This post is part of a series about teaching English in Korea. To see the rest of the posts, or find more information about teaching English in Korea, check out this page.
The vast majority of English teaching jobs in Korea are at hagwons, or private language academies. Amber wrote last week about teaching adults, and today I am going to focus on hagwons that cater to the pre-K to high school students. It’s hard to generalize what it’s like to work at a hagwon because no two hagwons are the same and every teacher will have a different experience. That being said, I will try my best to describe the different type of working environments you might find yourself in order to give you a better sense of what you’re signing up for.
Chain or Independent
There are two main types of English language hagwons in Korea. The first is the “chain” hagwon where companies operate many branches around the country. Some of the popular chains include Avalon, YBM, Korea Poly School, Chungdahm, and SLP. These companies often create their own materials and have a standard curriculum to be followed at every branch. Most chain hagwons are larger than independently owned academies, and have many foreign teachers. Some teachers view hagwon chains as a more stable work environment; they may be less likely to close because of an increased financial backing, but they also offer less flexibility. I worked at a hagwon chain my first year in Korea, and while I never worried about being let go early to save money, I had to deal with some corporate policies that were frustrating.
The other type of hagwon is an independently owned academy. These schools are generally much smaller and often only have a couple of foreign teachers (some may have just 1). An independently owned hagwon may give you more flexibility with lesson planning, and if you have a good boss, it could be a dream. An independently owned hagwon is a little less stable and some schools have been known to let their teachers go early to avoid paying severance and flight allowances.
Like I said in my post about getting a hagwon job, it is to your benefit to research your exact school. If you’re working at a branch of a chain, look at reviews of the exact location as they can vary wildly.
Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle, High
Different academies cater to different ages of students- kindergarten, elementary, middle, high school, or some combination of the four.
A kindergarten offers English immersion education for students who are usually between the ages of 4, 5, and 6 (Korean age 5, 6, and 7) and have not yet started Korean school. The students attend class from about 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., but teachers are usually expected to come early and stay later to prepare lessons. The types of classes taught varies. At my school I taught writing, vocabulary, science, reading, and art. The students also attended a gym class taught by another instructor. Each class was 40 minutes long and we were expected to cover a certain number of pages a month, including workbook pages to be completed by the students and graded by the teacher. The students were tested on the material once a month. Other kindergartens have a more, shall we say, relaxed curriculum that focuses on language acquisition through more age appropriate activities like art, cooking, and play.
Elementary, middle, and high school academies provide after school language instruction. Because of this, these programs start later in the day, usually around 3:00 p.m., and can run until as late as 10:00 p.m.. If you teach only elementary, middle, or high school expect to start work midday.
Elementary school hagwon classes are generally between 40-50 minutes long and cover different aspects of the four tenants of language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Often there are also other subjects such as math, debate, or current events. At my school we were given page numbers to cover in each class, but were free to cover the material however we chose.
As students get older, English language hagwon attendance begins to get smaller, and the students left are those serious about the language. Because of this, the classes become more intense and start to focus more on preparation for the many English exams they will have to take in high school and college.
Besides teaching the actual classes, hagwon instructors are also responsible for the paperwork side of teaching. This may include submitting weekly lesson plans detailing everything you will do in each class, marking homework and essays, and writing report cards for the students. You also may need to create or print materials beyond the books that are given.
Most hagwons will require instructors to teach at least one open class during their contract. This is a day where all the parents come watch you teach. Korean parents are notoriously picky, and the class is often rehearsed for weeks beforehand. Open classes were my least favorite part of teaching.
Beyond language, hagwons are also sometimes used a tool for cultural immersion. Holidays that are popular in English speaking countries, such as Halloween and Christmas, are often celebrated with gusto. My school turned our gym into a haunted house, went trick or treating, and held a Halloween themed spelling bee at the end of October and Santa came and visited in December. These activities, and the monthly birthday parties, were a fun time to see the students doing something other than sitting behind a desk.
Get to really know the students: Because hagwon instructors teach smaller classes and see the students more than once a week, it is much easier to get to know them than if you teach at a public school. I formed bonds with many of my students, from kindergarten to sixth grade. I knew about their families, hobbies, dreams, and every mosquito bite they got in the summer. At the end of the year I was tearful during our goodbye.
Easier for those with no teaching experience: The only thing I’d ever taught before coming to Korea was swimming lessons. I didn’t even have a certification to teach English. Getting a hagwon job made the transition a little easier. I was given books and told which pages to cover each day and given ideas of activities to do during class. The set curriculum helped me feel at ease in the classroom fairly quickly.
Foreign coworkers: If you work at a public school you will most likely be the only foreigner at your school. Hagwons, especially the larger ones, often have more than one. My school had 15! This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on who your coworkers are. I became very close to many of my coworkers at my first school. Without these people I probably would’ve never survived the job. And I probably would’ve spent a lot less money on beer
Lack of vacation and sick time: The standard vacation time at a hagwon is 10 days, usually 5 in the summer and 5 in the winter. These days are often picked for you, and my first vacation was scheduled Thursday-Wednesday making it even shorter. In addition, most hagwons don’t offer sick days. While some will let you stay home (without pay), others will make you come in. There’s nothing like teaching a class with tonsillitis bronchitis, and a 104 degree fever!
Parent pressure: Hagwons don’t come cheap and parents are the last ones to forget this fact. Because of this, hagwon bosses will do whatever it takes to make the parents happy- even if it makes absolutely no sense to you as a teacher. A lot of hagwons have cameras installed in the classroom so parents and bosses can easily monitor the teacher’s behavior. If the parent doesn’t like something, they will let it be heard. Loudly.
Lack of communication: This isn’t exactly hagwon specific, it’s more a reflection on Korean culture in general, but many hagwons suffer from a severe lack of communication. Teachers find things out at the last minute, and this usually creates extra work, extra stress, and extra disdain for the workplace.
Stats for Hagwons
Hours per day: 5-12 (this varies, and I wouldn’t suggest taking a job that has you working more than 8 hour days with a maximum of 6 teaching hours)
Days per week: Usually 5 (Saturday and Sunday off)
Average salary: 2,000,000-2,300,000 won a month
Vacation: 10 days per year plus all Korean holidays
Classes: These vary, but usually no more than 15 students with smaller class sizes for younger students.
Have you worked for a hagwon in Korea? What do you think?