One of the first decisions you need to make in order to teach English in Korea is to decide what kind of job you want. For the majority of first-time teachers, you have two choices- working in a Korean public school, or working in a private academy (known in Korea as a “hogwan”).
A public school job is exactly what it sounds like. You’re hired by the government to work in the Korean school system. Basically, you’ll be acting as an assistant to the school’s Korean English teachers. These positions are varied depending on what part of the country you work in, and can be elementary, middle or high schools. Depending on where you’re working, you could also teach at multiple different schools throughout the week.
Hogwans are different. A hogwan is essentially a private, for-profit company that provides supplementary education in a variety of subjects (math, English, writing, etc.). Although there are hogwans for adults, the majority of English hogwans specialize in teaching children, and Korean students typically attend in the afternoon after they finish public school classes for the day. Most of these jobs will have you working with students from age 4 or 5 up until middle school.
If you’ve already done some research into this topic, you probably know that hogwans get a bad rap. There’s no shortage of horror stories about people who have gotten screwed over working for one- late paychecks, overwork and general unpleasantness are some of the most common grievances you’ll hear.
The common wisdom among the expat community in Korea is that a public school job is the better choice, and you should avoid hogwans like the plague.
So what’s the deal? Are hogwans really that terrible? Today’s your lucky day, because I’m here to clear things up. Because the answer is no, they aren’t.
Yes, all those horror stories can and do happen to people, but they’re not as common as the internet makes them out to be.
It also doesn’t tell you the whole story. There are serious pros and cons to both types of the jobs, and if you make your decision without considering all of them, you may regret it once you arrive and start work.
Why Should You Listen To Me?
I’e been in the teaching game for over 5 years now. I’ve worked in both the public and private system, taught at 3 different hogwans, and I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I’ve also been through almost all the nightmare scenarios.
The first school I worked for in Korea was a financial nightmare, and I ended up leaving after 6 months with close to $3000 owed to me in late pay (and yes, I eventually got paid).
The second school I worked for was owned by a legitimate sociopath who TRIED to have the foreign English teachers deported for quitting (and no, they can’t do that).
Even with all of that, I’m currently working for a public school, and I can STILL tell you that there are definite upsides to going with a hogwan, especially if it’s your first teaching job. There are also ways you can prevent these horror stories from happening by screening out bad schools.
Pros Of Working At A Hogan
1. Location: Your options for working in a good location are SO MUCH BETTER with a hogwan. The number of hogwans operating in Korea is absolutely massive, so by default you’re going to have more selection.
So what exactly is a “good location”? For the vast majority of new teachers to Korea, I would strongly advise working in a major city and concentrating your job search on the following areas:
2. Incheon (west of Seoul)
3. Gyeonggi-do (the huge province around Seoul)
Both Incheon and Gyeonggido are connected to Seoul on the subway lines, and Busan is the second largest city in the country. The advantages of living in these areas are having access to international food, shopping and entertainment. You’ll have a much easier time connecting with other expats, and you’ll be far more likely to meet Koreans who are open-minded and willing to connect with foreigners.
And I can tell you from personal experience, the further away from the big cities you get, the more isolating life can become. It’s hard to meet Koreans who speak English and are open to spending time with foreigners, and you’re pretty much stuck hanging out with the few other expats who happen to live in your area.
If you’re trying to get a job at a hogwan, you should have no problem getting a position in one of these places. If for some reason you can’t, you can also have a look at the following cities:
The reason getting a good location with a public school is so difficult is that public schools are currently going through budget cuts. There are less and less positions for native English speakers every year, and the ones that are available tend to be in smaller cities and rural parts of the country. The idea is to expose students in these less cosmopolitan areas to foreigners through the public school system.
While that may be good for students, it’s not so great for you as teacher trying to find a job.
2. Better Facilities, Curriculum and Materials: Having seen both sides of the coin and having worked in both environments, I can absolutely say that every single hogwan I worked for was far better funded than even the best public schools.
A lot of people have a problem with Korea’s hogwan system, and argue that all the extra supplementary schooling puts unnecessary pressure on kids, creates a negative learning environments, and fosters an unhealthy sense of competition.
That said, the one thing that nobody can deny is that when it comes to learning English, the Hogwan system works. They have smaller class sizes, they’re taught in immersion-English, they use high quality textbooks, and they have a curriculum in place that’s actually effective.
The curriculum used in Korean public schools is a joke. The textbooks I have in my classes are laughable, and with the exception of the 45 minutes per week that students have with me, the rest of their English lessons are conducted almost 100% in Korean.
And this isn’t the fault of Korean English teachers by the way. A lot of them are forced to teach this nonsense even if they know they can do better.
This directly affects you as a teacher. At the end of the day, you’re only as good as what you have to work with. There’s nothing more frustration than teaching from an ineffective textbook.
Or being used as a human tape-recorder in class (repeat after Matthew teacher…”this is a pen”).
Or banging your head against the wall because the crappy computer won’t work- again!
I’ve certainly had my problems with the hogwans I’ve worked with, but I will say that all of them had an excellent curriculum in place and top notch materials (computers, iPad’s, art supplies, great textbooks, etc.).
3. Better Students: In addition to offering a better way for Korean kids to study English, hogwans also have two major advantages.
a.) Students start learning English really young
b.) They spend a lot of time in an English-immersion classroom with small class sizes
Public school English teachers have 100’s and 100’s of students, and most only ever see each of them for one class per week at the most. And that’s certainly not enough time for them to retain any of the English they actually learn from you.
Hogwan kids are great because they spend a lot of time with native English teachers, they’re forced to actually use the English that they’ve learned in real-time, and they make progress exponentially faster than other students.
What that means for you is that you have more options in how you teach your classes. You can actually use fun, creative and engaging activities to challenge your students. Trying to do that in public school is an uphill battle at best.
4. You’ll Become A Better Teacher: When you teach in a hogwan, it’s all on you. You’re the only teacher in the classroom. You conduct the entire lesson by yourself.
If you work with kids, and especially if you teach kindergarten, there will be a few Korean teachers on staff, but they’re mainly there to assist you and deal with things like discipline and interacting with the parents.
They’re not the main teacher. You are.
I spent my first year and a half working in hogwans, and I’m glad I did. While it felt like I had been thrown into the deep end of the pool when I first started, the confidence it gave me as a teacher and the skill set I developed is something I never would have gotten in any public school.
Add in a demanding teaching schedule, and by the end of the first year, teaching public school is a joke. I laugh every time I talk with teachers who have only ever done EPIK, because some of the things they complain about are absolutely hilarious.
“I had to teach 6 whole classes today, and my co-teacher didn’t help me”. Boo. Hoo.
5. Better Pay: As a first-time foreign teacher starting out in the public school system without any experience (or a teaching degree), you can expect to make 2.0-2.2 million KRW/month depending on which part of Korea you work in. Your pay increases each year you teach within the public school system, capping out between 2.5-2.7 million KRW/month. Salary is set by the Korean government (check out the EPIK payscale).
At a hogwan, pay is directly negotiated with your school. The industry standard for a first year teacher with no experience is between 2.1-2.3 million KRW/month to start.
As you can see, there isn’t a huge difference in starting salary between the two, however, the advantage of a hogwan comes once you get more experience teaching. This is because as an employee with a private company, you’re not limited by what the government thinks you should be earning.
Last summer when I was job hunting, I interviewed for a position in Seoul that paid 4.0 million KRW/month. And it was in a sweet location (just a few subway stops from Gangnam).
Back in 2012 when I was changing hogwan jobs, I got hired by a school that paid me 2.5 million KRW/month. This was a 300,000 KRW increase from my previous 2.2 million KRW hogwan job, and I was able to get it with only about 6 months worth of teaching experience on my resume.
Pros Of Working At A Public School
1. Less Stress: As a new teacher, you’ll soon discover that every situation is (slightly) different and yours will largely depend on which school you end up working for. However, it’s fairly safe to say that in the vast majority of cases, working at a public school is FAR less stressful than working at a hogwan.
Remember, hogwans are businesses. You’re almost guaranteed to teach more classes. You’re going to have a boss breathing down your neck. You’re going to have parents (i.e. paying customers) that you need to keep happy.
By contrast, the majority of public school jobs are really cushy. You likely won’t teach more than 20 classes per week or so, and you won’t have to deal with major headaches like grading, report cards and meetings with parents. All of that will be dealt with by your Korean co-teacher.
You also won’t have to worry about being let go from your job if teaching ability isn’t up to snuff. Which brings us to our next advantage.
2. More Stability: Every first-year teacher has heard the hogwan horror stories- teachers getting paid late, fired on short-notice, and generally being treated like shit. While these situations aren’t as common as people think, they do happen.
And even if you work at a good hogwan, in the back of your mind you’ll always know that all it takes is your school running into financial problems for you to be out the door and looking for a new job.
Teaching at a public school is unquestionably more stable. You’ll always get paid on time, you don’t have to worry about the schools budget, and it’s very difficult to get fired. If you sign a one year contract, you can rest easy knowing that there’s an incredibly high probability that you’ll complete it without any issues.
Just remember though that although your contract is stable, your long-term job prospects aren’t. Remember, there are less and less of these public school jobs in Korea every year, and so don’t think that just because you’ve had a good year at your school that you’re guaranteed to be there for a second.
3. More Vacation Time: Not only will you have less teaching hours, but you’ll definitely get much more time off in a public school than you will in a hogwan.
On a standard EPIK contract, you’ll get 18 vacation days. GEPIK (I believe) offers 21. Generally speaking, you’re looking at about 4 weeks.
Most hogwans will offer about 2 weeks of paid vacation.
Public schools also tend to be more flexible regarding when you can actually take your vacation days. Most schools require you to take them during the school holidays (winter and summer vacation), but you do have some options regarding specific days.
Hogwans on the other hand are open year round. So when public schools are closed for holidays, your students still attend there hogwan classes after school, so you’ll usually have to take vacation when your boss tells you to.
4. More “Perks”: In addition to more vacation time and less teaching hours, public school teachers get a lot of extra little goodies.
One example of this is the flight allowance- rather pay for your plane ticket, schools just give foreign teachers an extra 1.3 million KRW on their first paycheck.
In August when I started my job, I was flying over from Japan, which meant my ticket was only 400, 000 KRW and I was able to pocket the rest.
They’ll also give you a 300, 000 KRW “settlement allowance” when you arrive.
In addition to these official perks, there’s also a lot of unofficial benefits that may get thrown your way as well. Some teachers get additional paid days off during school holidays (their Principal’s just lets them go home early). There are also random days with no classes during the school year when teachers can either go home or relax at their desk.
5. More Opportunity To Learn Korean: At a hogwan, you can generally expect that the majority of time spent teaching will be entirely in English with no co-teacher to translate.
You can expect your students to have decent to really good English ability.
You can also expect to spend any time outside of class sitting in an office with other English speaking expats.
Here’s what you can expect at a public school- expect to be one of the only people there who speaks any English at all (with the exception of the Korean English teachers).
You can expect to be in a classroom with Korean students whose ability ranges from ok to non existent.
And, with a few exceptions, you can reasonably expect the rest of the staff to basically only speak Korean.
If one of your primary motivations for teaching here is learning the Korean language, this is a FANTASTIC setup for you. You’ll be spending 8 hours a day in an immersion environment. You’ll also have a relaxed teaching schedule that will leave you with plenty of time to study Korean at your desk.
What I Recommend
If you want my absolute honest opinion, I think for the vast majority of first time teachers, a hogwan is the way to go. The location factor alone is enough for me to recommend it to most people, but there’s also the time factor to consider as well.
The public school program most newbies apply for is EPIK. And the problem with EPIK is a.) you don’t get to choose where in Korea you work, and b.) it’s very competitive to get in, and it’s getting harder and harder every year.
And even if you do pass your EPIK interview, it’s also an incredibly long and arduous process. It usually takes at least 3 or 4 months from when you apply to when you actually arrive in Korea.
One of the common situations I see with potential first-time teachers is this- they apply for EPIK, don’t get in, and then either wait six months so they can apply again. Or they spend a lot of time and energy trying to get into other public school programs like GEPIK, which are also extremely competitive. In some cases, the whole process takes up to a year.
By contrast, the process with a hogwan is much, much faster. As long as you have all your visa documents ready to go, you can get hired and be teaching in Korea within a few weeks.
So if you really are that determined to work at a public school and you don’t get in the first time, the smart move to make would be to take a job at a hogwan. You’ll be able to get yourself over here and start making money right away, and you’ll find out pretty quick whether or not you actually enjoy living in Korea.
If you do, and you’re still determined to go the public school route, once you finish your year at a hogwan, you’ll not only have teaching experience on your resume, but you’ll be in the country, which makes you much more employable. Hopefully by then you’ll also have done some travelling and have a better idea of where exactly in Korea is right for you.
That said, it’s a decision you need to make for yourself. While I think the pros of hogwan outweigh the pros of a public school for most first time teachers, everyone has different priorities. I currently work for a public school, and while I’ll probably never work for one again, the easy work schedule and isolated location has given me a lot of free time to work on other projects.
Hopefully that was useful for those of you who are wanting to make the move over here and don’t know where to start. Stay tuned, because I’ll be doing a lot more posts on teaching in Korea over the next few months.