This is a guest post written by a friend of mine. Leigh* and I met when we both arrived in Korea, and she currently teaches in a middle school in Daegu. We were in the same intake and attended the same orientation. Like me, she is also a South African (hence the mention of postal strikes back home.) I asked her to write this post about how she got her hagwon job, and why she’s so excited about it, and why she’s sure she hasn’t landed in hagwon hell like my friend Will did. Pictures inserted by me)
Although my job was one of the public school jobs that were cut from EPIK for next year, I am one of the lucky few who were going to leave the DMOE (Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education) anyway – I want to move to Ulsan to be closer to my boyfriend – so I’d already had a lot of time to plan. As I wanted to spend another year in Korea, my options came down to either staying in the public school system, or moving to a hagwon.
If you want to change provinces within EPIK, you basically have to reapply to EPIK. The new MOE needs all the documents that took forever to get in the first place. It’s a lot of effort for a “maybe” job in a mystery school, especially when they’re cutting jobs left, right, and center, so you don’t even know what level you’ll be teaching. That, paired with the postal strikes back home and exorbitant fees it would cost to send the documents back and forth, really helped me make my decision to move to a hagwon. Unlike moving within the same organisation to a different region (which will give you migraines and takes a lot of paperwork), it turns out that finishing your contract and starting a new, different job is much, much easier.
When I finish my contract, all I need is a medical check and I’m sorted. It will be acquired for cheap cheap in Korea, and will take less than a week.
So, I decided to move to a hagwon. But which one? Before I joined EPIK, I spent years researching, reading horror story after horror story about evil hagwons with evil owners and people pulling midnight runs and so on. I was terrified that I would end up in a stinky, mosquito-ridden closet in a run down building in a street full of love motels, working for a slave driver who monitored everything via CCTV.
As it turns out, not all hagwons are evil shitholes. A friend of mine had made the move from EPIK to a kindergarten and every week she posts a new Facebook status about the reasons she’s glad she made that decision. I think she’s on reason number 28 now… I asked for her help and she put me in touch with the recruiting agency she had used. Unfortunately, the super-helpful recruiter who had made the whole process so easy for her was no longer working for the company. I didn’t have a great experience with them, as they tend to withhold information about the hagwons and the jobs. I felt that basic information like the children’s age is crucial to the decision making process. The hagwon directors get to look over all of our resumes and all of our personal information, when making their choices. But often we don’t even get to know which school we’re applying for. That seems completely lopsided to me, but it is a result of people using word of mouth to warn each other of the bad ones.
Anyway, the recruiter found me a couple of positions but I shuffled my feet and hesitated because I felt like I couldn’t trust the information. Instead, I put feelers out to my friends and kept my eyes on the local Facebook groups, where job offers are posted almost daily.
Finally, my boyfriend spotted an ad that looked promising. There were so many comments below it, from people who had worked there before, talking about how much they loved it and how reliable the director was. While they didn’t name the school, they provided all the basic information, and the person posting the ad was the current employee, rather than a recruiter. The best thing you can do when applying for a hagwon job is to find someone who works there, befriend them, and pick their juicy brains for intel. I even found a picture of the person’s first pay check, which gave me a good idea of my salary (more than what EPIK would pay me, since they’re dropping our salaries next year as well). I saw photos of the apartment I’d live in, and she gave me the director’s email address. I sent in my CV, and within 24 hours had secured a telephone interview.
The phone interview went well. I think I was a bit dazed because it all happened so fast, but I was chatty and cheerful and I made her laugh. After the phone interview I sent an email thanking her for taking the time to talk to me. I found out that there was one other girl interviewing for the job as well, but that I’d made the best first impression, and I started preparing for the face-to-face interview. I got to meet the director, check out the school (it’s so pretty!) and even read some of the students’ essays.
Unfortunately, in the week leading up to the interview, knowing that I had competition for the job turned me into a bundle of nerves, and by the time I had the interview, I was shy, and not the bubbly, chatty person who had impressed her on the phone. I felt the job slipping away from me. I sent another email, sharing my positive impressions of the school and thanking her for taking the time to see me. It helped.
Later the next week, she was checking up on my references and she found that the school I said I worked for did not list my name on the website. She thought I might be lying about my job (they updated the website and must have forgotten us) so she gave the school a call. A random teacher answered the phone, had no idea I was looking for a job, said “We cannot share personal information about employees” and hung up on her. Are you kidding me? The teacher told me what had happened hours later, and I freaked out, sprinted to my office and emailed a letter of recommendation that one of my favourite co-teachers had written for me (in Korean). I also shared two phone numbers (that were on my CV to begin with) for her to phone to check my references. And then I waited.
About an hour later, she emailed me the contract, and we organised a time to meet and sign it. I brought her some persimmons, and we shook hands, and I have a job for next year.
Overall, from seeing the job ad to securing the job, everything took about 2 weeks. It was an incredibly stressful two weeks. I’m really glad it’s over. I think what I want you to take away from this is that not all hagwon jobs are bad. You have to dig for the diamonds. Also, you may need to leap for opportunities that come your way. Finally, always, always, always, follow up the interview with a thank you note.
The best thing about this whole process, as compared with EPIK, is the level of autonomy I have regained as I was able to choose which school I worked in, who I worked with, and even which area of the city I will live in. I won’t have a co-teacher, but I also won’t have more than 9 kids in a class. Compared to being a button-pushing performing monkey, novelty foreigner in a public school program that no one seems to know how to implement properly, I might actually get a chance to teach some kids, and maybe even learn their names. I think that’s the part that excites me the most.
*not her real name