If you are considering teaching English in South Korea, you will see many job listings that mention teaching in a hagwon. I spent two years working at a hagwon in Daegu and want to give you a helpful guide to determine if teaching in a hagwon is right for you.
Salary expectation: Average of 2.2 – 2.5 million won per month ($1800 - $2000 USD)
Benefits: Flight reimbursement, furnished apartment, health insurance
Vacation: Average of 2 weeks per year
Things to know about teaching in a hagwon
1. Hagwons are ubiquitous in South Korea
I don’t know if you can walk down a street in South Korea without spotting a hagwon -- private academies are everywhere. Hagwons are part of almost every South Korean student’s experience from pre-school through high school.
2. Hagwons are privately-owned
Unlike public schools and universities, hagwons are privately-owned. There are some pros and cons for those teaching at hagwons. Successful hagwons can pay teachers competitive salaries, and there are many opportunities for overtime work. On the other hand, hagwons expect you to work as much as possible, sometimes even asking you to work on the weekends.
3. Hagwon schedules are unique
While public schools and universities are on a regular Monday – Friday schedule, hagwons are mostly after-school programs for students. My hagwon had a work schedule starting at 3:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. Monday – Friday. The first classes were usually younger students with higher grade levels coming in as the evening went on. The last classes of the day were always high school-aged students. Many hagwons will also have classes on Saturday mornings and classes will go through the afternoon.
The hagwon I worked at did have classes on Saturday mornings, but classes were offered as opportunities to make extra money and not a requirement. Make sure you ask your hagwon about their schedule and if they expect you to work on Saturdays!
4. Quality of hagwons can vary greatly
As you navigate the landscape of hagwons, you will certainly run into some horror stories about bad hagwons. Since there are so many hagwons and the fact that they are privately-owned and run, you will inevitably hear of both successes and failures.
Some business owners know what they are doing and run hagwon companies with multiple locations and happy teachers. Others are trying their hand in a new venture and they don’t know what they are doing. Managing Western teachers and expectations can be a struggle for some Korean hagwon owners. Some owners can sympathize with the experience of Westerners living in South Korea, while others cannot.
I have found that hagwon horror stories can be easily avoided by asking to speak to a current Western teacher. Reputable hagwons will happily oblige. Speaking to a Western teacher in private without a hagwon owner looking over your shoulder is a great way to learn about the experience of a foreign teacher in that specific hagwon.
Questions to ask a foreigner that teaches in a hagwon:
What are classes like?
How much prep time do you get per class?
What is the provided housing like? Ask for pictures or a virtual tour.
What is the commute to work like?
How much vacation time is given?
Are you expected to participate in company activities out of the regular class hours?
5. Korean work culture is different from Western culture
As a foreign teacher, you should expect that working in South Korea will be different from what you are used to back home. Foreign teachers will work alongside Korean teachers who usually teach grammar and sentence structure in both Korean and English. For the most part, Korean teachers will be paid much less than their Western counterparts while working longer hours. It is recommended not to discuss your salary at work as it will likely be offensive to your co-workers.
Korean culture in the workplace is built around respect for your boss and your superiors. When your boss needs you to stay late or tells you that you need to work on a Saturday, you are expected to obey without objection. This expectation clashes with Western expectations where teachers expect to make overtime pay for hours over 40 hours per week. Luckily, my hagwon understood Western expectations and never forced us to work overtime without our permission, but this isn't always the case. Any overtime work was always paid at an overtime rate of time and a half.
The biggest issue for Westerners at my hagwon was when the boss wanted to take us out to a Korean dinner after work. On one hand, it was a free dinner to build camaraderie among the teachers. On the other hand, dinner often started at midnight after classes were over. Many of the teachers were tired after their classes and just wanted to go home and sleep. While the gesture was nice, in reality, it was hard to commit to dinner so late during the week.
Your experience at a hagwon will likely differ from mine, but hopefully these five facts about hagwons helped you to understand how they work. As with any kind of teaching job, be sure to do your research, ask questions during the interview, and make sure that the teaching job you're offered is the one you want!