What Korean Middle School Students Are Worried About
(Or: What my kids wanted to tell me when they had 2 minutes of my undivided attention.)
I’m just about finished with all of the speaking tests for this semester and as always it’s been the most fun I’ve had with my students so far this year.
I love speaking tests for a lot of reasons (not the least of which includes not having to plan lessons for two weeks) but the biggest is definitely getting to have one on one conversations with students who can often get lost, despite my best attempts, in a class of 37 other students.
I love getting to see their personalities a little clearer, know their English levels a little better, and by trying incredibly hard to create a comfortable and fun atmosphere, remind them that speaking English is not really all that scary.
My goal is that each student gets some easy questions to make the comfortable, some hard questions to stretch their thinking a bit, and at least one solid laugh at some point. But if we’re laughing the whole time, even better.
Once I’ve done the test a few times I start to get a hang of exactly what follow-up questions I can ask that will be easy, which will push them a bit, and which are guaranteed that laugh. I try to always end on something funny. I want them to leave feeling like they did well and that we connected.
Because while I hope that they’re prepared, I want them to try hard, and I’m happy to give out high scores when they’re deserved, my main goal with the speaking tests is always to engage with them in a way that will maybe, just maybe, get them to see that English is a communicative tool not just a vocabulary list to be memorized.
But I digress.
This year my third graders topic was “worries.” Their instructions were that I would ask them the question, “What are you worried about?” and in their response they should include at least two of these four expressions. “What do you think I should do?” “do you think I should _______.” “I should have ______.” And, “I shouldn’t have _____.”
When we first came up with the prompt I was worried that it might feel really forced, but I think it worked well. And asking them to specifically use two expressions gave me a good gauge of who had actually prepared for the test and who was speaking well but just winging it.
What I didn’t expect though was that through this question I ended up getting a really interesting window into their little lives. Worries are very personal feelings and so some of their answers were really raw, honest, and something that I felt like a lot of American students might never admit to worrying about.
So I wanted to talk about some of their answers, not too specifically because even though this was a test, and I recorded every single one of them, I still don’t want to betray anyone’s confidence.
The number one most common answer was, “I’m worried about my grades.” Which, I almost always followed up with, “why?” Answers from there varied but most kids mentioned something about their grades being low, the last round of exams being really hard, or their mom being angry at them. I expected this answer but I didn’t expect it from so many of them, certainly not from particular students who I know do very well in school. But this answer came from everyone. The high level, and low level kids alike.
When I was in middle school I don’t remember ever being truly stressed about school. I always tried really hard, paid attention in class, and had a healthy fear of some of my teachers, but that was usually enough. When the tests came around they didn’t require this incredible amount of time, stress, and memorization. But the pressure placed on the kids here is immense. I had one student tell me he wants to be a scientist but because he didn’t start going to a private science academy in elementary school it’s too late for him.
Sometimes they’d say they were worried about not sleeping enough but when asked why replied that they’d been studying until 1:00/2:00/3:00 sometimes 4:00am. (Some of them very honestly replied that it was because they were playing League of Legends on their phones until the wee hours of the night. But some of them I do believe were actually studying.)
And these are just middle school students. In Korea it gets exponentially harder once they enter high school and are expected to be at school studying until at least 10:00 before going on to academies or other study rooms.
This should not have been surprising to me given how much emphasis is placed on looks in Korean society, but it did anyway. And the more surprising thing was who this answer came from. I got a lot of, “I worried about my weight,” or “I’m worried about getting fat.” And my genuine reaction was usually, “wait, you??” Because every single one of the kids who said this to me was objectively not overweight. I always tried to turn the conversation in the direction of “how can you be more healthy?” or “what kind of sports do you like doing.”
But one of my favorite things was when they actually used the expression “what do you think I should do?” Because then I got the chance to say to them, in a very organic setting, something that I want to say to them ever single day when I see them all fretting over themselves in the mirror, or sitting in their classroom instead of going to lunch.
I got to say to them, “I think, you should not worry. You do not need to lose weight. If you like exercising or you want to be more healthy that’s great! But please do not worry about it. You are perfectly fine right now.” This of course embarrassed all of them, the boys and girls alike, but I could see in smiles that they were trying to hide that it was the right thing to say.
One of my favorite super high level kids said he was worried about being too skinny. Which he prefaced with, “Teacher, don’t get mad when I say this.” We talk around and around the subject mostly because he’s so funny and I just like talking to him. But at the end I finally asked something like, “Well do you actually want to gain weight, or are you just worried because other people say you’re too skinny?” And he kind of stopped for a second before saying that it was mostly because of other people. “Then I think you don’t need to worry about it.” In the end we agreed it would be a good problem to have when he gets older.
Going along with appearances another common answer was, “I’m worried about my pimples.” Which I can’t pinpoint exactly why that sounds so funny in English, but either way I felt like this was a very honest thing to admit. Skin troubles are something that almost every teenage faces but in least in America I don’t remember anyone ever really talking about it that much. You never wanted to make someone feel worse than they already might feel, so we just tended to avoid the subject altogether.
One of my grade three boy students, who I had last year and always thought he was really sweet and cute, suddenly started wearing a mask all day long every single day. I took me a while to realize this but once I did, I started always looking for him to see if one day he’d take it off. When it came time for his test his answer was, “I’m worried about my skin.”
One girl said she was worried about her face and wanted to get plastic surgery.
One boy could only name “tomatoes, carrots, and kimchi” as healthy foods for a diet which really cracked me up for some reason.
A lot of them, when asked about what a diet is, simply said “not eating.”
It was a little disheartening to see all these kids who I care about so much genuinely worried about stuff like this. And it’s not that I didn’t also worry about those things in middle school but at least I pretty much knew that no one was going to call me out for it. But here, people talk about this stuff openly, to your face. Which has its good points I’m sure, but hearing that my little 15-year-old kids think that they need to go on diets or get plastic surgery hurts my heart a little.
But again I was thankful for the opportunity to get those real little moments of connection or to look a student in the eyes and say, “You are good the way you are now. Don’t worry too much.”
Grades and appearances made up about 80% of all their worries and the other 20% said something unique.
Some kids mentioned specific problems with friends which, while it was hard to give advice about or ask follow up questions, did feel kind of like I’d been let into the inner circle of student drama for a moment.
A few told me some genuinely sensitive/sad things going on with their families that I won’t repeat here. I will say though, that one of our school’s most difficult kids, who when we finally got her to sit down in the office to take the test, aka when she finally got around to coming to school, gave an answer that once again reminded me that so much of the bad behavior we see in the classroom has little to do with us and a lot more to do with what happens to them outside these walls.
Some of them said they were worried about not having a girlfriend or boyfriend. These were always funny conversations because hearing what 15-year-olds think is a good way to meet a significant other is always hilarious. One kid told me specifically which girls in which classes he was interested in and when I asked him if he could just go talk to them his answer was, “Oh no no no.”
My other favorite question follow up question to this answer is, “Why do you want to have a girlfriend/boyfriend?” Because they have no idea. It’s not a particularly hard question to answer. It’d be very easy to say like, “Because it’s fun!” or “Because I like this person,” or “Because having a girlfriend makes me happy.” but that would be too easy and so the stuff they came up with instead was much funnier.
Like, “Minjae has a girlfriend, Dowon, has a girlfriend, Jaehee has a girlfriend, everyone has a girlfriend! But not me!”
I love these kids a lot. And I love speaking tests a lot. I was very thankful to use these tests as a glimpse into the lives of my beloved third graders before they fly the coop after next semester. Compared to my other grades they are so good. So many of them are just good kids. And that makes these tests an absolute joy.
Thanks as always for reading!