Hogwans in Korea get a bad rap among ESL teachers. The internet is littered with horror stories, and there’s no shortage of teachers waiting to tell you about how they got screwed over.
The for-profit English sector in Korea is an industry that, while highly lucrative, is also highly unregulated, and stories of mistreatment by employers are commonplace.
With all the negativity surrounding these types of jobs, it’s no wonder would-be teachers who want to come over to Korea are highly skeptical. In fact, some of them become so turned off by all bad press that they end up never going at all.
And it’s really too bad, because it doesn’t have to be that way.
All these stories you’ve heard are, for the most part, true. They do happen to people. They’ve even happened to me.
But what you need to understand is that they’re the minority. For every full-on nightmare scenario, there’s dozens of other teachers who come to Korea, work for a Hogwan and have no major problems. Some of them even find jobs that they absolutely love.
Furthermore, it’s also important to understand that no matter how bad a situation gets, you always have options. Despite what a lot of the haters in Korea will tell you, you’re not an indentured servant at your job and, with a VERY small number of exceptions, there are always steps you can take if things get ugly.
Moving overseas, especially to a country where you don’t speak the language or understand the culture, can be nerve-wracking.
You can do all the research in the world, but you can never really know for certain what will happen once you get there.
That said, there are precautions you can take before you arrive, especially when it comes to choosing your job, that will dramatically lower your chance of finding yourself in one of these bad situations.
The following is a list of five major red flags to watch out for. As you’re searching for your new job, keep these mind. If any of the schools you interview with tick one or more of the boxes below, you may want to think twice about signing a contract with them.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A “HOGWAN”?
Before we dive in, I think we need to clarify what exactly a “hogwan” is. A lot of people either a.) don’t know, or b.) have a vague idea, but still aren’t sure. Hell, I didn’t even totally understand what it was until about six months into my job.
A hogwan is, in essence, a private school. However, it’s not a private school in the same way that you’re probably imagining it.
Hogwans don’t offer compulsory education. They don’t follow the curriculum set by the Korean Ministry of Education (although they are regulated to an extent by them). They offer supplementary education, in subjects ranging from math to english to dance. I even saw a “Lego hogwan” one time (what they actually taught there, I have no idea, but it looked pretty sweet).
They’re also (and this is important to understand) a MASSIVE industry in South Korea, with over 70, 000 schools currently in operation. They are, first and foremost, a business, and exist to make money.
That doesn’t mean that they don’t deliver quality training and education, but the fact that they’re a for-profit company is something you do need to consider. And like any company, there are good ones and bad ones.
RED FLAG #1: THEY WON’T LET YOU TALK WITH A CURRENT TEACHER
One of the key questions you should be asking when you apply for a hogwan job is if you can talk with a current teacher at the school.
The reason for this is pretty self-explanatory- you want to check and make sure everything’s kosher from an unbiased source.
After all, if you were working at a job where you were getting treated like crap, and a potential employee asked you your opinion of working at that place, what would you tell them?
It’s really important to talk to another foreign teacher working at the school before you sign your contract. Ideally, this should be the teacher you’re replacing, but a teacher currently under contract at the school will suffice.
Here’s a tip- ask to talk with them AFTER they’re done work and get their phone number or Skype. People are much more likely to be honest with you about their job when their boss and coworkers aren’t hovering over their shoulder. At this point, you can ask them for all the information you need to know.
If, for some reasons, the school doesn’t let you talk to a current teacher, that’s a bad sign. A really bad sign. There’s really no good reason I can think of for a school to deny you this request.
Sometimes they may really need a teacher in a hurry and tell you that they need you to sign a contract as soon as possible. While that may be true, it’s still not worth not talking to someone, and if management keeps insisting that you sign first, DON’T DO IT.
If they’re really that adamant about it, it more than likely means that they have a bad relationship with their foreign staff and are trying to hide it.
RED FLAG #2: THEY HAVE HIGH TEACHER TURNOVER
When you’re interviewing for your job, you need to make sure you’re asking certain questions, just like you would back home- and this question is an absolute must.
Obviously I wouldn’t phrase it quite so bluntly, but there are ways to tactfully go about finding out what the deal is. You want to be asking them things like “how many (foreign) teachers do you have?”, “how long have they been with the school?”, and “how many years has the school been in operation for?”.
You want to find out if a.) teachers are finishing their full yearly contracts, and b.) if teachers are re-contracting for second and third years.
If the school’s never had a teacher resign a contract for a second year, that could potentially be a red flag (though not always).
If the school you’re interviewing with routinely has teachers quitting their jobs and breaking contract, that’s definitely a red flag.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a fool proof system for determining the quality of the school. Sometimes teachers are masochists who hate their job and are poorly treated, but sign for a second year because they are either too lazy to look for a new job or are too intimidated by the prospect of job hunting again (happened at one of the school’s I worked at).
It’s also important to keep in mind that sometimes teachers quit for personal reasons. The infamous “midnight run”, in which certain teachers pack their bags and leave the country overnight, sometimes has nothing to do with the school and more to do with the fact that they (the teacher) are immature.
And on a side note, if you do decide to quit your job, that’s cool, but DON’T do a midnight run. There’s much better ways of quitting and it makes the rest of us look really bad.
But if it’s something that has happened at the school, definitely ask for details about it. And make sure you confirm all of this during your conversation with a current teacher.
That said, use your common sense- if the school’s only been open for two years, and they only have two foreign teachers who didn’t re-contract, it’s not necessarily a problem.
RED FLAG #3: THEY’RE HAVING FINANCIAL ISSUES
Imagine this scenario- you’ve just signed a contract with a school you like and you’re off to Korea. You arrive, and everything works out splendidly.
The staff is nice, your boss is lovely, and the other foreign teachers seem cool. On top of that, the workload is low, you’re getting lots of help with your classes, and the students love you.
Sounds great, right? I mean, what could possible be wrong with this situation?
At the beginning of this article, I talked about how hogwans are a business first and foremost.
And in order for a business to operate and pay their employees (you), they need money.
Oftentimes when we talk about ESL jobs we place a lot of emphasis on the working conditions. After all, if you’re going to be working somewhere for a year, you’d better enjoy it. This makes perfect sense.
But often we get caught up talking about what kind of school it is and we forget to factor in what kind of a BUSINESS it is. Because at the end of the day, if your school isn’t making money, they can’t keep employing you. It’s as simple as that. And while changing employers in Korea is certainly possible, leaving an employer you like for a new job is still a huge pain pain.
I’m not saying you have to choose one or the other. There are absolutely hogwans out there that are financially stable AND run by good people that you’d want to work for.
But you have to make sure you cover both these categories when you’re doing your research.
Generally speaking, the longer a school’s been open and in business for, the more secure and stable it will be. Ask the other foreign teachers. If other teachers have been laid off, find out about it. If teachers paycheques have been consistently late (BIG RED FLAG), find out about it.
You don’t have to know everything about the business side of things, but you do want a general impression of how the school operates.
RED FLAG #4: THE OWNER IS HORRIBLE
I’ll keep this one short, because it’s pretty self explanatory. Generally speaking with your hogwan, you’re going to be working with a number of people besides the other foreigners. Most schools will have you work with a (semi) bilingual Korean co-teacher.
There will also be Korean administrative staff, and, depending how big the school is, any number of managers (if you work at a Kindergarten, you’ll also have a lunch lady, and they’re usually super chill people).
If for some reason your Korean co-teacher is obnoxious, you can usually work around that.
If one of your managers is demanding, a lot of times you can also just deal with it.
But if the owner of the school is tyrant, you’re gonna have issues. Major issues.
You want to make sure the guy signing your paycheques is cool. If you can work with them, most of the time you’ll be good.
RED FLAG #5: YOUR GUT’S TELLING YOU TO RUN
You need to trust yourself. At the end of the day, you can get all the information you want. You can make sure the school ticks all the boxes, and that you dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s. You can make sure everything looks good on paper.
But when it comes right down to it, if you get a bad feeling about the school, or if you get a bad vibe from the people working there that you talk to, DON’T SIGN THE CONTRACT. Walk away. There will always be another one.
Once you sign that contract, you’re committed. It’s a year of your life. Do your homework.
That said, don’t let yourself become paranoid. And be honest with yourself. If you’re the kind of person who’s anxious about moving to Korea, admit that to yourself. Know where to draw the line between gut instinct and irrational fear.
My intention with writing this isn’t to scare you and make you think hogwans are horrible places by nature. They’re not. They’re businesses, and just like any other, there are good businesses, bad businesses and shades of grey.
And with a little bit of work upfront on your part, you can go a long way to making sure the next year of your life is spent working with good people.