. I’ve never had a British boy of his age crying because they didn’t do well but here it is not uncommon. And of course, you cannot console a Korean whose ‘kibun’ (기분) is in the gutter. As a western teacher there is something incredible about a student intensely upset as it reflects they care as much about their performance, as you do. When kids don’t care or have slight regard, you can guarantee your job is about child minding and behaviour control rather than teaching. However, it’s a travesty that the celebration of success is pivoted exclusively on 100%. Ben is a fantastic student: intelligent, witty, and in the Korean way, innocent, he’s a teacher’s dream, yet despite all his efforts and best intentions the loss of 2 marks effectively makes him a failure. Today was his first of a string of mid-term exams!
I have noticed that when students get their exam results, school becomes a refuge for those kids castigated and even physically punished by their parents. Last year, Ben lost one point in an exam and his father scolded him and I recall him being afraid to go home. And so my boss will spend half her time plying them with tissues trying to console them and the other half explaining herself to agitated parents. Somewhere in the space between 90-99, maybe even 80-99, should be room for celebration and self-congratulation but as with weight-loss, in Korea it’s all or nothing and so a moment of self-appreciation, a pat on the back from a parent, is lost.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.