My year teaching English in Korea has been marked by many irreplaceably unique moments, both in and out of the classroom. I stumbled my way through cultural confusions, language barriers, and unfamiliar power structures, all while learning how to teach English as a foreign language. One of the more noticeably outstanding events, transcending international boundaries and cultures, was observing the transition of my school from an all-girls high school to a co-ed one. A shift that would make for an interesting sociological experiment in any country, socio-economic situation, or time period, it has been both fascinating and unfortunately disappointing to watch the impact that gender integration has had in a Korean high school.
According to other teachers at my school and around the city, Yeoju Girls High School, now Sejong High School, has been the No. 2 school in the county for several years. This meant that the boys in town could not attend the 2nd best school, and had to opt for lower-caliber institutions. Middle school boys with high scores on their high school entrance exams therefore had few viable options, and either had to score in the highest percentile of all male students in Yeoju to get into the No. 1 school, or deal with attending one of the low-ranking schools. Thus, the board of education made the decision to integrate Yeoju Girls High School.
Teaching at a girls’ high school during my first semester was generally delightful. Aside from a small number of problematic students, controlling classes was easy and required few punishments. As a first-year teacher in a foreign country, classroom control was one of my biggest challenges, and an all-girls setting was a nice way to ease into the job. The students are very bright, studious, and vocal, despite the shyness that plagues many Korean people, especially when it comes to speaking English. It wasn’t perfect, and there were obviously some students who were more outgoing or attentive than others. But when this high school was comprised of all female students, the girls were the group leaders, the class clowns, and the participators. They were the ones getting the right answers, helping classmates, and presenting work at the front of the class. They had opportunities to be at the top, and were honing powerful, salient skills without distraction.
I talked with the girls about the impending change in the school, and most were neutral about the transition. They, however, would not be considerably affected by the transition because only the incoming 1st graders (American 10th grade) would have mixed-gender classes. Each year the school will be becoming more co-ed. But still, they knew that the presence of male students in the school was going to change the tone of the school, both literally and figuratively.
As a foreign teacher, I worried about learning how to handle teenage boys from a different culture, classroom control, and messy handwriting. I was also concerned that the presence of boys would shake the confidence level of the female students, a typical concern in most arguments in favor of single-sex education. I hate to say it, but I was right about pretty much everything. Even the handwriting.
Before coming to Korea, I was aware of the stereotype that Asian women are shy, timid, or submissive. It’s pervasive in our popular culture, and stems from Confucian values, Geisha culture, and things like that. When I arrived, I found this to be true on some levels. But from the moment I arrive at school at 7:30 each morning, this stereotype is smashed to the ground by the energized, hyperactive girls racing through the halls, laughing and goofing around in their few precious moments of free time before class. This female hallway debauchery has not subsided with the addition of boys, but I can say that things have changed inside the classroom.
In my second, co-ed semester of teaching, when I pose a question to the class, hoping for a harmonious chorus of boys and girls shouting out answers, the sheer volume and tone of these post-pubescent boys’ voices drowns out the girls who might have been more vocally inclined in elementary and middle school. And if that isn’t enough to dissuade the girls’ participation, the boys will often draw on the Confucian principles of male domination over females, and totally disregard their input in group activities. When I asked one of my female students why she wasn’t participating in a team competition activity, in which I knew she knew the answers but she simply wasn’t participating, she replied, “They just ignore me. I hate them.”
The difference that the Y-chromosome addition has made at my school was most evident in a lesson I did involving a role-playing activity, where students were randomly assigned a celebrity character and a partner, and had to interview one another as if they were in a celebrity-journalist scenario. The differences in lesson outcomes of my co-ed 1st grade classes and all-girls 2nd grade classes were breathtaking.
When looking around the classroom for their assigned partners, the 2nd grade girls were always content with whom they had to work, even if they were not best friends. During the activity, they laughed and tried to come up with funny answers to questions. They cheered for one another, and enthusiastically performed for the rest of the class. Of course, there were still some shy and lower-level students; Korea is not a teacher-fantasy land. But the overall tone of the 2nd grade classes was a stark contrast to that of my 1st grade classes.
To begin with, many girls had been randomly paired with boys. For the most part this was fine, but several were extremely embarrassed by the idea of working with a boy, and one even told me she was afraid of the boy with whom she had been paired and asked me to give her a new partner. In watching the performances it was as if every wave of feminism had simply skipped over Korea. They had zero confidence, and would hang their heads so far down that they resembled black-haired Cousin Its. It wasn’t every girl, but a significant majority, that acted in this way. It is important to keep in mind that Korean children do not grow up with drama activities in their schools, or any school-organized performing arts for the most part. Activities like this one don’t come as naturally as they would to some American high school students who have school-sponsored drama programs. However, the difference between the single-sex 2nd grade girls and the integrated 1st grade girls was palpable.
Many proponents of co-education will argue that a major component of school is learning how to socialize with other people, including those of the opposite gender. I concede that this argument is valid in the younger years of education, when elementary and even middle school students are learning how to function in a classroom, make friends, and respect authority. High school students, however, are at a totally different phase of development, one with which we are all familiar. It is during these precious teenage years when high schoolers begin their child-to-adulthood transition, figuring out how to deal with changing bodies, emotions, and social pressures. In other words, it’s an awkward time, for both sexes. They are discovering their identities, and the most seemingly inconsequential social situations make for an abundance of anxiety and insecurity. From first-hand experiences in unusually convenient social experiment conditions, I can tell you that teenage girls feel more comfortable participating in class and speaking English when there are no boys around. If they spend three years of their teenage life (high school in Korea is 3 years) honing those public speaking skills and leadership abilities, without worrying about looking too smart or not pretty enough, I believe that they will be better prepared for co-ed university or workplace environments. Certainly children need to learn how to socialize in school, and for high school students I believe this means separating the sexes.
If I were teaching English in France, Algebra in Wisconsin, or PE in Belize, I predict that these problems would persist. I will admit that I can’t say what the change in test scores or class participation has been in other classes. But during conversations with fellow teachers and students, I found that most agreed with me. Teenagers are awkward and rebellious, no matter what language they speak, and deserve to grow and learn in appropriate environments.