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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The War Memorial Of Korea, Seoul

It’s fair to say that Korea has had a rather troubled history, and has struggled not only with outside invasions but also from threats within the peninsula. The War Memorial of Korea museum covers pretty much the entire history of Korean warfare, from the Three Kingdoms era all the way through to the Korean War and Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It even shows what future warfare might look like, slightly concerning seeing as the two Korea’s are technically still at war.

This huge museum located near Yongsan was once the headquarters of the Korean Infantry before being turned into a museum in 1994. In the outdoor exhibit, dozens of tanks, jets, and guns make up just some of the 13,000 items of military memorabilia and equipment housed in the museum. They even display a replica of the South Korean navy vessel sank by a North Korean torpedo in 2010. Unsurprisingly this makes it one of the largest museums of it’s kind in the world.

Outside the museum the Statue of Brothers serves as a poignant reminder of the division between the two Koreas. The monument shows two brothers standing on top of a dome, embracing each other. The older brother is an ROK officer and his younger brother is serving in the North Korean army, and their embrace takes place when they meet on the battlefield. The crack in the dome symbolises the division of Korea and the hope for reunification.

A visit to the War Memorial of Korea is essential for anyone wanting to truly understand the country’s struggle to get to where it is today. To get there take subway line 4 or 6 to Samgakji station and leave by exit 12. Walk straight and after about five minutes the museum will be on your left.

Korean car parking…

When it comes to parking in South Korea the general rule seems to be that anywhere is fair game if you can fit your car there. Now, I must admit that parking has never been my strong point, I used to drive to the far end of Tescos car park so I could find three or four spaces in a row and just hope to end up in one of them, but even by my standards I have seen some pretty shocking parking in Korea. This, however, has to be my favourite; in the middle of a busy highway in central Seoul.

Chuseok 2012 추석

Chuseok (추석) is the Korean thanksgiving holiday to celebrate the harvest, and it is the biggest celebration in the Korean calendar. Chuseok falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which this year was September 30th, and the day before and the day after are also given as holiday to allow city dwellers to visit their hometowns. Chuseok can also be known as Hangawi (한가위), which literally translates as the ‘ides of August’.

The origins of Chuseok are a little unclear, but many Koreans trace the holiday back to ancient worship of the moon. The full moon was considered a special and meaningful event, and so the harvest celebrations were always held on the day of a full moon. Even today it is traditional to make a wish to the ‘Moon Rabbit‘ on Chuseok.

Dancing beneath the harvest full moon

As with Seollal (Lunar New Year in February), Chuseok sees a mass exodus out of Seoul and Korea’s other main cities, as everyone heads to their hometowns in the countryside to visit their relatives and pay their respects to the spirits of their ancestors. For married women, that means visiting their husband’s family and relatives. In the days running up to Chuseok many Koreans tend the tombs of their ancestors, and on the morning of Chuseok a ceremony (차례) is held, offering traditional food and drink to the deceased. A good harvest is often attributed to the blessing of one’s ancestors.

Chuseok 차례 ceremonial table

Food is an important part of Chuseok, and can be very stressful for the women of the family as they have to prepare so much food. Japchae (잡채 is a dish made from clear noodles stir fried in sesame oil with various vegetables and sometimes meat), songpyeon (송편 small, crescent-shaped rice cakes filled with honey, red bean paste or chestnut paste steamed on a bed of pine needles), seasonal fruits, baekju (a kind of rice wine), and freshly harvested rice are among the most popular Chuseok foods.

In addition to the 차례 ceremony, typical Chuseok activities include wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress), playing folk games, singing, and dancing beneath the full moon.

Happy Chuseok everyone!

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…

63 Building, Seoul

63 Tower, situated on Yeouido Island in Seoul, is one of South Korea’s tallest buildings at almost 250m high. Surrounded by the Han River, it’s an iconic feature of the city’s skyline. It is not only beautifully striking from the outside, but the art gallery and observatory on the 60th floor offer stunning views of Seoul, even during the hot, hazy Korean summer.

Namsan Tower Love Locks

It has become something of a tradition for couples visiting Seoul Tower to leave a personalised lock as a symbol of their everlasting love. At the base of the tower fences and metal trees are adorned with thousands and thousands of padlocks with lovers’ initials and messages on. Once you attach your padlock you throw away the key, to ensure that your love is never broken.

Lotus Lantern Festival 2012

According to Buddhist tradition, lighting a lotus lantern represents a devotion to performing good deeds and lighting up the dark parts of the world that are filled with agony.

Lanterns outside Jogye-sa Temple, Seoul

Every year hundreds of people take to the streets of Seoul dancing, singing, and carrying lanterns in celebration of Buddha’s birthday. This annual Lotus Lantern Festival took place on May 19th this year.

Lanterns at Jogye-sa Temple

The procession starts at Dongdaemun Gate in the north of Seoul and proceeds through the streets of Insadong before finishing at Jogye-sa Temple.

A coloured lantern is lit for a living person, and a white lantern is for someone who has passed away.

Dragon lantern

White lanterns

Jogye-sa Temple

Roses at Jogye-sa Temple

Incense burning

Putting the finishing touches to a lantern

Bosingak Belfry

Lotus Lantern Festival

Lotus Lantern Festival 2012

Lotus Lantern Festival 2012

번데기 – Silkworm pupae

번데기

Continuing my Korean culinary bucket list, today I tried 번데기 (beondegi), also known as steamed silkworm pupae. I have to be honest and admit that I don’t know what possessed me to try them, there wasn’t even alcohol involved. The stench alone, usually detectable from half a mile away, has made me retch in the past. All I can say is, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We tried them in Insadong, from a street vendor. I’d heard that they taste like peanuts, but if that’s true then I’ve clearly been eating the wrong peanuts. There is one word, and one word alone to describe 번데기, and that is ‘nasty’. They tasted like they smelled; musty, fleshy and like burned nail clippings. Quite possibly how you’d imagine bugs boiled in their own juices to smell.

Having bit down on it it popped with a squelchy crunch, which can only have been the softened shell. The out-pour of insect guts was enough to have me reaching for the bottle of water that I’d bought from Starbucks in anticipation.

Another thing off the list, but I can safely say never again.