Is teaching in a hagwon the right option for you?
If you’re thinking about making the move to Korea to start teaching English, there are a few things you need to consider. Probably the biggest choice you will have to make is whether you would prefer to work in a public school or a private academy – teaching in a hagwon.
(If you have the right credentials, you may be qualified to work in a university. Lucky you.)
In this post, I share some of my experiences and lessons from working in a hagwon. I worked in Korea for one year, and while I had a generally positive experience overall, there are some important things to know before you commit to anything.
What to expect when teaching in a hagwon
1.Not all hagwons are created equal
The internet is full of horror stories about people having terrible experiences at their hagwons. At least it was full of them when I was looking for a job.
You can easily find stories about people not getting paid for months, or at all. Long hours. No holidays or vacation days. Dumpy apartments. No health insurance. Even getting “fired” right before the end of their contract so the company doesn’t have to provide flight and severance pay. Yikes.
It can be really scary to trust a dispatch company over the internet to set you up with a good hagwon. So I advise you to research your dispatch company and/or hagwon well to lessen the chance that you will feel compelled to do a “midnight run.” Ask to speak with current foreign teachers by email to see what they have to say about the hagwon.
2. Not all hagwons are terrible either
The school that I worked at paid everyone on time and in full. The Korean teachers took foreign teachers to the hospital for a full medical check at the beginning of the year. And they took us individually to the doctor when we needed it.
They provided nice apartments, took care of our rent, and helped us pay our utilities. They took care of immigration stuff and even let me take a day off for a an interview in Seoul for another job in Japan. We had enough holidays and days off to travel and relax. As far as I’m aware, they weren’t breaking any laws.
They were kind and supportive, and I felt that they genuinely cared about our well-being. This is very important when you are living in a foreign culture and can’t understand the language.
3. A few foreign teachers don’t care about what they are doing
I think a lot people see teaching in Korea as a sort of gap year. They come for a fun experience in a new country, looking for new friends, do some traveling, and thus they don’t take their jobs seriously. Though this might not be the case anywhere.
These are the people who might up and leave in the middle of their contract because the job turned out to be too difficult for their working holiday. Remember this when you are reading the above-mentioned horror stories.
However, I would say that for the most part teachers do their best at a job they may not have done before. Teaching small children is not easy, especially when you can’t speak each other’s language. My advice is to treat teaching in a hagwon like a real job, because that’s what it is, and don’t slack off.
4. Working hours vary
Sorry, this is very vague, and it depends on what kind of hagwon you work at. Some have early morning classes for adults to attend before they start work. And there are afternoon/evening classes for after regular school or work hours.
My school was for children, and it started at 10:00. This was great, since it gave me enough time to sleep in – I don’t like waking up at stupid o’clock in the morning. I don’t remember what time I finished, around 5:00 maybe, so I filled my evenings with Taekwondo classes and hot yoga. A few other teachers stayed for an extra class after that.
Make sure you know what hours you will be expected to work before you agree to a job. In my case, I didn’t have a split shift, and I preferred these hours to public school hours.
5. Your students will be able to speak English better than a lot of adults, but at a cost
My students ranged in ages from five to ten years old. Most of them could speak English much better than I expected. They can read, make their own sentences, and you can even have conversations with some of them.
Of course, this is the result of the pressure they are under to do well in, well everything. Many Korean parents have high expectations for their students, and as a result students are pushed very hard. They attend many other hagwons, study music, practice Taekwondo or ballet, and put in long hours at home doing homework.
Hagwons regularly have holiday shows or performances for the students to show off what they have learned. While a lot of it is memorization rather than necessarily learning, it allows us foreign teachers to see the pressure the kids are under – because we are under the same pressure at this time.
Teaching in a hagwon, I have seen little kids coming to hagwon sleepy, tired, and with bags under their eyes because they have been studying all night, and they are only 10 years old. A 12-year old girl at my hagwon had to take a month break because she was stressed. That’s sad.
6. You will have small classes and get to know all the students
I don’t think I ever had any more than eight students in one class. On the other hand, public schools probably have 30-40 students. And since you would be the English teacher for all the 100s of students, it would be very hard to get to know more than a handful of them even sort of well.
Because a hagwon is smaller and has a smaller class size, you really get to know each student. You are with them for a whole year, and you watch them learn and grow over that time. You know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and you know each of their personalities. I think a lot of people would argue that this is very rewarding.
Another benefit to a small class is that you can (hopefully) manage it easier. A lot of teachers don’t actually have any teaching experience or training, and 40 students would be a lot to control. Of course the small classes at hagwons still have their brats and trouble-makers.
7. You are the main teacher for your students
In public schools, you often don’t have a lot of freedom or even duties. You follow a curriculum and read some dialogue while a Korean teacher might do the bulk of the teaching. I’ve heard stories about public school teachers being bored and feeling like a tape recorder.
Teaching in a hagwon, you are the main teacher. There’s still a curriculum, but there is not another teacher in the classroom with you. It is your job to fill the whole period with activities and make sure things get done. The featured photo for this post was during “cooking” class.
In my opinion, this is better than desk warming.
8. You will be working with other foreigners
Unlike a public school, you will not be the only foreigner teaching in a hagwon (unless it is very very small). Whether or not you prefer this is up to you, but it can be nice to have someone to talk to who understands what you are going through because they are going through the same thing.
I’ve knowns people who have made lifelong friends working at hagwons. A couple at my school before I arrived even got married.
However, if you would prefer to not be with other foreign teachers because you want to learn Korean and be immersed in Korean culture, a public school might be a better fit for you.
In conclusion, these are a few of the things I learned through my experience teaching in a hagwon in Korea.
I think these are important points to consider when deciding if teaching in a hagwon is the right option for you. The experience is quite different than working in a public school. And while a public school may have more job and pay security than a hagwon. In my opinion a hagwon sounds like more fun – I don’t like waking up early and being bored at work.
However, to each their own, and I know that a public school is preferable to others.
I enjoyed my Korean teachers and other foreign teachers, and I think I ended up with a good hagwon. One year teaching in Korea turned out to be enough for me, but I’m glad that I had a positive experience overall.
Anyway, what are your thoughts on teaching in Korea or teaching in a hagwon? Let me know in the comment section below, and please share your experience working in Korea if you have any.