4 students’ stories that sum up so many of the problems Korea faces.

I have just finished conducting 450 4 minute long speaking tests over the course of a month. Needless to say this is absolutely exhausting, but I have 3 weeks without classes now so plenty of time to get on with some studying 🙂

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I’m lucky enough to teach in one of the wealthiest areas in Korea, and so a lot of my students are very high level, this allows me to have some really interesting conversations with them, which makes the speaking tests a great opportunity to engage with them and really learn about their lives. There were 4 speaking tests that really stood out and really shocked me, leaving me speechless. All of them were in answer to one of these two questions:

1) Are the government right to force academies to close at 10pm?
2) Why is suicide the number one cause of death for Korean teenagers and what can be done to reduce the number of suicides?

Just in case you’re interested the other two questions were
3) Should South Korea abolish the death penalty?
4) Should South Korea increase its reliance on nuclear energy?

Anyway here is what four of the students told me that really shocked me, and I’m sure will shock you too…….

Student 1
Why is suicide the number one cause of death for Korean teenagers and what can be done to reduce the number of suicides?

The student proceeded to tell me a story of her best friend. Her best friend killed himself about nine months ago.  Her friend was 15 years old at the time, she was friends with him as they lived in the same apartment complex and went to the same academy. They attended the academy every day together, and finished at the academy between midnight and 1a.m depending on the teacher.  She told me that her friend went straight to academies after school, and so rarely saw his family. Despite the amount of time he spent in academies his grades still weren’t very good, and so his parents made him spend more and more time studying. Her friend often told her how he felt depressed, and she kept telling him to tell his parents. Eventually he reluctantly did tell his parents. His mum told him that he wasn’t depressed, he was just shy, and that he shouldn’t tell anyone else that he is depressed as it is embarrassing for the family. Her friend killed himself by jumping off a building. My student told me how she still feels guilt because he was her best friend and she should have helped him more.

Student 2
Are the government right to force academies to close at 10pm?

The student answered ‘yes, the government are right to force academies to close at 10pm, I just wish mine did’. I asked her what she meant by that, as legally her academy has to close by 10pm. She then told me that when she heard that the government was going to force academies to close at 10pm she was really happy, but her academy still doesn’t. She told me that the reason she was so happy when she thought her academy would have to close was because the academy she goes to sometimes keeps the students until around 1a.m or 2a.m. So of course, I asked her why, she told me that once a week, on a Friday, the academy gives the students a test, and that if you score perfect on the test you can leave the academy at midnight, but if you don’t score perfect you are taken to a detention room where you are caned by the teacher (and she showed me the marks on her hands) and then after 1 – 1 1/2 hours you do the test again. I asked her is she had told her parents about this. She told me of course her parents knew, because they come and pick her up, the school has to phone her parents to tell them she is in the detention room and they should come to pick her up at 2a.m. She told me that she has told her mum she doesn’t want to go but her mum told her it is only twice a week so it is o.k. Later in the conversation she told me her academy got raided 2 weeks ago (for opening later than 10pm) and so she thought it would then have to close at 10pm, but now all they do is turn the lights off in the classroom with windows and only use the classrooms without windows after 10pm.

Student 3
Are the government right to force academies to close at 10pm?

The student told me that she thinks it must be important for the academies to close at 10pm. We then had a conversation about her situation. She FINISHES in the academies she is forced to go to by her parents at 2a.m, usually gets to bed around 2.30am and has to get up at 7a.m. So she gets approximately 4 hours a night sleep. She then went on to say “the doctor says that’s why I’m so small”. She is, by the way, tiny. Apparently her parents took her to the doctor because she wasn’t growing, and the doctor told her parents the reason was probably that she wasn’t getting enough sleep. Her parents still send her to academies until 2am.

Student 4
Are the government right to force academies to close at 10pm?

This students is apparently one of the top students in the whole of the first grade (her homeroom teacher is my co-teacher for her English class). In the speaking test the student told me that of course academies should close at 10pm, and that actually she thinks the academies should be forced to close well before 10pm. She told me how her parents don’t like academies, and that she hasn’t been to an academy since 2nd grade of elementary school. So, I asked if she thought this affected her grades, at which point she told me she scores perfect in almost every test she takes. So, I asked her how she does that, she told me she just listens in class to what the teacher says and makes notes, the other students can’t do this because they are all either sleeping or too tired to understand. She said she then goes homes and studies her notes, then does her homework and gets extra problems from the internet which she shows her teachers the next day to check she got them right. But, she told me, the problem with this is that she is normally done by about 8pm and then she is bored as all her friends are in academies, so right now she’s learning Spanish online in the evenings and she plays games with her mum. Before the speaking test I honestly always wondered why she had SO much more energy than all the other students, and why she was always so happy.

I dont think anything else really needs to be said, other than I swear all of these are exactly what my students told me. I hope some Korean parents read this blog.

Below is the story that was in the news yesterday about a boy that killed his mum…..


Please post your comments below on your feelings about this topic, or what you think Korea can do to try and solve the problems highlighted by these students.

p.s I promise I’m going to find something more cheerful to blog about next week!!!


24/11/2011 23:15

The story told by the first student made me want to cry.
I am an elementary school English teacher in Korea, and it worries me to see that my kids could end up in those situations. One of my 6th grade girls is tired all the time because she goes to academy until 9pm, goes home, studies and maybe goes to bed around midnight. And most nights she doesn’t eat dinner.
I’m also worried because elementary aged students are commiting suicide from the pressure they are given.
My boyfriend (Korean) has told me that things have changed since he went to high school (he is 27 now). He used to go to school all day on Saturdays and most of the day on Sundays. Even with academies, he would be there until 1-3am. I am glad to know that change is coming, but I think it needs to speed up a little.

24/11/2011 23:32

I can’t help but get a “tragedy of the commons” or an “arms race” vibe from this whole issue.

Everybody knows the hagwon system is a problem and that it can’t continue like this for the long term (look at the skyrocketing rate of household debt – much of it is because of hagwon fees), but nobody wants to be the first person to take their foot off the gas.

24/11/2011 23:40

These insights are SO important. THANK YOU for sharing them. I wish I were more optimistic about the possibility for change here though…

Might I add that I have noticed that it is often the alert students who get 8 hours who do best in my classes and the sleepy ones who get 4 hours who continue to struggle? REM sleep, achieved at over 4 hours or more continuous sleep (as opposed to naps) is when our brain sorts, filters, catalogs the information we take in each day. Dear, Korea: listen to your children and stop subverting well-intentioned policies. My students are awfully good at cheating and lying… I wonder where they get it?

25/11/2011 00:15

Blimey Al. I hope South Korea is investing heavily in the creation of early retirement villages, psychiatric facilities and sleep clinics for all these children to end up in when they reach the age of 30 and their bodies cease to function… That’s if they make it to 30. It sounds like they are creating a whole generation to whom suicide is seen as a way to simply have a rest. Terrifying.

25/11/2011 01:10

Wow, such a telling set of interviews. I happen to work in an opposite environment – my school is in one of the poorer sectors of the city, so very few of my students are going to academies. The ones who do are as described here; tired, doing poorly in my class and multiple others.

Unfortunately, your non-academy student is probably in the minority in terms of her ability to learn independently. Some kids are just self-motivated and driven no matter what the circumstance, and know how to seek information about things that interest them. But most just find ways to fill their time with other things. If kids are to stop going to academies, then their parents have to be actively involved in their learning, rather than expecting it to be imparted by some external source. Sounds like that one girl’s parents are getting it right.

For most of my students, their after-school time is filled with PCbangs and TV. Just because they don’t go to academy doesn’t mean their brains are getting any extra nourishment. Their parents work long hours, so they can’t be around to direct their children’s outside-school learning. Mine are at an extremely low level in English and very few make it into the desirable high schools.

In other words, for many of the poorer students, hagwons or not, they’re not going to see much success no matter what is done, while the students with parents who are able to be involved in their education are the ones who are most likely to succeed. Which is ultimately the exact same as it is in the US. Academies are just complicating the whole situation.

25/11/2011 04:30

Wonderful blog article. I work in a poorer neighborhood so many of my kids do not go to academy, but rather go to the PC Bang. However, some of them do and I think it’s ridiculous how tired these children are during school. I had a meeting with my principal recently and he told me that he thinks Korean students study more than western students and asked me why that is. I responded that truthfully I believed that the students only believed they needed to study more, but in actuality they aren’t studying that much more. I said that if the students matter in class and did their work in school, they wouldn’t need to go to academies and if they didn’t go to academies they would be able to learn properly in school without being exhausted. I agree completely with the last girl. Academies are worsening education. The education system definitely needs to be changed because it it’s the children who indeed suffer. Thank you for documenting their stories.

26/11/2011 01:06

Hey Amy and Happy, I’m with you! I work in the wealthiest sector of my community, but I work in a Kinder/playschool where my kids will only be subjected to this kind of child abuse in their futures. Right now, I am privledged to be able to teach them that English is fun, I love them and foreigners can be positive influences in their lives. In cases of abuse or neglect, I strive to be a constant anchor. Honestly, the worse a child behaves in my class, the more I love them because I realize their misbehavior signifies a nightmare at home. Has anyone here ever read the book “A Boy Called It?” If so, you’d be able to recognise the signs of abuse we see every day. I am not personally speaking from experience when I speak about child abuse (phisical), but I can speak from experience when I speak about child neglect (emotional) … and I can tell you one and all that I’d rather take a punch ANY day.

28/11/2011 19:28

These stories are sad and frustrating for foreign teachers. It’s very common for academies to stay open well past 10pm (I have a math academy next to my apartment and frequently hear students leaving close to midnight). I think your student who does not attend academy and has that extra joy and drive should be held up as an example of what can be accomplished with the right outlook on education.
Thank you for sharing your experiences.

PS Sincerely, I think you might want to proofread your article first as there are many spelling and grammar errors. Sorry, but it was slightly distracting.

28/11/2011 21:22


First of all thank you so much for all your comments, I’m really glad you found my blog interesting. It was really interesting reading all of your thoughts on the topics, I wish I had more time to reply to you all individually. But ye, I just wanted to thank you all for reading and commenting. It’s an important topic and I think all we can do is make people aware of the issue and do our best to make our students lives fun and educational to give them some respite form the stress of their day to day lives.

Stephanie, I’m sorry about the typo’s etc. Please understand I write this blog in the little spare time I have between studying, teaching and spending time with my friends/girlfriend, and to be honest I wasn’t expecting it to be so popular (over 1200 reads since Friday!!). I’ve just had a quick read through before my class and corrected a few errors, hopefully they are a little less distracting now 🙂 But anyway, thanks for letting me know, and if you notice any distracting mistakes in the future please do let me know!!

Thanks again for reading and especially for commenting!!


01/12/2011 03:05

Hey Alex,

What are we, the ex-pat community going to DO about this situation? Our positions are shrinking in Korean high schools … who will stand up for these children? Is there a government agency to which we could appeal?

As Westerners, it’s our duty to inform the Korean board of Education:

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

As you know, I am quite articulate and passionate about Korean students. Let’s brainstorm for change in this system to reduce teen suicide in this, our adopted country.

01/12/2011 21:15

I taught in Nowon, Seoul for the previous two years and had a similar experience. Specifically, I lived in Eunhaeng Sageori, which has one of the higher densities of hagwons in Seoul. It’s funny, I would go out to my roof at midnight or later and notice lights on in many of the hagwon buildings, but didn’t make much of it until you wrote this post. What an ironically sad state for the Korean education system to be in.

02/12/2011 02:14

The 1st story reminded me of a friend of mine. He takes weekly trips to see a psychologist, and he’s been seeing one since around middle school. I think he suffers from depression issues. The dude had to hold a knife up to his throat in front of his parents before they let him see a shrink.

Seeing a psychologist or even just a counselor is still widely perceived as something to be embarrassed of, and is almost despised in Korea. Like it’s somehow your fault for having a problem.

Also, there is the issue of finding a decent psychologist – my friend had some horror stories regarding past doctors.

05/12/2011 17:49

I teach in a poorer area in Seoul, and I find that the same is true about overly-tired or bored students who go to hagwons.

However, the students who cannot afford hagwons still do poorly and I’ve discovered that only about 1% of my students actually know how to study. Only 1% actually take notes during classes. I think the root of the problem is that Korean students have not been taught good studying skills because all the teachers assume they will be going to hagwon for it.

Another factor is motivation, but since English is a forced foreign language requirement, once a student has made of their mind to not enjoy class, there’s nothing to be done.

Still, it an issue of mob mentality. If every parent you know is sending their kid to hagwon, or if all your friends are going to hagwon, what else can you do but follow? Especially with Korea’s philosophy of going with the flow.

I wonder if or when this system will collapse on itself. I have a feeling a lot of Korean students nowadays are fleeing the system by studying abroad.

07/12/2011 07:04

I teach business people in Gangnam and frequently introduce such topics in my lessons… It can get pretty controversial at times, but I really like the idea that by using this type of discussion topic in my lessons, I may be able to influence the way that parents think about and go about educating their children. You see, I believe that a very important part of my role here is not just to teach English, but to incite people to think and communicate in more effective ways on a global level. I love the idea that by discussing topics like this I could help in a small way to shift the way of thinking about these inhumane practices.

Here is an article that I’ve occasionally used in my classes, which discusses the same concept. At least some people are getting the word out. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2094427,00.html

Great blog, by the way. 🙂

08/12/2011 20:14


If you discover a hagwon is beating children and deceiving inspectors in order to break the law, you have a responsibility to report this.

In addition, the government offers cash for reporting at about 400,000won per case. You can apparently report by letter, phone and web: http://www.mest.go.kr

The website is frickin slow so try again later if it doesn’t load the first time.

Alien Teachers
08/12/2011 20:31

Hi Vince,

Unfortunately I have no idea what the name of the academy the student was referring to is, or where it is located, otherwise I would be straight on the phone to these guys.

That is good to know there is a means of reporting them for future reference though. A lot of people are still reading this blog so hopefully this will help to spread the word that they can be reported.


09/12/2011 15:52

Please get these stories translated into Korean as well as people’s comments. I have often had students who are too tired to learn or absorb information. I always wondered why such young people had such a lack of energy.

Lee Ah Young
12/12/2011 20:40

I’m Korean and I had attended TaLK programme. Thanks to one of my friend, I read this and share it on my facebook. I posted it with Korean summary. I hope this serious problem spreads through my friends. Oh, I saw Ann’s comment now. I will try my best to translate it in the evening.

28/07/2012 22:57

Hello Lee Ah Young,

I’m also a TaLK teacher 😀

It’s great to see the co-teachers sharing the same concerns many foreign teachers face.

13/12/2011 00:45

Hi Lee Ah Young,

That would be fantastic if you could translate these stories. I know it would take a lot of time so if you do thanks so much in advance. Please post the link if you decide to do that.

I’m actually hoping to find a Korean person who would like to share this blog with me, so between us we could have every post in Korean and English as I really think there is a need for more dialog on important issues like this between the foreign and Korean communities.

Lee Ah Young
14/12/2011 02:58

It only took an hour or so. I’m not that good at writing in English, but it’s more easy for me to translate it into Korean. If ‘the sharing’ is possible, that will be nice! Right now, I don’t run any Blog, so I posted it on my facebook. Here is it.


14/12/2011 20:06

Hi Lee Ah Young,

Thankyou so much for doing that. I can’t get that link to work though?


22/10/2012 22:57

Dear Sir,
I liked your comments so much. We are learning everyday. I am also a teacher here in Bangalore, India. Please visit our site. We are a faith based mission and working for children and women. We want to build a school for sexually abused girl children and school drop outs so that they can be empowered and will be enlightened on their voting rights, domestic violence, their power as women etc. We also recruiting volunteers who can come here and work in our mission for 3 weeks.
If you are willing, we can work together.
with regards,
Dr Beatrice Daniel

23/06/2013 09:13

This is a good post.A social issue in the eyes of a child is a reflection of what society we have at the present. Thanks for though.

31/07/2013 21:16

Interesting blog. I taught English in Korea for about two years and although I loved my students, it was not a pleasant experience. Korean’s aren’t capable of learning English no matter how well you teach due to limited exposure. You can only learn so much with one hour a week. Thus, parents think that by forcing their children to go to academies, they can make up for bad public schooling. It just doesn’t work. It’s truly sad. “Miserable,” is the one word I would use to describe Koreans 😦

31/07/2013 21:22

Sorry, some grammatical errors in my previous post. I can’t correct them. I just wanted to add that a good plan for teaching Korean children is to send them overseas during elementary school if you can afford it. A huge part of the learning difficulty Koreans have is because of their bad education system. You can still get into “SKY,” if you have the grades elsewhere.

08/08/2013 17:56

I’m a tutor of Korean students here in the Phiippines. The first student’s story had the same story of my student. I don’t know how prideful the Korean was, until I read this blog. However, i don’t mean all, but generic. Our tutorial center here in the Philippines run by Filipino management is well appreciated by our Korean students and parents. In additiong, their main reason why they are here in the Philippines is one for exposure to English language, and the comfort,a and knowledge they get without inculcating too much ideas in their minds or even forcing them to accept the ideas. Let the children learn in their own ways. let the teacher be reminded that school are not gorund for military training. Schools and academies must reinsure that their student’s should feel like as they are in their home– being loved and being cared while nurturing them.


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