I’ve been wanting to write this since last January. It’s all the things I wish I’d known but didn’t.
This blog post is going to be mostly for people who haven’t stepped foot on South Korean soil yet. Those of you who have worked as teachers overseas, you know what questions to ask and everyone has their own preferences concerning what they can and can’t handle in a hagwon.
So, here’s the situation. You’ve finished your background check and all your paperwork. You’ve submitted your resume and talked to twenty different recruiters and finally, finally, finally; there are a few hagwons who are interviewing you and perhaps even offering you positions at their fine schools which aren’t at all about business but rather they’re run simply for the love of learning and the joy of filling a young person’s heart with the power of English. Right? Right. Now they want to know if you have any questions. They’ve given you the contact information of a foreigner (Read: when I say “foreigner” here, I mean a person like you, who isn’t ethnically native Korean) who is already working for them. What do you ask? How do you find out if this is actually a good hagwon, or one of those nightmare places that you’re trying to avoid? Well, here’s what you need to know.
First of all, that contact foreigner, the one whom you’re probably going to be replacing when he/she leaves? Well, they don’t have any obligation or desire to keep you from stepping on a land mine. The fact is that if they do work for a nightmare hagwon, then they want to get out of there as fast as possible without making any trouble for their boss. If they go around telling all new potential teachers to run for the hills, that’s going to create problems, right? Who is going to replace them when they leave if they keep telling everyone it’s a sucky job? It’s problematic in the least.
I speak from my own experience here. I’ve accepted jobs at two different hagwons, had two amiable email exchanges with two different but lovely teachers who assured me that their schools were wonderful beacons of English light to the Korean community. Unicorns and rainbows and all that joy; only to find out that that wasn’t the case.
I’m not perfect, either. The one time I was really honest with a potential teacher about my hagwon I did so in confidence and in the confidence of my recruiter. They promised that I could say whatever I wanted and it wouldn’t get back to my boss. So, I was honest about my experience. Well, that potential teacher ran for the hills and my boss got suspicious and immediately started interrogating and intimidating me even though he had no hard evidence that I had been speaking badly about the job. He just had a hunch (which happened to be right). After that, I stopped being as honest as I was at first and I only answered questions in ways that favored my hagwon. I was already dealing with enough trouble with the boss, I didn’t need any more. The truth is that there’s a lot of money riding on the end of a contract and any teacher who is finishing one year is going to try and do everything they can to take home their bonus pay and whatnot and part of that means slipping out as quickly and quietly as possible by helping to provide another fresh, young recruit.
So, now you know Rule Number 1 which is that,
You Can’t Fully Trust the Foreigner Who is Endorsing the Hagwon that Wants to Hire You
Now, take a deep breath and continue reading.
What you can do is avoid asking vague questions that can be answered in any number of ways. I just spent a year working for what some might consider to be a nightmare hagwon. It wasn’t as bad as some but for sure it wasn’t a picnic. In the one year I was there, I saw no less than thirteen teachers leave and by the time I finished my contract, I had the most seniority out of anyone in the office save for one Korean teacher who was just a part-timer. I should note, this was a small school with only twelve desks, so what I experiences was over 100% turnover in 1 year.
When it comes to hagwons, I know crazy. Here are the questions I wish I had asked before I accepted the job:
1.) Do you trust your boss?
Now, the word trust here is important. This question is different from Do you like your boss, or Is your boss nice? The truth is that I liked my boss at my crazy hagwon, sometimes. And he was nice most of the time. I mean he wasn’t a micromanager and that was excellent. But I didn’t trust him. Not with money or anything else. If somebody had asked me, Do You Trust Your Boss? My conscience would never allow me to answer that with a Yes. But if they had asked, Do You Like Your Boss? Well, yeah, I did because he let me teach how I wanted to teach and for the most part, he stayed out of my classroom, which was more than I could say for some of my friends. But there’s a difference between trusting someone and liking them and when you’re in a foreign country, not being able to put your trust in the one person who has the power over your visa, your house, and your income; that can cause some serious stress.
Another question I would think about asking would be, Does your boss take care of you and the other foreigners at your school? Does he care about you as people or does he/she just want to make money?
A lot of hagwon owners are burnt out on Western teachers. It’s understandable. We’re expensive and we’re needy and we take a lot of paperwork. Some of us drink too much and come into work smelling like booze. But we also make money for the school and here’s the thing: we’re people, too.
The owner at the hagwon that I just left didn’t care at all about the foreign teachers and we felt it and it greatly affected the office environment and our attitudes toward work. He always waved us off, requests were mostly put on the back, back, back shelf or completely ignored. He would say “yes” but there was no follow through. He always acted like he was much too busy to talk to us despite the fact that we were the cash cow for his school. We didn’t have access to the office printer at all. Our schedules would change with little notice and sometimes he would make schedules that made absolutely no sense, scheduling myself and another foreign teacher to teach from 9:30AM to 6:30PM with just two twenty minute breaks while other teachers had huge blocks of desk time. It made no sense. But so much of what he did made no sense. He continually took pension money out of our paychecks but never actually paid the pension. He took taxes out from our first month, but he never paid the taxes (so we had no healthcare at first until we noticed and kept threatening to turn him in), he just pocketed that money. The man wouldn’t even acknowledge us when we passed him in the hallway of our own school where we were busy teaching and he was directing. He would simply look down or look the other way. No slight nod. No smile. We were tools to him. Not people.
2.) Do you have enough teaching material to fill class time?
This is key and this is what had me totally stressed out my first 6 months or so of teaching. A hagwon is a business. And like any other business the goal of the hagwon is to stretch it’s resources to make as much money as possible. So, if your hagwon is anything like mine was, it will take one month of material and stretch it to last six months. What this means for you as a teacher is that once you ration out your material and make a monthly schedule and begin to actually teach in a classroom, you’ll realize that the material you have isn’t nearly enough to cover your classroom hours. Some hagwons have workbooks and the kids do their workbooks during class time. This fills up class time and lessens the load on the teacher. My hagwon had workbooks but the kids were supposed to do their workbook at home. Strict rules. So, we teachers had to figure out other ways to fill in time.
Kindergarten aside, I used to teach about four afternoon classes a day. Each class was 50 minutes long (this was after I taught two 80 minute kindergarten classes each morning). Even after I had learned to stretch the material as long as I could, I’d find myself looking at the clock after the first 20 minutes of class, realizing that I was out of material, but I still had a solid 30 minutes of class time to fill.
Getting a good look at your teaching material before you start the job will help you greatly. If I could do anything differently, I would have planned ahead and brought more teaching materials. Alphabet coloring books, storybooks, flashcards, I would have brought anything that could have fit in my suitcase. Used children’s books at thrift stores are cheap in the States but in Korea or any Asian country, the prices are inflated sky-high. English coloring books are also cheap in the States and easy to find but nearly impossible to find in Korea. You copy each page for as many students as you have and the book can last you for years. I have no idea why the girl I replaced didn’t tell me to do this, but she didn’t. In my office, we were always scrambling for materials and I’ll forever regret some of the harsh words I spit to one of my co-teachers when I found out that she had found an alphabet-coloring book, which she had ferreted away in her desk. I was furious.
I never could have known when I took the job that foreigner teachers didn’t have access to a printer in our office. The software had been “lost” or whatever. So we could copy things but we couldn’t print directly from our computers (computers we had to provide, by the way). And if we borrowed a Korean teacher’s computer or emailed them something, we could print. But I only did that when I felt like I had to. The Korean teachers in our hagwon had a lot more computer work and paperwork to do, they were, if you can imagine, busier than we were. And more stressed. I did as much as I could to be as least bothersome as I could. So I mostly stuck to using the copier.
The bottom line here is this: figure out how much outside of class work you’re going to have to do to fill in class time. One of the major differences between hagwon teaching and public school teaching is that we teach more hours than public school teachers, and we also don’t often repeat lessons. I taught an average of six hours or so a day and on a good day, let’s say 2 or 3 of that could be filled with school-provided materials (in reality, it was more like 1.5-2 hours). So that’s 3-4 hours of classroom time that I needed to figure out how to fill, every day and that meant pulling materials out of thin air. Not all hagwons are like this, but mine was and it’s something to consider.
This leads me to the next question…
3.) Is the boss a micromanager or nitpicky?
My boss wasn’t a micromanager. But I’ve heard that many hagwon owners are. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had my boss been the type who always stuck his nose in my teaching business. He did have opinions and preferences but as long as I was going by my syllabus and wasn’t getting student or parent complains; he let me be.
4.) Ask if they can provide you with your future schedule and try to negotiate from there.
Most likely, you will be replacing one person who is leaving. That’s how these things go. So, most likely you’ll be taking over their schedule. There are exceptions to this rule but so far, I’ve seen this scenario play out a number of times. It shouldn’t be impossible for your future boss to provide you with a schedule and it can’t hurt to ask.
The night I arrived in Korea, one of the foreign teachers who worked at my school showed up at my apartment to hang out (well, my boss kinda forced her because she needed to show me how to get to school, ect.) The first thing my new co-worker did was tell me that I had the worst and busiest teaching schedule in the whole school and that I was going to teach more classes and work harder classes than anybody else.
I have no idea why she told me this. But she did.
It wouldn’t have been impossible for me to ask my preceding teacher what her schedule was like beforehand and perhaps I could have negotiated from there. Then I could have had some idea of what my future would look like. I just didn’t know to ask.
5.) Ask About the Turnover Rate
Like I mentioned before, I saw a huge turnover rate at my school and it was 100% because of the boss and the workload. During my time there, I saw two foreign teachers get fired for unclear reasons, at the same time one experienced foreign teacher quit, I saw ten Korean teachers quit, and 2 other foreign teachers pulled a midnight run.
This is a bad sign.
When you are offered a position at a hagwon, ask specific questions about the turnover rate. Unhappy teachers don’t re-contract. That’s just how it is.
6.) Ask Your Predecessor Why They’re Leaving
Most likely, they’re going to tell you they’re going to grad school. I told people I was going to China because a job there was offering me more vacation time, which was true. But it wasn’t until she arrived at the office and I was going through her schedule with her that my replacement thought to ask the one key question that all new teachers should ask their predecessors:
If you were to continue teaching in Korea, would you stay at this school? Why or why not?
The answer to that question should be key as to whether or not you accept the job. Don’t buy anything like, “Oh, I want to see another city” or anything like that. This person has lived in Korea an entire year. If they are staying in Korea but switching hagwons, it means that for some reason they don’t like their school. It takes a lot of trouble to move apartments, interview for jobs, and start a new social life in a different part of Korea. If somebody is going to all that trouble, it usually means that their hagwon isn’t the best.
7.) Ask About Vacation Time
Most hagwons take their vacation time during the peak travel season in Korea. This means you’re going to pay double the price for that flight to Thailand or anywhere else for that matter. And going to the States for that one week of vacation at peak prices? Forget about it. In addition, if you planned on taking vacation with your close friend who works for a public school; well they’re going to stay a week later than you because they have more vacation time. And you’re going to have to deal with the guilt of knowing that they paid hundreds of extra dollars to take their vacation time at the same time as you, when they could have taken it at a different, cheaper time. Public school teachers sometimes have this option. Hagwon teachers don’t.
(M, you’re the best. Thanks for your sacrifice last year).
Also, some hagwons split up vacation time? Like, you don’t even really get a full week? Luckily mine wasn’t like that, but some are and it pays to ask ahead of time.
8.) Ask About Pension, Healthcare, and If There Have Ever Been “Mistakes” in Your Predecessors’ Paycheck
When I accepted my job, I was told that the employer always paid on time and that there were never any money issues. That was only part of the truth. The full truth was that he was taking pension and taxes out of paychecks but he wasn’t paying pension or taxes, he was just skimming that money from the teachers’ wallets and pocketing it for himself. When we called him out on it, he claimed that he didn’t have the money to pay.
Payday at my hagwon was often stressday. I was supposed to be making about 2.2mil won every month. On average, usually about 1.7 or 1.8 was deposited into my account. Where was the extra 4 or 5 hundred dollars? Well, in “taxes” and “pension,” of course! And “maintenance fees” on my apartment and once, in June, I was charged “accidently” for 3 months’ worth of gas bills when it should have been one. When I called my boss out on this, he told me he had made a mistake and that he would pay me back the difference in the following month because he didn’t have the money at the moment. Did he apologize? No. Did he every pay? Honestly I can’t remember. There were too many other things going on for me to check in on $60.
The bottom line is that #8 brings us back full circle. The truth is that it’s stressful to work for someone whom you can’t trust because you never know if they’re telling you the truth or not.
Good luck out there, folks!