From the Frying Pan to the Fire: My experiences going from the public school system to a hagwon

This is another guest post. Patti has been teaching in Korea for the last seven years, and has a wide variety of experiences. I asked her to write this post because I knew she previously taught public school, and now taught at a hagwon, and did not seem to hate her hagwon.

She has, however, delivered a lot more than I could ever have asked for. Her experiences cover a wide range of teaching positions in Korea, over various levels. My most heartfelt thanks to Patti for sharing these experiences with me, and thus with all of you.

Public School Experience

1. A Typical High School

When I first applied to teach in Incheon, I requested an elementary or middle school, because I had been told by Korean friends back home that working in a high school would be a living hell, as high school students usually don’t want to listen to their teachers, but want to focus solely on their college entrance exams. It makes education more about the grades, and less about actual learning. I find this attitude permeates all levels of Korean education.

As fate would have it, I applied through the Incheon Metropolitan Office of Education (IMOE) directly and was placed in a high school, located in a low-income area in Incheon.

I could not have been more unprepared for what awaited me – 40-plus freshmen students to a class, separated by gender, almost all of them beginners of English. I had to rapidly adjust my lessons, teaching methodology and strategies that I had learned in graduate school to fit the needs of these students. These students could not handle debate, let alone construct a complete sentence in English. Constructing high-interest content for teenagers using low-level English seemed like an impossible challenge, but I received a lot of help and guidance from the one co-teacher who I worked with throughout the year. We shared the same office, which was connected to our English Only Zone classroom. My experience with co-teaching is unique, because I only had one co-teacher throughout my time at this school, whereas some native English teachers have several co-teachers and rarely see them before the class starts. In every situation I taught since, I have taught every class by myself without a co-teacher.

Sometimes these students were noisy, disruptive and very rude to me in the classroom. For many of the teenage boys, the English they knew came from movies, and they often tried to embarrass me by using explicit language. Working at this first school was a challenge. I sometimes dreaded going to work to face the difficult classes, but I also learned how to quickly come up with lesson plans and create lessons to fit larger classes.  I do remember my co-teacher saying that she felt some students “actually learned something” that year.

2. The Foreign Language Training Center

I was scouted during this year by the IMOE and asked to work for the Incheon foreign language training center on the Incheon airport island, which was a very unique experience, as I was no longer in the public school system, but followed the government training center’s program. Here, I was teaching English to elementary, middle and high school teachers to improve their English proficiency during 6-month intensive training programs. I enjoyed being in charge of my own classroom as a “homeroom teacher” to my group of adult students. I also taught a gifted English program for middle school students on some Saturdays with this training center, as well as participate in several English camps for middle and high school students.

As I mentioned, this job was quite unique as my students were much older, so I did not have to be concerned with classroom management and regulating behavior, and the students genuinely seemed to want to learn. The downside was the training center’s disorganization – important changes were often made at the last minute, miscommunications between the foreign staff and the Korea staff abounded, and there were times were the foreign staff were unaware of what was clearly going on. I might find out that I had to teach a class a few minutes before it started, leaving me feeling embarrassed because I was not prepared. I learned that these sudden changes were actually normal, and even expected, in Korea.

 3. The Foreign Language High School

After working at the training center, I taught for three years at a foreign language high school. So far, working at that school had been the best job I’ve had in Korea. The students were hardworking and well behaved, they listened and they followed my instructions well. It was a great school to work at, but it was not without its challenges. For three years I created midterm and final exams as well as performance assessments for each class I taught. In hindsight, I’m thankful that the school required me to do this, since it brought legitimacy to my class. The students actually had to pay attention to what I had taught them, instead of playing on their cell phones (which they weren’t allowed to have anyway) or chatting with friends. There were a lot of good points about this school. The Korean English teachers could communicate in English competently and I was able to work with other native English teachers. The downsides would be, as I mentioned before, a lack of communication between teachers and staff (sometimes classes would be cancelled or changed and I would have no idea), forced teachers’ dinners, and going through an odd chain of hierarchy to get anything done.

Hagwon Experience

I have heard some people ask me in disbelief why I left a great high school job to work at a hagwon, or private institute. While I will not divulge more than it necessary here, I can say that, for the most part, I like the timetable scheduling of a hagwon. I work in the afternoons and evenings at my current job, and so I have my mornings free to sleep in, run errands, or do other things. I don’t feel rushed in the morning as I did in the public school system. Once I get to my hagwon, I teach all my classes with 10 minute breaks in between, so I don’t have “desk warming” time, where I am sitting, killing time. The teaching content at the hagwon is much easier, so I don’t spend hours lesson planning like I did before. I already have some experience teaching, so I can quickly assess what the students struggle with and what I need to focus more attention on. It’s my first time teaching elementary school students, so I look at this as an opportunity to become more well-rounded in my teaching repertoire. I can now say I have taught almost every age range in Korea. I am also thankful, in that I have a good director who respects me and the other teachers, and she pays on time and in full. Because our hagwon is small, there are less communication problems and for the most part, everyone seems to know what is going on maybe because all the teachers share the same office, except for our director. The class size is much, much smaller, so I can manage the class by myself and enforce my own rules. The downside to this job is the students. Since they are much younger, they require more energy and attention. They can be quite rude to each other and also me. I am sure that many students do not want to study more at the hagwon, since they just finished their classes at school, so sometimes it is a fight to get students to stay motivated and focused on what you are teaching them.

Final Reflection

There is a lot of security working in the public school system. Free housing, being paid on time and in full, co-teachers in the class who can help you with classroom translation and lesson planning. However, there can be on overpopulated class size, miscommunications, and cultural differences in the classroom that are hard to discern. Native English teachers may be asked to create their own lessons from scratch and teach the same lesson to 10 different classes. They may be asked to proofread essays and create tests. They may be asked to do extra work by teaching English to parents, the community or other teachers in the school. There may be miscommunications, which might frustrate the native English teacher if he or she is used to efficiency, clear planning, and actual communication. There might be more required of the native English teacher than that is originally planned or agreed upon.

In the hagwon, there may be less required of the native English teacher, they may be expected to only focus on the classes they teach. Some hagwon directors are evil and do not promise what is on their contracts. That is very bad and has made many people feel wary of teaching at hagwons, and rightly so.

Whether you teach in a public school or a hagwon, how the native English teacher is utilized all boils down to one question: is education a means to an end or the end itself? In Korea, education, especially English education, is teaching to the college entrance exam. The native English teacher might have a frustrating time being in Korea, but may also have a very rewarding time. Looking back, I was very fortunate to be placed where I was, and given more freedom then most native English teachers. I was also very fortunate to not have financial or legal problems in any of the jobs I have worked at. The person who is considering teaching in Korea has many resources to help him or her, such as blogs, Facebook and other websites. Is Korea worth taking a daring plunge into the world of English education? Yes and no.


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