Teaching English in Korea: Bad Hagwons and How to Avoid Them

Have you ever considered teaching English in Korea? Teaching English can be a great way to travel and gain valuable work experience, but it can be a bit risky if you don’t know what to look out for while seeking employment. Signing a contract with the wrong employer can quickly turn an overseas adventure into a hagwon horror story! Hagwon life is not for everyone, so if you are considering teaching English in Korea, be sure to do your research and ask lots of questions before making any agreements.

What is a hagwon?

A hagwon (학원) is an afterschool academy where students get extra lessons and tutoring. Many hagwons specialize in one subject, such as English or math, while other hagwons offer classes on a variety of subjects all in one place. Some hagwons are independent businesses, while others, such as 눈높이, are part of a large chain of hagwons. Although hagwons are academic in nature, they are still businesses, not schools. The popularity and relative simplicity of hagwons makes them very abundant and, unfortunately, very attractive to some unsavory businessmen looking to make easy money.

Good hagwons vs bad hagwons

Bad hagwons have red flags big enough to see from space if you know what to look for. Unfortunately, most unsuspecting foreigners have no idea what to look for or what kinds of questions they should be asking when considering job offers from hagwons. Here are a few things to consider and ask questions about when applying and interviewing for hagwon work:

  • Reputation: Good hagwons have good reputations that they have earned over time. As such, they are well-trusted, have good systems and methods in place, and get plenty of business to keep things running profitably. Bad hagwons often pander to parents and bend over backwards to keep them happy and keep them paying, even if that means the hagwon has to shoot itself in the foot and mess up its own system to cram in a new student, move classes around, or send a kid to class with no textbook for several months.
  • Discipline: A good hagwon with a good reputation wants to maintain that reputation. Their work speaks for itself, and they are not afraid to discipline or expel problematic students when necessary. They do not need to pander to unreasonable parents or put up with terrible students just to keep their tuition money coming in. Bad hagwons have little or no discipline because they fear angering parents and losing students. In a bad hagwon, teachers who complain about problematic students are often given a lame excuse such as, “That’s just how it is,” or told that it’s not a problem with the hagwon, but rather with their teaching abilities.
  • Class structures and levels: Good hagwons have clear class structures and levels for students to advance through as they study and improve, and they do their best to place students correctly and stick to the system. Bad hagwons bend over backwards to cram in any new students they can get and randomly move students around between classes and levels to make room or satisfy complaints from controlling parents. Bad hagwons often end up with classes full of students on different skill levels with different textbooks (or no textbooks at all) because they wanted to make room for some new students in another class or because someone’s overcompetitive mom called and demanded that her kid move up a level.
  • Curriculum: Good hagwons have a curriculum to follow. They may use a curriculum they’ve developed themselves over the years, a series of textbooks, or a bit of both. However they choose to do things, they have a system in place and follow a logical progression of lessons and textbooks. Bad hagwons have no clear system, or, if they do have one, they don’t actually stick to it. With all the pandering and moving around, they end up with students who have multiple unfinished textbooks, the wrong textbooks for the class they are in, or no textbooks at all, creating quite a nightmare for teachers. Teachers in bad hagwons often have to teach off the cuff, change schedule with little or no prior notice, make copies of textbooks for kids who don’t have any, and spend hours creating their own tests and quizzes.
  • Facilities: Appearances are very important in Korea, so good and bad hagwons alike will do their best to look presentable to parents. Behind the scenes, however, bad hagwons’ facilities are often lacking. They may be missing simple things like a decent computer and printer for teachers to use, and the computer they do have will probably be old and slow and lack proper office software. In some cases, the entire business might be running on one cruddy old laptop! Chairs and tables may be severely worn out and falling apart. The hagwon likely won’t provide copies of textbooks for teachers to use in class. Bad hagwon owners either can’t afford to maintain their facilities, or, more likely, they simply don’t want to spend the money.
  • Pay: Pay will vary even among good hagwons, depending on things like location and what other benefits the hagwon offers. A good hagwon should typically offer somewhere around 3 to 5 million won per month. A hagwon in a smaller, cheaper city might offer a paycheck around the lower end of the spectrum, while a hagwon in a large, expensive city might offer a relatively high paycheck. Pay can also vary depending on whether or not the hagwon offers other benefits like housing and insurance. Always read the contract carefully when considering a hagwon, and, if something is not crystal clear, ask lots of questions until you know exactly what you’re getting into. Sneaky employers may describe a certain salary per year but neglect to mention anything about sick days and reserve the right to cut your pay by the hour if you miss work for any reason.
  • Teachers: Korean parents understandably want their kids to learn English from native speakers, so most of the teachers at a good English hagwon will be foreigners from places like the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, and South Africa. Of course, hiring foreigners is more expensive than hiring locals, so bad hagwons may try to cut corners by rotating one or two foreign teachers through the classes while local Korean teachers fill in on the off days. It’s not bad or uncommon for a hagwon to hire some Korean teachers to help out, but if most classes are not primarily taught by foreign teachers, you might be dealing with a bad hagwon.

Hagwon and International School Combos

In your search for hagwon employment, you may come across international schools that also offer hagwon classes in the afternoon. Such institutions might be looking for someone who can teach at the international school during the school day and then teach hagwon classes in the afternoons. A setup like this may not be impossible, but such an “international school” is likely not legitimate. And even if it were a legitimate school, the number of teaching hours one person would have to put in per day is ridiculous. If an institution claims to be an international school and a hagwon, they are likely only registered as a hagwon, not as an accredited school. In addition, the E-7 visa requirements to be a teacher at a real international school are different and more demanding than the E-2 visa requirements to be a conversational English teacher at a hagwon. If an institution is offering to hire you as an international school teacher on an E-2 visa, they’re either not an accredited school in Korea, or they’re into some shady business. Always do your research!

Hagwon Blacklists

Many people have taken it upon themselves to help out their fellow humans by sharing their hagwon horror stories online so the rest of us don’t have to suffer the same horrible fates. Unfortunately, online backlists are not nearly exhaustive, but they are still very helpful. If you’re considering a hagwon, look for their name on these popular hagwon blacklists to be safe:

Even if you don’t find a hagwon’s name on a blacklist, always do your own research and ask plenty of questions to make sure you don’t end up being the one to add them to a blacklist yourself!

If you’re still looking for more detailed information on a specific hagwon, you might also try looking for a social media group for foreigners living in the same city—Facebook pages for foreigners in Jeonju or Busan, for example. Ask around the group to see if other foreigners in the city have heard anything about the hagwon your considering. You might even find someone who’s worked there!

Teaching English in Korea can be a fun and rewarding experience if you find a good school or hagwon to work for. Just be careful to avoid the shady characters looking to make a quick buck and ruin the experience!

1 thought on “Teaching English in Korea: Bad Hagwons and How to Avoid Them

  1. Pingback: International Schools in South Korea: The Good, the Bad, and the Sketchy | Grammarai Warrior

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