Monday, September 22, 2008

Teaching in Gangwondo (EPIK) vs. Hagwon

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.


Andrew said...

very helpful commentary for those of us considering teaching overseas, thank you

iyesha said...

Hey thxamil. I wanted someone's honest insight on the difference in teaching experiences between gangwon-do and busan.

hey post something on the day to day life out side of teaching( ie. night life, places to eat, shop, relax...)

Matt said...


Just wondering if you've had any luck with changing accommodation yet?

I've just signed up to the Gangwondo EPIK program (will be my first time in Korea) and I'm wondering if I shouldn't hold out for Seoul... anyway, that's my problem.

Great blog, I'll be checking back regularly :)

Michael Levy said...

Thanks Matt.

We did get to move to the town we teach in. It was quite a struggle, and we definitely damaged our relationship with the administration in the process, and the apartment we moved to is quite a bit smaller and not as nice.

Here's our old apartment:

And the new one:

So they were accommodating eventually, but it definitely cost us. As I've said in some more recent posts, I think we just got unlucky with our school. Lots of our friends have had much better experiences.

I hope you've chosen Gangwon-do because you don't need/like big cities. That's (obviously) the big difference. I suspect that people who like big cities at home will do better in Seoul, and people that people who like smaller towns at home will do better someplace like this. Of course, the pay and vacation are better out here. I wish I would've thought about the distance to Seoul before my placement interview. If you're on the west side of the mountains, esp. in a city with a train station (like Wonju or Chuncheon), it's a 90 minute train ride to Seoul. From here it's 5-ish hours, which is a whole different thing.

Good luck. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask, and let me know when you get here - we'll get a beer or something.

Matt said...

Thanks for your insight Michael, it's much appreciated.

I do have a few things to ask actually, would you be open to making contact through Facebook? If so, do you have any hints as to how I could find you on there? We both have fairly common names, so a regular search isn't much help. Are you a member of any networks? I'm not keen on posting my email address and I imagine you're not either.

Thanks again,

Michael Levy said...

If you search for mlevy79 (at) hotmail, I think you'll find me. If not, I'm in the Boulder, CO network.

Debra Edgar said...

Thank you for writing this, I am now much more decided on which job I want!

petemo said...

Hi Michael

Thanks for the honest post. It definitely reaffirmed my decision to go with EPIK.

I was applying fairly late so most of the EPIK positions in seoul and Busan are full so the long vacation times definitely grab my interest.

I just have a couple questions

1) As a single male will I be able to get a decent 1-3 bedroom apartment instead of just a bachelor suite?

2) I love camping and the outdoors but I am accustomed to the conveniences of a large city (~1 million people.) Will I be able to find opportunities to get out and have a good time in a urban center of Gangwondo? which urban area would be the best for this?
Would it be better if I apply to a more populated province?

3) Is there any unexpected costs from arrival in Incheon airport through the orientation or is it all payed for?

Michael Levy said...

Hi Petemo -- You'll definitely have opportunity to get out into the woods from any city in Gangwon-do. The big three are Chuncheon, Wanju and Gangneung. The first two are on the Seoul side of the mountains, so are a 90 minute train ride to Seoul; in Gangneung you get the beach, but it's a 4 hour bus ride to Seoul. Everyone comes to orientation and asks for one (or all) of those, so figure out a good story if you're asking for one, but also consider finding a town, maybe something like Sokcho or Samcheok, that you'd like to live in -- you may have better luck asking for one of those (50k-ish city), and a 50k person town makes for a much more interesting year than a 5k person town. If you do the latter though, make it clear that you want to be in the town, because the town name typically represents the town itself and the surrounding area's villages. And going to orientation, know that they are watching and judging and toward the end of the week will hand out assignments based on how they perceive you.

You're much more likely to get a bigger place in Gangwon-do than a city, where you'd almost certainly get a dormroom, but there's a lot of chance involved here. I don't know anyone that got a studio apartment.

As for expenses, is your recruiter giving you a ride to orientation? Mine did, and if your's isn't, you might ask them for one. If not, that would be an expense ($30-ish). Otherwise, no expenses necessary, but a little cash might be nice. If they're still offering the 300k settlement allowance, know that most people didn't get that until a couple weeks in, but if you're dependent on it, you might be able to make a fuss and get it sooner.

Good luck! Final words of advice -- keep an open mind and stay patient. It's going to be a bumpy ride, but it can also be a great experience!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your informative blog. I have been placed via EPIK in Incheon for the March 1, 2010 semester. One question I have involves experience...I have absolutely zero teaching experience. I did take a TESL Certification course here in LA as I felt it would be quite beneficial (which it was). However, I'm not sure it qualifies me as a true teacher.

In general, how is EPIK for those of us with zero experience? Is it a "throw you into the fire and deal with it" type of experience? Is it "sink or swim"?

During orientation, you also mentioned that "they are observing" everybody. I imagine they will be able to tell who the experienced ones are versus the inexperienced ones and probably place people based on that? Regardless, I'm looking forward to the challenge. David

Michael Levy said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the kind words.

I wouldn't worry much about not having teaching experience. Yes, it will be somewhat of a "throw you in the deep end" experience, but much more so in that you'll be thrown into a work environment in a very traditional, Confusian, Asian culture. The teaching will come more naturally. ;) Being in a public school, you will have an order of magnitude more training and support than you would in a hagwon. It makes a good teacher training ground. You will struggle at times, and you probably won't be as effective as you'd like, but you'll be fine.

When I say that they will be watching you during orientation (and this applies at the school as well), I mean that they are watching what kind of person you are, and especially how you interact socially. Korea is very, very community oriented, and while there are tricky straits to navigate in that foreign cultural environment, they really like foreigners that are outgoing, comfortable and socially graceful (and maybe a bit on the boisterous side).

Good luck!

Anonymous said...


Michael, thanks very much for your response. That helps clear up some stuff. I bought a few work books online that might help me ("Fun With Grammar") in tight situations if needed.

One more question. What are the rough dates of the school semester. I think it is March 2 to July 25ish and then September 26th until December 20ish. What do the English teachers do during those long breaks? My contract goes until Feb 25th so I'm sure they'll put me to work during Jan and Feb.

Michael Levy said...

Yep, they will likely put you to work for some of the time, teaching "camp" -- a more intensive, more fun, more open-possibilitied week or so of classes. You may also teach some special classes. There will likely be some time you won't be teaching and depending on how cool your VP and admin are, you may or may not have to come into school. One very important thing about Korea is that is that social relations are all-important. So do everything you can to get along with your administration and co-teacher.... the difference can be huge!

petemo said...

Hi Michael

thanks for your speedy response. Everything seemed to have went through, im just waiting on my contract to arrive from korea so i can forward it to my local consulate.

I considered what you said about being open to towns and I am definitely leaning towards choosing Sokcho as my first choice ahead of the major cities. I think the orientation is going to be in Seoul this year so it is exciting to have the opportunity to check out that big city scene before going to a isolated province.

is there any other towns apart from Wanju, Chuncheon and Gangneung that might be of interest? Also I am wondering if you would be able to tell me which is a more desirable city, Wanju or Chuncheon. they both seem to have roughly similar populations, climate and locations.

Thanks again for all your insights!


Michael Levy said...

Hi again Petemo,

I can't really speak to any difference between Wonju and Chuncheon. There certainly are differences, but they're going to be minor. Two things that come to mind, actually, are that Wonju is perhaps a bit more industrial, it's more in the mining region. With that though comes a train. It's like a 90min train ride into Seoul. Not that Chuncheon is far from Seoul, but no train. I love trains. And I think Wonju may be a little closer. And Wonju may be slightly less requested because it's not the capitol city. Sokcho is an excellent choice. The only drawback is its distance from Seoul (and everything).

Good luck. Let me know where you end up!

Heather said...

Thanks so much for posting this! I feel much better about applying for EPIK in Gangwondo after reading your commentary. : )

petemo said...

Hey Michael

I got placed in Donghae. I have an excellent and fun group of teachers and my co-teacher is awesome eventhough we are both struggling learning the system of a new school. I got a massive place. 3 bedrooms, living room, and like 3 or 4 sunrooms and 2 washrooms. I gotta watch out for those utility bills however getting too high haha. When the weather warms up abit I hope to check out the beaches in my area and visit some of the new friends I made during orientation, almost all who work in Gangwon as well

Caitlin said...

Hi Matt,

I am going to be teaching in Gangwon this fall through EPIK. It was extremely helpful to read your blog concerning housing and the realities of teaching!

I was wondering if you had advice on what to pack, especially if I'm placed in a rural town and cannot run errands so easily...Also, have you had any problems with internet or having things shipped to you?

Thanks a ton!

Michael Levy said...

Hi Caitlin,

Korea's internet is amazing... if you're from the US, it will be better than what you had at home. and if you don't bring a computer, there are "pc rooms" on every block in every town, where you can use a computer for $1/hr, but i tend to find them less than pleasant -- very dark and smokey. no problem with shipping, and i've sent stuff both ways. of course, ground shipping takes a while (6-8 weeks), but you can get stuff faster if you're willing to pay. you can also order stuff online from amazon or whatever to korea, the shipping is just more expensive.

what to pack? gangwondo has pretty intense summers and winters, so bring cloths for both. but of course you can get cloths there if you forget anything. and in the latest korean fashions! you'll probably want to head to one of the bigger department stores (eg., homeplus in samcheok if you're on the southern coast) one of your first weekend days to get stuff like an electrical transformer to plug in things from home that don't have their own boxes. you might bring some of your favorite food stuff, especially if it's small and/or light (i brought enough dehydrated hummus to get me through six months). but you can get just about any food in seoul. or on the internet.

so i guess i'd say just enjoy your last time at home.... your friends and family and all the comforts of home are going to feel very far away for a while, so soak them up while you're still there. good luck!


Caitlin said...

Great advice, will definitely come in handy!

One last thing that is very American and paranoid I apologize- I heard we should bring enough cash for the 1st 6 weeks because we don't get paid right away and that traveler's cheques are bad news...aside from wearing a ridiculous money belt, did you feel safe holding onto your cash?

Thanks again!!

Michael Levy said...


I wouldn't worry about carrying cash. Korea is very low crime, and as far as I know that is doubly true for rich/western foreigners. That said, travelers checks can be changed at banks, though it might take 30 minutes. You'll get your first paycheck the 25th of the first month you teach (unless that's changed). You can also use ATM cards to foreign accounts, for a small fee, of course. Also, your school will help you open a bank account one of your first days there, so you'll be able to deposit any sort of money you bring into that once you get settled in.

Jae Kae said...

I am not sure if you are still checking this, as I see your last post was about a year ago, but just wanted to let you know that your post/blog ( I have only read this post so far) is extremely helpful.
I am actually in an almost exact situation: my boyfriend and I are currently teaching in a hagwon in Busan and are thinking of doing EPIK next March intake ( our current contract finishes this October). I am interested in going to Gangwondo because I'm getting a bit tired of the hagwon ( ok, a LOT tired) and Gangwondo seems like a beautiful place where you can actually make decent money with EPIK.
Are you still in Korea?

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for your excellent insight! I've been on the fence about wanting to teach in Korea, but from what you've described, the rural area sounds like the place to be. Is previous teaching experience (in Korea especially) necessary to land a position in Gangwon-do? I'm a recent grad and have no formal teaching experience, although I do work with kids.

Michael Levy said...

Hi Elizabeth,

It's been a few years since I've been in the process, but as far as I know, no no teaching experience is necessary, certainly no Korea experience is necessary. I'm not sure how the competitiveness has changed as unemployment in the west has sky-rocketed, but back in 2008, you pretty must just needed a college degree and some credentials that suggested you're not a total flake.

Michael Levy said...

Hi Elizabeth,

It's been a few years since I've been in the process, but as far as I know, no no teaching experience is necessary, certainly no Korea experience is necessary. I'm not sure how the competitiveness has changed as unemployment in the west has sky-rocketed, but back in 2008, you pretty must just needed a college degree and some credentials that suggested you're not a total flake.