Photo: Kim Hyun U/Shutterstock

6 Reasons Not to Work at a Korean Hagwon

South Korea Travel
by Lily La Feb 20, 2014

Korean private academies, also known as hagwons, are widely known to have a dark side. I landed my job at a hagwon six months after graduating from university, and I’ve had moments of pure frustration, cried pitifully after horrid classes, and still struggle with my working schedule at times. After ten months, somehow I’m still going strong.

Here are some annoyances of a hagwon, and why I won’t be returning.

1. The teaching hours suck.

It’s not necessarily the amonunt of hours you’re at school that can get to you, it’s the amount of hours you’re expected to teach. Forty hours at work is normal, like any full-time job — but 30+ teaching hours? Some might call that insane, but that’s exactly what I deal with at my school.

Twenty-five hours of teaching a week was something I was expecting when I first arrived at my hagwon. That gives me enough time to plan and prepare for each of my lessons. But with the hagwon hours I have, preparation and planning have become something of a myth. Instead, I’ve come to excel at planning and teaching off the top of my head.

2. You get minimal holidays.

I always thought the one great benefit of being a teacher, other than being an educator to the leaders of the next generation, is the amount of holiday time you get — not in a Korean hagwon. Most of us get just one week off in the summer, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get another week off for Christmas, which is rare because it’s not a hugely celebrated holiday in Korea. With the long hours that we work, you’d think we’d be rewarded with better holiday schedules, but I’m afraid not.

3. They put intense pressure on the kids.

The Korean education system is notorious for putting their students through long days at school. According to the 2012 PISA results, this has made for a country with the unhappiest of students. Korean students are worked to the bone. They attend their normal comprehensive school during the day, and then attend various other private classes after school.

A few years ago, the government in Seoul put a curfew of 10pm on hagwons to discourage late-night cramming sessions. Parents protested, claiming that the policy favored the rich, who can afford private tutors to help their children study outside of hagwons.

An elementary school student of mine once told me, “Teacher, I go to school in the morning to study, then I go to academy after to study. After, I go home to eat, then my mother tells me to study again — I just want to rest and play with my friends!”

I couldn’t agree more, yet there’s nothing I could possibly do to help the situation, other than make my lessons the most fun and engaging they have all day. I don’t wish to add to the workload, or to the stress my students already experience at their comprehensive school and other hagwons they attend. It’s just a never-ending circle they can’t seem to leave, and it tears me up inside to watch it.

4. If they go bust, so do you

Most of the time, I forget that hagwons are private institutes who get no help from the government. A lot of these schools have top-notch interiors and learning resources for their students. My school is actually nicer than any school I’ve ever attended back home in London. Fees to attend academies can be quite high, and so schools can afford to splurge on their kids, and parents expect it.

That being said, you can still feel it’s a business from the daily running of the place, and because of that, I quickly realised that if the business collapsed (like so many do), then my job would too. I’ve heard countless stories from teachers who’ve had their hagwons close and had to end their contracts early. Suddenly, you’re in a foreign land with no job, no income, no place to stay…and that bonus you were looking forward to at the end of your contract? Not happening.

5. There’s no room for progression.

As with any job or career path, you expect to have some sort of opportunities for progression — not in a hagwon. This is one of the main reasons I won’t be renewing my contract at the end of the year. Although it can be a great job and I’m learning a ton, I’d rather do all that in a job where I can progress further up the ladder.

A chance for progression gives you motivation and something to work towards. I couldn’t stay in the same job year after year knowing I won’t be able to advance. To own and run a hagwon here, you’d most likely have to be Korean or speak Korean. It’s not completely impossible, just rarely heard of. Even when a foreigner does own and run their own hagwon, that still doesn’t mean you can progress from an ESL teacher to a director. Hagwons are like family businesses, and it’s tough to infiltrate and make your way to the top.

6. That TEFL qualification you paid for will come in no use whatsoever.

After I graduated from university, I knew I wanted to teach English abroad — and I wanted to be great at it. There was a lot about teaching that I needed to learn, so I signed myself up to do a 120-hour TEFL course. I learnt about classroom management, how to plan lessons, and brushed up on my English grammar.

I soon realised after arriving at my hagwon that none of that really mattered here. Nobody planned lessons, and there was no curriculum to work with. Everything was heavily book- and test-based. I spent more time learning how to create tests for my students than putting to use an ounce of the skills I learnt from my TEFL course.

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