Back in February 2013, I flew from Kuala Lumpur to Bali. Coincidentally there was a young woman (lets call her Jan) sitting opposite me in the plane who had just finished two years of teaching English in South Korea (which from now on will be referred to as just ‘Korea’). We got talking and she told me how much she had enjoyed it. When I started thinking about doing a year over there myself, I asked her for advice. Yes, I will exchange contact details with interesting people after knowing them for less than 2 hours, that’s one of the perks of travelling!

I decided on using Korea as a location after using this logic:

Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan are all getting much more competitive, and even teachers who have been there a long time are finding it difficult to get good positions. That leaves China and Korea. Teaching in China sounds like it would be AMAZING, but I get very affected by air pollution (I hate even being near someone who’s smoking). After reading a number of travel blogs that talk about their ‘China Cough’, see Unbrave Girl and Goats on the Road, as well as reading this article (if smog can have an effect on weather, who am I to try and brave it), I’ve decided to take the safer option and choose Korea.

Jan had been working in two different hagwons, or ‘private schools’. Apparently there are hagwons for math, science, etc, as well, but she taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL). I wanted to know: How do you get a good hagwon job? Did you ever have trouble with your school/employers? Do you wish you had done EPIK instead?

Jan: EPIK has a lot of advantages. The pay can be better, you get more vacation time, you teach less classes and work during the day. The disadvantages are you work during the day so you have to get up early, the dress is a bit more business casual, you do a lot of desk warming… where sometimes you’ll be the only person who has to sit at your desk and do nothing all day.

With EPIK, you have a large class, 30ish students. Their levels of English really vary. You’ll teach a rather basic curriculum compared to hagwons. You also have a co-teacher in your class to help you out.

Hagwons are a dime a dozen. There are chains and personally owned ones. The chains usually have a decent set curriculum. Hagwons have smaller class sizes, usually under 10 kids per class and for the most part, they are all the same level.

In hagwons, you really get to know your students, you get to develop good relationships with them. You get to really see their improvements.

Hagwons are risky business in that you never know what your boss will be like. They are almost all about the money. It doesn’t matter to them if the kids learn, it just matters that someone’s paying to sit in that seat. They also don’t have as much respect for foreign teachers as you’d hope. This isn’t all hagwons. You just have to find a good one.

Hagwons have different work hours, usually 2-10 pm. You also teach a lot of classes. You may get breaks in between, you may not. At a good school, you will.

You get a hagwon job by finding a recruiter. There are a ton of sites on the internet for it. I used ASK Now (Access South Korea Now). You never have to pay a recruiter. If they ask for any money whatsoever, they aren’t legit.

You can also find jobs on Dave’s ESL cafe.

I never had any actual trouble with my employers. They definitely pissed me off a few times. Schedules change at the last minute, you never have any time off. Your contract says you have sick days but you’re not allowed to use them (that’s really common). The thing about my first school that made me really mad was vacation.

We’re supposed to get 5 days off, not including weekends or holidays, but my boss would be like “oh Saturday-Wednesday is your vacation”.

They also didn’t plan it out in advance. You’d be waiting to find out when vacation is and they’d give you two weeks notice. That’s not enough to book vacations with friends or if you want family to come see you.

What annoyed me at my second school was the complete idiot they had as a manager. She was useless and never gave you any support. I had experience so I just did my own thing, but when the new teachers came, they needed help and all the manager said was “go ask Jan”. Also, the class load was a lot. I taught kindergarten from 9-2:40 then had classes 3-4:30 and 4:30-6. it may not sound like much, but you’re dead at 6.

So basically, there are positives and negatives of both. The trick is finding out what works for you.

Questions to ask are:

-how much will I be paid per month?

-what deductions are there?

-is there an apartment deposit?

-How far will my apartment be from my work (usually a 5-10 minute walk)

-If you need to commute to work, do they pay for it?

-What comes with my apartment? Furnishings, bed size. Bring your own sheets, they are CRAZY expensive in Korea.

-Make sure your vacation is stipulated as 5 consecutive days, not including any weekends or holidays

-Make sure you get two vacations per year, a winter and a summer vacation.

Ask if you have to teach intensive courses or any extra courses during the kids school breaks. Try to avoid any hagwons that say yes. You’ll end up working 12 hours a day for a month and basically not get any extra pay for it. It’s brutal.

-Very Important!! Ask how many other foreign teachers there are. this gives you an idea of the size of the school ( Epik-you’re the only foreign teacher in the school).

-Ask to have the email of a foreign teacher at the school and set up a skype date with them so they can let you know about the school.

-Talk to who you’re replacing. You can arrange to buy a lot of their stuff so that you don’t have to start totally from scratch when you get there.

-Ask if you need to front your flight money. I chose places where I didn’t.

Also, find the Facebook group for your city. Ask the members there to tell you about the school you’re interviewing at. They’ll let you know what it’s like.

Also, with EPIK, you don’t get to pick your city. You can request a city, but there’s no guarantee. You could also end up working at more than one school. You can pick your city with hagwons.

Wow! Thanks for all the detail! Before I was leaning towards EPIK. As I don’t really have any experience (other than the prac I do through my teaching degree here) though, I think I would miss not having another foreign teacher working with me, helping me out! You’ve sold me on hagwons being an acceptable alternative – you can have a horrible boss anywhere!

Just a few more questions:

I want to meet and make Korean friends, but I also want to be part of an expat community. As long as I stick to a city, I assume that won’t be an issue? How did you connect with other expats? Was it as easy as talking to people in a bar? Through fb? You taught in Busan right? I’m looking at Daegu… any thoughts?

Jan: At hagwons, you have foreign teachers and Korean teachers. Most of my really good Korean friends were from my first hagwon. It’s also really easy to meet expats. I find all cities have expat communities. The smaller the city, the more close-knit the expat community.

Bars are definitely were you go to meet people. Part of that is events are held in bars; pub trivia nights, fundraisers, open mic night, board games night…things like that.

Also, each city has a Facebook group, so if bars aren’t your thing, use the group to connect with other people. I lived in Cheongju and basically there were two groups of expats; the bar goers and the church goers.

I want to do a TEFL course before I go, so that I have a better grasp on grammar, etc (and hopefully some idea what I’m actually doing!) Would you recommend I do a full on 4 week course ($1,500-2000) or a 120 hour online/in class combined course ($800). You said that they basically threw you into the deep end when you got there. Is that usual practice? Do they give you materials, lesson plans, unit outlines, etc?

Basically the question is this: Should you know it before you go, or do you learn it while you’re there? The reason I ask is because I have a friend who taught in Taiwan, and he said they teach you how to teach ‘their way’, in which case I would probably take the cheaper option…

Jan: If you’re just planning on going for a year, don’t bother with a TESOL course. Half the time they aren’t even considered. However, that being said, Epic does give a pay boost for them. If you’re going to do one, do one that would allow you to teach at home in Australia as well, so a CELTA or an equivalent. I know they cost a lot more and require a lot more work, but they open a lot of doors if you plan to stay in the ESL world. Your school will most likely teach you how they want to be taught (if it’s a good school).

Hagwons do have a tendency to throw you into teaching straight off the plane… so try to arrive on a Friday.

It sounds like you worked some long hours! I was teaching from 9 to 3 here in Aus, which is tiring enough! I would be at school from 8 till 5 though, planning lessons. Did you get time to do that at your schools? Did you need to do extensive planning, or did they pretty much tell you what you needed to teach?

Interestingly, the Australian National Curriculum (which will be fully implemented in the next few years, depending on government) will apparently be fully ‘lesson-planned’. Teachers have to show a few videos, talk about a few things and hand out printed worksheets for students to fill out. This will be the same content and worksheets in every (government) school across Australia. I guess they want teachers to focus on behaviour management and actual teaching instead of spending so much time planning. Probably a good thing since I heard about ‘5 step planning’ more than once (i.e. you plan your lesson 5 steps away from the classroom…) Anyway, I’m digressing.

Jan: As for planning… my first school was really strict on planning. We had to hand in our weekly lesson plans for the following week every Friday. Planning isn’t hard, and it is helpful. I had breaks between classes at my first school so I could get my plans done. I had a strict timeline so it was all about getting pages done.

My second school never required any planning. I was really left to my own devices. My classes were a lot longer and required a lot more activities. I found that I really didn’t have sufficient time to put into planning, but I refused to do any outside work.

Don’t work for free at a hagwon. Working for free just lets them think you’ll do it again.

The hours vary completely depending on your school. Teaching time is less at public schools, which gives you more planning time. Hagwons are more like an assembly line of little English speakers. Some people have classes for five hours with no break and that’s just not reasonable.

I really like the smaller class sizes you mention for hagwons. Do you have any tricks for remembering names? What about learning Korean?

Jan: In regards to learning students’ names, get them to make name tags for the first bit. In a hogwan, almost every kid has an English name so that makes it a lot easier. You call them by it, not their Korean name. In a public school… you have a hundred Korean names to remember… not sure how they do it to be honest. As for learning Korean… do it as soon as you can. Your life gets so much easier. In my city, the YMCA had a class on Saturday mornings. Also, expats get into small groups and hire Koreans to teach them. Your coworker will tell you they’ll teach you…but they’ll be too busy, regardless of their intentions. Definitely learn to read. It seems hard but it’s really easy. It just takes a few hours of work.

Do Korean employers prefer North Americans (that you know of?)

Jan: Koreans do prefer the North American accent overall, but there are quite a few Brits, South Africans, Australians and Kiwis teaching. As long as you speak clearly and your accent isn’t hard to understand, you’ll be fine.

Should I stop annoying you with all these questions and just GO ALREADY!?

Jan: Haha, no – it’s fine. In fact, let me introduce you to my friend Paul (not his real name). He’s actually still living in Korea and you can ask him further questions!

One of Paul’s friends was teaching in Korea, which sparked his interest. He has now been there a number of years.

Are you really enjoying it, is it what you hoped for, or is it a ‘it pays the bills’ type of thing?

Paul: I am indeed enjoying it. Not as much as I did my first year, but it’s at the point now where Korea feels like home. As much as i miss home, I love being abroad

Did you do a TEFL or similar before you went?

Paul: My first 2 years i didn’t have a TEFL, but when i went home for awhile last time I decided to do a course.

What did you find about living in Korea that you didn’t expect?

Paul: I came with a very open mind here. So nothing gave me any huge surprises. Its very different from back home, but as long as you take things in stride, it’s pretty easy to cope with. That being said…..you will be shocked from time to time.

Where do you live? Ok, that sounded creepy. Which city do you live in? Would you recommend it, or another place for a newbie to head to.

Paul: My first two years i lived in Cheongju. same as Jan. I live in Daegu, Jan mentioned that you were specifically interested in Daegu. Can I ask why?? Daegu is a pretty cool city, though I did prefer Cheongju, socially. I’ve meet some cool people here in Daegu, but it’s so big here and there are so many bars, I’m finding it hard to meet good quality friends. But English is also better here than in Cheongju, due to the size and the proximity to American military bases. So that could make adjusting easier.

Have you managed to pick up some Korean? Is it just me or is it a really hard language to speak? It’s probably just me.

Paul: Korean is very difficult to speak, I’ve picked some here and there, just having lived here for almost 3 years. I never studied it, but there are classes you can take if you are keen on learning it.

I love to cook, do most of the apartments come with kitchens? Can you buy ‘western’ food at the supermarket. Going for a year without spaghetti would kind of be a deal-breaker for me.

Paul: I also love to cook, I’m not very good, but I enjoy it. you can usually find MOST things you need at a home plus or E-mart. Daegu also has Costco which has even more imported items. Spaghetti will not be an issue, though I find sauces are a bit more expensive. Beef is very expensive, but chicken and pork are very reasonably priced

By the way, I assume you work in a hagwon? On the internet forums and advice, people who work in EPIK tend to look down on those people who teach in hagwons. It sounds like I would prefer working in a hagwon (less kids per class). What’s your take? Do EPIK and hagwon people actually get along or is it a bitter struggle?

Paul: I am in a hagwon. Kindergarten specifically, and my answer here can vary sooooo much. Originally I was supposed to be in EPIK, but due to some paperwork issues I ended up doing hagwon, and I’m actually happy with that. The main advantage with EPIK is vacation time. 4-6 weeks compared to 10 days (sometimes this can mean 1 week in summer and 1 week in winter, [5 days plus 2 weekend]). It’s hard to explain. Unless you are highly qualified (teachers degree or CELTA), and have years of experience, you’re probably going to make more money at a hagwon, and yes the classes sizes are hugely different. 30ish for public, and 8ish for hagwon. I personally get stage fright in front of large groups, so that’s another reason I’m ok with being at a hagwon. Haha, but yes, my experience is EPIK people do look down on hagwon, mostly to rub in the difference of vacation.

THE BIGGEST ADVICE I can give you regarding recruiter and hagwons is do your research. If possible before an interview, ask the recruiter for the name and exact location of the hagwon (there can be multiple franchises in the came city). There are several blacklist sites out there telling you not to go to such and such a place. So be careful. If your recruiter won’t give you the name and location, then it’s likely a place that people hate, and I would also advise getting a new recruiter, because he/she obviously cares more about getting the fee than getting you at a quality school. Also, after the interview, ask to be put in touch with some teachers who currently work there (if they say no, then another big sign that it’s shit). Also, maybe this is me being cynical, but Korean bosses LOVE contract loopholes and wording.

P.S: Thanks again for all the advice you’ve given! Especially for the tips about the consecutive days off and the extra courses! I haven’t seen that advice anywhere else, and it would really bug me to find out once I got there! What about NO to working 12 hour days! Also – why on earth would sheets be expensive??

I am an incessant planner, and as such want to share some of the sites I have found interesting.

Modern Seoul – be sure to check out their info on train travel and what to do/try in Korea  

Teaching Travelling – check out this and other interviews with ESL teachers in South Korea

TEFL or Bust – love the writing, hate the blog layout/categories. If you have a few hours, why not give this blog a go.

My Seoul Searching – this blog makes me want to go to Korea right now! 🙂

Great Big Scary World – One of my favourites, he has some really great articles on the pros and cons of teaching in Korea.

Ask the Expat – if you want to know what you should pack for the trip.

Waegukin – basically tells you all you need to know about getting an EPIK job. I also love this article about travel within Korea.

ATESK – a long read, but an interesting look at culture differences between Korean and Western norms.

Waegook Tom – If you want an actually funny take on teaching in Korea, go to this website. Or maybe I just enjoy the British sense of humour?

Anyway, if you have any more suggestions, please leave them in the comments section below.