America’s Academic Long Bus

I spent 7 years teaching in Korea before returning to America to teach for another 7 years. I’ve seen it, experienced it, had time to compare and reflect. And here’s what I’ve seen….

The gap in education between these 2 countries is gaping. Not in the way Americans assume. Most Americans assume that Korean teachers are must be impressively well-trained and talented, which is why Korean students score so high on tests.

But this assumption is false. Korean teachers don’t spend as many hours than American teachers on planning, grading, counseling kids with home issues, communicating with pissed of parents threatening to talk to the principal, differentiating lessons for kids who can‘t keep up or are way ahead, scaffolding lessons so that each melds into the next, using new technology that make lessons more exciting, using new techniques that influence cooperation and hinder bullying, or trying out new books with broader perspectives. Korean teachers don’t do all of this, as American teachers are.

In short, Korean teachers present the information and expect their students to learn it.

Korean teachers don’t have to worry terribly much about pleasing parents. If Koreans students misbehave their parents make sure it never happens again. Korean teachers don’t worry about kids coming to school hungry. Students do come to school hungry but that’s their own problem. Hungry or not they’d better sit down and start studying.

Korean kids come to school exhausted too, just as many American kids do. Whereas American kids come home exhausted because mom was high on drugs and fighting with her boyfriend, or because they stayed up all night watching Cartoon Network, Korean kids come to school exhausted because they studied until 2 in the morning, including Saturday and Sunday.

This is the essential difference. Politicians and parents in America rail on and on about improving the education system, expecting more from teachers. They say that teachers just aren’t teaching as well as they should. They need to jump through more and more hoops, pay for more and more training, maintain yearly certification expectations, and learn how to deal with all of the different types of trauma more and more American kids are experiencing.

If the students grades don’t improve, the teacher is put on probation and if that doesn’t work then he loses his job. He’ll be replaced by another new and inexperienced teacher that will go through the same hoops, under the judgmental eyes of the same untrained but better paid and much more powerful federal, state and local watchdog witch-hunters, and likely with the same results; little to no improvement, probation and then loss of a job.

That’s terribly sad because these teachers, under the thumb of punitive, puritanical and narrow-minded education-police, are likely to be incredibly sincere and talented, and working their tail-ends off to become even better teachers. But its not talent and training that’s lacking in the American schools. It’s cultural values, and what comes with those values.

Korean parents respect education. They place huge amounts of trust and respect on the shoulders of their teachers. Compare this with America, where people believe teachers are lazy and worthless, where parents enjoy getting teachers in trouble and students know they can easily frame any teacher who doesn’t have several cameras and microphones set up in every corner of the classroom.

The Korean value for education insures students come to class prepared. They’ll have spent 3 hours studying for every one hour an American student has. That’s if the American child studies at all. American kids, many of them, come to kindergarten not knowing which way letters go, which way the text reads, which end of a pencil to write with. They’ve never seen a book in their home. Never seen their parents read. Never been to a library except when in need of a warm place to rest. Korean kids generally come to kindergarten already knowing their alphabet in 2 languages, if not 3.

So, in the end it comes down to plain and simple quantity. Not quality. Just time with their noses in the books. Time with pencil to paper. Korean parents don’t worry about a fancy new school with attractive study-pods, cozy-couches and cushions, round tables and open windows. They could care less about a 50 meter swimming pool with a diving well and hot tub, or 3 indoor basketball courts. Smart boards are rare, and every student is not presented with a laptop so he doesn’t have to write or can do his homework on-line.

Equally as important, Korean teachers and parents are not out to get each other. Teamwork is the norm. Korean parents don’t despise teachers but place them on a pedestal. Korean coworkers, mentor teachers and administrators don’t look for ways to get each other in trouble, or one-up themselves, or judge and ostracize one another. Back-biting and bullying between teachers, mentors and administrators is ubiquitous in American schools. The best American teachers avoid the teacher’s lounge as vehemently as any Muslim avoids pork.

Teaching in the states is way more political than cultural. Americans don’t value academics and teamwork. They value things; me and mine. So the classrooms will have more things. Students will have laptops. Teachers will have smart boards. Schools with have vast sports complexes. No one will have a better education because none are willing to put the time in.

On top of that, teachers will be expected to teach more and teach better, and if they don’t succeed, instead of finding out why they’re having a hard time, instead of assigning them a mentor who had years of successful teaching behind them, instead of giving them consistent structure to help them achieve their goals, they’ll be punished, because that seems straightforward and simple, and because that’s how things are done in America.

Ask American parents to have their kids in school 3 hours extra each day and watch as entire communities protest. Cut summer vacation down to 1 month and watch every parent go out and picket; their kids need time to be kids, time to destroy their knees in football, time to cruise from neighborhood to neighborhood on their new bikes, cruise around in their new cars looking for house parties all summer. Time for the latest home entertainment center, the latest tech-toy, the shiniest bling.

For these reasons, because of cultural values emphasizing quick-fixes, threats and punishment, pay-cuts, excuses and blame, American schools will not improve.

I remember Special Education from when I was a child. I remember the short bus. I also remember, looking around at my classmates, thinking it would likely get longer with time. That was one of the first things noticed when I returned home in 2005 – the short bus isn’t short anymore – it’s long. Juvenile delinquents are in force; they set the standards, they’re the main source of peer pressure because they make up the majority.

Smart kids, good kids, kind kids, kids whose parents expect them to behave respectably – they have to act stupid and mouthy in order to fit in. Asian kids are mocked, the masses of other American children are jealous of them because they have 2 parents, who care about them and expect them home every night, with their noses in their books. And so long as this is the norm, Asian countries will continue to outscore America academically, socially and on the job.

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If You Like Korea So Much – Just Live There Then!

I admit, on Facebook I tend to rub in my fellow Americans’ faces the fact that I live in a country that is prospering, safe and with excellent medical. Part of me wants to stick my tongue out at all the idiots assuming that universal health care will bankrupt a country already bankrupt by pointless wars they supported and the banks they still support. But another part of me would like to think they might learn something from Korea.
Unfortunately most Americans don’t like the idea of learning things from other countries. Somehow their pride tells them that it’s more honorable to remain ignorant, to the point of risking their lives, than it is to learn something from another, more prosperous country. But that’s not all. Some of my old classmates back in the states have told me that they know for a fact that everyone in South Korea lives in mud huts, with nothing but coal to cook on!
I send them pictures of apartments, of the masses of people out spending their money on expensive shopping goods. They reply that I don’t know anything about Korea – they do – because they lived on an American military base in Korea for 3 months – and their captain told them – Korea is poor – and Korean food kills people.

The most entertaining reply I get is that if I love Korea so much then I should just live there! Well, okay, I can do that. They tell me they’d rather die for lack of pennicillin than leave their beloved country. Whereas I’m a traitor. I have no loyalty to my homeland.

It doesn’t bother me too much to hear this. In fact I find it amusing. I look at citizenship the same way I look at any relationship with a friend or lover. If I had a wife or friend that lied to me, stole from me, cheated on me and made a fool of me by leaving me with nothing and spending all my money on some other wealthy man who’d done nothing for me, would I stay with this person? No, I don’t think I would.

Meanwhile Back in The States… The Gun Debate

 Meanwhile in America the gun debate runs rampant. Highly intelligent arguments exist on both sides with neither side able to detract from the fact that there are a lot of screwed up Americans able to get their hands on guns, legal or not. That’s why in the end it always comes down to cultural values. Written laws do little to stop people. What moves people is culture; a sophisticated word for peer pressure; in America it happens to be getting your arsenal ahead of the Jones‘s.
Peer pressure is supposedly something teens struggle with. But that’s not true. Every human struggles with it everyday, for life. The Japanese recognized this centuries ago and utilized it in creating a nation of seemingly brainless worker bees, unable to think outside the box, and that Americans tend to laugh at with our imaginary sense of independent thinking. We tell ourselves we’re free. But it’s all a silly illusion. There’s not one of us not brainwashed. Not you. Not me.
Trying to prevent Americans from owning guns is like trying to stop Asians from eating rice. Trying to debate opinions on gun ownership is like trying to convince Koreans that electrical fans don’t kill people. Or trying to convince a Mormon out of his magic underwear. Or trying to convince a Christian that come judgment day dead people won’t dig their way out of the ground and kill all us sinners. In the end rationality very rarely comes into the picture, for anybody, any of us. Rationality is a quality we all struggle to maintain and cultivate. Fear, superstition and scapegoating come as naturally as breathing. So the debate won’t end until America ends. This is not to say I want America to end. It just means that all things end in the end.

Back in Korea, Paid and (Almost) Pain Free

Remarkable things have happened since moving back to Korea. Just as remarkable things happened to me the first time I moved here. That’s not to say remarkable things didn’t happen when I moved back to America. Incredibly remarkable things happened when I returned to America. Only those things were remarkable in their vast degree of negativity and all-round calamity. Negative enough I don’t care to discuss my time back in America other than to say that that country, its society, its people and its customs brought me down to the lowest I’d been since first leaving the states in 1997. My self-esteem was nil not 3 months ago. I knew there was just one way to regain it. Move back to Korea.
It’s been less than 2 months since I’ve been back. Not only am I again employed, well paid and highly respected. Even more important the back pain that left me an invalid for 4 years is now gone. In 2008 I fell hard; did enough damage to my back that I couldn’t even swim without spasms. I couldn’t sleep except in a reclining chair, couldn’t get dressed without help and was denied what is considered by most to be the best ESL job in world – because of the anti-inflammatory medication I needed for the injury.
As soon as I got back to Korea my mother-in-law’s neighbor began chipping away at my back pain with her handy little kit full of suction cups. She poked holes in my back with a tiny razor pin and drained the water off my back the way athletes might drain torn ankles and knees. It strikes me as ironic that had I had this type of medical attention available back in America at the time of my job offer with that Middle Eastern oil company, I might now be in Saudi Arabia making huge amounts for a teacher, taking vacations to any country, with my whole family, for free, several times a year, for long intervals. But what can I do? Honesty is overrates. Lay down and let the neighbor keep on cupping. That’s about all I can do.
She does it for free. If I were to go and get it done by the doctor it’d be 30 bucks a suck minimum, and I wouldn’t get all the extra attention. Whenever my neighbor does work on my back she also employs the help of my mother-in-law, Rita, Caleb and Josh. They get to sit around my back fascinated by all the different colors and textures of liquid coming out. The first week or so all of the blood was really dark, what western doctors call sludge, half-coagulated dead blood cells from an old injury. It had lumps of stuff that looked like processed cheese. This, my neighbor said, is cholesterol. I should not eat anymore bacon.
Maybe the cheesy stuff actually is cholesterol. But I think the dark thick stuff is definitely coagulated dead blood cells left over from injuries possibly decades old, since she never really went to work on my back this hard when I was living here last. She used to just poke holes in my flesh and dab at me with a tissue. The suction cups are the latest element in my therapy. After a week or so the dark blood disappeared and I started getting what Rita says looks like foam. My take on it is that it’s probably more water on the back, so to speak. But my neighbor says that this is cholesterol, and I should quit eating bacon. The pricks in my back sting like hell, but the resultant regaining of youthful mobility and sound sleep prevents me from debating the topic of what exactly this foam might be.
The pain doesn’t disappear right away, not the way you might imagine, not like it would with a strong dose of those American fix-alls, codeine and all of it‘s addictive derivatives. At first there is just less pain and more mobility. Then there are new types of pain that replace the old. Sometimes it’s more severe but less debilitating. The second week I felt so good I decided to go for one of my old walks across the city. I walked  3 ½ hours before finally sitting down in a McDonald’s to use the toilet. I was contemplating how much younger I felt, how much more I planned to walk, when I got up and felt a sudden jerk of pain in my back, dead center, below the shoulder blades. It felt like the muscles were crumpling, like a crushed pop can, and it seized me for a minute so that I stood hunched about mid-way erect. But once I was straight it wasn’t so bad. My range of motion was good and I felt none of the guitar-string tightness I’ve had for countless years. Only, if I moved a certain way it hurt like hell.
 I came crawling back to my neighbor and she started at me right away, prodding around like a diviner looking for a wellspring of swelling in my back. She always finds one. Lately she’s getting perfectly clear liquid coming out of my back. This, she says, is cholesterol. I should stop eating so much bacon. I promised her I would. Then she invited me over for dinner. What’s she having? I asked. Bacon, she said..