Hagwons are an absurd beast, but that’s strangely part of the amusement for foreign teachers.
To think that you’re caught in the middle of a nasty machine and are completely powerless to do anything. To go home at night and wonder why you were so stressed about getting a 6 year old to write the alphabet. It’s enough to drive you mad.
Never was this absurdity greater than during our school’s many events. Our school always had an event on the go, whether it was a field trip or a party. The events weren’t a way to engage our students in the English language, but instead facades used to keep up appearances with the parents.
Our field trips were no doubt sold to parents as a fun day out for their kids where they all learnt about something new. Whether it be art at the museum or flowers at a garden.
Fields trips were rarely what I’d call fun though. The immediate issue was that it was nigh on impossible trying to keep 20+ kindergarteners under control in the outside world. The deeper annoyance was that field trips didn’t actually involve doing anything worthwhile.
When we went to the art gallery, it wasn’t to look at art as you’d expect. It was instead to take photographs of the children pretending to look at art. If there’s one fact about the Korean people that I can tell you, it’s that they love to take photographs. Photos for them are better than the experience itself. Why bother to look at the art when you can take a photo of yourself looking at it?
Field trips were mainly composed of rushing between various landmarks, taking photos. They were often so shoddily organised by our headmistress that she didn’t even know where these landmarks were half of the time. So here we were, a bunch of adults rushing around 20 screaming children trying to find something, anything to take a picture of. It was so crazy that it hurt to watch.
My favourite field trip came when we decided to visit – for some unexplained reason – a water treatment plant. As we rushed from our school bus the headteacher was almost immediately overcome with a wave of anxiety. She searched around frantically for a landmark to take a photo with, any landmark. Anything the children could interact with for photos.
But this was a water treatment plant. Surrounding us were a few industrial buildings and many long squares of water. Nothing photogenic in sight. Upon searching we found a small water fountain. The headmistress sighed with relief. Something to take a photo with. Phew.
That’s not to say these school trips didn’t serve some use. Far from it. They were just another weapon in the all out blitzkreig on the parents. These photos were proof that their children had experienced things! Look here’s a photo of your kid next to a sculpture. Your child will grow up to be so cultured.
The worst thing is, the parents ate it up, they loved it. They adored every stinking event and manufactured photo.
The events at our school were ingenious in their design. The majority of the parents couldn’t speak English so had no way to gauge their child’s abilities at home. Our events were created in such a way as to show that every child was an English maestro.
As native English teachers, our role in these events were simple. We would pose with the children. Nothing screams “YOUR CHILD IS LEARNING ENGLISH!” quite like a photo of them with a white person. As I mentioned in a previous post, we were simply there as a novelty. Trotted out at every opportunity to parents to prove their children were interacting with real, authentic English speakers. Never mind the fact our headmistress couldn’t understand me due to my completely authentic English accent. We gave the school and every event credibility.
And yet, each event was absurd. A non-stop entertainment involving the students and us. Fabricated schmaltz and memories. We would teach a baby to say, “I love you mommy!” and everybody would eat it up.
Worst of all were the costumes. For every occasion there was a costume. Sometimes for good reason. On Halloween you need costumes, it’s part of the holiday. All good plays have the actors dressing up. But at every opportunity we had the children dressing up. One day they’ll look back on the pictures with horror. They’ll probably need therapy after all the crazy clothing we put on them. But nobody batted an eyelid, it all seemed so normal.
The Hagwon Christmas
The biggest event of all came at Christmas. The night to end all other nights. An opportunity to get the parents onside for another year, so they would continue to bring their child to our hagwon.
What the parents probably didn’t know was that we started to practice for our Christmas party in October. A full three months beforehand. Each day before classes we would learn Christmas songs then later dances. Soon the kids were learning plays and speeches. Memorising lines and lines of English.
The party became a black-hole of effort and time. We’d rush the children through a months worth of work in a week so we could spend almost every lesson making them repeat the same speeches over and over again. Even the slowest of learners were soon overtaken by the complete onslaught of rehearsal.
For three whole months the students practiced and practiced and practiced. Then they practiced some more. All for one night.
It worked. Every parent came and every parent was amazed at how much their child had progressed. The whole night was so tightly orchestrated that nothing could go wrong. There were multiple costume changes, dozens of sparkly decorations. Science presentations so explosive that the parents didn’t even pay attention to their kids, they were too busy looking at the shiny things. They even managed to get me to dress up as Santa.
It was all one huge sham. But the parents were happy and that meant money money moneyyyy!
With the parents happy the owner was happy, which meant I was happy. Until the next event which was usually just around the corner. Happiness never lasts long in a hagwon.