Friday, April 3, 2015

A Day In The Life of a Hagwon Teacher

I decided to make the big leap from the 'safety' of public school to the 'high risk' environment of hagwons. All my research on Korea led me to blacklists of hagwons, and chipper Epik blogs, which led me to believe that a public school would be paradise and hagwons would exploit me and forbid me to use their bathrooms and kitchens, charge me to use the textbooks they provide, refuse to pay me on time and in full, and so on.

Well, actually, those last three things happened to a public school friend of mine.

As for me... My public school experience was average. Sure, I got a nutso main co-teacher, but I had 5 or 6 other co-teachers who were marvellous. I made friends with the staff, had lovely students, and generally enjoyed myself. My main problem with public school was actually the same thing that had drawn me to it in the first place. I went into public school thinking that the Epik program would protect me from the exploitation and screw-overs that permeate the private sector. Instead, it was the office of education (who employ the Epik teachers) that made it awful. They took what was a god job and slowly but surely stripped all the joy out of it; forcing us to do pointless extra work for no pay during vacation time where we otherwise spend 10% of it planning a year's worth of lessons and 90% of it learning fancy origami from youtube videos and counting our own freckles. The most diligent of us would spend that free time getting masters degrees or completing endless MOOCs, or doing creative work, but for the most part that didn't happen. Then they started cutting the budget because of politics, and cutting EPIK jobs, and suddenly people who joined it because they thought it was safer than Hagwons ended up being treated exactly the same way, or worse than the blacklisted hagwons we've heard about online.

Ranty rant rant... Anyway. I moved to a hagwon.

It's part of a mid-range franchise, in a suburb on the outskirts of Ulsan. Because of the franchise, each month or so there's a directors' meeting which means the school gets shut down and I get the day off. That's nice.

I did my research on this job, and got in touch with the teacher I replaced. She even made a 'how-to' manual for the textbooks we use, although it's mostly pretty self-explanatory.

Maybe the best way to give you an idea of what it's like is to give you a 'day in the life' kind of thing:

A Day In The Life of a Hagwon Teacher
7:30am - Still asleep.
9:00am - Alarm goes off. Reach for kindle and relax, catching up on your reading. Maybe doze off a little.
10:00am - Second alarm goes off. Wake up, work out, make breakfast and so on. Maybe go for a walk if the weather is nice. Do laundry. Banking. Go to the doctor. All those other things that are hard for a public school person to do.
1:00pm - Start getting ready for school. Pack stuff into a bag, including snacks.
1:30-2pm - Cycle to work along the riverside bike path. Ogle the cherry blossoms. Avoid people who are standing in the middle of the path, ogling cherry blossoms. Get to work.
2:00 - Fill out the daily 'log book' - including things like which classes are doing which chapter of which book, using the schedule made by the very kind and hard-working director. Ask co-teachers for clarification on homework in the books you share with them. Sing 90s songs with the teacher who sits next to you. Share snacks with the other ladies.
2:20-3:00 - First class. Teaching Colin the ABCs. He's so cute, and he just joined the school, so he's having 1-on-1 classes to catch up to the phonics class. But it means you have to find a way to keep him interested in flash cards for 45 minutes. Take advantage of the break before the next class to eat your snacks as 'lunch'
3:40-4:20 - Teaching elementary school kids from the text book. It may involve singing, dancing, rapping, miming, or even origami. Who knows what will happen? Keep 'em laughing, and keep them from murdering each other.
4:20-5:00 - Younger middle schoolers arrive. Three of them tell you how pretty you are. They clearly haven't done their homework. One of them bribes you with candy. Accept the bribe and then make them do the homework anyway.
5:00 - 5:40 - mark some tests and write some comments about the kids. You know their names and their quirks and are able to write in-depth, personalised comments about each of them, using a lot of euphemisms for the ones who "have a lot of character" or "tend to get distracted by friends".
5:40 - 6:20 - Middle schoolers who you see twice a week. This time it's their writing class, and you get to teach them about strong and weak verbs, and encourage them to think outside the box and use their own words. You are a real teacher. Embrace it.
6:20 - 7:00 - This class is having a test. Give them the papers, read out the listening parts, send them to the computer room and call them back for individual interviews. It's so much better than sitting in a cold wintery corridor twice a year, getting 90 seconds with each student and trying to remember their names. This time you know them; you know that Annie has dyslexia or Susan had a bad week and might need some easy questions to get her through this, or Dylan is a pro and you should push him with some tougher ones.
7:00 - 7:40 Third grade middle schoolers. It's their last year of fun before the hell of high school begins. They discipline each other, with 500 won fines for things ranging from forgetting homework to not having the correct stationery. Their book is full of interesting articles, and while the moan and groan about having to do the work, they think you're the coolest and they have their own opinions. They're not used to being asked what they think. You look forward to their class, and you get to teach them three times a week. It's the highlight of your week.
7:40 - 8:00 - Wrapping up time. Note in the logbook who was absent, what homework was assigned, and whether there were any behaviour problems you need to discuss with the korean 'homeroom' teachers. Discuss the weekend plans.
8:20 - Leave school. Cycle home.
9:00 - have dinner.
2am - go to bed.

Sometimes I get lazy and don't do anything before noon. But I'm getting better at that. I've settled into a nice routine, and I love that there is clear and open communication in the office about planning. The Korean teachers help each other out, and offer advice, and show their weaknesses and their strengths. The director keeps on top of things and actually gives a crap about everything. The facilities are clean, modern and work. I haven't made a single powerpoint presentation and don't use a computer during the class.

My coworkers are friendly and fun, and I've socialised with them outside of school. We spend most of the day laughing.

My apartment (which was not provided by the school, but which I found online) is huge and comfortable and I have a bathtub and a real kitchen.

My daily commute is spectacular. 

Life is good and I feel like this is the best decision I've ever made.


  1. Wow, sounds like my dream! I am also going to make the leap at the end of my current contract (in March.) I am totally terrified of getting a horrible hagwon tho! How did you find such a great job?

    1. Gosh, I never got any notification of this comment - sorry for the slow response! I hope it worked out for you. The biggest thing for me was to go by word of mouth and talk to the person I was replacing. If they're not keen to talk about the school, that's a bad sign - you can be sued for libel if you say bad things about your employer, so people are skittish about that, but if it's a good school they'll want to tell you lots of details about it. I found it on facebook, and it was highly recommended. If you do end up in a bad hagwon, don't be afraid to find a different job and improve your situation; nothing is forever.