Escaping Hagwon Horror and The Ordeals of Moving to a Public School: Will’s Story

OR: I talk to some teachers about their hagwon experiences

Before coming to Korea:

Will* wanted to come to teach in Korea, but he’d had a hard time getting into the public school system. As certain of the benefits of EFL positions in Korea exist in both public schools and hagwons (refunded airfare, a furnished apartment, good salary) or unconnected to the schools (great public transport system, low cost of living, high speed internet, etc.), he applied for a lot of hagwon jobs (some hagwons recruit on their own, and others through recruiters), and eventually found a job in the city of Incheon.

When I met Will:

I met Will at about this time last year, through my predecessor (seriously, what do you call the person whose job you took?) who is still in Korea. What I chiefly remember about Will and his difficulties was this his director seemed to have little idea about personal boundaries. She felt it necessary to comment on personal issues that were unrelated to his teaching, and that did not affect his work environment.

Will’s contract specified teaching 30 hours per week, but his director often demanded that he work beyond these hours, and be available for work related activities outside of the hours when he was meant to be at the hagwon.

Also, Will was often being paid late.

Now… all of these were issues I’d read about before coming to Korea and deciding to commit to finding a public school job rather than a hagwon job. However, Will didn’t seem unhappy in his job. Every time I saw him after that, he had amusing stories about his students, including a time that he’d accidentally invented a game to teach the kids numbers.

[aside: this is why I like talking to hagwon teachers. I often find that they need to vent as much as I do, and are much less likely to say “Yes, but you can have conversations with your students” as though that makes up for all the extra work I have to do. Hagwon teachers, on the other hand, always seem to understand that the kids are the reason I love what I do.]

Hagwon ghouls
Hagwon ghouls

Things escalate:

A few months after I’d first met him, Will contacted me on Facebook, asking if I would read over an email he was going to send to his director about complaints that he’d had about his work environment. I didn’t tell him this at the time, but that message woke me up, and is thus lodged in my memory.  As I was reading over the message, I learnt a few more things about Will’s work environment:

  1. Will’s hagwon was having financial difficulties. Students were leaving, other teachers were leaving, computers were broken and remained broken, despite promises to fix them.
  2. Will’s director’s comments went beyond a few personal comments, into telling him that he was not doing his job, and that he was not a good teacher
  3. When Will approached his director with concerns, she had laughed at him. He described her tone as argumentative and dismissive.

A short while later, Will quit his hagwon job. His director had been subtracting money for his pension from his salary each month, but had not been paying it to the correct authority. After that point, Will felt he could no longer trust his director, and he quit. It was, in short, the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

Will's director (artists's impression)
Will’s director (artists’s impression)

Even after you leave, they can make your life hell:

For the next while after he quit, Will stayed with various friends and hunted for public school jobs – both in Incheon and in nearby areas – and worried about getting his letter of release from his (now former) employer. Without a letter of release, Will would not be able to transfer his visa to his new job, and might not be able to get a new job at all. While Will hunted, his friends let him stay with them and hunted for information about visa runs and new jobs.

Will's hagwon. Again, an artist's impression
Will’s hagwon. Again, an artist’s impression

The new job, and why things are better now:

Eventually Will got a job in Incheon, teaching a public elementary school. In fact, he replaced someone else I knew and moved into a building with some of my friends.

He’s much happier now, even though moving from a hagwon to a public school has meant that he had to take a pay cut. When I asked him what he liked most about having moved from the academy to the elementary school, he told me that it was that he had so much more support in his new school.

What goes unsaid in all of this is that Will also had a lot more security now. The public school won’t pay him late, and won’t subtract his pension money without paying it into the pension fund. The public school’s financial difficulties are unlikely to mean that computers will not be fixed. If Will has problems with his current school, there’s a clear path for him to follow to get things sorted out. If he would need to quit – which seems unlikely – there’s a clear procedure to follow, and the public school won’t withhold the letter of release from him.

My thanks to Will for letting me write about him, and for sharing his story with me. I will be referring to him again in a post that’s currently under construction.

*not his real name

This is the first of a short series that I’ve planned/commissioned/whatever in order to compare hagwons and public schools more effectively. My thanks to everyone who participated and put up with me asking personal questions in order to make this series a better. If you would like to contribute, shoot me an email. Especially if you have a non-horror hagwon story.


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