Hot off the press from college (always referred to as university in South Korea by the way), I headed to South Korea in an attempt to quench my desires for adventure and travel in a teaching job before settling down in an office job… almost three years ago.
Teaching in South Korea is relatively popular as far as international jobs go: it’s one of the countries with the highest pay, to get a job you don’t need to be a licensed teacher, and it’s a good jumping point to see other spots in Asia.
With thousands of English teachers hailing from around the world over the past decade, it’s easy to find teaching horror stories with a quick google search. Teachers not being paid. Teachers forced to work obscenely long hours. Teachers not given time off when they were sick. Every teacher enters a job in Korea with trepidation—who knows who their boss will be outside of the interview?
My entire time in Korea, I’ve been at the same job, which is highly unusual for teachers. Most finish their first year contract (or not) and try to move to a different job. Substantial careers in teaching aren’t really a thing in Korea, and the reason for that is the teaching system.
There are four main kinds of schools in Korea: kindergartens, hagwons, public schools, and universities. There is also a small scattering of international schools and private schools, but those are few and far in between.
A kindergarten usually has working hours somewhere between 9-6. They work with kindergarteners, and usually teachers from other countries teach at English kindergartens, where the children will learn and communicate completely in English. After the kindergarten finishes at around 2, after school programs are offered to young elementary school children. One of the big pros of working at a kindergarten is that they usually have slightly more vacation time than a hagwon.
A hagwon is an after school academy. Usually hagwons have a special focus: English, math, jump rope. Some hagwons do multiple subjects within the academy. Hagwons are geared towards elementary-high school students and usually run from 2-10 pm (any later is illegal in Korea). It’s from these schools many of the horror stories come from. There are thousands of hagwons in Korea and they don’t operate on a single educational standard. The goal of a hagwon, ultimately, is to make money, and to do so, they must please the parents who pay them obscene amounts of cash. At a hagwon, the focus foreign teachers have is usually on conversational English and it’s standard to teach somewhere from 25-30 hours a week (not counting prep time).
A good public school is a holy grail job: you actually need to have some teaching credentials to work at one. Public schools have longer and more vacations and also far less teaching hours (usually under 20). Classes are shorter, but much larger. Where a hagwon generally only has six students in a class, at a public school you will have around 30 students. You work general school hours from 8-4. They also expect a lot from their teachers, particularly in the Seoul area.
University jobs can really only be gotten if you have a Masters degree. If a public school job is the holy grail, then a university job is like a unicorn. They are highly sought after because of the benefits (so much vacation time!), the relatively low working hours, and the pay. It’s difficult to find universities in need of teachers and even harder to fit the requirements they are looking for, so most teachers in Korea tend to work at the first three institutions.
My job is a hagwon job, which I was incredibly nervous about taking after reading what people said about their schools. Some of the stories I heard were:
- Teachers either completely not getting paid or getting paid late.
- Teachers fired a month before their contract finished so the school wouldn’t pay severance.
- Teachers having to work well over 12 hours and having no personal time.
- Bosses acting crazy about their employees and taking things too personally.
One important tip I have is that during the interview process, ask to speak with other foreign teachers, either the one your replacing or another teacher. If the school flat-out refuses to let you speak to anyone, it’s a good indication you might be headed to a school with things to hide. Speaking to a non-Korean about their experience at the school can help you get a better picture of what the school will be like and also shows the school is confident that they manage their teachers well.
For me, in some ways, boss crossed the line a bit with the fourth option, but the first three were never anything I experienced. And, to be honest, my boss getting somewhat crazy was in part my own fault so she can’t take all the blame.
Around a year into my contract, I made a deal with a pesky group of middle school students with notoriously bad grades on spelling tests: If they all got above a 70%, I would buy them chicken for dinner one night. Nearly two years later and closing the end of my second contract, I thought I was home free. They had a few close calls. One in which a girl broke down in tears because she was just one word short of the score where the worst speller in the class managed to pull a 70%. But, they hadn’t managed and for a brief period of time, they switched teachers.
Come one cold winter day, each of the students came into class with smiles. I gave them three minutes to study for the test before delivering it to them. As I graded, their smiles grew. A couple of the girls and one of the buys always did at least relatively well. It was when I got to Harry and Christine’s tests that I was sure this would be another chicken-less test. But Christine passed with a 90%. But Harry, Harry who only once in the past six months got above a 50% (with an average of 20%) surely wouldn’t make the cut. With shock, I graded his test carefully. Eighty percent. Not only did the class meet my expectations, they went above it.
When I handed his notebook back, he said with a smirk, “I studied at home.”
All of them had a gleam in their eyes as they started yelling, “Chicken! Chicken!”
It was one of those strange moments when I felt strangely proud despite the fact my pocket would be emptier. A class I had my entire time in Korea, one that when I first started I didn’t learn liked me until almost a year and half in, exceeded my expectations in many ways. I looked at them and saw students who weren’t perfect, but confident in their abilities and comfortable to be who they were in my classroom.
That’s one of the good things about working at a school, though I’d say it could be a school anywhere. You see your students grow and change over time. In some hagwons, such as mine, you could have your students for years. They can be like a leech you just want to pick off—until you realize that you actually enjoy your time with them.
I never had a desire to teach before coming to Korea. It was the furthest thing from my mind. But my students helped change that.
Another helpful thing was my place of work.
Unlike many hagwons, my boss was more relaxed as long as you were teaching well. We work significantly less hours than other hagwons. The 30 contracted teaching hours foreign hagwon teachers have are just that. Teaching hours. Many other schools have office and prep hours in addition to that, often giving them a schedule anywhere from 12 pm to 9 pm or 1 pm to 10 pm. My boss only required us to be at the school 30 minutes before class to prep. And when our classes finished, we could go home. If you happened to have a break hour (which she tried not to do so that we could be home faster), you were welcome to leave and go get a snack or coffee.
On top of this, my boss wanted us to do things together but didn’t press for it. Many hagwons have required activities outside of work they must do together (such as dinner). In Korean culture, if your boss asks you to do something, you do it. But, within my hagwon, my boss was understanding of the fact we were tired, some teachers had families, and we didn’t always want to socialize and would invite us out with no expectations. It led to doing some fun things, such as many barbecue nights and even a ski trip (with a rafting trip being talked about).
And of course, there’s the benefit of having roundtrip airfare, a decent paycheck, and my apartment paid for that definitely falls into the benefits category. There are some teachers who live relatively frugally for a year or two and manage to pay off their student loans. On top of that, after completion of your contract you get one month’s worth of salary as severance pay. That’s a major benefit.
The most obvious one is the working hours. Even at my school, where our total working hours are far less than most schools, teaching 25-30 hours a week can be extremely draining. English-speaking teachers are also holding conversation classes. This means for 4-6 hours straight, you are doing nothing but talking. And that can be draining to anyone who hasn’t had to do it before.
My first eight months of teaching was very rough (with a few other rough patches coming later). I had no idea what I was doing—much like most teachers that come to Korea. Here’s the thing about teaching here: if you teach at a hagwon, you don’t really need to have any sort of teaching certification to do it. Speaking English was good enough.
Those first months were filled with unhappy parents, students quitting, and me miserable with classes filled with problematic students. It didn’t help that the previous teacher was forced to leave primarily because she didn’t do anything she was supposed to do in classes. So basically, classes could run ragamuffin.
There were multiple conversations with my boss over things I was doing wrong. In fact, it seemed that I did everything wrong. I wasn’t teaching right, my classes weren’t enough fun, my classes were too fun, my students didn’t feel as though I cared about them enough. It was rough. It resulted in a lot of lost nights sleeping and wondering if I should just pack up and head home because this clearly didn’t seem like the job for me. While the job should have been easy to leave at work, I found myself worrying on the weekends, trying to glean any advice I could from people on how to manage a classroom and how to teach.
(Add into this the fact that my apartment building had a cockroach problem. Shudder.)
Thankfully, my teaching style has greatly improved, though I’m not sure how or why. I’ve gained far more confidence in a classroom setting, though the thought of a full-sized class of thirty still terrifies me.
The ugly came towards the end of my first year at my school, in the summer time. My boss purchased a kindergarten because a well-running one is known to make the big bucks. The kindergarten was understaffed for the classes and she asked another teacher and myself if we would want to work there in the mornings for a good chunk of extra pay. Despite my initially misgivings—at the time, I was rather terrified of my boss because of all those conversations of how I failed as a teacher and wasn’t sure I wanted to continue to see her more and thus have more conversations—the lure of the money was far greater than my apprehension.
So I agreed.
There were promises made. My boss kept saying one thing over and over, which I should have taken more seriously: once you start, you can’t quit. So I assured her that I was sure I’d be able to work the two jobs—six hours teaching at the hagwon, four hours teaching at the kindergarten. And those hours didn’t include prep time.
I was wrong.
As soon as I started my first full week, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep this up. I brought it up to my boss how hard the schedule was and she expressed some disappointment. Then the MERS virus hit Korea. All the schools in Suwon were required to shut down for a week. A week that the kindergarten would have to make up on Saturdays.
This was too much for me. I was teaching ten hours a day, plus an additional four on Saturdays. I was breaking. So I carefully worded an email quitting the kindergarten because it was too much for me and had a teacher check it over before sending it.
That was where the craziness really started.
There are two things I should mention at this point: 1) I never signed a contract to work at the kindergarten. After the MERS hit, I tried to negotiate two points on the unsigned contract. One was that in future events like MERS, instead of making up the hours, I would take a pay hit. The second I can’t even remember at this point. However, my boss refused to budge on any of the points. 2) The kindergarten was all the way across the city from my hagwon. This meant that I rode either with my boss or my boss’s mom for 30-45 minutes in a car each day to get to and from work.
Car rides with my boss were filled with her telling me how I was a promise-breaker, how I was leaving her in a really bad position (which I both was and I wasn’t at the same time), and even one point how much she hated me. This was almost a daily thing for months. And if you’re wondering why I didn’t just transport myself, it was because of time and money. While in the beginning, my boss told me that if I had to get my own ride to either school, she would pay half, after I quit, she refused. So I sucked it up and dealt with it.
You could imagine this made me extremely unhappy. This was also combined with the fact that all of the kindergarten teachers were very unhappy with my boss. Extremely unhappy. The negativity was overwhelming and I got caught up in it. I hated it when we would have activities and the Korean teachers would only speak and give instructions in Korean because we were an English Kindergarten. There were many extra things I had to do that I wasn’t informed about. All this showed in my face and attitude during special activities.
I wasn’t perfect in this situation, clearly, by far. It got so bad at one point that I considered doing a night run to get out of the country.
Eventually I quit the kindergarten completely and stayed working at the hagwon (the lure of the severance pay drew me and I didn’t have to see my boss since she was always at the kindergarten).
My classes got better. My students became actually good. And they liked me. Eventually, things settled down completely and when my two year contract was up, to my utter shock, my boss asked me to renew again and also offered to find me a new apartment. And even as this contract is coming to a close, she’s asked me again if I would like to come back after a two-month vacation and she’d hold my (very nice) apartment for me.
I’ve only had a single teaching job for my entire time in Korea. Most teachers have far more if they make it past the one-year point on their contracts. I’ve gone through it all at my job: I’ve had good, I’ve had bad, and I’ve had downright nasty. But I definitely don’t regret this time here. I would encourage people who want to teach in Korea to do so. But I would also tell them that it isn’t a perfect job and that there will be times they will fail. They’ll fail hard, and they’ll fail miserably. But, they’ll also learn a lot about themselves through it.