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  • Grace Park

School Life: Korean Edition

Updated: May 14, 2021

Last week, many secondary school students in the Greater Seattle area experienced quite a peculiar “first day of school” for the 2020-2021 school year. They met their teachers for the first time, reunited with friends, and navigated their way through new classrooms - first-day-of-school activities that would feel ordinary in September but untimely in April. For many American adolescents, the first few days of September are an exciting period of new, fresh starts. To face this “new beginning” in April probably felt odd to many students, but it felt quite familiar to me. This familiarity originates back to when I attended school in Korea.

The Korean school year begins in early March. Although it had been six years since my last first day of school in Korea, I instantly retrieved my physical and emotional memory of starting school on a crisp and sunny spring day when I returned to school last week. This similarity in the starting dates, however, was largely a coincidence caused by the global pandemic and its ensuing gathering restrictions. The American and Korean school systems typically differ in various ways, and as a student who spent half of her schooling years in Korea and the rest in the States, I thought it would be worthwhile to compare and contrast the two vastly different school systems.

First, the summer and winter breaks. In a typical American school, summer break is 2-3 months long. Many American students view summer break as almost an infinite period of time for them to celebrate a year worth of hard work and to have all the fun they want before school starts again. In Korea, however, the opposite is true; summer break is only about 2-3 weeks long, and in between semesters (rather than school years). Because of its midway position in the school year, many Korean students spend their summers studying ahead for the second semester. Their real time to relax rather comes during winter break, when students are given about one and a half months to celebrate the end of the school year, visit family during the Lunar New Year, sleep in, and so on.

Another difference lies among the students that make up a classroom. In a typical American secondary school, students from two, three, or even four different grade levels can coexist in a class. In Korea, however, a school building strictly separates different grade levels into different floors. Within a floor are typically 4-10 classes of students from the single grade level that the floor is dedicated to. Each class consists of 20-30 students, and unlike in American schools where students rotate between 7 different classes and teachers, Korean students stay in the same home room with the same classmates all year. This allows classmates to develop intimate, long-lasting friendships as they go through exams, sport events, festivals, and competitions together.

Last but not least, the biggest difference, in my opinion, is in the food served to the students. Many American secondary schools are notorious for their lunch menus that lack both taste and nutrition. Because of this, many students bring and enjoy their own food from home. In Korea, however, it is almost impossible to find a student taking out his/her lunchbox at the lunch table. Korean schools devote quite a lot of effort into providing fulfilling and also very tasty meals for all students. All students and teachers eat the same lunch, in the same cafeteria, at the same time. The meals are typically distributed on a metal plate that is divided into five sections: one for the rice, one for the soup, and three for banchans - side dishes. These are only frameworks, however; Korean schools boast a very wide range of dishes, such as spicy tofu soup, fried chicken, udon, bibimbap, and egg rolls, just to name a few. I have to admit - the school lunches are what I miss the most about attending school in Korea!

Because these differences are so profound, an individual will likely prefer one school to another depending on their unique personality. Those who value community might enjoy Korean schools better, while others who need lots of time to recover from a stressful school year might prefer American schools.

Which school system sounds more appealing to you?

Cover Image Courtesy of Seattleites Abroad

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