Teach English in Korea: What It’s Like to Work at an Adult Hagwon

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

Today’s post, by Amber, an American who taught in Korea for over a year, is about what it’s like to work at an adult hagwon. 

When I arrived in Korea, there was no one waiting for me at the airport with a sign. I didn’t have housing arranged prior to my arrival. I drug my two giant suitcases through Incheon Airport, called my new boss on a payphone to let her know I’d arrived, and bought myself a bus ticket to Seoul. Once I got to the stop my boss had told me to go to, a man jumped from the crowd, asked if I was Amber, took my suitcases, and gestured for me to follow him to the hagwon where I’d be working for at least the next year.

I’ve heard from friend who worked with children in Korea that they were taken from the airport to their new apartment – one that the school provided for them. I was taken from the hagwon, where I briefly met my coworkers that first night, to a Korean love motel. Ah, love motels – cheap, sketchy places where most clients only pay for a few hours with someone they’ve just met at a bar or club. I stayed there for a week while training at my new hagwon and trying desperately to find a place to move into. And in case anyone is wondering, love motels don’t have thick enough walls.

The thing that I need to stress most about working for an adult hagwon is that no one holds your hand during those first few weeks in Korea, unless you have good fellow ex-pat coworkers – which I, fortunately, did. You get a housing stipend, not a furnished apartment provided by your school. And as far as training…let’s just say you will be teaching your first class when you’re still jet lagged and disoriented and barely familiar with any of the materials.

My training consisted of my boss – a very nice albeit hopelessly disorganized and high-strung woman of about forty – sitting with me to explain that “Some students just won’t like you,” and “Here’s how we handle complaints from students,” and “You need to learn these five different book series – this one on conversation, this for business students, this for lower level students, this for advanced students, and this one on Western culture for students that will be traveling. Oh, and if you have a student who wants something else, you just have to make your own lesson plan.” For a recent college graduate with no traveling or teaching experience, this was – to put it mildly – rather overwhelming.

I had gotten to Korea on a Wednesday and taught my first class that Friday. When I was chosen for the job, they’d assured me that I’d have a week of training since I was inexperienced, but they were so swamped with students that they had no choice but to toss me to the sharks early.

Each class lasts for fifty minutes, and they are one-to-one classes, which means every student is learning something completely different from every other student. I typically taught five to seven classes per day, and I worked a split shift. This meant that typically I taught 6:30AM-11AM and then 5PM-9PM. The middle of the day is free time. From what I understand, most adult hagwon jobs are like this. We have to teach when the students aren’t at work, and that means early morning and late night. Sounds terrible, right? It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds, and you do get used to the weirdness eventually. You get used to functioning with less sleep, and you find fun things to do during the day when the rest of your friends at other jobs are chasing children around a classroom. I, personally, used to catch up on my favorite American TV shows during that time.

A typical class went something like this. The student arrived – usually on time, but some were always tardy – and I greeted them with a bit of small talk to get them in the English frame of mind. Then we reviewed their homework together and discussed any mistakes they made. I kept track of any mistakes they made while speaking during the lesson on a word document – their lesson report. I’d print it after class and give it to them to study for next time. The middle part of the class depended on which topic the student was learning. Conversation students used a book series that had four chapters per unit, and we covered one chapter per class. Business students typically had specific things they wanted to learn for work – financial terms, vocabulary for business meetings, email writing. I also taught interview preparation, writing, travel English, and academic English.

So, what is expected of you as a one-to-one instructor for adults? It varies. Some students have very specific expectations, and if you don’t meet them, they will complain. They probably won’t talk to you directly, because Koreans are pretty passive in general when it comes to confrontation. But, they will complain to the secretary, who will tell your boss, who will not sugar coat anything when he or she tells you about it. One month after beginning my teaching, my boss told me I had my first complaint. “Mr. Lee says you’re not a good teacher. He told me that he doesn’t feel like he learns anything in your class and wants to switch to someone better.” It made me cry once I got home that afternoon, and the next time I saw that student, I wanted to smack him. But after a few incidents like that, when you realize some students expect you to work miracles and make them magically fluent in English, you develop thick skin and the criticism just bounces off. You also learn what the students tend to look for in a class. After six months of teaching, I never got anymore complaints.

Allow me to list for you all the pros and cons of a job like I had. Perhaps it will help anyone interested in Korea and teaching to decide whether or not it’s the right choice for you. It might seem like a crazy job, but I was ultimately happy that I decided to work there. I met some of the most interesting people and taught students aged 15-70+. I loved my coworkers. I got along well with my bosses. But it wasn’t all great. So, here goes:

Pros

Interesting students – I taught CEOs, athletes, bankers, teachers, college students, Samsung employees, elderly people, et c. I still keep in touch with some students now that I’m back in the US. I went to dinner with students, drank with them, and became friends with many. I enjoyed teaching 95% of them. Though I mentioned complaints above, I will say that I had maybe five students my entire time there who I didn’t like. Everyone else was great.

Freedom – I could pick my apartment, my bosses didn’t hover, and it was a generally relaxed environment to work in. I was blessed with the best coworkers – five other foreigners from the US and Canada – who I am certain I will keep in touch with for the rest of my life.

Free time during the day – Split shift is not easy at all, but if you have the right attitude, you can learn to enjoy it. I cherished my daytime free time. It meant I was never at the office for more than three or four hours at a time, which I loved. I could go for a walk and get some air during the day.

Great resources and facilities – I had my own office with a computer and desk plus a whiteboard. I never had to get any of my own supplies. We had a great printer and copier plus any books we could possibly want to teach from. The computers were all linked by a network so we could share materials with one another.

Cons

The hours – The hours, though I did like that free time during the day, were terrible. I was literally always tired. I learned that I got too groggy if I napped during the day, so I was functioning on maybe five hours of sleep per night. I’d get home close to ten, have dinner, get ready for bed, fall asleep by midnight, and be up at five again to get ready. I got sick a lot.

Vacation – Ten days. That’s it. And in order to take more than two off at a time, you have to tell them way in advance. My family visited for a week, and I was able to take five days because I told them five months in advance. But then they still made me teach a class during that time because the student refused to reschedule. It still counted as a vacation day.

Sick time – Eight hours. You are allowed to miss eight classes if you are sick. That’s it. I got severe tonsillitis that wouldn’t go away for three weeks. I had a 102 degree fever, no voice, and was extremely dehydrated because I couldn’t swallow, but they made me teach every single scheduled class. My boss avoided me during that time, perhaps worried I would complain (though I’m not one to complain in those situations) and the only time she spoke to me was to remind me that I had no more sick time to use because I had gotten the flu earlier in the year. Worse than that, a coworker had to get surgery and was forced to take his vacation time for his recovery.

Stats for Adult Hagwons

Hours per day – 5-7 during the week, 4 on the weekend, max is 8, min is 0 (there were days that all my classes canceled)

Days per week – Usually 6 (Sunday is the only day off)

Average salary – 21,000-25,000 per year, paid once per month.

Vacation – 10 days per year plus all Korean holidays

Classes – One on one

Author Bio: Amber is a 24-year-old aspiring author. She graduated in 2011 with a degree in English. She enjoys traveling and hopes to one day tour Europe and Asia. She taught English in South Korea for sixteen months and is now back in the United States. Currently she is applying for jobs as a programs assistant at university study abroad departments, because she hopes to share her experiences living abroad with students hoping to study abroad as well as to help incoming international students adjust to life in America. If you have any questions about living or working abroad, or further inquiries about teaching at an adult hagwon, contact her at [email protected] You can also check out her blog at http://amberauthor.wordpress.com/.

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2 Comments
  1. December 14, 2012
  2. December 31, 2012

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