The True Definition of a Hagwon in South Korea

By Jun Won Lee

Parents in South Korea put pressure on their own kids. They make sure they get the best results in Taekwondo, in math, in music, in dancing, and that includes English. Competition for English means demand for more teachers.

There are many opportunities out there in Korea for teaching positions. All you need is a bachelor’s degree, and if you want higher pay, additional experience or a college degree in education would help. It’s not that difficult finding a position as there are thousands of academies in Korea. You might not be able to find the best one, but there definitely is somewhere you could work.

Before making that decision to teach in Korea, I want to let you know about the definition of an English academy in Korea and the pros and cons of it.

Teaching in South Korea - Myeongdong, Seoul
View of Myeongdong in Seoul, South Korea | Source: Pixabay

What’s Not So Good About Hagwons?

This may not apply in public schools, but certainly, in Korean academies (or “hagwons”), the number one thing the boss stares at most of the time is money. Of course, there are passionate owners and very nice bosses out there. But regardless of where you work at, it is mandatory that you satisfy their parents.

Supposing you use all of your knowledge to teach these beautiful students, you may still receive complaints from parents if the students complain to their parents about you.

One time, I turned on the air conditioner, as the weather was very hot. Still, for some reason, the room was hot due to its old burned out facility. The parents gave a call to the boss (or “wanjangnim”) and told them that the teacher did not turn on the air conditioner and the student cried due to the hot weather. I certainly understand the sensitivity of the students, but the teachers are looked down upon frequently.

My point is that “hagwons” are profit-based organizations, so while we do may work for love and passion, we must also always keep in mind about how many students are joining your classroom. We must look around and see how many students are getting out of the classroom and if there are any complaints. We must satisfy our students and our parents to secure our teaching position.

That being the first part, I also hear rumors that there are academies that make you work long hours. At one of the hagwons I worked at, the boss didn’t let me take a break. That’s not to say that they don’t like you. In fact, many bosses feel sorry and want you to take a rest.

But as it’s a profit based organization, and it’s usually run by only a couple of people, they don’t have the funding to hire many teachers. They hire only a few and ask those teachers to take on most of the students. Some places include weekends as mandatory work times. Plus, paid leave for hagwons are usually only two times a year with around two weeks total.

Han River, Seoul
Walking towards the Han River in Seoul, South Korea | Source: Pixabay

What’s Good About Hagwons?

Although you can search for negative reviews about hagwons on the Internet, I know with confidence that is not as bad as it sounds.

Many people fear about coming to Korea without logically thinking about the pros and cons, because of the Internet rumors and the many complaints seen by teachers online. That may be true, but it doesn’t apply to everyone.

In fact, although I faced negativity in my academy at times, I would go back and work there again if I have a chance. Even if the parents and students are stressful and difficult at times, the co-teachers are always there to talk to you. That means you can make friends. You could also experience fun activities and the short distance travelling within the city with your students.

That means you could learn a new culture that you haven’t experienced in your lifetime. You may see and hear a new language from the students, and get a gist of how the kids are different from students in your country.

At the end of the day, it’s how you interpret your daily life here in Korea. If you love your students and love your classroom every day, it doesn’t matter how the surroundings confront you. And that is because each and every one of those problems that you encounter can also be seen as valuable lessons.

All in all, if you come to teach in Korea, you will be able to enjoy a cultural experience of a lifetime.

About Jun Won Lee

Jun Won Lee has a bachelor’s degree in international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies with K-12 education in the States. He has a TEFL certification and has taught English to students for one year in South Korea.

Teaching in South Korea - Jun Won Bio

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