After teaching in Korea for a year and a half with experience at both public schools and private academies, we wanted to put together a list of the pros and cons of each. These are important to consider when applying for an ESL position in Korea, so be sure to do your research before deciding which is best for you.
Korea takes their education seriously. Elementary students go to public school from 8am – 3pm, middle school students stay until 5pm, and high school students stay until 10pm. However, they can also get some extra practice at after school Hagwon. Private Academies, also known as Hagwons, are everywhere in Korea. Getting into a good university and therefore securing a good job is very competitive here, so many students opt to go to after-school academies.
- Class sizes. They are much smaller than public school. The average is around 12 students, while public school will have upwards of 30. This is great because you can form bonds easily with your students and don’t have to worry about class control as much.
- Coworkers. There will typically be other foreign teachers working with you. If not, then you will be working with bilingual Korean teachers.
- No experience necessary. As a first time ESL teacher, working at a hagwon is a great way to ease into things. You can find your teaching style. Prep is usually easy as the lessons and materials are supplied to you.
- Starting salary. Higher than most starting salaries of teachers in the US. If you are considering teaching in Seoul, while hagwons start around 2.2 or 2.3 million won per month (roughly $2,100 – $2,200).
- Schedule. You can sleep in and take it easy in the mornings. Classes start around 2 in the afternoon and finish at 7pm or 10pm.
- Many classes. Your contract is for 30 hours a week, but this only includes teaching hours, NOT the hours spent grading, prepping, etc. Our average work week was closer to 36-38 hours.
- Intensives. Public Schools have vacation during the summer and winter. This means the hagwons start offering extra classes in the morning. Some teachers at our school had an extra 15 hours tacked on to their regular schedule, putting them over 50 hours a week. Intensives last 3-4 weeks. You do get overtime pay for these classes, but they are mandatory in most cases.
- Vacation. Typically 10 unpaid vacation days are in your contract. You are able to take 5 days in the summer and 5 days in the winter. You cannot combine them for an extra long vacation. National holidays such as Chuseok (similar to Thanksgiving), Christmas, Seollal (Lunar New Year), etc will be given. However, our hagwon made us make up a few holidays on the following Saturday.
- Sick leave. I cannot tell you how many times we or other teachers had to just tough it out and go to work sick. Koreans typically don’t take sick days. You might be given sick leave in your contract, but you may have to fight to get it. This is because substitute teachers don’t exist for hagwons, or they are costly to negotiate. If you aren’t there to teach your classes, then they are canceled, which is bad for business.
- The nightmare hagwon. You may have heard of these. Bosses mistreating the teachers. Pay never on time, or worse, never given. Pension and health insurance not given. And so on. The thing is, anyone can open a hagwon. The owners are not educators, they are business men/women. Unfortunately, this means that some of them will try to take advantage of you. THIS HAPPENED TO US.
As mentioned before, education is highly valued in Korea. South Korea has been praised for its high test scores and the resulting economic growth. Public school is where it all starts. The Board of Education for each province hires the ESL teachers, and there are many programs and recruiters that will help to place you in these jobs. More information about that can be found here.
- Amount of classes. The limit for teaching hours in class for public school is 22 hours. If you go over, you will get overtime pay, but it is completely up to you and not mandatory. Currently, we teach about 19 classes (50 min each in high school) a week as well as a couple of teacher workshops. At our hagwon last year, we taught 24–28 classes a week (4 of them 3 hours long and the rest 40 min).
- Free time. Planning, prepping, grading can all be easy finished in your free time at work. At our hagwon, we would not have any free time in between classes and would therefore have to come in early or stay late in order to finish up our work.
- Assessment. Typically, you will not be asked to do near as much assessment of students as at a hagwon. Currently, I am asked to not give homework (which is great because I have over 500 students) and there are no tests for me to grade. My students get participation grades, and that’s it. At our hagwon, we needed to grade many different assignments everyday including online speaking, writing notebooks, vocabulary quizzes and all kinds of tests. Then every month we would have to write to the parents of each student and explain their strengths, weaknesses, and what they should do for improvement.
- Co-teacher. This could actually be a pro or a con. You will be given a co-teacher (or 6) that will come to your classes. They will help with classroom management and explaining difficult concepts to the lower level students. Some may even teach with you! They also are in charge of helping you with anything in or out of school. Some co-teachers may not be very helpful, however.
- Vacation. 8 days of paid vacation during the summer break and 24 days during the winter break. You will also have all national holidays off.
- Sick leave. If you are sick, if you become pregnant, if a family member dies, etc. your contract states that you may be given a certain amount of days off.
- Resigning incentives. If you re-sign with your school for a second year, you will get a bonus (usually 2 million won) as well as a raise. In our case, we were given a bonus 7 days of vacation which we take in the summer. So now we have 15 days of vacation in the summer, 24 in the winter!
- Desk Warming. Your work schedule is from 9am – 5pm (in the case of middle and high school 8:30am – 4:30pm) and with all the free time you have, desk warming can get pretty boring at times. When you are not taking your paid vacation during the breaks, you still must come in and be at your desk while everyone else is gone.
- Coworkers. Unless you are at a big school, you will be the only foreigner there. Some of the teachers can speak English, but may be really shy and not want to embarrass themselves by speaking incorrectly and therefore don’t talk to you any way. Your co-teacher(s) will talk to you, though,so you aren’t completely alone!
- Starting salary. The starting salary for private schools is generally higher than public schools. Expect between 1.8 – 2 million won per month unless you have experience of some kind.
- Class size. Since your classes are upwards of 30 students, you will more than likely have over 500 students. The worst thing about this for me is not being able to form closer bonds with my students.
- Student levels. In hagwons, they typically group the students according to ability. At public schools, they are all in the same grade and their levels vary greatly. It takes practice to make your lessons suitable for all the students.
- Lesson planning. You must make all your lessons yourself. Ryan can adapt one lesson a week to all the different grades, but I am asked to make different lessons for each grade. So, that means planning and prepping 3 lesson plans a week. Ugh. At our hagwon, we were given books and all lessons were standardized. We simply had to preview the lessons before each class.
We have worked at both private academies and public schools now. As we briefly mentioned above, our hagwon was pretty awful. However, this does NOT apply to every private academy. You should research the school thoroughly before signing a contract. Perhaps find someone who has worked there previously and ask about their experience via private email. Another fool-proof method of finding a trustworthy private academy would be to take over the position of a friend or acquaintance once they are finished with their contract. Personally, we prefer public schools. There is a lot less risk involved; however, the choice is up to you!