If you’re interested in teaching in South Korea, chances are you’re seeking information as to whether or not you’d like to work as a public school instructor or in one of the nation’s omnipresent hagwons. There are plenty of benefits as well as disadvantages to both work environments, which is why the continuous comparison of both jobs exists. While I don’t have any personal experience working in Korean public schools, I can offer some insight on some of the more significant pros and cons to working at a Korean hagwon. Though I’m generally the type of gal who asks for the “bad news first,” I’m going to start with the pros on this one.
- You will get paid more.
Hagwons pay their teachers a considerably higher salary than public schools. Obviously the most significant advantage to this is being able to save a few hundred more dollars each month, but the best part is that it is totally negotiable. Should you choose to take the academy path, you’ll not only be able to negotiate your price (even as a newbie) based on your skill set, but you’ll be able to continue to do this the longer you stay in the country.
- Your classes will be significantly smaller
If you’re interested in having close relationships with every single one of your students, a hagwon is the best option for you. I’m always baffled when I’m talking to my peers who are employed at a public school, mainly because most of them don’t know their students by their name. Most kindergarten hagwons have a cap of 10-12 students per class, whereas public school teachers see 200+ students per week. In addition, since hagwons offer a more personal and attentive learning environment, your students will have extremely impressive English skills for their age.
- You will have fellow [foreign] English speaking colleagues
Unless you get stuck in an unfortunate situation with people you don’t jive well with, this factor will make your work experience much more pleasant. The greatest benefit is that you’ll have buddies during weird school events or field trips, connect via effortless conversations in English, vent about bad days, share a laugh about great days and just hang out. If you’re brand new to Korea, your colleagues will introduce you to new places, friends and assist you with any questions you may have. If you’re lucky like me, your coworkers and you will grow close and have spontaneous private norebang and dance parties in your classrooms after school.
- The choice is yours
You’ll be able to interview with several options before making the final decision to sign a contract. While this might seem daunting and overwhelming, it’s something to take into consideration. Make a list of which schools are offering a better pay (2.1 – 2.2 million won for newbies is standard), are in a decent location, have a good reputation and reasonable work hours. With a little extra research, you can land a great gig.
Prior to accepting my current position, I spent a lot of time interviewing in person, via Skype and keeping track of the candidates in a spreadsheet. I ended up accepting my job because I agree with the school’s ideology. My boss believes children should feel happy at school and learn through activities, song and dance and art rather than mindless memorization and book work. Don’t get me wrong, we still use books, but they are meant to be supplemental to the conversation rather than the core of the lesson.
In addition, we have a farm in which we plant and harvest vegetables (which are often used in meals prepared by my school’s personal cook) and I have similar hours to a public school teacher. However, my gig is a diamond in the rough – but similar opportunities are out there!*
*Pro-tip: They’re mainly in Apgujeong and Sinsa-dong.
- Hagwons are a business
Due to the fact that all academies in Korea are privately owned, a lot of them can be shady. According to the BBC, it is estimated that there are up to 100,000 hagwons scattered throughout Korea and that roughly three-quarters of children attend the institutions. Tuition for these schools cost big bucks (some up to $2,000 USD/month), and it isn’t uncommon for some parents to take out loans to be able to make the monthly payments.
Many of the business owners, aka school directors, tend to be cheap, manipulative and greedy. This is certainly not the case for all, and most will be kind to the foreign teachers face-to-face, but it’s certainly something to take into consideration while on the job hunt.
- You’ll get less vacation time
Any vacation days you’ll receive at a hagwon will be chosen for you, and total 2 weeks per year. There are a lot of Korean national holidays that will serve as placeholders for long-weekends, but don’t count on being able to take any sort of personal holiday. Some academies are more lenient than others; depending on the director, employees will be granted a certain number of sick days. However, some academies don’t offer any whatsoever, so be sure to read the fine print on your contract before signing!
- Many Korean hagwons are unreliable
To be quite frank, a lot of hagwons suck. Many directors are just in it for the money and don’t think twice about working conditions, safety hazards or boosting morale. It’s safe to say it’s best to steer clear of chain academies, as most of these have completely thrown any values out the window for the sake of money. In other words, there’s no need for them to attempt to care when their business has been thriving for years and they are well-known in the industry.
I had a horrific experience working for one of the most popular hagwon chains in Korea. While I don’t totally regret it, the 14 months of my employment were hellish, complicated and draining.
So there you have it: the most significant pros and cons that came to my mind. Something to keep in mind is the fact that the only upside to any sort of poor working condition will obviously be the children. Aside from the massive paycheck, they’re the real reason we’re here and they can bring light to an otherwise dark day.
Have I left anything out that you think should be included? Please be sure to comment below!