Hagwons v. Public Schools

February 2, 2011

How did I get my current job teaching English? Simple. I decided to live in Korea, searched Seoul Craigslist for a countryside town, applied for one position, got an email back requesting an interview, passed the interview, and started on the paperwork. This all took place within a 10-hour period. I didn’t do as much research as I should have, especially considering my remote location; I assumed proximity to a great hot spring would be enough to pass the time (and it does help), but I really should have considered the working environment.


To those who haven’t lived in South Korea or heard tales of teaching English in Asia, let me clue you in: EFL in Korea is a joke. They have no standards when it comes to teachers, and they don’t really care what you do while you’re here. Anyone from any of the “Big 6” countries with any degree can apply and get a job like I did in no time at all. That having been said, there are two schools of thought about where to teach:

1. hagwons (학원): Private language schools covering English, math, science, Korean, etc.

2. Public schools: elementary, middle, high, technical high. University postings aren’t as common.

I’d like to go over some of the revelations I’ve had about working in a hagwon, and having friends in public schools.



You generally get more money than public school teachers, about 2.1-2.5 million Won/year. If you’re not a morning person, a lot of hagwons start later in the day (though not always true); unfortunately, this also means you’re less likely to meet up with friends for dinner.

There are two big problems: reliability and vacation time. Many private schools have been known to close without notice, leaving the teacher stuck with no money. There have been issues with employers paying on time (if at all), some holding passports hostage (illegal). If you find a good boss, you’re all set. The other problem is vacation time: you get public holidays and ten days. That’s it. Your schedule may change for the winter holidays, but you’ll still be working.

Public schools

You’ll get paid a little less than teachers at private language schools. You’ll have to work in the wee hours of the morning until the afternoon; on the other hand, you’ll be free to meet friends for dinner. One of my big catch-22s is desk warming:

During the holiday periods when there are no students, you may still be expected to come in and do absolutely nothing. Some schools have been good about letting teachers have this time off and travel outside Korea. But others… well… you saw what happened to Hitler; he was just an ordinary 22-year-old before teaching English in Korea.

I suppose if I had to do it all over again I’d choose a public school in the countryside, where the rules are lax and principals are more likely to grant time off during the vacation period. But, that’s no guarantee: even out in Uljin, one of my friends nearly had her vacation ruined after her co-teacher informed her she would be required to stay and desk warm the week before she was set to leave.

6 Responses to Hagwons v. Public Schools

  1. Jessica on February 3, 2011 at 1:33 am

    Thanks for posting this. I was going to ask for your opinion b/c I’m making the choice between public and private schools right now. Do you know if people are chillaxed on Jeju?

  2. Turner on February 3, 2011 at 1:48 am

    I think Jeju would be comparable to countryside living, even though there are more people.

  3. Angela on February 3, 2011 at 3:19 am

    I usually find your posts to be quite informative and interesting, however, I must say that I take great offense at this entry and find it to be grossly inaccurate; particularly this section:

    “let me clue you in: EFL in Korea is a joke. They have no standards when it comes to teachers, and they don’t really care what you do while you’re here. Anyone from any country with any degree can apply and get a job like I did in no time at all.”

    I have a bachelor’s degree in music and a Master’s degree in education. I do not have a TEFL certificate, but many schools DO require it. As a matter of fact, even with the eight plus years of experience teaching I have and both a baechor’s and a master’s, I did not get one position because I did not have a TEFL certificate.

    Additionally, my boss DOES care what I do. Teachers are held to a higher standard and are expected to conduct themselves accordingly. Do all foreigners teaching in Korea do this? No, of course not. Does every boss care about his employee’s behavior? No. However, for you to state no one cares is not a fair or accurate statement.

    Finally, saying that anyone from any country with any degree can get a job here is more than completely inaccurate! You must be from an English speaking country, pass an FBI criminal background check and secure the mountain of paperwork that it takes to come here. Someone from (for example) Mexico or Jamaica with a college degree who just wants a job in Korea and has a passport from those countries cannot get a job here UNLESS the majority of his schooling was done in an English-speaking country. There are also other special criteria for those not from an English-speaking country.

    I think if you are going to make such harsh statements you may want to state it as your OPINION instead of fact. Not only does my school (hagwon) have a set curriculum for us to follow, I give spelling tests each Friday and once a month the children are tested on the material presented. This article is highly offensive to those of us who are qualified to teach and take our jobs seriously. My job is NOT a joke and I take great pride in the work I do.

  4. Turner on February 3, 2011 at 6:16 am


    I respectfully disagree. I’m not downplaying your education or dedication to your job, but teachers over here who actually care about their students’ progress and principals or hagwon bosses who hold foreign teachers to any kind of standard are the exception, not the rule. This doesn’t negate your qualifications or how seriously you treat your job, but for South Korea:

    – The fact that a degree is mandatory isn’t really a good standard, as they don’t require a degree in education, English, or any related field.

    – The vast, vast majority of schools, public and private, do NOT require TEFL certification. It may help you along the way if you’re looking for a higher-paying or more prestigious position, but it’s hardly the norm.

    – The fact that the aforementioned is allowed to happen suggests that the EFL system is designed only for face value: bringing in foreigners to look like teachers when few are. The FBI criminal background check is only a recent development; before that, you only had to bring in a state criminal record. A few (granted, only a few) child molesters were able to bypass this by moving to another state and applying from there.

    – The system is designed to not encourage teachers to stay longer than one year. The new requirement that you completely redo your initial paperwork, including a criminal background check, is a testament to that. I believe the majority of schools want a steady flow of inexperienced teachers so they don’t have to deal with things like raises and additional benefits.

    The fact of the matter remains that “for the three countries in which I’ve taught English as a second language, the goal does not seem to be actually getting the students to learn. In most cases, it’s simply getting through the curriculum, right or wrong. If that happens to include English that isn’t practical, or follow a lesson plan that will only allow students to repeat a few key phrases, so what? There was never much of a mission statement in the first place, so the school’s obligation is fulfilled, and the teacher finishes his or her year.”


  5. angela on February 7, 2011 at 2:37 am

    Your response to my post is all correct, however, if you would read your original post again along with my comments, you will see that my issue is that you are stating your opinions as facts. You did not address the issues that I brought up. You may think ESL teaching in Korea is a joke and that anyone can get a job here “from anywhere” (see my original comment), but those are opinions (which may be true in some cases) however, they are not facts.

    If you feel this way, I have only two things to offer.
    1. Perhaps you should think before you type and present opinions as such and facts as facts. That’s quite simple.
    2. Many of your recent blog entries give one the impression you are completely miserable living abroad. Perhaps it is time to pack your things and go home so you can be happy.

  6. Turner on February 7, 2011 at 7:32 am

    I should have corrected that from the start. “From anywhere” isn’t precise enough, you are correct. From England, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, America, New Zealand, and Australia, though, is.

    How am I stating these things as facts? This is a personal blog, an opinion piece by its nature.

    #2 is really insulting, Angela.

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