A rant, in honor of midterms in Korea

Elementary and Middle School students in South Korea have midterms coming up this week and next. One of my students has been so stressed out she has been getting headaches and she caught a cold. But she won’t stop. This post is for her and for all the other students struggling to fit in some sleep between study sessions.


Who is listening to the children who study all night, who go to sleep late and rise early? Who is hearing them say, “I don’t know enough. I must study more. I must make the score. I must please my parents, my teachers, myself.”? Who is telling them, “Go to sleep. You know enough.” No one. I heard it from my student today and I found myself saying, “I know you have to study hard. That’s the way things are.” But that is not the way things should be! And who am I to write this post after I said that to my student?


Where are the people who believe in the change? Where are the parents who join together and put a stop to the competition, to the long hours, to the test-focused classes? Where are the teachers who stand united and say, “We teach students, not subjects. We will not teach to the test.”? Where are the officials who grew up to say, “We were students once. We feel your pain. This much change!”? They’re out there, screaming from the rooftops. It is hard to change decades of test preparation, hundreds of years of test-driven education focus, thousands of years of culture. Sometimes we have to do hard things.


When can we give our students time to play, time to sleep, time to stop? When can we tell them, “Stop studying. Have fun. You deserve a break.”? When the “way things are” changes, when the students are the focus of the classroom, happiness is possible. In Finland, student happiness is built into the system. When can we realize its importance and implement it where it is needed – everywhere? When we bring empathy into the classrooms, happiness can lead to success.


What can we do to protect children, keep them safe? What can we offer these students who keep tight study schedules at night and sleep in their classes? A short story in a textbook I have seen tells of a boy being bullied in school everyday. Another story asks students to predict what will happen next and leaves a stressed out boy on the top of a building, standing, staring down. Real problems, staring down at us. What can we do? We need to implement a culture of support, starting now. We need to provide a safety net for falling children – the tired, the poor, the bullied and the bullies, the hungry, the stressed, the uncared for. We need to stop denying that they exist.


How can we affect change, protect students, uphold values? How can we see beyond reforms to effects? Once change is in place, it is necessary to reflect, to support, to be willing to adapt. It is necessary to always keep in mind the welfare of the students and teachers who must adapt and continue learning. Learning doesn’t need to be painful. It should be a joy. How can we bring that joy back into the classroom?


Why do we teach? Why do we care? Why do we ask for change? Here‘s one reason. Another is that we are all learners ourselves. And as learners, we know what conditions work best for optimal learning. Someone told me today that the ultimate goal, the one thing all humans want, is to be happy. Maybe we should ask our students, their parents, their teachers, the administration – what do you need to make you happy?


Sarah, I wish you were far away from the stress you have now, too. Good luck, sweetheart. 화이팅!


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