If you’ve considered teaching in Korea, you’ll probably have spent a fair amount of time trying to decide whether to go down the public or private school route. Private academies, known as hagwons, have a pretty terrible reputation here- just do a quick google search and you’ll find plenty of horror stories about shady bosses screwing foreign teachers over and psychotic co-workers making their lives hell. However, hagwon jobs in Korea are plentiful and easy to get, which is why I spent my first year in Korea working for one. When I decided to spend a 2nd year in Korea, I chose to apply for a public school position- I was lured in by the sociable working hours and long holidays. Yet, although I’m working in the cushy job I could only have dreamed about last year, I seem to have developed a bad case of the “grass is always greener” syndrome. Most people who have ever worked in Korea will laugh at me for saying this, but I actually miss working at a hagwon! Here’s why:
Having Good Bonds with my Students
I’m going to start with the thing I miss most first- my students. Last year at my hagwon I knew every single one of my students’ names. This was pretty easy because most hagwons have an English name policy for students up to elementary age. When students reach middle school they can either romanise their Korean name or keep their English name. Hagwons are usually quite intimate learning environments. Mine had about 250 students. I saw each of my classes 3 times a week, but would stop and talk to them in the corridor betwen classes every day. Classes at hagwons are much smaller than public schools. The largest class that I taught had 10 students in it. Some classes even had as little as 2 students! With such small classes, I had a lot of time to get to know my students, and create really strong bonds. I’m even still in touch with some of the middle school girls that I taught! English classes are much less frequent in public schools, and classes are much bigger. Although there are some students I’ve developed good bonds with, I’ve definitely not had the chance to get to know all students individually like I did last year.
The Working Hours
When I first started working in my hagwon, I hated the anti-social working hours. I worked between 2pm and 9.30pm and found it so difficult to develop a routine, after having worked standard 9-5 office hours for almost 2 years. Basic things like knowing when to eat, when to go to bed and what to do in my spare time were huge challenges at first. However, after a lot of trial and error I had it all figured out! ! I would get up in the morning and prepare my food for the rest of the day, then relax a bit before work. I had a 20-minute break at work, and I’d eat my dinner (usually something that didn’t require heating) then. Since my dinner had already settled, I could go to the gym straight after work. The gym was always so quiet at this time of night, so I didn’t have to worry about coffee drinking ajeoshis (older Korean men) sitting on the machines I wanted to use. Readjusting to 9-5 life has been a bit of a reverse culture shock, and I still haven’t managed to get into a routine that fits. On the less healthy end of the spectrum, I also miss being able to go out for dinner and drinks after work and sleep until midday! Such a luxury.
Having a Foreign Co-Worker
While I don’t really agree with the idea of foreigners coming to Korea just to make friends with other foreigners, eat Western food and hang about in foreigner bars, I do think that having a foreign co-worker can do wonders for your sanity! Due to budget cuts across the country, almost every public school just has one foreign teacher. Some days I really miss having someone around to have a meaningful conversation with that goes past the usual “How was your weekend?” and “What is your favourite Korean food”
Some days culture differences get just plain weird, and I have no one to share the strange situations with! I could text a friend, but nothing compares to looking over at the person next to you and exchanging a “WTF?” look then bursting out laughing! I probably vent to my friends about the weird things much more this year than I did last year, which of course adds a bit more negativity to your day.
For a lot of people, their foreign coworkers end up being their best friends in Korea. The teacher I replaced introduced me to all his friends which really helped me settle into life in Korea and I’m forever grateful for. (Thanks Uncle Steve!) Having friends around you who understand your culture makes adjusting to life abroad so much easier.
Last year I dreamed so much of having a half hour to myself during the day. I was so envious of my public school friends who would complain about desk warming. I taught 6 x 50-minute classes back to back, with just 10 minutes in between, and a 20-minute break for dinner. I had an hour and a half before class every day to prepare for my classes, mark students work and fill in progress reports. My day was jam-packed and it was pretty exhausting. At my public school, I usually teach 4 x 40-minute classes in the morning. Some days I teach 5, some days I teach 2 and some days I don’t even teach at all. I have no extra responsibilities outside of class, except preparing for the next days classes and signing a sheet of paper to say I came to school. I don’t even need to submit lesson plans! It doesn’t take me long to prepare activities for my lessons, especially since I only teach 4 unique lessons each week. That leaves me with a lot of free time every afternoon, and it’s great because I’ve been able to learn Spanish, practice my Korean and create this blog during my desk warming time. But sometimes I do miss having proper responsibilities and always having something work related to do.
My hagwon was right in the heart of my town last year, and my apartment was a 5-minute walk away. This year I live in a nicer city, but commute to work out in the countryside every day. Some days I really miss being able to leave my house 10 minutes before I start work, and still get there early! Since most hagwons are in central locations, the chances of you being housed in the back of beyond are much slimmer!
Bear in mind, that not all hagwons are the same. I didn’t realise it at the time, but mine was definitely a lot more reputable than some of the hagwons that I heard about. Don’t let the horror stories put you off working in an English hagwon. There are so many great things about these jobs that do trump public school. For starters, you can choose the city that you want to work in. This is a biggy for most people! Always do your research, try and connect with people in that area (most cities have an expat group on facebook, you just need to find it) and try to speak to a current teacher. This is much better than getting an email address from a recruiter- I would be much more likely to give an honest review to someone who found me on a social network, than someone who contacted me through their recruiter. Of course, if you have any questions about working in a hagwon, feel free to contact me via email, or leave me a comment below!