Life in a Korean Hagwon (or #hagwonlyf)

Hey everyone,

I wrote this post last month during big, busy and quite stressful week at school and have waited a while to post it because… well, it’s pretty intense! I have now been in Korea for nine and a half months and it has absolutely flown by. I am truly having the time of my life here and I really love this country, for many and varied reasons. Of course, the fact that it is almost 2014 has meant that I have had to start thinking about next year and my plans and so forth. So I thought I would put this ruminating to good use and write a post about working in a Korean hagwon 🙂

Firstly, what is a hagwon? The students translate it to ‘academy’, and it is basically just a private English school where you (most often) have kindergarten students in the morning and elementary students in the afternoon. Here, kindergarten starts at age 3 (at our hagwon anyway), although Korean ages are curiously pushed forward a year so that means it actually start at 2. So yes, we have a class of five 2-year-olds being taught and tutored in a second language from 9:30am-2:30pm. My kids are ‘6-years’ (4 turning 5 this year – some have still yet to have their birthdays) and we have already spoken about vowels, consonants, objects, subjects, adjectives, verbs, locations, sensory detail, long and short vowel sounds and, most recently and shamefully, PATRIOTISM.

Is this giving you a taste of #hagwonlyf yet?

As you can see, it can all seem a bit insane to a simple Westerner coming by on a ‘year’ away. The reason I put those inverted commas there is because, for many, their one gap year turns out to be 2, 3, 10… It is a really nice way of life here which sucks you in, if you can get past some of the cultural and fundamental value differences which slowly but surely reveal themselves.

Back to the hagwons. What do they look like? Quite nice really:

Our school :)
Our school 🙂

So, let’s talk about a typical day for me. Come in at 9:30am (on the dot), greet the kids downstairs and help them unpack. They have playtime for 10 minutes or so and then it’s into the cafeteria for their morning snack. I am pretty sure they have breakfast before they come, but they get fed straightaway too. I think it’s generally a good idea: we cover a lot of (exhaustingly) advanced topics and they need their energy. Many times when the snack is undesirable (unidentifiable orange mush, anyone?) you can hear the cries of ‘teacher I’m full!’ for miles to come, but curiously, when it is a cookie snack, all I here is ‘more more MOAR!’… if someone can help me out with that one, let me know.

From here it’s lining up and going upstairs to the class. Only recently have I got my kids to carry their own jackets (I’m not kidding) upstairs. There are a lot of things that get done for the kids which appears normal in this environment (because everyone does it) but are actually absurd and a hindrance to the children’s development. Such as mollycoddling them and treating them as princes and princesses. Don’t get me wrong, they are super cute, but if there is some whiny child not piping down while everyone else is getting ready or eating or doing something productive, then that is a problem. I need my energy too, goshdarnit!

Which reminds me: hagwons are private schools, which mean they attract a certain kind of clientele. The rich kind.

A random gift for Sehar Teacher
A random gift for Sehar Teacher

As most of you will already know, many Asian cultures are big on status. Korea is no exception, and may in fact be the most vehement supporter of this value system. English education is big business over here, and it is only in part because it actually helps you to, you know, speak English. A large part of this all-consuming focus on the mother tongue is that it separates you from the lower class, the workers. Amazingly (and sadly), there seems to be a lot of embarrassment and perhaps shame in many people here when they can’t speak English. It’s unbelievable. I always feel like such a dunce because I (still) can’t speak Korean, and feel like I am invading their country with my white skin and love of boiled oatmeal in the morning. Can you imagine the French being embarrassed for only speaking French? Non.

So, this emphasis on appearances unfortunately detracts from the actual ‘job’ at hand: the teaching of le English. And in many ways it is only a ‘job’, because the real work is keeping the parents happy. And in most cases, that is mostly out of our hands and placed heavily onto the shoulders of the Korean teachers. At our hagwon at least, our Korean teachers have to call of our kindergarten students’ mums every day. Every single day. What do they talk about? I have no idea! The majority of conversations I hear start with ‘annyeonghaseyo omoni (‘mum’ in Korean)’ and end in ‘neeeeeee!’ (a very drawn out version of ‘ne’ which means ‘yes’ and a bunch of other things). What happens in between is anyone’s guess.

I think the parents just like to have this contact to feel special and looked after and, perhaps, pandered to. After all, cash is king, especially here, and I know firsthand that anything and everything can be changed in a heartbeat if a parent asks/demands/implies.

This also applies to our curriculum, which is particularly lacking in the afternoon classes. If you have already researched about hagwons, then many of the rumours are true: it’s all about the class numbers and fees paid, not the different levels within the class, not the behaviour and basically not really about the English. I consider myself a hard worker and I like to do things the right way. I have taken time out of my own breaks to help one of my kindergarteners who couldn’t read or write single letters (he can now do both of those things and also sound out new words, which is incredible). I get my work done on time, I try my best in class and I don’t just bludge or fake my way through things. I actually try, and I think that is more than what some/many people do when they come here. However, does it matter? I’m not really sure. The amount of Korean that gets spoken at our school is incredible, even when the ‘rule’ is to speak in English. When some of our Korean teachers can’t even speak English (again, I’m not joking), it makes these rules a little difficult to uphold.

This also reminds me: I am sure that adorable kindergarten student of mine has an undiagnosed learning disability, and I am also sure that it will remain undiagnosed lest the parents feel that their child is somehow (gasp) challenged. Illness seems to be very taboo in Korea, and whenever the kids are sick or away, it’s always put in what my friend calls ‘Victorian’ terms without much elaboration. One of my gorgeous students, for example, had extended time away from school, and all I was told was that she had a ‘weak heart’. That’s it. Also that she needs piggybacking up and down the three flights of padded stairs we traverse daily in slippery sandals (but I would do it for her in a – pardon the pun – heartbeat).

Lastly, there is also a big divide between the Korean teachers and us English teachers. Or should I say, ‘foreigner teachers’. Korea has a strong focus on ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ (in the nicest possible way) and we waygooks (foreigners) are definitely the ‘them’ in this equation. I have tried to bridge the gap between us and even suggest a joint Christmas party… until it turned out that date was when the Korean teachers had arranged their own Christmas party. A large part of this disconnect is the understandable language barrier, and I do think we have been lucky to have such nice and helpful Korean teachers, but I still can’t help from feeling that we are kept at arm’s length juuuust a little bit. This also has a lot to do with the (often justified) perception of Western teachers as lazy, unprofessional and rude, just here for a ‘good time’ (read: rocking up to work still drunk). So in actuality, I do understand their hesitations.

Lest you think a hagwon is all doom and gloom, however, I now present you with the opposing argument: the kids!

My Teacher's Day gifts <3
My Teacher’s Day gifts <3

From what I know so far about Korean public schools (and this is admittedly still quite limited), both elementary and high school, is that the class sizes are way bigger. This would be a problem for me, because already at a class size of 8 it’s more than enough on my plate. Another big thing is the age group: I love love LOVE my kinder kids. Funnily enough, when I first came to the school, it was the other way around: kinder was like slave labour and the afternoon was a welcome respite.  However, now that I am in the swing of things and know exactly where to go, what to do and how to talk to the kids, it’s pretty easy. And fun! They are so cute and really, kids do say the darndest things.

I wish I could tell you all about my adorable little kids and show you pictures and generally just rave about them. Because they are fantastic. And none of the above really applies to them because, as you learn working with children, kids are innocent and none of the errors of the adults that came before them should be burdened upon them. Whatever issue I take with hagwons is with the English education system and not with the individuals, really, and certainly not the kids. My students are adorable, funny and so smart. A lot of the afternoon students are often quite burnt out by the time they come to us, but a bunch of them are really sweet and kind as well.

And that, my friends, is the reason why I teach English.

My afternoon kids' birthday message to me <3
My afternoon kids’ birthday message to me <3

Wow, this post has turned into a monster. Feels good to get it off my chest!

I sat on this post for a while because I feel it is quite incendiary information to make publicly available. However, I also believe in freedom of speech (despite what may or may not be the norm here) and thus eventually decided to click ‘publish’. I hope you enjoyed it, or at the very least found it a fascinating glimpse into Korean/hagwon culture.

If anyone has had any experience in Korean schools or hagwons, I would love to hear your story too.

Until next time,

Steph x

  1. Could you explain a little bit about your living situation, salary and things like that? I’m thinking about teaching in Korea someday

    1. Hi Kim, thanks for your comment! 🙂 Good idea – perhaps I will do a post later on about these things! Basically the average starting salary is 2.1-2.2 million KRW, which doesn’t *sound* like much (don’t jump to Google to convert it yet) but which deceptively buys you a lot of things over here. The cost of living is so low that this is more than enough money – all of us almost have more dollars than sense!

      Your housing is included (on top of your salary I mean), and although I initially had issues with my place, the school moved me and I am now in a 4th floor officetel which is small but cosy and literally a 40-second walk to school. So you just need to pay bills which are ridiculously low here, and keep yourself fed (although the school includes lunch and snacks every day). It really is a cushy gig, especially if you love your fellow hagwon teachers and your kiddies like I do!

      Thanks for your question, feel free to ask any more and cheers for stopping by 🙂

  2. Thank you for posting this. I will be teaching this spring and found your post refreshing to read among all of the bad stories. I loved reading about your students and how much they loved and appreciated you; sounds wonderful! Although I haven’t been too worried about teaching in a private school, the possibility of it being a nightmare is still in the back of my mind. It sounds like you learned to simply accept the good and the bad that comes with teaching in a hagwon.

    I am even more excited to teach this spring now 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Brandon! Yes, I heard a lot of horror stories before I came over here too, and they can definitely freak you out a bit. I think the main thing is to make sure you have a decent hagwon that gets the basics right: proper housing, pays on time, helpful teachers, sticks (roughly) to what was outlined in the contract. The rest is gravy, and although it may seem a bit intense at first you will grow to accept and love it for what it is 🙂

      And of course, most importantly, you will love your kids! They will make it all worth it and more 🙂 I genuinely laugh so much each day, they’re hilarious! Good luck for your teaching job and thanks for commenting!

  3. Excellent article. I worked at a Korean public middle school for a year and you were right on track about the class sizes. Each class was about 45-46 students and there were close to 4,000 students at my school. I really enjoyed working there, even with the crazy last minute schedule changes. It was a tab bit disorganized but always a good time. I am no longer teaching (but working in another capacity in Korea) but I really miss the kids. They were pretty awesome! Thanks for your article, very well written.

    1. Thanks for your comment Paul 🙂 Yes, crazy and last minute sure rings a bell. I often feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants, I think I’m just used to it now!

      Those class sizes are pretty huge but there sure are a lot of benefits to working at the public schools as well (*cough* holidays). And yes, the kids totally make the job. Whenever I’ve considered leaving, I start to tear up at the thought of abandoning those little munchkins. Too cute! I agree it is a weird, insane life at times, but always a lot of fun!

      Thanks a bunch for reading, I hope you’re enjoying your new life in Korea! 🙂

    1. Aww thank you! Yep it can be a little cray sometimes… But I hope you’re having fun! Thanks again for your lovely comment 🙂

    1. Yes the kids make my day every day. Sometimes there are things that you just have to grin and bear, but the kids make it all worthwhile. They’re really fun, and funny! And smart too. I could go on forever hehe 😉 I definitely recommend trying it at least once, I think you’d really enjoy it!

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