After a year of teaching EFL in a Hagwon and a semester of teaching English in a public school in Gangwon-do, here are my thoughts on teaching English in Korea in general, and about the differences between the public school gig and the hagwon gig. I hope it will be helpful to those that are thinking about coming to Korea to teach English.
Before I get into it, I want to preface this by saying that real culture shock, in my experience and the experience of my friends that have lived in Korea and other foreign cultures, sets in around the three to four month mark. It is characterized by disdain for the local culture, frustration with other aspects of one's life, and a strong desire to escape the “shocking” culture. For more on culture shock, check out this post from about a month ago. I have been here about four and a half months, and I feel like I'm on the tail end of what has been a fairly severe culture shock. Just wanted to throw that in for completeness, for those readers contemplating coming to Korea, or to Gangwon-do to teach for EPIK in a public school.
Living in Korea
Korea is not particularly hospitable to foreigners. There is a lot of kindness in the Korean people as a whole, but there is more xenophobia (fear of foreigners). There is a historical reason for this: the Korean people have, throughout their history, had to fight off invading forces – Japanese, Mongol, Chinese, etc. The result is a people that are very insular and distrusting if not downright disrespectful toward foreigners. Of course there are exceptions – I've had friends (male and female) marry into Korean families and be, to varying degrees, accepted by the culture. There are also some teachers that come here for a year and enjoy the time they spend with Korean people. But the vast majority of foreigners I've talked to and emailed with feel isolated and disliked by Koreans and look forward to the day they get to go home or to another culture.
What is the difference between those who have a great time here and those who can't wait to leave? I've thought about this a lot, and I think I have some insight into the personalities that fit best and worst here.
Those that have the hardest time here are typically:
- Female – sorry ladies, but this is a culture of and for men. I've known a lot of strong women who have had a very hard time here. The disrespect I experience is multiplied several times over for women. I suspect beautiful women have it easier than others, with blond hair and thinness being primary qualities of beauty here. Also women that are okay with being less involved in conversations, decision making and the like will do better.
Those who have the best time here are typically:
- Drinkers/Smokers/Red Meat Eaters – I am none of these things, and that has proved hard. Had I come here just out of college, I would have been going to the bars and cook-your-own-meat-at-the-table restaurants with other teachers from my school three times a week, getting drunk and smoking cigarettes with them and building social bonds through that. This seems to be the primary social opportunity here. Of the people I've met that are happy in Korea and plan to stay, nearly 100% have enjoyed regularly consuming at least 2 of these 3 things.
The other big difference I see between those who are happy here and those who are not is sensitivity. Korea is not a place for sensitive westerners. Expressions of appreciation are few and far between and ostricization – most often expressed non-verbally – is constant. On the streets, smells of sewage hit you like a truck every couple of minutes. Buildings are aesthetically devoid and covered in advertisements, and loud noises are constant. Those who set their own emotional state, or who are relatively constant in their feelings, regardless of their surroundings, can do very well here, but this is not the place for those who are sensitive to their environment and the way they are received by the people they work with.
Teaching English in Korea
In public schools, foreigners are hired as assistant teachers, and we are more assistant than teacher. For the fall semester, which we've just finished, I had three co-teachers that I worked with at my primary school. With one of them, I taught eight hours a week (actually eight, forty minute classes) of sixth grade, for which I prepared one, forty minute lesson and usually got to deliver it to both sixth grade classes. Sometimes my lesson plans ended up in the trash because something took precedence – a special event or falling behind schedule or the children misbehaving and the teacher needing to take thirty minutes to yell at them (no kidding, that happened several times). With my two fifth grade teachers, with each of whom I taught four hours a week, I simply sat next to the desk while they taught. Sometimes I would be asked to speak words or phrases for the students to mimic the correct pronunciation; sometimes I would sit silently and do nothing for the entire class. Of the three teachers, one would consistently offer me his comfy teacher's chair; for the other two, I would sit in a fifth-grade-student-sized wooden chair.
That was the bulk of the semester. For winter vacation the students and most of the teachers get six weeks off. We get three (I'm leaving for Thailand tomorrow!), and run “winter camps” for the other three. Winter camps were hard, but rewarding. For one week, we had a budget, two Korean teachers who actually helped us and seven hours a day to do whatever we wanted with the kids. That was great, but very demanding. For the other two weeks, we had three hours a day with the kids, with no budget and no Korean teacher to translate or help us control the students. That was more difficult, but we got to go home at 12:30 everyday, which is nice. Summer vacation will probably be similar, except that it's a bit longer, and our vacation is shorter (two weeks), so there will probably be more camp and special education activities.
Our situation here isn't exceptional, but it isn't universal either. Some teachers have much better rapport with their schools. I think this is mostly just a crap shoot. One couple hasn't had to go into school at all over vacation and is teaching a winter camp after the spring semester starts. Lucky them. Where we are (in Samcheok County), situations like ours seem more common, but I think this county might be particularly tough on its foreign teachers.
In 2005 – 2006, I taught in a hagwon (a private after-school academy) in Busan. That teaching was very different than what I'm doing now. Much has been written on the internet about the hagwon-teaching experience, so I'll be brief. It was extremely tiring to teach without a Korean to translate for me, but on the other hand, I got to design my lessons and could teach anything I wanted. I taught six, fifty-minute classes a day, as opposed to four, forty-minute classes a day in my public school. Every day I would step outside between classes and think, “I can't do this any more, I've got to get out of here.” But I did do it, and so do lots of other people. I was always scared that my boss was going to cheat me out of money, but in the end he ended up paying me all I was owed, within a couple hundred dollars anyway. I suspect if he had sensed he could have pushed me around more, he would have. There were two big upsides to the hagwon gig: the hours – 3:30 to 10:30pm with an hour to go home for dinner beats the pants off 9-5 with lunch in the school cafeteria in my book. The other biggie is that you know exactly where you're going before you get on that plane. With the public schools, you typically know only the province you're going to before you leave home. We got massively unlucky in this regard, as we came to Gangwon-do, the mountainous, rural province the northeast corner of South Korea and ended up in one of the last remaining coal mining towns in the country. With a hagwon, not only do you know where you're going, but you can find out the details of who you'll be working with, how far your apartment is from your school (in my hagwon, I was a three minute walk away, in our public school we were initially placed a $3, forty-minute bus ride away), and even what your apartment looks like. Here as everywhere, the devil is in the details, and before you sign up with a hagwon, you can know a lot more of the details than with the public schools.
I would recommend teaching English in Korea primarily to guys strait out of college. If you want to do something interesting for a year or two, save a ton of money and put an interesting item on your resume, this can be a very good gig. If you want to go to the bars most nights, and would enjoy cooking beef at your table, you might even fit in with some of the people you work with. And of course there's travel – most people experience major personal growth while living here, and the opportunities for travel (either on vacations if you go with Gangwon-do public schools, or afterward if you don't have as much vacation) are second to none.
If I were doing it again, I would go with the public school over the hagwon – it's a ton less stress, but I would try to come at an off time (not 3/1 or 9/1), and I would want to know exactly where I was going to be placed before I signed anything. I would also make a huge effort to build report with the teachers and administrators in my school in the first weeks.
If you're interested in teaching in the public schools, we came with a recruiter, Jen, who did an excellent job of answering our questions before we came, and of representing us through our battle with the authorities to move closer to our school. If you'd like to get in tough with her, send me an email – mlevy79 (at) gmail (dot) com, and I'll put you in touch with her.
Whatever you decide to do, good luck, and if you do come to Korea, let me know how it goes.
Be sure to check out the comments below -- there is a lot of insight there from other westerners that are teaching here.