Hagwons vs. Public Schools

what's the difference between hagwons and public schools?

Regardless of what school you teach at, you’ll be greeted with warm smiles every day, ALL day!

NEEDED: Two teachers in Busan on the beach! Excellent pay. Housing/flights provided. Stable job!

WANTED NOW FOR AMAZING JOB IN KOREA’S “HAWAII”! No certifications required! Start ASAP! Flights/housing provided!

WORK IN ASIA’S MOST BUSTLING CITY! Jobs in Seoul public schools. Top pay. Top working conditions. Work with other foreigners!

If you’ve looked at any of Korea’s want-ads yet, then the above should certainly look familiar. Two-line promises of paradise. Excellent pay. Flights included. Housing provided. It almost looks too good to be true.

But it’s not. Some jobs are offered near the beach. Some jobs are offered on Jeju Island, Korea’s self-proclaimed version of Hawaii. An abundance of jobs are available in Seoul, one of the most bustling cities in Asia. You will make a great salary. And your flights will be paid and your housing will be free in most cases.

Teaching in Korea is a remarkably easy way to gain invaluable cross-cultural experiences, discover a country with terrain less trodden, and make enough money to start a savings account, pay off debt, or just really live it up in Asia.

It’s no secret that most people choose to work in Korea to make money. Unfortunately, there is no Great Wall or Angkor Wat or Mount Fuji or Koh Samui in Korea. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t beautiful country or interesting people or spicy food or colorful culture. And out of all the teaching jobs in Asia, Korea offers the best deal. The way I saw it at first—before I ever moved and fell in love with Korea itself—teaching in the Land of the Morning Calm was a way to live in Asia and pay for my travel to more exotic places.

But with every job advertisement promising you Asian paradise and perfect work conditions, how do you know how to bushwhack through empty exaggerations and pick the job best suited for you? How do you know where you should even start?

It’s important to write down or think about what you want from the very start. So, what’s important to you? Answer these questions:

  • What hours do you want to work? You usually have a choice of first shift (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), second shift (2 p.m. to 10 p.m.), or a split shift from 7 to 11 in the morning and from 5 to 9 in the evening.
  • Do you feel more comfortable with a small or large class size?
  • How important is vacation time? Is 10 days enough or do you want as much time as possible to travel Korea and Asia?
  • Do you want to work with very young children or elementary-, middle-, or high-school aged students? Or would you rather work with adults?
  • How important is the money you are making? Are you sending back every penny to pay off debt or start a savings account? Or are you willing to take what you can get, save what you can, and spend the rest—no biggie?
  • There are several types of teaching jobs available in Korea. At Say Kimchi, we only work with reputable hagwons, kindergartens, and public schools.

Hagwons, or private language academies, are the most popular jobs because of the sheer volume of them. These schools, located on every street block and neighborhood in Korea, are typically kindergarten students in the morning and elementary to high school students in the afternoon. Teachers at these academies can work regular nine-to-five hours but many teachers will work a second shift (typically 2 to 9 p.m.). Adult hogwan jobs are also available and offer a split shift of 7 to 11 a.m. and then again from 5 to 9 p.m.

Kindergartens. These schools are for the very young students. They typically are owned in partnership with a hogwan and the teachers usually work from nine to five with older students in the afternoon.

Public schools. These are your regular government-funded elementary, middle and high schools with large class sizes, a small English education department, and ample vacation. English levels will vary from extreme beginners to advanced students.

So what’s the difference between hagwons and public schools in Korea? Let’s take a look at both to give you a better idea!

HAGWONS AND KINDERGARTENS

These language schools are privately funded and are run like a business. When business is good—and most of the time it’s great because of Korea’s unabated quest for education—a steady stream of students are coming in and more native teachers are hired. Some hagwons employ tens of foreigners at a time. But when business is bad, teachers can be let go—sometimes in the middle of a contract.

Most of the horror stories you might have read on the internet usually come out of hogwans, as they are less professional in dealing with native teachers and can break contracts without getting in trouble with the government.

But as the steady stream of native English speakers is growing larger, these horror stories are becoming few and far between. In two years of living in Korea, I’ve heard only one story of a school shutting down and leaving the foreign teacher to find her own job elsewhere. The government is also working to bring more regulations to these private academies and give more protections to foreigners who come here to work. There is now an organization that is working to protect the rights of teachers in Korea, the Association for Teachers of English in Korea (ATEK). And the many recruiters who work with hogwans are realizing that if they send a teacher to a bad school with poor working conditions then they will lose their recruiting fee when the teacher quits as well as damage their reputation as a good recruiter.

There are three types of hagwons jobs available:

Preschool and kindergarten
Elementary to high school
Adults

Preschool and kindergarten hogwans teachers usually work mornings; elementary, middle and high school hogwan teachers will generally work from 2 to 9 p.m. Adult hogwan teachers usually work a split shift: once in the early morning (7 to 11 a.m.) and then usually 5 to 9 p.m. for evening classes.

What age is best for you? Remember, it takes a lively high-energy person who loves to sing and entertain for the preschoolers and kindergartners. Elementary students are usually very interested in learning and are studying English at all levels, from beginners learning the colors of the rainbow to advanced students able to hold a conversation with you about how they could never live in America or any other country for that matter because they’d miss the kimchi too much. If you’re more interested in adult conversations about culture and learning more about Korea, the adult age group might be best for you.

Positives of working at a hagwon include better pay, looser schedules and smaller class size. Currently, teachers make anywhere from 2 to 3.5 million won at a hogwan. Sometimes, teachers at hogwans work shorter hours. But sometimes they work longer hours. It’s best to ask up front what the hours will be and if you’ll be asked to work any over time. Class size is almost always small at hogwans, ranging anywhere from two to ten students in each class. But remember every school is different. These are simply the typical circumstances.

Another positive for some hagwon teachers is that they can enjoy more nightlife in the bustling foreigner communities (in the bigger cities) during the week since they usually don’t go into work until mid-afternoon. Bars are open all night, which is an attractive scene for some foreigners looking for a university-like party scene.

Negatives of working at a hogwan include less vacation time, sometimes strict by-the-books curriculum, a chance of having to work Saturdays and overtime, and the possibility of working second shift. Hogwans typically give 10 days of vacation a year. This might sound fine. But public schools offer anywhere from one to two months. And if you take a hogwan job, you will definitely be kicking yourself when your public school friends are gallivanting off to Thailand for a week or two.

If you are more comfortable with a smaller class size, don’t mind working second shift, and are looking to make the most money possible, working at a hogwan is your best bet.

I’ve had friends who have had amazing hogwan jobs where they worked six hours a day, enjoyed 20 days of vacation and had a relaxed atmosphere at work. I’ve also had friends who have had terrible hogwan experiences. They were overworked and only received a couple days of vacation instead of the 10 days they were promised. NOTE: It’s important to ask your potential employer if Korea’s public holidays are included in your 10 days of vacation.

Kindergartens are usually grouped with hogwans and therefore usually offer the same experience. The kids are undoubtedly the cutest in all of Korea. But it takes a high-energy person with a love for children who is ready to sing, dance and entertain the students for several hours at a time to survive a kindergarten class.

Many hogwans are partial to the North American English accent and it is not unheard of for hogwan directors to ask their British or Australian or South African teachers to use an “American” accent while teaching. It is very common for a hogwan to hire a younger, Caucasian teacher over an older non-Caucasian applicant without considering each applicant’s qualifications.

While it is completely possible for non-North American teachers to be hired, it might take you a little bit longer to land a job. But it is important to be prepared to deal with this discrimination if you apply to work at a hogwan. While President Barack Obama has been a positive image for Koreans and their view of English speakers, they still have a long way to go to overcome their racial profiling.

Check out this list of pros and cons of working at a hogwan. Keep in mind that something listed as a con might be considered a pro for you, and vice-versa.

Hagwon Pros

  • Better salary (expect anywhere from 2 to 2.5 million won
  • Small class size (expect 10 or fewer students)
  • Usually work with other foreigners
  • Hours (can be shorter, can be non-traditional for those interesting in taking a language class or other activities in the mornings)
  • You can start work at any time of the year. Schools do not start and end, they run continuously year-round.
  • You typically will have a boss who speaks English, which is not usually the case in public schools.

Hogwan Cons

  • Less vacation – expect 10 days or less
  • Possibly a heavier work-load that would involve more paperwork
  • Hours (it’s very normal to work a second shift at hogwan, which is a bad schedule for those who love to have evenings free)
  • Saturdays – some hogwans require teachers to work some Saturdays.
  • It’s a business, meaning you are dealing with a “director” whose No. 1 concern is making money.
  • Discrimination against non-Caucasian teachers is common.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Korea’s public schools are much like North America’s and include elementary, middle and high schools. They are funded by the government and sometimes separated into boys’ and girls’ schools, especially at the middle and high school levels.

Public school jobs offer a stable job with a good amount of holiday and vacation time.

I’ve known people to receive at least two months of paid vacation, which is definitely the best deal around. But it should be noted that public schools are moving away from these extended vacations and requiring their foreign teachers more and more to work two- or three-week camps during school breaks in the winter and summer. But even with the camp work—which usually involves half days—the vacation schedule is still significantly better than a hogwan job.

You will often teach fewer classes each week as the typical public school contract usually requires you to teach 22 classes per week rather than the 30 most jobs require. It’s also very common for public teachers to work at three different locations each week, rotating between schools as their only native English teacher.

Class size at public schools tends to be large—anywhere from 25 to 50 students in a class. Levels might not be as high, especially in rural areas since these are just regular public schools that are offering an hour of English here and there.

The pay at public schools is often very basic, starting at 2 million won with a chance for raises if you stay more than one year.

You are typically the only foreigner at your very large school when you work for the public school system. This can be seen as a great advantage, giving you a more authentic feel of South Korea and its people. Some might consider it a disadvantage because you won’t have many people to chat with other than your students and Korean co-teachers.

Korean public schools usually place a Korean co-teacher in the room with you to help with any discipline problems that might arise or work as a backup teacher if you need them to help explain a word or translate something the students cannot understand. In all my experience with co-teachers, they often are no more than background noise, sitting at their computer desks and occasionally giving a mean look to disruptive students. Co-teachers can be a really valuable asset that I’ve used at times to punish a child or can be seen as just another disruption in class.

Here is a breakdown of some of the pros and cons of public school. Remember, a pro might be a con for you. But either way, here is the gist.

Public School Pros

  • Better vacation time (expect anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months, plus public holidays).
  • Smaller work load (You will only be teaching conversation and will therefore will not be grading papers or testing students on a regular basis.)
  • Co-teachers (You will have a Korean co-teacher to help you in the classroom.)
  • Stability (these jobs offer a worry-free one-year contract with medical insurance)
  • Traditional work hours (Expect to work from 9 to 5)

Public School Cons

  • Less pay (expect around 2 to 2.2 million won)
  • Large class size (expect to teach 25 to 50 kids at one time)
  • Lower English level from students
  • You might be the only foreigner in the school (this can also be a pro!)
  • You usually can only have two possible start dates: March, when the school year begins, or August, when the second semester starts.