While scouring the internet for information about what life is like for expats who have moved to South Korea, you’ll run into loads of blogs about just that: life in South Korea. For whatever reason, expat bloggers tend to focus on the personal aspects of life in South Korea: places they’ve traveled to, things they’ve eaten, fun times had, etc. So surprisingly, you might have a harder time finding information about what teaching is actually like. I know that before I came here, I was clueless and worried about what the job would entail. Let me tell you, you should be comforted by the lack of information about the job. Bloggers must find that information too obvious or straightforward to be interesting. They consider it unnoteworthy because it’s nothing to get excited about, but also it’s nothing to worry about. To set your mind at ease a bit more, I’ll take you on a little tour of my hagwon (private academy).
A hagwon is a private after school academy. Korea is obsessed with the education of its children, so parents break their banks by shelling out loads of money to send their kids to after school programs that each specialize in a different subject. My school obviously specializes in English.
Above is the entrance and lobby of our school. We have a Korean staff of about 6 or 7 that oversees the administration of the school. Nearly all of them speak decent English, and they are incredibly helpful to us teachers. I once had an issue at my bank, so one of the Korean staff, Kelly, helped me get it sorted out. Our staff is also our ultimate disciplinary tool. If a student is being completely unruly, we send them to Korean staff who will sort the student out by lecturing him or calling his parents.
Obviously this is the hallway of my school. This hagwon is slightly larger than most. At any given time we have between 7 and 9 foreign teachers and 2 or 3 Korean teachers. This hall can get pretty packed during break time. Kids flood into it to use the restroom and get water. The teachers will mozy on out to the lobby to have a brief conversation or play around with the kids. I could tell you more about our class schedule, but frankly, each hagwon has a radically different schedule, rule set, and management system. If you want more information about the schools you are applying to or are considering, you can always ask your recruiter for the email address of a teacher who works at the school. Actually, I highly recommend doing that. If you have any trouble at all getting an email, I would suggest looking at other schools.
Here is what our average classroom looks like. The classes can comfortably fit 16 kids, but it’s uncommon to have a class with more than ten students. I’d say the average class has 8 students, which is great. 8 is small enough to get to know students, but with fewer than eight, class can drag a little. At my hagwon, we are free to decorate the class as long as it looks neat and orderly. Putting artwork on the wall is apparently not a Korean custom. At our school in our classrooms, however, we try to create an English speaking atmosphere. Students are not allowed to speak Korean at any time while in the classroom. That may sound difficult. How do you teach ESL students without letting them speak their native language? Well, all I can say is we manage it, and it’s not even very difficult.
And here is our copy room, which serves as the teachers’ breakroom. We each have a little cabinet to put coats and other belongings. I don’t really use mine. I keep my things in my classroom. A fridge houses our lunches and snacks for breaks during and between classes. There is a broom closet that we use to change into work attire. During the summer, some of us are soaked after the short ten minute walk to work through the humidity, so they put on fresh business casual clothing at work. In the picture above, things are a little untidy because I took this during testing week. It’s a busy, messy week for us. But easy times in the classroom because we are just proctoring tests. The mess is created while getting organized to administer several hundred tests.
So that’s my school. As you can imagine, each hagwon in South Korea is unique. And I don’t have experience with any other school yet. So take this post for what you will. Just remember that South Korea is a modern country populated by kind and earnest people. I believe that moving here is quite similar to moving to another area of your home country. There are opportunities to find yourself in a bad spot, but for the most part, you can trust that you’ll more than likely find a happy place.
Currently residing an hour outside of Seoul, South Korea, Sergio Cabaruvias is doing his utmost not to appear lost or confused. So far, he’s managed. After graduating with degrees in English and journalism and after working with underprivileged youth, Serg embarked from Southern California for Pyeongtaek, South Korea to gain experience as an amateur adventurer. Since arriving he has swung on vines in the jungles of Taiwan, scaled mountains in the rocky city of Busan, driven a scooter along the edge of a massive, marble gorge, and explored some of Tokyo’s seedier areas. Moving to South Korea has been the best decision of his life.