Public Schools vs. Hagwons in South Korea

Before coming to Korea, I came across many horror stories on the internet about teaching in hagwons. Everything I read indicated that public schools were a much better option. We didn’t end up taking that route, due to timing and because we wanted to share an apartment (with one of us getting a housing allowance), and we’re both glad. I feel like there is still a stigma against working in a hagwon but in many ways it is better than teaching at a public school here. So I just want to set the record straight, for anyone who is considering teaching in South Korea…

Pros for teaching at a public school:
-Paid vacation time (about four weeks opposed to two weeks at a hagwon)
-Fewer teaching hours (usually 15-20 a week)
-Reliability (you will get paid on time, insurance, pension, etc.)

While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get more than two weeks paid vacation at a hagwon (and you certainly shouldn’t work for one that offers any less), it is possible to find one with low teaching hours (I was teaching for only about 15 hours a week at my last job). As far as reliability, just do your research! Talk to current and former teachers at the school you are considering (this is standard so if the school won’t provide you with email addresses it is a red flag!) and post on forums such as Dave’s ESL Cafe and Waygook to see if anyone knows anything about that school. Also Google the school to see if it’s been “blacklisted” on any websites.

Cons for teaching at a public school:
-Pay. If you are a teacher just starting out in Korea, you will only be offered 2.0 million won per month at a public school. Expect to make 2.1-2.2 (or higher) at a hagwon.
-Timing. Public schools generally only hire in March and September, although there will be a few openings at other times. Hagwons hire year-round.
-Lack of flexibility. There is a strict pay scale, you won’t be able to get a housing allowance (if you are coming with your significant other and want to live together), and you won’t be able to get any money for a plane ticket if you don’t go directly home after your contract ends (hagwons might be willing to negotiate on things like this).
-No other foreigners at your school. Now some people might prefer this, but if you are coming to Korea for the first time then the easiest way to make friends is by hanging out with your co-teachers. If you work at a public school then this seems to be much more difficult as the other teachers are most likely older and few will speak English. I made great friends with the teachers at both hagwons I worked at, both Korean and American/Canadian.
-Class size. In a public school the classes are huge, maybe up to 40 students. I don’t know about you, but this is very intimidating to me! When I went to observe at a public school where I had a job offer, the teacher used a megaphone and the students still didn’t listen to her (and she had been working there for almost a year at that point…). Some may argue that you have a co-teacher in the classroom with you at a public school and therefore they can discipline the students for you but this is not always the case. (Also, just for the record, I worked at a hagwon with Korean teachers and teaching assistants in the classroom at most times and with few discipline problems.) In hagwons, the typical class size is ten or fewer students.
-Boring lessons. From what I know about public schools, lessons are basically by the textbook. A lot of hagwons (but not all) will give you more flexibility to have fun (for example making crafts for holidays). At my last hagwon the foreign teachers taught subjects such as art, drama, and PE.
-Not getting to know your students. Depending on how big the public school is, you might have hundreds of students and only see each class once every few weeks. At a hagwon you will quickly learn all of your students’ names and get to know and love (or loathe) them.
-Apartments. Most public school teachers I know have tiny apartments, the kind with the shower over the toilet. 😦

Now these are all generalizations, and of course there are amazing public schools and really shitty hagwons. But like I said, do your research. But I just wanted to get it out there that hagwons are not the devil and can in fact be much preferable to public schools in Korea!

-Jen Pace

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Public Schools vs. Hagwons in South Korea

  1. Will

    Thank you very much for the breakdown , iv applied to teach with adventure teaching and theyv got me a job working for Avalon and I keep reading bad things about hagwons but decided to sign my contract and risk it . But your blog has made me feel better about the decision thank you. Have you or anyone you know worked for Avalon. Want more info on them

    • Daniel Daugherty

      It depends on the branch you work in. THe company is a large chain, some independent franchises and some run by the corporate office. Corporate ones are now making employees work on Saturdays (with different days off during the week) due to the new Korean public school policies which eliminated Saturday classes.

      All in all, it’s an okay job to have for your first gig in Korea. You’ll be paid on time, mostly won’t get jerked around, and you’ll get experience to roll into a future job. Click the “Avalon” tag on my post to see more of my posts concerning the company.

      Do you know what neighborhood/location you’ll be working in? I can vouch for Sunae branch as a good place to be right now.

      • Joanna Castle

        Hey! OMG! I have been looking everywhere for information on the Company Avalon as well! Your Post was so helpful because I’ve actually already had my first phone interview and it went great. They asked me to have a second one and I was really excited until I started reading all the bad reports about the company on the web. Now Im not sure what to do. The pay seems good but I haven’t yet accepted the 2nd interview because I feel nervous, like it would be a bad decision. Do you know anything about the Avalon location in Gwanju? Any information you could provide would be helpful! And do you know people that worked there that were satisfied with the experience?

  2. Dan's pop

    WOW! I complain when I have twenty-five students… OMG, FORTY!!! That’s enough to make you want to hang yourself.

    Everyone I have met that has taught in Korea, has a horror story or two to tell. Glad your having a good go with it…

  3. I just talked to someone who is teaching in Korea. She said recently, a lot of English teachers were fired–or changed shifts–so that they work later hours and at hagwons. Now, a lot of English teachers at public schools are Korean. She said it was to increase the job market. I know I planned on teaching at a public school–mostly because I like having evening open and a 2-10 p.m. sounded killer.

    • Jen Pace

      Yes, I also heard that there are now fewer public school jobs available for native English speakers. If you want to work during the day, you can still work in a kindergarten hagwon (as I did at both my jobs here).

    • Daniel Daugherty

      It should also be noted that those jobs were in Gyeonngi-do, the province surrounding Seoul. The jobs were part of the GEPIK program, different from EPIK.

  4. John

    I have been working at a public school in Souh Korea for almost two years and everything you mentioned about public schools is true in my case. Every single point, both good and bad, was completely accurate. I came to this blog, because I was wondering about hagwons. My contract is almost complete and I want to know more about hagwons and adult learning courses. Things such as pay, benefits, working conditions, etc… Working at this public school has been nice, but all the cons you mentioned are all too true. Could you tell me more about hagwons please?

    • Daniel Daugherty

      Search the tag “hagwon”, “hagwon logic” etc. on our blog, you will probably get a pretty good idea of what you’re going to find.

      Pay will probably start around 2.1, working conditions vary wildly from one branch to the next, benefits are standard except vacation time (two weeks, sometimes mandatory and pre-assigned)

      The hagwon-osphere is such a varied group of institutions that it’s hard to tell you what to expect. This is not entirely true of all hagwons, like my current employer, but it’s a good general description: You might be working in what amounts to a child prison that sucks all life from your students through homework and the ineffective curriculum you are expected to deliver to them.

      When I worked in a place like that, I did my best to make the kids less miserable through games, videos and basically anything that wouldn’t generate a complaint from the parents or which I didn’t think I would be fired for if my head teacher/director were aware.

    • Jen Pace

      Since you have 2 years of experience working in Korea, the pay will probably be 2.2-2.3. Make sure you research the hagwon before you accept the job, and definitely talk to people who work there or have worked there recently. You will only get 2 weeks vacation. If you work in a kindy, it will be 1 week at Christmas and 1 week in the summer. If you work at an after school hagwon, they let you take it whenever you want, except during winter/summer intensive periods.

      • Shella May Jarce

        hi this is Shella May from suwon south korea i would like to work as an english teacher, is there anyone who could help me here?
        i really need a job i hope u could help me guys.
        thank you so much in advance 🙂

  5. Pingback: Moving to South Korea: A Resource | Life's an Adventure (if you live it like one)

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