Teaching English in South Korea: Hagwons vs. Public schools

South Korea’s education system has a global reputation for being rigorous and fiercely competitive, but also very successful, churning out thousands of highly motivated and hard-working students every year. In fact a recent league table of the best education systems in the developed world placed South Korea second, with 82% of high school graduates going on to study at university, the highest rate in the OECD. For a country that in 1945 had an adult literacy rate of just 22%, that is an incredible achievement.

So, having decided that you want to come and teach English in South Korea, one of your next decisions will be where you want to work. While there are a few highly sought after opportunities at international schools and universities, the vast majority of jobs are either at hagwons (private after-school academies) or at state-run public schools.

What is the difference?

Hagwons are privately owned schools, usually part of a franchise, and they are run for profit. They range from kindergarten through to adult learners, but most are elementary school students who go to a hagwon after finishing their day at public school. These academies are fuelled by South Korea’s drive for success and thirst for knowledge, and only the students whose parents can afford the fees enrol, which leads to some debate over academic elitism. The curriculum is set by the school or the franchise itself, and the teaching materials are provided for you.

Public schools however are run by the Korean government’s Ministry of Education. There are no fees and attendance is compulsory for children over the age of 6. The main public school recruitment programs are EPIK, GEPIK and SMOE, and they cover elementary, middle and high schools. While there is usually a set curriculum the foreign teacher should do all their own lesson planning. Just as a side note, Seoul’s Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) is gradually phasing out employing native-speaking English teachers by 2014, meaning that the only jobs available in the city will be at hagwons.

Both types of school have the same set of requirements, and both offer very similar contracts, including accommodation (or a housing allowance), a return flight ticket and an end of year bonus.

Hagwons

The pros

I’ve been working at a small hagwon in Incheon for 16 months now and I absolutely love my job, I have very little reason to grumble. Unfortunately the internet is full of horror stories about teachers being conned out of money, fired without warning, or turning up to work one afternoon to find the place boarded up. Please don’t think all hagwon employers are like this! Obviously the stories must come from somewhere, but my friends and I have only had positive experiences here, so don’t write hagwons off just yet.

Hagwons in general have much smaller classes than public schools, my largest class has just eight students. This not only makes controlling the classroom a lot easier, but it also gives you a real chance to bond with each child, which to me is invaluable. An added bonus is that all the students in the same class tend to be at roughly the same level of English, which isn’t always the case at public schools.

Working as an English teacher at a public school you should expect to earn around 1.8 million won (£1065) per month, whereas hagwon employees take home between 2.1 – 2.3 million (£1250 – £1360). However, wages at both types of school can vary slightly depending on what you studied at university and how much teaching experience you have.

Hagwons tend to employ more than one foreign teacher at a time, while public schools usually have just the one. While you’re not guaranteed to be best buds, it is somewhat reassuring to have someone else there, to bounce ideas around with and just generally whinge at on those rough days.

The cons

The one thing that I wish I could change about working at a hagwon is the pitiful amount of holiday we get. The average seems to be around 10 days a year, but some only give national holidays. Other possible downsides include the possibility of doing overtime or working on Saturdays. My one piece of advice would be to read your contract thoroughly (several times if necessary!) before you sign it to fully understand what will be expected of you.

Another fairly common gripe about hagwons is that they are businesses. The students’, and therefore the parents’ happiness is crucial. This is something that you will need to get your head around because if, heaven forbid, one of those little cherubs isn’t entirely happy, you will hear about it!

Due to the fact that hagwons are generally attended by students after they have finished at public school for the day, the working hours can seem a little bizarre at first. Most hagwons don’t start until 2 or 3 in the afternoon and can finish classes as late as 11, although most stop around 9 or 10. If you’re not a morning person (like me!) this might suit you quite well, and seeing as most English teachers are employed by hagwons the chances are your friends won’t be finished until then anyway.

A typical kindergarten hagwon classroom

A typical kindergarten hagwon class

Public school

The pros

At a public school you will get almost twice the amount of holiday time that you would from a hagwon, which corresponds with the slightly lower salary. Public school teachers usually receive around 21 days a year, split between Christmas and the summer, giving you plenty of chance to go off and explore Asia.

Another plus of public school employment are the regular hours, and only having to work on weekdays. Most schools run from around 8.30 til 3 or 4.

The fact that public schools are state-run provides a certain degree of security. There is no chance of being paid late, not being paid at all or being fired with no reason, which unfortunately are risks you take if you work for a hagwon. 

Upon arrival in South Korea all public school teachers have several days of orientation. This gives you chance to meet other foreign teachers, and be introduced to the public school system. If you work at a hagwon there’s no guarantee of having much time to find your feet before starting lessons. I arrived in Korea late on a Thursday evening and I started teaching classes at 9.30 the next morning!

This could be a pro or a con depending on who you end up with, but all foreign public school teachers have a Korean co-teacher in the classroom with them, to help keep control and to translate. This also means that the workload is split between two people. Some foreign teachers find having a Korean teacher with them to be invaluable in large, lower level classes. However, the students may come to rely on the Korean teacher too much and you might find yourself being ignored.

The cons

Another one that could be a pro or a con, depending on your point of view, is ‘desk-warming’. At a public school you are paid for a set amount of hours per month, and you are expected to be at the school for that time whether you are teaching or not. So there may well be mornings, afternoons or even entire days spent sitting at your desk, playing on your phone or watching films. While getting paid to do nothing might sound great, a lot of people actually find it mind-numbingly boring, and a waste of time.

Larger class sizes, often between 30 and 40 children per class, can make it harder to build up relationships with the students. Also, in public school classes, although the students will all be the same age their levels of English may vary widely.

There are certain limitations when it comes to applying to public schools. You can state a preference of ‘city’ or ‘provincial’, but you have no more say in the location than that.  Also, they tend to recruit only twice a year, in February and in August to tie in with the Korean semesters. Can you wait that long?!

A typical public school classroom

A typical public school classroom

There’s no obvious choice as to which type of school you should go for, it really just comes down to personal preference and what you want out of your time in Korea.

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3 comments on “Teaching English in South Korea: Hagwons vs. Public schools

  1. Hi, I’m passing along this site to anyone who lives / works / is apart of the Korean expat community. A fellow English teacher from Gwangju was severely injured while volunteering at an orphanage in India on holiday. She was hit my a motorcycle and complications have led to brain surgery (2 nights ago). I don’t know her personally but I am asking that people help by reposting her fundraiser on their blogs. Please pass this along as I know if it was us in her shoes we would hope for the same. Thank you so much!! http://www.giveforward.com/thekarabethburtonfund

  2. Pingback: Hagwon vs Public School - Adventure Teaching

  3. Pingback: teaching english in Korea resources to check out | getting from point A to point K

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