Izzy, who blogs at The Next Somewhere, spent a year teaching in South Korea before her current adventure; teaching in Vietnam. She classes herself as “Bostonian by way of the Philippines”. Izzy decided to embark on a TEFL career in order to take herself overseas.
In the latest instalment of the Teaching to Travel series, we hear about being one of two Native English Teachers in a hagwon (public school) in Daejeon. To catch up with Parts 1 – 5 in the series, click here.
“When teaching in South Korea, you can either work at a public school or a hagwon. Hagwons are akin to Japanese cram schools and are a huge industry in Korea. (a cram school is a place where students pay for supplementary academic instruction).
I didn’t know how much Koreans valued education until I immersed myself in the culture. In Korea, teachers are very well respected. It’s an occupation to be proud of! I was one of two Native English Teachers (NETs) before my colleague left suddenly so then I ended up being the only Native Teacher at my school!
There were about 400 students attending our school although numbers at hagwons are always in flux because it’s a business venture more than anything. That was a constant source of stress.
The hagwon I worked for was an academy for gifted learners. Because of our location, in Daejeon’s premiere academic area, our students were mostly the children of professors, researchers, and scientists. They were the finest minds in academia so there was a lot of pressure to perform well! All our classes were accelerated learning classes and were geared towards eventual success on standardized tests.
What does a typical week while teaching in South Korea at a hagwon look like?
In Korea, an average elementary student goes to school from 7 am until 8 pm. Most students attend hagwons after regular school hours are over. As a hagwon teacher, I taught eight hours a day, usually from 2-10 pm or 1-9 pm. I was contracted to teach six classes back-to-back every day in the areas of speaking, essay writing, and standardized test prep like TOEIC and TOEFL. My classes were capped at 13 students and sometimes I could even have as little as one student in a class. Those one-on-ones were great as I got to really know the student on a personal level. However, the workload was almost always more than I could handle and I would have to come in early/stay in late to keep up.
I was shocked at how rigorous the work ethic is in Korea, both for students and average citizens. Koreans have the longest work hours in the world!
We had about two hours to attend to administrative obligations, as well as complete grading assignments, doing student evaluations, and prep all the materials we needed for class. However, sharing an office space with eleven other teachers with the same responsibilities meant things got hectic. During months with intensive classes, where I was asked to do “official” overtime, I’d be clocking in 12-hour days! So depending on the workload, my work hours per week ranged from 40 to 60 hours.
Outside of the classroom
While I was teaching in South Korea, my coworkers made up the entirety of my Korean friend group. We bonded together in solidarity and in sympathy of one another. Most of the time, I would hang out with other expat teachers because as westernized as Korea is, its still very much isolated from the rest of the world. Many Koreans are still not as open-minded to cultural exchange as you think they would be. It’s understandable though, seeing as English competency is generally very low, so I can empathize why Koreans wouldn’t be more open to socializing in a language they are afraid of. My Korean was deplorable as well, so I would struggle to do even the most basic tasks like riding in a taxi.
In terms of free time, I had next-to-none save for my weekends. About two months into my teaching year, I met a Korean-American guy and fellow teacher who I became involved in a serious relationship with. I would spend most of my weekends with him just because that was the only time we could see one another seeing as we had opposite work schedules (he was a public school teacher, I was an afterschool teacher). We did some exploring but it tended to be minimal since I was saving for a backpacking trip… one that he ended up joining me on!
My favorite things to do in my spare time were getting together with my friends and taking trips to Seoul. I loved exploring Seoul with my girlfriends. It was only 45 minutes away by fast train so it never felt like a trek to get up there. We would eat, shop, and party all night long. Yes, the stereotypes of teaching in South Korea are true: I loved to noreabang (go karaoke-ing), relax at jimjilbangs (Korean spas), drink lots of soju while eating barbeque, and have wild nights out where I would see the sun rise almost every time.”
Thanks Izzy for sharing your experiences of teaching in South Korea with us, as well as for such great photographs!
Has Izzy’s experience made you want to jump on a plane and head to South Korea? Or to run in the other direction, away from teaching and to the nearest bar (to work in, of course)? Let me know in the comments about your experiences teaching overseas…or if it’s something you’re thinking about 🙂