The Korean education system is fierce. Students are inside of schools and academies for majority of the day and night. They want to outcompete the rest of their class and score perfectly on tests in hopes of getting a job at an elite company, a Chaebol (재벌). Students in middle school can be seen going to after school academies, known as hagwons (학원) as late as 10:00pm. The dread of high school slowly creeps up on them as it demands even more time for homework and studying, as if there wasn’t enough demand from them already.
Hagwons are for-profit private institutions with a focus in a single subject. They are all over Korea and they are practically a requirement for students if there is any hope for them to get accepted into one of the top universities in the country. Hagwons can range from the core subjects of math or science and can include piano, English, and Taekwondo (태권도). It is typical for the average Korean child to attend their normal classes in school and then start attending hagwons in the afternoon and evening. Middle school students sometimes stay in these academies until 10:00pm, whereas high school students can sometimes be out until midnight. The education system in Korea is under the philosophy that constant studying is the road to success. You can question the ethics behind such a system, but it’s there and it’s a huge industry.
It doesn’t take long living in Korea and becoming disillusioned by all of it. While the children you’re teaching aren’t entirely the problem, it’s the execution of a hagwon that is really confusing. “Glorified babysitting” is the best term to describe a foreigner teaching in Korea. If you dive into the politics of the for-profit private English sector, you find that prices to attend these hagwons are quite high with a return that is minimal in comparison. Despite my seemingly negative experience with and for the system, I really enjoyed my time in a hagwon after all was said and done. Like any job, it can be difficult and have its exhausting moments. On the other hand, teaching students was mostly a great experience as they were always full of energy and excited at anything that you presented to them.
Common Problems with English Hagwons
A majority of mothers think that their child is exceptional and should be placed in a higher grade. Then, when the student fails to meet the qualifications, it must be the fault of the teacher.
Students of the same age are placed in the same grade as if the level of learning for an optional education is generally going to be the same. It could be the difference of a student with two years and four years of English experience, which is huge for a foreign language at a young age.
The first option is to slow down the course material to compensate for the lowest level. This bores the smart students to the point that they leave to another hagwon.
The second option is to continue the speed of the course material and hope that the lowest level can keep up. These students end up with low grades on tests, which upsets the parents.
The third option is to find a middle ground that appeases everybody at the expense of an actual education. Years go by, yet the rate of English proficiency remains nominal.
Often, the smart students move to a “better” hagwon. This causes a buildup of undisciplined and unteachable students that are in the wrong grade regarding their English proficiency. It creates a poor classroom environment that ultimately gets pointed back to the teacher. The remaining students that are actually interested in learning stay quiet and learn to have extensive patience.
Since a business relies on the income received from your consumer (.e.g., the parents), they have a strong ability to sway the course of a hagwon. Because of this, it is difficult to enact rules and enforce discipline, especially when the child is the one that goes home at night and tells their version of the story.
In Korea, giving a test is almost the equivalent of teaching a lesson in class. Between vocabulary tests, assessment tests, achievement tests, and writing tests, these students get no break when it comes education. The problem with excessive testing is that the students study to learn the tests, not the actual material. While this creates a successful pattern to yield high results on tests, the actual intention of learning a language becomes dwarfed, almost to the point of non-existence.
South Korean hagwons can be operated by deceitful owners, wangjanims (왕자님). Those that are more dishonest are waiting to jump at any opportunity to take advantage of a foreigner if it means more money in their own pockets. I spent hours researching Korean laws and reading people’s tragic tales from when their employer failed to deliver their end of the deal by shorting them of money and common morals. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and at the end of the day, you’re working for a business. There are a few standards to contracts in Korea for a first year hagwon teacher. When you’re reading your own potential contract, read the specifics as that is crucial.
One year contract
Be wary that a contract may say 364 days or less. If you see this, a wangjanim is already making sure you don’t legally qualify for severance or airfare.
30hrs/week (expect 40/week for planning lessons)
~$1.00 = ~1,000₩. Therefore, ~2,100,000 = ~$2,100)
The employer will provide single housing, but you have to pay utilities. The numbers below are based on my two year average.
8~10 vacation days
The conclusion that I came to regarding my vacation days and those of my foreign friends is that you shouldn’t expect to take these unless you find a substitute and pay them to cover you, negating the luxury of the actual vacation. Though, you can sometimes compromise with your boss.
National Health Insurance/Pension
Make sure that you’re paying into this! There is a number you can call at the Pension office to confirm that you’re enrolled. Some hagwons fabricate the lie that it’s cheaper to not enroll you, but that’s illegal. E2 Visa holders (i.e., you) pay 50 percent of pension, while the business pays the other half. At the end of the contract, you get back all 100 percent. Though illegal, many hagwons will enroll you as a contractor to negate paying into these benefits for you. If you find that you aren’t enrolled, but you’ve been in Korea awhile, you will be required to backpay for the health insurance, which is just money down the drain. One loophole is to take a weekend trip to another country. When enrolling for health insurance, they look at the most recent stamp in your passport.
It sounds like hagwons have been trying to avoid this part of the contract lately and are encouraging the foreigners to pay for one or both of the tickets. I’ve experienced friends at local hagwons getting cheated out of a flight because they were told they would be reimbursed, only to be left high and dry.
Severance of 1/12th of an annual salary at the completion of the contract
Korea sometimes feels like the wild west in that contracts don’t really mean much. If there is money to be saved, it will be saved. There is a trick that can happen among hagwons to fire a foreigner at month eleven to avoid paying out for severance and airfare. Thankfully, the Labor Board will crack down on hagwons doing this, but the fact that it’s even a consideration speaks into the deception of the owner.
Not all hagwon experiences are the same. Foreigners in the same city have retold wonderful stories about their students and their hagwon. It isn’t that every Korean business owner is out to dupe a foreigner. What you run into on the Internet is a group of dissatisfied people that want to complain about their situation. Meanwhile, the people that are loving their jobs with their great wangjanims (왕자님) are too busy enjoying themselves to write about it as often and create a balanced perspective for people. What I’ve mentioned already has been my personal experience and a huge pool of Internet users sharing their stories online. It would be naive to throw every hagwon owner under the same scrutiny of the worst experience. Take it case-by-case, but be knowledgeable and stand up for your rights as a human. Much of Korean hostility ends at words without action. If you broach a conversation just a little more, it’s amazing to see what gets done.