Friday, January 16, 2009

Teaching and Living in Korea, Gangwon-do Public School and Busan Hagwon

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

Public Schools

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.


Jason said...

Nice post.

If you change to a middle school or high school position you'll find that you are NOT an 'assistant-teacher' most of the time. Rather you ARE THE TEACHER and it's the Korean co-teacher who doesn't do very much . . . I've heard similar things from a lot of elementary school foreign teachers--that they simply are the 'human CD' and speak the tiny dialogue and vocabulary for the students to imitate. SOMETIMES they'd be allowed to bring a 5 minute or even 10 minute activity for the end of class--sometimes.

Public school positions, in general, do beat hogwans. But I've met some expats who have been here for a number of years, have great teaching qualifications, and still prefer teaching in a hogwan (though those people have only been in Seoul) that treats them really well . . .

Trying to find out the location of your posting as a foreign public school teacher IS NOT POSSIBLE. The education office supervisors and directors will 99.9% of the time NEVER tell you this information. If I might suggest something to you . . . I would add a warning/cautionary for any people outside Korea thinking about coming here to teach that they should be very careful about how pushy/assertive/proactive they try to be about finding out that kind of information.

Push/Assertive = rude

In some ways you probably guarantee you get a crappy location by being 'rude' because the Korean supervisor won't want to put you in a better school.


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Michael Levy said...

Jason- It's certainly true that being assertive = rude in Korea. It's my understanding that if you are starting at the beginning of a semester (3/1 or 9/1), you will not know your location until you are in Korea, after orientation. On the other hand, sometimes positions open up in the middle of semesters, and it is my understanding that you are taking one of these posts, you would be filling a specific position, and could know where you are going before you sign the contract/come to Korea. If I'm wrong about that, someone please correct me, but that was an option I was offered last summer, so I do think it's the case.

Good to hear middle and high school teachers are doing more teaching. For the most part, I think they like to put couples in elementary schools and individuals in the upper schools, but I'm sure there are exceptions to this. What potential teachers would prefer would be, of course, based on personal preferences... 22 40 minute classes with little-to-no preparation/effort, but no real teaching/responsibility, or 22 45 (MS) or 50 (HS) minute classes plus prep time with real teaching duties. Note that in either case you're at the school from 9 - 5 every day, so you certainly have time for prep work there.

Glad we can provide such detailed information to prospective teachers. If anyone else reading this has anything to add or correct, please do leave a comment!

Chad said...

Great Post Michael. I think the preface is definitely necessary though :) you've had a much tougher experience than Kate and I.

There is one important part to this that I think is missing though and that is the specific circumstance of our arrival dates. Gangwon-do Education department decided to pump a LOT more money into the elementary English Education program right as you and I were applying to come to Korea. This ended up causing two issues.

1- As we were recruited we were told about teaching in "English Villages." When we arrived this was still somewhat true but not really. English villages are basically large rooms that some of the schools have for situational learning. EPIK has pumped a bunch of money into these and almost every medium to large school has one or is building one (mostly to one-up the other schools...). My school has one and it's basically half class room, half - 4 small rooms - Restaurant, Market, Bank, Home. We also have an immigration desk at the entrance and a bedroom down the hall. The idea being we can use the small rooms for dialogues and "real life situations". How many times have I used these rooms for their designed purpose? None. The restaurant has a menu and a two top table with plates and silverware, the bank has a small counter and table with some fake money etc... so there's not that much really to work with. The biggest problem is this only lends itself to 1 lesson in each room.. out of how many lessons needed for a year? The small rooms are basically only used during camps, and for other games during the year. I only point this out in case they're still advertising the english villages to potential teachers. They're typically well designed, very nice rooms - but their usefulness is questionable. I wish I had all that space added on to the standard class room half... Kids have imaginations, they don't need a plate to think they're in a restaurant.

2. The other issue, the more troubling for a lot of teachers, was that without much notice or consideration EPIK decided to use the extra money in Elementary for more foreign teachers. This of course sounds like a great idea.. and it IS... BUT. Most schools were used to having 1 teacher maybe all the time, more likely only a few days a week and some for only a few hours a week. Now, all medium to large schools have 2 foreign teachers full time everyday of the week. Even schools that have never had a teacher before (that they managed) now have 2 teachers to take care of. To compound that change, it sounds like most schools weren't told of the new teachers until days or weeks before we came (typical of korean culture) so they were unprepared and scared of the challenge of communicating/helping/housing/taking care of these new foreigners. That great idea ended up being a big problem for a lot of schools and new teachers. Strained starts to the semester built poor relationships and grudges between some schools and their teachers. This is not necessarily how it will always be or how it will be next time, or even next week if you come to Korea and teach for EPIK, just understand that it could happen. Every year and sometimes at the semester break (sept 1) teachers move schools. They are not allowed to stay at any one school for more than 4 years and some schools only 3 so there is almost always a change of personnel. They can't stay in any one city for more than 16 years so chances are and bad apples you might encounter won't be there after some time and they might even leave while you're there. This also means that any one school that has a great reputation for being the hospitable to foreigners might not be that way when you come to teach at that same school.

One last note about public schools... All that Michael posted is true about it being difficult and a much more closed society than most of us have ever experienced. So if you know it will be hard and you're okay with that, then come to korea. If you're not, go somewhere else that's easier. just know what you're signing up for. (If you're still reading this then you probably already know what you're doing .. :)
That said - I've met some of the most amazing people here and would not trade my experience for anything. I've gotten to travel to Thailand and Malaysia, will go to Japan and China next, and eventually when I leave will travel for a few months through India, Australia, Africa, and maybe even Russia before heading back to the states. I do that all while saving money and living somewhere really different. All of that while most of my friends at home are either struggling to keep the job they have that barely pays enough for rent, or they've already lost that job and are really struggling because of the economy. If you're a strong person - and/or have a strong friend or partner to come with - definitely think about it.

Then again - I'm the guy Michael wrote about who only worked one day between christmas and February and is only doing one camp for 4 days after school starts up again. (I got really lucky...)

Overall - EPIK is trying to be good to their English Teachers and their students. More teachers isn't bad - once they figure out how to manage them better (or more consistantly) & More money for building isn't bad - but different priorities might be more fruitful. As with a lot of things in Korea (especially western ideas)- they're still figuring it out... I always have to remind myself - this country, in it's present state, is really only about 60 years old.. And it's growing up really fast.

Anyways.. that's my 2 million cents.
Thanks for writing such a great post michael - I wish someone had done this before we came :)
Sorry it's so long :)

Anyone who reads this can check out my blog about korea too :)

Alex (Dogye) said...

Hey Michael,

First of all, great post. I really enjoyed reading it.

The motto I was told before I got here was 'every situation is different' and that has certainly held true. I arrived near the end of a semester so I didn't initially go through the orientation process. I was told when I applied and up until I met my co-teacher that I was teaching in Taebaek but that still changed at the last moment to Samcheok.

My teaching situation seems almost opposite to yours. I have 6 classes a week with a co-teacher where I am the main teacher and they are just there to control the class and translate. Then I have another 12 classes a week where I'm the only teacher in the room and have to teach students as young as 1st grade.

What you said about Korea not being hospitable to foreigners to quite true. They are very nice people but there is a degree (quite large) of xenophobia around and I think this gets exaggerated by the fact that we are living in a small insular town. The older the person is the greater the xenophobia as well. There's all the ajummas the always stare at you as you are walking down the streets and stuff. The younger generation is much less xenophobic though and I blessed to be at a school with few older teachers (except the vice-principle who can sometimes be a bit stand-offish).

If anyone is thinking of coming to Korea, I wouldn't recommend it if you are sensitive, need attention or require support in your life. Basically, don't let anything get to you and you'll be fine. Over here I like to follow the Aussie saying "No worries, mate", just let any troubles go and don't brood on them.

Melanie said...

To all those thinking about coming to Korea to is my experience...the worst and the very best.
If you decide to teach in Korea here are...
My top ten things I wish someone told me before I came to Korea
1.You cannot be sensitive, really at all, about anything or you will go nuts...the sights, the smells, the staring, the ignoring, the lack of support, get ready.
2. You cannot care if you get to put your two cents in about decisions being made regarding YOU
3. You cannot care if the Principal only addresses your male counterpart,
4.You cannot care if you don't teach anything to anyone for weeks at a time
5. Even if you thought you could "go with the flow" check in with yourself and make sure you really can flow more then you ever dreamed you could
6.If you have any, any feminist tendencies,.. um...don't? Just don't be surprised that you won't really be heard or able to speak up for yourself and it seems to help if you are modelesque depending on which Korean males you are dealing with.
7. I think it would really help to know more Korean, much more Korean.
8. It helps if you eat meat and drink...I don't...I am simply put, one of the strangest creatures the folks in this tiny town have come across....maybe I am not quite human due to my healthy habits. I don't eat meat or drink soju, which simply blows everybody's mind! Oh and animals don't seem to be highly regarded so if you have a bleeding heart, either ignore all the cold homeless cats and puppies and dogs in cages on mountain trails, and possible/probably dog ingestion, or don't come or cork the bleeding for a year.
9. Forget you knew what the sun looked like...
10. Oh shit...the won fluctuates, a lot....Doh!

Okay that being said...I I South Korea. I am all the wrong things for Korea. Oops! I am a over sensitive, animal loving, alcohol abstaining, vegetarian, bleeding heart, hippie with a nose ring, who likes to be in charge of myself and loves to teach and thinks everyone should be equal...
It's time to go home. And so I am. In three weeks I start the exodus home, the 12 hour flight to Denver CO where I can be all the things I am. I have been told by many people throughout my life how strong I am, over sensitive and a bit nutty, but strong and kind, playful and high spirited. So I thought I could get down with Korea...almost.

However...I was placed in a very small town that is quite cloudy and full of smokey something in the air, my apt is freezing cold all the time, the people I work with think I am wierd but do seem to like me (small bonus!), I hardly ever really teach, which is a huge bummer because I actually enjoy teaching when allowed (aside from the awesome camp Michael and I much fun..if only...), and my spirit is slowly drying up. Michael has watched it and I have seen it in him too. It really happened. Note: Just looked at pics from our trip to Thailand, we were both surprised to see how my eyes sparkled and how healthy I looked. I see that in ,most pre Korea pics as well.

This, as many people have parroted, is a crap shoot. Maybe your school will be great, maybe it won't. You can't know. You come and you try and it either kicks your ass and you go home or you suck it up, make the best of it and stay.

I am quite confused though, to see the government pour sooooo much money into a program tha tis just barely utilizing it's teachers. I mostly exist to speak the correct pronounciation. It would be really cool if the schools could have theie Korean teachers have a "what to do with the foreigner" orientation so we could be a the same page. I also wish I had been told that EPIK's innovative English villages would not be set up in all schools and even if they are that they would not necessarily be used.

Understand that though I feel all the above there are some really nice things about South Korea. My most recent blog is about why I will miss it

So to balance things out....
My top ten things to do and see in Korea (for the sensitive Soul)
1. Hike...hike wherever you find it. Trails are beautifull, well marked and soothing if you avoid the big parks on holidays and weekends. There is usually a trail in the town you live in somewhere, just look.
2. Bi Bim Bap is so good. Really...and everyone seems to make it a little different. Treat yourself to the fancy kind in Insadong if you get a chance. Yum! And banchan!
3. Many Koreans are very generous. I met many sweet ajumnas and little old men and ladies, and esp parents of students who will bend over backwards to help you. Amazing! One family gives me free acupuncture!
4. When you actually get to's loads of fun. The kids in the small towns fall in love with you and love to play!
5. I really like Seoul...esp Insadong (a quaint, quiet, artsy district, with tons of tea houses and musical instruments). Seoul is easy to get around (or maybe it just seems that way of you have a Michael) and relatively tolerant of foreigners).You can get burritos in the district next to Insadong that are close to the original! Go on the Shamanistic Temple walk.
6. Naksan Temple and the HUGE statue of Kwan Yin will humble you and make you forget about your woes.
7. There are gardens everywhere, everyone seems to grow vegetables somewhere. I think that is awesome.
8. You get enough vacation time (if you do EPIK) to travel to gorgeous places and get paid while you are there. Yea Thailand!
9. Getting exposed to another culture is really important for self development. It changes you forever for the better and makes you appreciate what you have back home.
10. And...wait for it...I like radish Kim chi a lot.

Conclusion: If you think you can do it...give it a shot, You can always leave. But really think about it hard before you make the decision to go. But if you do come and it's tough remember to be self reflective, work on the bits that look like they could be HUGE growth opportunities. Take that new strength back home with you, even if you can't take back as much Won.

Evelyn said...

This was an interesting post, thanks for sharing!

I'd have to disagree with a few things that people have said but I'm sure it varies from person to person. I teach public middle school and I was given the choice to pick where I wanted to teach. In fact it was a pretty good decision and I really love my school. My school follows the contract to a tee so it works out for me well. I'm not scared of being ripped off anymore haha.

I am the teacher the majority of the time but I change my teaching styles depending on which co-teacher I have. Some like to give me all the control and others like to control me. I'm not picky so I don't mind giving in to whatever my co-teachers want.

And as a female who isn't a big drinker or smoker...I'm having a great time here. I studied abroad in Seoul (I currently teach in GyeongGiDo) so I do speak a little Korean and I don't have the looks of a typical foreigner (there are advantages and disadvantages to that).

I think for those who want to come to Korea to MUST MUST do your research first. Read a bit about Korean culture, food, your location, traveling, basically living information because if you just decide to hop on a plane a fly may not work out so well.

I agree with Melanie who said...Korea isn't for sensitive people.

In general, I'd follow one're in do as the Koreans do. Foreigners who keep comparing Korea with home aren't too happy...because they're obviously not the same thing and you can't expect them to change.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your post Michael.

I just wanted to add a few things you can expect when moving to a rural town in South Korea.

1. If you like big towels to dry off with after a nice hot shower... bring your own! The towels that Korean's often use are the size of hand towels... which especially sucks in the winter time in your drafty Korean apartment.

2. If you enjoy drinking microbrews or select liquor... consider bringing some from home. Korea has 3 drinks: Soju (a rice distilled watered down vodka), Hite (the most popular Korean beer that tastes like Busch Mills), or Cass (the second and final choice of Korean beer... I think it is slightly better than Hite). There are some imported beers that you can choose from like: Ashahi, Heineken, Hoegarden, and Becks. So- if you are dying for an Island Ginger Brew or whatever your favorite microbrew is--- bring your own. Same if you enjoy a Tanqueray over a London Dry or a Patron over a Jose Cuervo.

3. If you enjoy smoking--- Korea is your place. Unless of course you are a woman. If you would rather not be mistaken as a Russian hooker or get disapproving glances, and occasionally long winded lectures (in Korean)... perhaps consider quitting or smoking on your roof... and anywhere else you can sneak them! If you enjoy select cigarettes that are not Marlboro or Camel... bring your own. Korean cigarettes tend to burn quickly and have an extremely light taste.

4. If you like coffee that isn't instant... bring your own! Korea has an extremely high tariff on whole bean coffee and a pound of it will cost you between 40 and 50 bucks. So stalk up on your favorite beans and mail them to yourself!

5. Finally, if you enjoy pillows that are soft... bring your own. Korean pillows are often overly stuffed and hard. Oh! If you like clean water that tastes good and hate buying the bottle stuff... bring a Brita water filtering system. I usually boil my water, let it cool and then run it through my Brita... it tastes great! Plus, I save a lot of money.

**I think that if you take the time to make sure you'll have comfortable living situation in Korea, it will certainly improve your experience. On a side note, please remember: a genuine smile is a universal language (sounds corny I know... but it's true). I have found that if you take a genuine interest in each teacher you work with it certainly improves relations and rapport.**

Good luck! Cheers!!

Jacki said...

Hey, lots of good info in your post. I just got to rural Korea (a little town right outside of anseong, middle of rice fields) last week, and are teaching elementary school. And it's true, so far in my school my coteacher does most of the lecturing and then I go up, play a game, say a few things, etc. And my fiance who is also here is teaching middle and he has to make all of his lesson plans from scratch and teach the whole 45 minutes of it. Anyway, just wanted you to know that I've been following your blog and enjoy reading your posts!

eMCee said...

Thank you all for your candor and insight. I gleaned a bit from everyone's comments. It will help tremendously. I am headed to South Korea in 6 days to teach at a hagwon (30 miles from Seoul). I'm praying for a pleasant experience, but am confident that even at it's worst, it will be eye opening and life changing. Tea houses and hiking trails, here I come!