I noticed that this blog is coming up in the first page of results for a google search for [gangwon EPIK], so if people are interested in my experience teaching in public schools, I thought I'd run through some thoughts from my first month participating in EPIK in Gangwondo and compare that experience to the one I had in a hagwon in Busan a couple of years ago.
With regard to the actual work, teaching in a public school is easier, by a long shot. There are a number of reasons for this, but the biggest is that I'm teaching four, forty-minute classes a day now (in an elementary school... middle and high school classes are a few minutes longer). In the hagwon, I taught six, fifty minute classes a day. So that's 160 classroom minutes a day for EPIK as opposed to 300 classroom minutes a day for the hagwon. And I rarely even teach the full 160 minutes in a day here, as classes frequently let out early.
Just as important, there's always a Korean teacher in the classroom with me. I see two big positives from this, and one negative. The positives are having a Korean teacher in the room means Korean etiquette and standards for respect and behavior are still in play. My biggest complaint in the hagwon was getting no respect from and being unable to control students in the classroom. The other positive is being able to give complex instructions to low-level students. For games and more involved activities, that's huge. On the downside, I don't have the freedom to plan lessons as I like. I am, as my contract states, an Assistant Teacher. The reality of this is determined by the co-teacher one works with. But all classes follow a (less than great) textbook. Some teachers say “teach” and sit down behind the class; others run the class almost as if I weren't there and just ask me to do the repeat-after-me's and walk around the class having brief conversations with each student. In my hagwon, I was provided a great textbook called Interchange, and told to teach. My classroom activities were never interfered with, but I also got no support or advice on how to teach EFL and couldn't do much with the lower half of my classes because they couldn't understand my instructions. I spent between 10 minutes and an hour planning each day's activities in the hagwon (and could have taught better if I had committed more time to planning). For the public school, for the entire week, I spent about ten minutes planning activities to supplement the textbook's. That could change with number of different classes one teaches and the approach of the co-teacher to co-teaching, but I think the pressure to plan is probably always less in public schools. There's also just less pressure as no one is as fervent about educating children as hagwon bosses are about making money.
At my hagwon there was no community, and it was tough to find help with things like getting a cell phone. Here there are plenty of people that are willing, if not happy, to help us with the business stuff that is hard without speaking Korean, and there is plenty of community (weekly after school sports, monthly outings, opportunities for friendships). One of the bigger challenges here is that there is very little English competency. We're in a rural town in a rural province, so EPIK participants in different provinces may have different experiences in this regard, but it's hard for us to know what's going on. We are often told of meetings and appointments and trips minutes before they begin, which can be quite challenging. At my hagwon, the director spoke English nearly fluently, so at least I always knew what was expected of me, what would be happening the next day, etc.
Of course the biggest benefit to teaching in Gangwondo's EPIK program, as opposed to other provinces and private schools, is the five week vacation allowance. I got ten days at my hagwon and managed to take seven of them, and taking even that many was tough. We also get some bonus holiday-days, like Monday two weeks ago was a national holiday and we got Tuesday off, some friends got Wednesday, and one got Friday too for a six-day weekend! In a hagwon there's no way you get more than Monday. Sick days should be much easier to take in the public school (and we have 15 of them), since there won't be any substitutions needed to cover my classes; in a hagwon calling in sick means a Korean teacher that already works many hours more than you everyday, plus Saturdays, will have to cover your classes, which breeds resentment fast. Also, in addition to the five weeks paid vacation, if we renew our contract, we get an extra two weeks vacation at the end of the first year, along with an airfare paid ticket to home or anywhere closer.
The pay for Gangwon-do EPIK is decent. I'll say that pay for EPIK elsewhere is sub-par. We get our first paychecks in a couple days, and I think mine will be about 2.3M won. I'll save about 60k won on income taxes (two year exemption from income tax for everyone but Canadians, though it's only ~3.3% at foreign teachers' salaries - super-progressive tax structure in Korea). My base salary (as a level 2 EPIK teacher, since I have one year experience) is 2.0M, then I get .1M for being in a province (as opposed to one of the seven major Korean cities or Gyeonggi Province surrounding Seoul), then an additional .1M for being in a rural location (ie., not in Chuncheon, Gangneung, Wonju, Taebaek or Seorak... which means you could get that bonus and still live and teach in some places that definitely feel like small cities, like Samcheok and Donghae, for example), and an additional something, maybe .1M for teaching at multiple schools. I don't understand why I'm paid more for that, as I simply go to a different school (that's closer to my apartment than my normal school) on Tuesdays, but I won't complain. At my hagwon, I was paid 2M. That was three years ago though, I suspect that would be 2.2-ish now.
Of course, here, I know my paycheck is coming – there's no motivation for anyone to withhold it. At my hagwon I was always nervous, especially coming up on the end of my contract. The director of my hagwon was clearly money hungry (and with relaxed morals, I suspected), and I had serious doubts about whether I would receive the 4.7 million won I was owed as of my last day (2M for salary, 2M for severance, 700k for airfare). That's a lot of money (over $5,000 at the time) to be worried about losing. I was lucky -- I did always get paid, but plenty of people don't. I had to fight to get on the national health care plan, and I was always scared about not getting paid. I suspect if I hadn't shown such fortitude in standing up to my boss on other matters, he may have tried to jerk me around toward the end of my contract.
The housing has been similar for me in EPIK and in the hagwon. I think I got extremely lucky with the hagwon – they provided my girlfriend (who was working at another hagwon) and I a large three-bedroom apartment, albeit far from the subway or city centers. Here, every couple I've talked to has been given a nice three-bedroom place (probably a Gangwon-do benefit, since property values here must be considerably less than in the more populated parts of the country). However, our apartment is a 40 minute drive from our school. And without a car it's nearly an hour and a half each way (25 minute walk to the bus station, 40 minutes on the bus, 15 minute walk to school). We're fighting to get that fixed. It is an anomaly, it is something we asked about before we came and were told we wouldn't have to worry about, and both our recruiter (Jen at ESL Job Network) and assistant coordinator (a foreign teacher that acts as a liaison between the county's teachers and administration) think it should be remedied. I'll update this to let you know how that battle turns out.
The length of the workday is my biggest complaint so far about EPIK. We leave our house at 7:40 and get home around 5:45 (we've been given rides almost every day on the way home, otherwise, that would be 6:30 or 7:00), and have to be at school from 9-5. In contrast, at my hagwon, I lived a three minute walk from the school. So I left my apartment at 3:20 and got home at 10:30. A weird schedule, but it left me tons of free time, and free time during the day to get out in the sun and hike or beach, or do business with banks and other offices that work the same hours as public school teachers. All that free time was a huge plus. If we can manage to get our apartment moved from Samcheok, where we are now, to Dogye, where we're teaching, that we be only a minor plus for the hagwon; as it stands now, we got unlucky and it's a big bummer.
As for the facilities.... Regarding office space, at the hagwon I had a desk in an office with the three other teachers, and I spent very little time in there since I wasn't required to be at the school beyond my teaching hours. At the public school, my “office” is a place in the huge horseshoe ring of tables in the teacher's room, which is headed by two big desks occupied by the Vice Principal and #3. So for the many hours each day I'm not teaching, I'm basically being watched by two Korean administrators, which is extremely uncomfortable. I should add, though, that it hasn't stopped me from doing my thing in my off time, as I'm writing this on my laptop, sitting in that room now. The classroom facilities are far superior in the public school, despite Dogye being on the poor end of the country and my neighborhood in Busan on the rich end – there are internet-connected computers hooked up to big screen TV's in each classroom, along with scissors, markers, paper and just about anything else you'd want. In the hagwon, I was lucky if I had a dry erase marker that worked consistently... Again, profit motivation at the hagwons makes for lots of trouble. There's none of that in EPIK.
Finally, there's a five-day orientation at the beginning of the Gangwondo EPIK program. Consider the 300k won settlement allowance payment for this. I thought it was boring and restrictive, but mostly because I've lived and taught in Korea before. If this were my first time, I imagine it would make for a much softer landing than being thrown into an apartment and classes strait away.
All and all, there's no way I'd trade this job for the hagwon. I'm not sure I'd even trade it for a uni gig. I feel secure here, well paid, involved in a community, and the teaching itself is really very easy. If I could get two more things – an apartment in the town I teach in and a private-ish office – it would be nearly perfect.