What you Should Consider for Teaching in a Hagwon
You’ve decided that you’re going to do it; you’re going to drop everything and jet off to a faraway land to teach English and fulfill that unquenchable thirst for adventure and personal growth.
First of all, congratulations. It probably was not an easy decision. For many of us, the decision to leave behind a more traditional path was painful, enigmatic, and uncertain. Regardless of how you got to this point, you are here, and now it is time to actually pin down that job.
South Korea is a fantastic place to start for new English teachers because the country is very welcoming to foreigners, its location in Asia makes it a great launching pad for additional travel, and the pay and benefits are quite generous.
That said, many of us first-time teachers will end up at one of the ubiquitous private academies called “hagwons”. While these offer great opportunities, there are a few things you may want to consider before consigning yourself to a year in one of these schools.
1. What’s your purpose for teaching abroad?
First of all, ask yourself why you want to teach abroad. Many TEFL schools and recruiters (including this one) emphasize the ability to travel. That is certainly a benefit of living abroad, but I caution you to keep a reasonable image of this travel.
While I have certainly had more mobility than most of my friends staying stateside, I am in no way following the nomadic backpacker journey that many idolize when pursuing a life abroad. At my school, we teach in two-month blocks, separated by 3-5-day breaks. Like many hagwons, we do not have a summer or winter break.
However, if you are alright with shorter jaunts, there are many great locations within a reasonable distance including China, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and eastern Russia.
Though I have only left the country once, I have visited half a dozen different cities, and Seoul itself offers enough variety for a lifetime of exploration. If you choose to live in Korea, most of your travel will be domestic.
2. What have others said about your potential employer?
If you have found employment through Reach to Teach Recruiting, the odds are that your future hagwon has a positive reputation. That said, there is always variation within a chain of schools.
The biggest hagwon companies (like SDA and Avalon) have dozens of locations, some of which will be more desirable than others. Get in contact with teachers who have worked with the company before.
Before I signed my contract, I asked SDA if I could speak with a current teacher, and they gladly obliged. If a company is not willing to do so, that’s probably a bad sign.
Some issues I have had or heard of include late pay, unprofessional management, and unpaid overtime. Occasionally, foreign teachers in Korea will watch payday come and go without seeing the money appear in their accounts.
It usually does come through eventually, but if you don’t have some reserves when you get here, that delay can be tough. Fortunately, it has never happened to me here at SDA.
Similarly, my superiors have all been very kind, but I have a friend who works in another part of the city who has had issues with a very unprofessional supervisor. Just like any business, there are bad apples, but if you hear of more than one bad instance within a given company, the problem could be institutional.
With Korea’s heavy emphasis on a working culture, employers may not even realize they are demanding more of you than your contract allows. Others, however, may exploit the fact that you are just one of thousands of young Westerners looking to teach English abroad.
Again, I have not experienced this personally, but I have heard stories of teachers who have been “asked” to work far more than they should have without compensation. Know the details of your contract, and know your means of recourse if this happens.
Do not be afraid to ask a potential employer if you can talk with a current teacher. Also, utilize forums and Facebook groups for English teachers in Korea. Just posting that I was considering an offer from SDA on my TEFL school’s alumni page prompted a current teacher to contact me.
3. Are you good with long days?
If you are looking to work abroad to escape the daily grind of banal service jobs in the West with short work hours and plenty of free time then you should think again about teaching ESL and think more about backpacking.
ESL teaching is a full-time job, just like anywhere in the world you will be expected to put in the hours. Click To Tweet Companies like SDA teach kids and adults, so they must accommodate all schedules.
You may end up with classes early in the morning, late at night, and a few in between. Though it’s only about 30 hours a week in the classroom, the early start, and late finish can make it feel like much more.
4. Are you good with kids?
Most hagwons are designed around preparing kids for the college entrance exams (yes, even the young ones). There is a high likelihood that you will be spending a lot of time with kids.
Some classes will have you working side-by-side with your Korean co-teacher, but often times you will be all on your own with between 5 and 25 young students who will struggle to understand your instructions.
If you are like me and had never worked with kids, expect to have your patience tested and your energy drained on a daily basis. If you love working with kids, you have probably found the right career path.
5. What do you want to do next?
I know of very few foreign English teachers here who stay for more than a couple years. Most, in fact, just do their six-month or one-year contract and move on.
What’s your plan when you leave? For many people, this is the opportunity to do some soul searching to figure out what we want to do. I wasn’t quite sure what my post-Korea life held either, and I still can’t say I am.
We all probably have some general idea, though, so think of the skills or qualities you will want to develop. Here are a few you are bound to learn in the classroom:
First and foremost, you’ll learn public speaking. It may seem obvious, but this may be the most useful skill you will pick up. Not only will you need to present information in front of an audience (a skill necessary in practically every profession), you will need to do it with such precision and clarity that even people still learning your language can understand you.
Secondly, you will practice leadership constantly. As the teacher, you will necessarily learn how to take the lead in the classroom. With adults, they will look to you to fill that role.
Finally, you will build confidence and understanding that very few who remain in their home country can match. Living abroad in itself will test your limits in terms of completing routine tasks like shopping and paying bills.
Add in the crash course in cultural differences and the demands of speaking to and leading a classroom, and you have a combination of cultured confidence that shouts management material to employers back home or abroad.
I certainly have no regrets about my decision to teach abroad. Even six months in, I still get hit constantly with experiences that remind me that I am living and working on the other side of the world when I could be drudging out a mediocre life somewhere in middle America. I hope you consider these things when you are making your decision, and I hope it helps you embark on a journey that will redefine your life.
Great read man. I taught English in the Czech Republic as a first year teacher, and everything you highlighted from the actual lifestyle of a working esl teacher to the feeling of “what’s next” are what I experienced and more. You wee spot on with this blog and I love the things you pointed out which teaching builds (public speaking, leading and confidence). I plan to go to Korea next, so this was great to read and keep me motivated.
Hi there Geoffrey – am looking for some info on reliable Hagwons to approach – can you or anyone who follows your blog help me out?
Reach to Teach has screened and vetted all of the schools that we work with. We are selective about the Hagwons that we work with so that we are providing excellent schools for our teachers. Take a look over the South Korea section of our website for some additional information on Hagwons in South Korea.