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.


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.

One year in South Korea…

…and what a year it’s been.

It’s hard to believe that this time last year I was standing in my bedroom at home, complaining to my mum about how I was going to fit my life into a 25 kg suitcase. Miraculously I somehow managed it! Fast forward a few hours and I was saying my tearful goodbyes to my parents at the airport, one-way ticket in hand, gazing out of the window at my last glimpse of England for 15 months and praying that I was doing the right thing. A year later I have absolutely no doubt that I was. There’s been countless highs, a few lows, and I’ve been dragged out of my comfort zone on a daily basis, but I don’t regret a single second of it.

Here’s to the next 12 months…

If I was still in England…

  • I’d have spent my summer holiday in Filey, not the Philippines.
  • I’d be spending my Saturday evenings sitting at home watching an X Factor/Strictly Come Dancing/Jonathon Ross marathon instead of dancing the night away in some of Seoul’s finest (or maybe not) establishments.
  • I’d probably be serving some grumpy old men propping up the bar in a dingy little village pub instead of seeing these adorable little faces every day!

  • I’d still be driving my parents crazy with piles of washing, forgotten keys and a messy bedroom instead of having my own, at times slightly messy, apartment in the centre of Incheon.
  • I’d possibly be one of thousands of recent graduates desperately searching for some kind of employment instead of having an exciting, rewarding and stable job.
  • While a wander down my local high street is challenging in many ways, I wouldn’t be facing the daily challenges that I do here, and the feeling when I overcome them.
  • I’d be cracking open the piggy bank, checking jeans pockets and scraping my pennies together to afford a trip to Nando’s instead of eating out every night of the week.
  • I’d be eating fish and chips, bacon sandwiches and roast dinners instead of pig rectum, chicken feet and live baby octopus (can’t work out if this is a plus or minus though!)

P.S. Sorry England, I do still love you!

염통 – Barbecued chicken hearts

Continuing my Korean culinary adventure, last night’s delicacy was grilled chicken hearts (염통). They were cooked in a sweet, sticky BBQ marinade and served on skewers. For a bargain price of 5,000 KRW (£2.75) we got five skewers, each with four hearts. We also had mushrooms wrapped in samgyeopsal (thick cut bacon), boneless chicken feet, deok (Korean rice cake) and dalkgalbi with melted cheese (stir fried chicken in a mouth-scorchingly spicy sauce).

Nom nom nom

Once I managed to get the image of Chicken Licken out of my head they were surprisingly quite good, a bit like really dark chicken meat. However, as with most of these things they did need quite a lot of chewing, washed down with a mouthful of Cass.

As my friend told me, eating the heart of your enemy makes you grow stronger. In that case, bring it on chickens…

Not looking too convinced at this point…

돼지 막창 – Crispy pig rectum

So, here’s something I didn’t expect from my Wednesday evening; I just ate pig rectum. Well, several pigs’ probably.

Whilst it didn’t feature on my Korean culinary bucket list, I think it definitely would have qualified had I known about it at the time. It’s worth pointing out that we actually ordered it by accident. We tried ‘somewhere new’ tonight and in addition to our old, trusted favourite 갈매기살 (rib meat), Nathan, in his infinite wisdom, looked at the first thing on the menu and asked for that. ‘That’ turned out to be sliced, grilled pig rectum. But in the true Korean spirit of not letting anything go to waste, we tucked in.

Having been chemically cleaned (seriously), it was served up with the usual array of kimchis, lettuce leaves, and soy dipping sauce. It did take a lot, and I mean a lot, of chewing, but the flavour was surprisingly nice, although my imagination began to get the better of me after the first few pieces.

I then heard myself uttering a sentence I never in a million years thought I’d say. “I think I’ve got bum stuck in my teeth”.’

My Typhoon Bolaven Survival Kit

South Korea is currently preparing itself for one of the nation’s worst storms in decades. Typhoon Bolaven has already battered the Japanese island of Okinawa, and will shortly be hitting the South Korean island of Jeju before working it’s way up the peninsula, reaching Incheon at some point tomorrow afternoon. All schools in both Seoul and Incheon have been closed (a true indication of what to expect; most hagwon bosses wouldn’t close their doors even in the event of a zombie apocalypse), flights and ferries have been cancelled and the state disaster relief board is on it’s highest level of alert.

I won’t lie to you; I am just a teensy bit excited. This is after all my first EVER typhoon. However, I am also not ashamed to admit that I am rather afraid. I’m not entirely sure what to expect, after all, ‘typhoon’ Khanun in July would have been considered nothing more than a mild thunderstorm at home, but my co-teachers have definitely prepared me for the worst. The windows are taped up, the movies are on download, and the wine’s in the fridge. After a quick trip to Homeplus this evening I now have my Typhoon Bolaven Survival Kit on standby.

The wind is starting to pick up now, and there’s nothing left to do but sit, wait, and crack open the Jelly Babies…

Yummy yummy chicken feet

So last night, after a fair few glasses of Cass, I crossed another thing off my Korean culinary bucket list; chicken feet 닭 발.

Mmm…chicken feet…

Chicken feet is a delicacy often associated with East Asia, in particular with China and Korea. Dalkbal can be boiled, fried, steamed, or as we had them last night, grilled on a Korean barbecue.

Giving the middle finger; the chickens last defence

We put them on the grill and watched the claws curl up in the heat, appearing to give us the finger in one last stab at defiance. After a few minutes they were obviously cooked but we left them for a while longer (how do you know when a chickens foot is fully cooked??). No one wanted to be the first to try one, and no one wanted to be the last, so, we all gingerly picked one up with our chopsticks, but how do you go about eating them? Where do you start? Toe? Ankle? Somewhere in the middle?


I tore a chunk off the ankle, it was gristle, so I nibbled on a toe, that was gristle too. Like the pig trotters, they were mouth-scorchingly spicy, and I lost all feeling in my mouth for several minutes! Other than the tongue-melting spiciness they didn’t have much taste. Just gristle.

Next on the list, live baby octopus…

10 reasons to teach English in South Korea

This blog post is largely a spectacularly unsubtle hint to my baby brother (he just turned 20 but he’ll always be a baby to me!) to come to Korea when he graduates next year, but also for anyone else who is considering something like this.

Obviously there are dozens of reasons to come to South Korea, but here are my top ten…

1. I’m sure many people would try to disagree with me here, but Korean kids are the cutest in the world. Fact.

2. The gifts. Whether it’s Teacher’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Pepero Day or just Wednesday, the kids are constantly bringing in presents from their parents. Ice cream, donuts, coffee, cosmetics, fried chicken, a packed lunch for every field trip, the list goes on. In fact, one of my kids just gave me a beautiful Pandora style bracelet from his holiday in Hawaii this week!

3. Having recently graduated from university in a recession struck country, there is something to be said for the financial deal that Korea offers. The demand for native English teachers is very high, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon so there is a reasonable degree of job security here. Most contracts will include a relatively high salary, free rent, 50% of your medical insurance, and a return flight from your home country.

4. You’ll never receive so much unconditional love from kids…unless you have your own that is…and maybe not even then.

5. Everyone spouts the same old line about wanting to ‘experience a new culture and broaden their horizons’, but it’s true. Yes, it’s a challenge. Yes, sometimes it is difficult. However, South Korea takes you out of your comfort zone but without having to give up hot water, constant electricity and white wine. Korea has one of the world’s fastest growing economies along with the world’s fastest internet speeds, so you won’t have to give up many of your home comforts here.

6. It’s a great starting place to explore other parts of Asia during the school holidays. With China and Japan on the doorstep and the delights of South East Asia just a few short hours away on a plane, South Korea is an excellent base to travel from during your time off.

7. Living in Korea you do sometimes feel like a celebrity. Kids wave at you in the street, people give up their seats for you on the subway and you’re forever being given freebies. Take today for example, casually wandering around the Incheon Landing Operation Memorial Hall on a kindergarten field trip. I was looking at the armistice signed between the North and the South when a security guard sidles up to me, leans in, and whispers ‘Can I ask you a question?‘. I laughed nervously, glanced around to see where my co-teachers were, and asked him what the question was. He said ‘your hair looks like silk. Can I touch it?

8. Sounds boring I know, but an experience and a commitment like this genuinely does look good on a CV. Apparently.

9. Cheap booze. Well, cheap lifestyle in general really. Granted, it may not be a decision-maker but most waygookin are liars if they say this isn’t a reason to love Korea. Koreans embody the ‘work hard play hard’ mentality, and when in Rome…well, it’d be rude not to.

10. It’s better than working in McDonalds.

Yeongjongdo Island

We had another national holiday in Korea this week, and along with what seemed like half the population of Incheon, we left the city for a day at the beach. After an emotional goodbye with Nath’s parents at the end of a wonderful two week visit, we caught the bus from the airport to Eurwangni beach.

In many ways Eurwangni was just like a typical beach resort at home; seafood restaurants, arcades and even noraebang, it was all a little bit tacky to be honest. As soon as the thermometer in England reaches 23°C the beach becomes a sea of milk bottle legs, moobs and sunburn. However, the beaches at Yeongjongdo were awash with tents, umbrellas and even blankets despite the 32°C heat!

To me, a day at the beach meant enjoying an ice cream, working on my tan and maybe even building a sandcastle. Nathan had other ideas though. A 10 minute walk just ‘to see what’s around the corner’ turned into a 5 mile trek up and down Eurwangni beach. And if that wasn’t enough we then headed further up the coast to the quieter Wangsan beach.

I paddled in Korean waters for the first time, I caught my first glimpse of Korean paddy fields, and I had my first batting cage experience (needless to say SK Wyverns have nothing to worry about there). The island and its beaches were beautiful and it was nice to escape the hustle and bustle of city life for an afternoon.

Eurwangni Beach

A seafood restaurant

Steam rising off the mudflats

Eurwangni Beach

Seafood restaurants

Abandoned anchors on Eurwangni Beach

Fishermen at Eurwangni Beach

Walkway at Eurwangni Beach

A seafood restaurant at Eurwangni Beach

A slightly more rustic dining experience…

Two girls looking for crabs

View across the beach


Eurwangni Beach

The tide was out at Eurwangni Beach