the wrong way around

I quit the best job in Korea.

The University Job is the dream of every hagwon (private academy) teacher. University teachers teach 14 hours a week; hagwon teachers do 30. University teachers have a minimum of 2 months of paid vacation a year; hagwon teachers get 10 days – if their directors allow them to take it – and sometimes have to find (and pay) their own replacements. University students behave because they are adults and because their grades depend on it; hagwon teachers behave because they work for for-profit organizations and their jobs depend on the parents’ and students’ happiness. Hagwon students don’t behave.

I worked in hagwons for eight years before moving to a university. There are a lot of reasons hagwons get a bad rap, and I know some of this from personal experience.

They’re a bit of a grab bag. The hagwon system is not very well regulated. There are stories of directors who hold their teachers’ passports and university degrees (and sometimes “lose” them). Some directors cut corners on teachers’ pay or include weekends in “vacation” time. Sometimes directors charge teachers pension and insurance, but never actually pay into those things. Some directors fire teachers for spurious reasons in the 11th month of their contract to avoid paying yearly severance pay. The list of grievances seems endless. To be fair, there’s often an equally long list of grievances on the hagwon directors’ parts as well.

There’s no job security. Hagwons have a notoriously high turnover rate. It’s rare to find a hagwon whose teachers stay more than a year or two. There seems to be a revolving door for Korean English teachers as well. The market is also quite competitive and smaller hagwons often fail to stay in the black. When the school sinks, everyone walks away penniless. Being penniless in a foreign country is not fun.

Hagwons are part of the problem. 1) They’re for profit, which means that they sometimes lose their focus on learning. 2) They perpetuate the native speaker fallacy. 3) They contribute to the number of hours students spend studying rather than playing, relaxing, reading, or enjoying their free time. 4) They widen the gap between rich and poor.

Then again, if you get a “good” hagwon, a lot of that isn’t true. 

At a good hagwon, the present and future needs of the student are put first. Learning does not get lost in the drive to make money. Teachers are not mistreated and their time is respected. The directors know something about education and choose their teachers carefully. They are aware that they are part of the problematic education system and do what they can to mitigate it. In fact, they are in a position to do a lot of good.

And this is why I left my cushy university job to return to a hagwon.

Hagwons have small class sizes (usually maximum of 12). The students usually come to classes between two and five days a week and between one and three hours a day. In public schools or university classes, foreign teachers only see the students once or twice a week for under an hour, 30 students to a class with mixed abilities, and hundreds of students altogether.

Working in a hagwon means I have a chance to get to know each one of my students. I can learn about them and listen to them and find out the best ways to help them learn. While there is student turnover, many students stay for several years at the same hagwon. That’s a lot of chances to form a real connection and make a real difference. In this way the extra teaching time without long vacations is a good thing for teachers and learners.

Hagwon students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. Some of them are there because their parents make them go, but many of them have dreams that they need English to achieve. I know I said above that “hagwon students don’t behave.” Classroom management is a lot easier with the support of the directors. Classroom management is also easier when I have a connection with my students. If students aren’t behaving there’s probably a reason.

Hagwons provide a place to be a little more radical experimental than a public school or university classroom where the teachers have to justify everything they do and are bound to specific textbooks. The ability to try new things and teach the students rather than the material, combined with the igniferous tendency of trends in Korea means that willingness to make small risks can lead to big changes across the country in the informal education system (okay, perhaps I’m dreaming…).

Note 1: I’ve over-generalized a lot in this post. Feel free to ask questions or provide additions or corrections in the comments.

Note 2: This post is not meant to demean university teaching positions (or public school positions). It is simply meant to share why I left “the best job in Korea” to return to a position that is well-known for being rather humble.

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  • Bryan  On September 2, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    This was a very balanced post, and a good post for me to read because I have very biased feelings towards hagwons.

    I had two really bad hagwon experiences, which I’ll avoid rambling about, but basically after I started at public school I vowed never to touch a hagwon again.

    But actually I learned a lot in my first hagwon job. The problems were all related to the owner, but the head teacher was just this really amazing teacher with a really strong understanding of learning who I got a lot from. And the one benefit of having the hagwon collapse as I was working there was she started running things the way she wanted to and included me in discussions about teaching decisions and materials.

    However, this period of collapse aside, my experience at both hagwons was that I didn’t have much chance to be experimental. I found there was a lot of pressure from parents to have a book, to stick to it very prescriptively, and to hurry through it very quickly (too quickly for the students to really learn). I’m lucky enough to have a public school position where I’m not really bound to textbooks at all – I need to pay attention to the target language, but I can decide everything about how I teach it.

    If somebody I trusted offered me a position at an established hagwon and said I could make my own decisions about what and how to teach, I’d probably leap at it. But it would be very very hard for me to trust a hagwon owner ever again.

    • livinglearning  On September 2, 2013 at 11:25 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment, Bryan. I am very well aware that others’ experiences have differed from mine and your perspective is really important to me. When I arrived in Korea, I was not a teacher. I learned (mostly from kindergarteners) how to teach “on the job” as they say. Over the years I was granted more freedom to do what I wanted within the curriculum until I was told one day “Do whatever you think is best in the classroom, but let us know about it so we know what to tell the parents.” It took time to build that trust, though. My current hagwon has already said a similar thing, and I find myself wishing I had a curriculum to follow, at least for a few weeks while I settle in. I’m glad to hear that not all public school positions are tied to textbooks.

      For what it’s worth, the kindergarten I started out at failed to pay on time (if at all), took money out for insurance and pension that they never paid into the pension fund, hired teachers based solely on appearance, and never provided any training. My thoughts on trusting hagwon owners is that, like anyone else (‘cept clowns, of course), they have to earn or lose trust as individuals.

  • David Harbinson  On September 3, 2013 at 12:42 am

    I think your post sums up hagwons in Korea well. Having said that, I’ve never had a truly bad experience with the hagwons where I have worked. I’ve only ever worked in hagwons since coming to Korea, and I’ve been at my current one for almost 5 years. I only teach adults, which I really enjoy, and for me I don’t think I would enjoy working for a university. Sure, the vacation would be nice, but I really love teaching students who really want to be there. I can probably count on one hand the number of students I’ve had in class who really didn’t want to be there over the last 5 years.

    That’s not to say that I don’t have a few grievances with the places I’ve worked, but you’ll get that anywhere. I know that my situation seems to be the exception rather than the rule. But, I completely agree that if you can find a good hagwon, there are a lot of benefits. I find it funny sometimes when I tell people that I work for a hagwon and almost get a sympathetic response.

    • livinglearning  On September 3, 2013 at 11:29 am

      Thanks so much for your comment and for adding your perspective. It is nice to hear that there are other positive experiences of hagwon teaching out there. When I tell people how long I’ve been in Korea, I usually get the response, “You must work for a university by now.” I understand it, but I think it’s based on some preconceived notions relating to workplace and status.

  • Rose Bard  On September 3, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    Anne I know near to nothing about Korea context of teaching. So your post gives me some idea. Thanks. I couldn’t help but notice that although culture is very different from Korea to Brazil, somethings are similar. I am so looking forward to hear about your class experiments and the learning process of you and your learners. And I don’t think you are dreaming at all. Go for it girl!

    I mean, you are already there. 🙂 Stay blessed! ♥

    • livinglearning  On September 4, 2013 at 11:39 am

      Thanks for reading, Rose. I know that this post might not make sense to people who haven’t taught in Korea and I’m really glad you took something away from it. I don’t know anything about teaching in Brazil. I am curious about what things you see as similar?

  • ratnavathy  On September 4, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Anne, isn’t it just so like you to just take the risk and tread uncharted waters…or rather, less-agreeable chartered waters? You really, are being yourself here I think. Being non-judgmental and non-stereotypical about things others have strong thoughts about. Or maybe it’s the change that you need right now!
    No matter what, I’m sure you’d do your best there and continue learning and developing as a teacher (more bike rides to come, more exploring too!)

    • livinglearning  On September 7, 2013 at 8:38 am

      Dear Ratna,
      Thanks so much for your comment and kind words. I am sure this is the change I need right now. I had an interesting experience last night: I ran into one of my students with his mom and little sister at E-mart. I almost didn’t recognize him because he was so solemn. I’d never seen him without the playful smile he always wears in class. I wondered after that if the couple hours he spends in the hagwon are some of the best in his day? I’ll never know, but I had to question the assumption that hagwons are always part of the problem. I think questions are important. Thank you for being one of the people I can reflect with!


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