I began writing this post two months ago after a weekend away with some EPIK teachers. One of the girls, who I really admire and like, made a comment that made me really think about the reputation academies in Korea have and how all the fears I had before working at one were unfounded. I thought this would be a helpful post for anyone looking to come to Korea to teach, and may have been rejected by EPIK or wanting to avoid the public school route all together. Both public and private schools have their pros and cons, I’m just going to write about my experience and what I’ve learned over my last year in Korea.
A hagwon is an academy is Korean. Academies are after school schools where kids go to do extra studying on top of their already busy schedules. Hagwons have notoriously bad reputations in Korea because most of them put business before education. Hagwons are not regulated, they’re owned and operated independently from the metropolitan government. They have their own rules and can be kind of intimidating, but they can also be really rewarding.
Hagwons can be a crapshoot, even after all the years of teachers being forced to deal with 11th month firings, and lack of pension or healthcare. Recently a group of hagwon teachers got together and SUED their academy for poor standards: no vacation, no pension, no healthcare. The only reason schools in Korea get away with this is because people let them! They take job offers at schools offering the bare minimum of things: 3 month-long internship periods, no pension, no healthcare, no access to a current teacher. If no one says anything, they’ll continue to do it!
If the school is offering you a contract look for these main things: salary clearly stated, teaching hours clearly stated (no more than 30 hours or you could be killing yourself, it’s a lot of work), vacation days (usually 10 plus the 10 red days -national holidays), round trip or one-way flight (this seems to be the new trend a one-way flight but there are still some schools offering round-trip airfare), and the two biggies the LEGAL biggies: NATIONAL PENSION – which your academy HAS to pay into by law if you are a full-time teacher, and NATIONAL HEALTHCARE – also has to be paid into, legally. DO NOT take an extra $100-$500 a month and not get healthcare or pension. To be contracted as anything other than a full-time or part-time teacher on your E-2 visa is ILLEGAL! If you’re not getting healthcare or pension your school is breaking the law by filing you as an Independent Contractor. The last, and probably the most important is access to the current teacher. If the school refuses to let you talk to them that’s a HUGE red flag. The current teacher knows the ins and outs of the school. Talk to them before signing anything.
Now, scary stuff aside hagwons can be great. Shop around! As a newly graduated person with a B.A you’re going to have pick of the litter, if you’re patient. I had to wait quite a bit before finding my job. It took months. I had a few offers, and I nearly signed a contract, but I did some more research and found the academy I almost signed with failed to pay severance or even pay their teachers on time. Thank god for the internet because I found an old teacher on Twitter of all places. Had I not found her I would probably be writing a different story right now. The important thing is to have standards. All jobs have the same offerings but find one that caters to your hours, and has a good rep with their current teachers. Don’t jump on the first offer you get because likely, it’s not going to be the best.
I get really offended when people say things like “You couldn’t pay me enough to work in a hagwon.” or “all hagwons care about is money.” This stuff is TRUE for most places but my school was AMAZING. I have to be 100% honest I got very, very lucky. I had an amazing boss, super friendly coworkers, and mostly great kids. Of course there were kids I wanted to banish to the hallway for an eternity, but I had flexibility in my classes, I got to sing songs and do dances for kids, and even watch movies with my kids! We had a great curriculum that approached English in a way that was inviting. It was so much fun and super rewarding. When I listened to my friends talk about their EPIK schools and even other academies I felt pretty lucky.
Here’s some anecdotes and comparisons I made about my experience and the EPIK experiences I heard about:
- EPIK class sizes are about 35-40 kids PER class. You see them once a week. My classes maxed out at 12 kids and I saw almost all of them 2 times a week. Smaller classes are so much easier to handle, especially for a first time teacher.
- EPIK teachers seem lonely: one foreigner in school, your co-teachers aren’t always friendly. This is the case for most people. My school had one other foreign teacher and my Korean co-teachers did not hesitate to ask me questions, chat about kids, or invite me to dinner. Even having one other foreigner was great because you had someone to chat with when you needed it. Contrary to popular belief being the only foreigner teacher at an academy is not a bad thing, nor does it mean your school is poor, some schools are just smaller than others.
- Sometimes you have to teach at 1-4 schools a week with EPIK, transportation not provided. This means you could have to bus to different places during a single day. No thanks. I had a 5 minute door-to-door commute from my apartment to school. Some teachers got a bonus for working additional schools but the bonuses barely cover the monthly transit.
- An academy allows you to get closer with students: learn their Korean and English names, and you can spend one on one time with them. I spent hours with my students joking around with them, etc. I could even see them outside of class and say hello. When you teach an ENTIRE public school it’s hard to remember each face and name. When you teach a smaller portion of a school at an academy you can make better connections with your students.
- When there’s a problem with your apartment sometimes nothing happens. And your apartment (EPIK or academy) can be really crappy depending on how many teachers have used it before you. When I had a problem in my apartment my director had it fixed within the week I asked. I never had any issues. It really does vary school to school though.
- Vacations: EPIK is WAY better for vacations. I think you get the majority of August off and the majority of January. At an academy the most you’ll get is 5 days in winter and 5 days in summer. If you have a good school. I am jealous of the EPIK vacation time. Second only to the university vacation time (like 10 weeks!!)
- Bonuses: maybe $100 more, if that, plus your settlement bonus from EPIK. You’ll get more there but not much more than you would at an academy.
- EPIK has the cushioning that is safe, but it’s not where you’ll make the most money, EPIK is a long-standing program with a good reputation so it’s more secure than most academies but some academies have been around for many years. My academy, though unknown to most foreigners, is pretty famous in Busan and has been around for 16 years.
- If you want to make more money in EPIK you have to be working in a rural area which sucks most of the time. Being the only foreigner in a small town can be draining on the most confident of person. EPIK in a rural area can be super rewarding but also really difficult. Not for the weak hearted that’s for sure.
- From what’s been going around the internet: the EPIK program is on the way out. This program was not meant to last. Each year there are more and more schools cut from the program due to lack of funding. It’s sad really.
- Recently I’ve seen that the EPIK program is really discriminatory against tattoos. From a thread on reddit, several new applicants to EPIK were rejected right away and the one common factor: they all had tattoos. Or they all were crap at writing an essay, the jury is still out.
I just want to get my opinion out there! I’m not bitter that I got rejected from EPIK. I was sad when I first found out, but also happy I got to work at my school. My school was wonderful and I could not have asked for a better first place to teach at! I think there are a lot of misconceptions about hagwons/hakwons/academies in Korea and before working at one myself I had my own reservations. Take your time, ask questions, and don’t feel rushed into anything. If it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. Check out Facebook for groups like: hagwon blacklist (bad schools in Korea), and Teachers in Korea. It’s full of people who have done the jobs you want to do. Trust your instincts and ask others for help!
Sorry for my lack of posting, I’m still adjusting to life in Canada again. I’ll have some more posts up soon! Thanks for your patience, I love you guys!
Until next time,