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Teaching In A Korean Hagwon

Donald Trump. Day drinking. Korean hagwons. Man buns. There are plenty of things in this world to be opinionated about.

And while I would much rather sit down and write about the benefits of pounding a few bottles of soju outside a Seoul convenience store on a sunny summer afternoon, the immutable laws of travel blogging require that I try my best to offer some more grandfatherly advice. Or something.

So let’s choose the most professional from that list: Korean hagwons. I’ll assume you’re familiar with the basics. You’ve read about the cut-throat and highly saturated private language industry in South Korea. You’ve clicked through enough blogs and forums to familiarize yourself with the horror stories about schools disregarding contracts, exhausting teaching hours, obtuse directors, imperceptibly difficult parents, etc, etc. And you’ve every right to be scared. A quick Google search of “korean; hagwons; horror” and you’ll have enough information to make even Richard Simmons reach for the nearest bottle of Valium.

But after two years of teaching in a Korean hagwon, and a surprisingly pleasant experience myself, I want to offer some perspective that a quick Google search won’t likely reveal – or if nothing else, at least some advice on how to avoid finding yourself wondering if you’re going to get paid this month.

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Observation #1: Do your due diligence

Due diligence: a fancy legal term for homework. I use it so that I can pretend to be smarter in the hopes that people will take me more seriously. But seriously, spend hours completing your due diligence before signing anything.

I’ve met hundreds of teachers working in South Korea. A select few of them have phenomenal jobs. Six months of paid vacation, 10 teaching hours per week, straight forward class schedule. It’s an enviable list. Spoiler alert: there’s an excellent chance that you’ll never get that job. However, the vast majority of teachers have decent and still really quite nice jobs. Spoiler alert, assuming you follow rule #1, you’ll most likely end up with such a job. And then there’s the few that just got screwed. Spoiler alert: this last bunch didn’t follow rule #1.

Now of course, it’s easy for me to sit on my throne of patronizing and judgmental hindsight and insult those unlucky few for being so foolish. But that’s not my intent, I promise. Rather, it is only an observation on a few reoccurring themes that run through their stories.

“I just wanted to get to Korea,” many will say. And part of that I totally get. There’s a rush for a new experience, something fresh and exciting that gets you off your parents couch and into a new country. But as tempting as it is to sign the first contract that is offered to you, without thoroughly vetting the school and past teachers you’re putting yourself in a very precarious position. Turning down an offer, especially after you have been searching for one or several months, is difficult to do. But the short-term pain of continuing your search for something that you know is solid far outweighs a year of “I want to stick a soldering iron in my eye sockets” employment.

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Second, listen to your gut – instinctual red flags are there for a reason. Working on a tourist visa? Pension not offered? An unwillingness from a director to answer specific questions or give out contact information for previous teachers? These should all be things that have you running for the nearest exit. If an employer is willing to break some of the rules in an effort to make their life easier, there stands an excellent chance they’re willing to break some others as well – at your expense. And finally, be demanding in your search. Assuming you’re a dedicated and even temporary aspiring teacher (and c’mon, you should be there at least in part to teach) there is no reason why a shady business deserves to take advantage of you.

One strategy that I found useful is to first find a reputable recruiter. With the confidence of knowing that someone is working with your best interest in mind reduces a lot of finger crossing and “hoping for the best.” There are just so many variables that fit into the teaching abroad equation that you want to work with honest and sincere people from the very beginning.

Observation #2: You’ll make more money working at hagwons. Probably.

Simply put, your life will generally be easier at a public school. If you want better job security and a more standardized work schedule, than definitely pursue the public school option. Nearly all of the people I met who were placed throughout the EPIK system had positive reviews. And assuming you meet the general application requirements, there’s a really good chance you’ll get a position. But for the certain type of person who doesn’t mind putting in some longer hours and spending 40+ hours per week in a grinding hustle, hagwons are generally a more lucrative experience. #Gettindemdollas

And I’m not just talking about the extra 200,000 that will come with the standard hagwon salary. The extra vacation days and easier class schedule generally offered with public school positions are well worth the 10% pay cut. Instead, the real benefit comes from your schedule.

If you’re in Korea to save money (and I now you have at least thought about it) a hagwon schedule typically requires working in the afternoons and evenings. This obviously leaves your morning free with plenty of time for finding additional work.

**Now the next few paragraphs will get a bit controversial. If you’re a strict by the books kind of person, well, feel free to skip onto observation #3. Otherwise, if you don’t mind stepping into a moral grey area that doesn’t involve trafficking weapons or war or peddling meth to kids at the playground, please read on.**

Okay. But isn’t work outside your contract illegal? Possibly. Working additional positions may or may not be a violation of your contract. I certainly don’t want to be that guy who says alls fine with breaking the law. But for those willing to invest the time into private lessons and extracurricular teaching, it can be well worth the effort.

If you’re wondering about numbers, an additional $5,000 – $7,000 over the course of one year of extracurricular positions is definitely possible. I’ve known others to earn even higher. If you want to explore this rabbit hole a little deeper, here’s a previous guide I wrote on some ways to maximize your earning potential in Korea.

For a more guaranteed to be legal but certainly more exhausting route, large hagwons in Seoul typically offer a higher salaries. For example, a good friend of mine taught at a private academy in a wealthy area of Seoul. While his hours were grueling and he carried a substantial work load, arguably a salary of 2.8 million plus standard and guaranteed benefits, 40% more than his public school peers, may have been worth it. Personally I would never take on such a position (see observation #3) but for the certain type of person it just might work.

Observation #3: Avoid the large schools

A majority of the large private language academies with more than eight foreign teachers and several hundred students seem to have the worst reputation for teachers. I’m reluctant to say this is always the case, but I never heard of a teacher re-signing after completing their one year service at such places.

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In many ways these larger private institutes are both a blessing and a curse. On one hand they’re typically profitable which translates into secured pay and guaranteed benefits. There is comfort in knowing that you will get your flight home and pension bonus at the end of your contract. Conversely, these schools are profitable for a reason. They are well oiled machines efficient at cycling through both students and teachers. Foreign teachers are typically expected to endure a heavy class schedule with minimal breaks. For many the system is so grueling that they become burnt out after one year and simply can’t endure it any further. But for some, the money justifies the cost.

The hagwon sweet spot seems to be small to mid-sized academies. With only 2-4 teachers, work life becomes much more personable. Your relationship with the director is more human and less automated. Often rigid and impermeable bureaucracy gives way to flexible teaching methods and more creative lesson planning. This isn’t to say that these positions give you a ticket on the gravy train rolling on biscuit wheels, but you’ll likely end up with a less demanding experience. Any teacher knows well that teaching English involves, well, work. Sometimes exhausting work. But choosing a smaller school dramatically increases the chances of encountering a pleasant experience.

Observation #4: If your job offer involves kindergarten, be absolutely 100% no doubt in your mind certain that you really really really want to really, like really, teach kindergarten.

These booger-flinging rebels are relentless in their effort to make your life miserable. One or two hours with them is tolerable. There is not enough caffeine in the world to endure a kindergarten for an entire day. The first position I was offered was exactly that – a full day of non-stop poop and high decibel filled action with enough drama to write a special on the Hallmark channel. Thankfully I never accepted the position.

More common are positions split between an hour or two of kindergarten in the late morning and an after school schedule with elementary/middle school students in the afternoon. Here, too, exercise caution. While I met a few people with these roles who for the most part enjoyed them, it requires an animated personality to keep up with this routine. Other factors like your co-teachers, directors and parents will also play an important part of your job satisfaction. (See observation #1).

Playing hip Santa is just part of the job description.
Playing hip Santa is just part of the job description.

Personally, some of the kindergartens that I worked with were okay to great experiences. One morning class in particular will always hold a special place in my memory as some of the kindest and fun 7 year olds the Korean Peninsula has to offer. Of course, classes were short and I only spent a total of 60 minutes in the morning working with them. A whole day would have been substantially more exhausting and given me an entirely different memory.

I cannot stress enough the certainty you need when accepting kindergarten positions.

Observation: # 5: There’s always the chance your time in Korea will suck.

More of a gentle reminder than hard advice, I’ll keep this one brief.

While the prospect of a new country, new position, and new culture are very exciting, it’s important to remind yourself that they are exactly that. Lots of new stuff. And with the new comes lots of question marks. There’s no cash back guarantee that your students will be the cute and eager Asians you were promised. Your co-teacher might be difficult. It might be difficult to make close friends. You might realize that you actually really hate Kimchi. Well, maybe not the last one.

The point is, as great as Korea is for the vast, vast majority of young adults that come here, there’s always the possibility, albeit rare, that things might not go according to plan. Be prudent and plan for an unlikely exit.

Observation: # 6: You’ll probably have a stellar time.

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How can I end on a sour note? I can’t. So know that the majority of people who come to Korea have an amazing time. Personally, I feel truly blessed to have spent such an amazing two years teaching in Korea. Festivals, food, incredible friends, beaches, cities, nights out, memorable students, the list goes on. For most, the majority of your experience will rely on the type of person you are. Socially outgoing and willing to try new things? Plenty of opportunity for that here. To be fair, a small percentage does rely on plain old good luck. Some people just get lucky being in the right place at the right time. Of course the possibility of some bad luck should not dissuade you from pursuing a teaching option.

For those who know where and how to look, teaching in South Korea has some seriously amazing potential. Now go out and find it!

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