[Guest post] Why do I work in a hagwon?

Why do I work in a hagwon? Who gives a shit where I work?

Since I arrived in Korea, I’ve noticed a perceived hierarchy of jobs. Little hagwons, especially kindergartens, are on the bottom. Bigger hagwons with many branches (the ECCs, YBMs, CDIs, Avalons, etc.) that serve elementary and middle school students are next. Split shift work, especially at hagwons that serve adults, follow. Then there are public school positions for elementary, middle, and high school – much more difficult to “land,” but with better pay for a lot less work. At the top of the ladder are university positions (which have their own hierarchy) and teacher training positions.

I am here to call bullshit.

Why do you think a teacher levels up by teaching older students and (sometimes) more complex material? Or worse, by getting their heads stuck so far up their a……dministrations that they no longer teach at all? I believe a teacher levels up by becoming a better teacher. Does desk-warming make one a better teacher? Does having long vacations make one a better teacher? It depends on what you do with the time. One thing I know for sure is that experience of any kind goes a long way. But why does it need to lead to working in a different setting?

stampofapproval

I’m here because I’m enraged that any teachers are being told they are bottom of the barrel (or, if you prefer, under a goddamned rock). I think that teachers who “land” in a kindy are just as valuable and deserve the same respect as teachers who finally “land” the coveted uni gig. We all have the same potential to make a difference in our students’ lives and education. We all have the same opportunities and potential for professional development to further examine and improve our practice. It is our choices that make us better teachers, not what kind of job we do.

[A note for those of you who are headed for the comments to tell me that it's the hagwon teachers who do the midnight run, the hagwon teachers who run around Itaewon off their heads, being lewd and crude, giving the locals a bad impression of all foreigners, and of course the hagwon teachers who are unable to adapt to Korean culture. That we hagwoners are a bunch of mangy louts. No wonder we're crawling around under the rocks like the rest of the slimy bugs beneath your notice. Lemme ask you: Did you spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus? Who were you when you were 22? What would you have been like on your own in a foreign country with no support at a workplace that does not recognize cross-cultural differences? Moreover, what gives you the right to judge the masses by the well-publicized sins of a few?]

Too often I have been asked – by well-meaning friends, bosses, DoSes and even strangers – why I haven’t gone for a university job. Surely I’m qualified enough, experienced enough, passionate enough. Surely I want the lighter teaching load, shorter hours, longer vacations. Surely I want better-behaved students, whose effort rides on fear of their grade. Surely the next step UP for me is landing a university gig.

Let me tell you why I teach. I teach because I love kids. I teach because I found that through teaching, I learn. And I am addicted to learning. I teach because I am addicted to seeing growth in my students – in the language ability as well as in their lives – over the years. One of the benefits of teaching in a hagwon is being part of that experience. And I have also grown as a teacher and a person.

A final note before I close: as expats in Korea, we are all disposable. We are all reliant on the next educational policy to secure our places for another year. We are all vulnerable to the cutbacks in the current policy. We all care about our students and about teaching and about the flaws in the system. So please come down from your ivory towers and join me for a round. Let’s focus on learning: our own and our students’ – and stop worrying about who is a “better” teacher because he has a “better” job.

Note from Mike:
I think this post pretty much speaks for itself.
I asked the author, who wishes to remain anonymous, to share some thoughts related to the employment scene in Korea and the judging that goes on as related to the perceived hierarchy in jobs. I was very pleased with the result and I am happy to share it here. Thanks very much to the author for taking the time.

If you have any rants, reviews, or reflections to share please get in touch. My email is michaelEgriffin at gmail dot com. 

14 comments

  1. the waegukin (@thewaegukin)

    “Let me tell you why I teach. I teach because I love kids. I teach because I found that through teaching, I learn. And I am addicted to learning. I teach because I am addicted to seeing growth in my students – in the language ability as well as in their lives – over the years”

    Which is a fine ideal, except at a hagwon you’re only teaching the kids whose parents can afford to send them to a hagwon. At a public school the author could apply those principles to teaching all students, not just a privileged subset of them.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for reading and commenting.
      Here is a response from the author of the post:

      “I can see how you might believe that is so. But how do you recommend I follow my students’ growth if I teach 300 in a single semester, mostly once a week for 50 minutes (minus several cancelled classes because studying for tests is more important and is something I somehow “can’t” teach), and never see them again when the semester ends? I agree that the prices of English hagwons are prohibitive for some families.One of the reasons is that hagwons are able to provide smaller class sizes, more face time and a variety of teaching techniques. Perhaps the government can be convinced to either subsidize hagwon education for less privileged families or take the foreigner’s role in public school English education slightly more seriously.”

      The author also wanted to say that he/she is not an expert in the public school realm so is not sure if it’s been properly represented here. He/She offers apologies if not.

      I, Mike, would also add my perception that teaching in a hogwon can offer more autonomy and ownership over teaching decisions which is something I’d personally find attractive. I don’t want to discount the cost of hogwons for parents but I think there is a difference between the teaching contexts that goes beyond the economics of who paid for the teacher to be there.

      By the same logic, if a teacher *should teach all students in public schools rather than in a private school could we also say that ideally teachers *shouldn’t teach in a privileged country like Korea as well? What about countries that are lower down the list of per capita GDP? What, then, is the moral difference between teaching in a public school in Gangnam or a hogwan in a rural town? Is there a difference in teaching in an expensive hogwon or a cheaper one? A chain or not?

      I know I am pushing things a bit far with my questions here but I don’t think the original author’s point was strictly about teaching more students or a specific subset of students but teaching the students he/she has. I mean, in the post in the part you quoted, the author mentions being addicted to seeing students’ learning. Isn’t it possible that the author feels this is more likely with smaller class sizes meeting more often? Or maybe with the autonomy he/she feels is present in the situation?

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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  3. the waegukin (@thewaegukin)

    These are all valid questions, from both you and the author.

    The public school teaching scenario the author describes is an extreme one, though not outside the realms of possibility. The answer to the question is that in the public school system you have plenty of opportunity to form relationships with and individually help a limited number, though not all, of your students inside, but moreso outside, the classroom. I think this is a difference between the public school and hagwon environments that might be difficult to appreciate if you haven’t taught in a public school. There’s the lunchroom, the playground, the kids who stop by to chat during all that non-teaching time. I have students I taught in my first year in Korea who I’m still in touch with. Of course, you have to want to do that and make the effort.

    For me, teaching only the wealthy students in a hagwon would be something I would find personally problematic – a large part of the pride I have found in my teaching in Korea comes from those students I have known who haven’t been able to afford hagwon tuition and who I’ve been able to spend time with and help. But you’re right to ask where such logic ends. Volunteering as an English teacher in a third world country would be morally superior, I think, but unless you’re a saint, everyone makes moral compromises. I spent a year teaching at a rural elementary school with 63 students, and now I’m going to teach at a private university. It’s a selfish choice.

    “teaching in a hogwon can offer more autonomy and ownership over teaching decisions which is something I’d personally find attractive”. (Also the author’s comment about hagwons offering “a variety of teaching techniques”). It depends. I knew a hagwon teacher who described their year teaching in a hagwon in the following terms: “I got very good at pressing pause and play on the CD-rom.” I suspect we’re both dealing with stereotypes. I’ve worked in three public schools and always had a lot of autonomy with teaching decisions. In both environments, I suspect good teachers step up and teach, while bad ones are content to drift along in a system that allows for (or even expects) the lowest common denominator.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for taking the time to respond here. I appreciate it. I have been thinking about your response for a while now and I have come to the realization that I don’t place/evaluate teaching jobs in the private sector any differently than I do jobs in the public sector.

      I hope you will allow me a convoluted story:

      In a previous job I worked as a teacher trainer and I convinced myself that I was doing good things for the world by helping and empowering all these Korean teachers who would then go on and help their students. Later I even felt some sort of rush that my positive impact would be exponentially increased when I was working on trainer-training courses. Now empowering others to empower others to teach the youth of Korea even better. Yay me.

      Yet, later I came to think that I was working to make a capitalist (training center) sucking off the teet of the government rich. My making the world a better place shiny happy feeling changed when I saw that my blood sweet and tears paid for fancy foreign cars.

      Later, with some distance I came to (re?)realize that in fact I did do good work and that I did help people and even helped people that could go ahead and help people regardless of who got rich off of it.
      I realize that I have strayed very far from your comments and even farther from the original post.

      From my view, the original author’s point was that we don’t get the right to judge others for their jobs not being good enough…and I think “moral” enough might be related. So, I personally will not judge people for the job choices that they make because there might be reasons other than what we might first assume.

      Thanks again for the exchange.

  4. Joshua Adams

    I appreciate the guest bloggers pride in working at a hagwon. Hagwons often have very skilled teachers and there is no shame is doing a job and doing it well. I also think it is rather rude for other foreign teachers to assume that where you work makes you a better teacher. I have worked in a hagwon, public school and in two universities. I’ve seen good and bad teachers at each level.

    It seems to me that the author is more focused on explaining how a teacher can prefer to stay in a hagwon, rather than why people tend to view the teaching hierarchy in the way they do. I think there are a few reason why people have this hierarchy. First of all, it’s the hierarchy that exists for Koreans. Second, there are substantive benefits to moving up the ladder; more vacation, less hours per week, and that “wow” you get when you tell your Korean friends that you’ve just moved up. Also, consider that for better or worse, KOTESOL is what most of us (foreign English teacher) have for professional development. The vast majority of people active in that organization work in universities.

    I’d like to answer the authors question, “Does having long vacations make one a better teacher?” It can if you want it to. It’s pretty easy to take a month down in Vietnam for a CELTA with 4 months vacation. In the last 3 years I’ve been at a uni I have yet to worry about burning out. When the new semester starts, I’m itching to get back to work. Having long vacations does make teaching at a university a better JOB than working at a hagwon. To argue otherwise is foolish. Back when I was working at a public school I knew a guy who worked at a uni. I asked him about the vacation and he said, “I would do just about anything, including hard labor, for 4 months of vacation.” I’m not one for doing hard labor, but I do love my vacation.

    Enough about vacation though. I think a real big thing missing here is requirements for the jobs. Hagwon workers have no professional development required of them. At a public school you need at least a TESOL certification. It is true that some people at universities don’t have much in the way of requirements, but they were grandfathered in. At my university we had over 110 people with MA’s apply for 5 jobs. Tell me, when was the last time that happened at a hagwon?

    Another thing to consider is, what are you doing at a hagwon? Does the assessment you give of your students matter to your students? Did you design them? Does it go on any sort of record besides the ones kept at your school? At the universities I have worked at I create the assessments and it lasts forever on their transcript (if they don’t retake the class).

    Finally, I sympathize with the author. I have known very good teachers (maybe even the author!) who were content working at a hagwon. If someone gets joy and a sense of personal development where they work, who am I to judge? I also miss how close you can get with your students while working at a hagwon. A friend of mine taught the same group of students for 3 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for three straight years. I see my students for less than 30 hours a semester, and rarely see students for more than one semester. I would never assume that I was a better teacher than the author, but I will say that I have the better job.

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks for the response Josh.
      (I am glad my reminder about commenting seems to helped. Perhaps I should have given myself one for responding–I apologize for the delay). I worried I wouldn’t have too much to say in response but here I am ready to share some thoughts. I am sure that my response will not be nearly as coherent as yours)

      Also, I hope you will excuse me for being perhaps unnecessarily contentious because I largely agree with much of what you wrote and I sincerely appreciate you taking the time. You wrote, “If someone gets joy and a sense of personal development where they work, who am I to judge?” and I that is among the key takeaways I took from the piece.

      You wrote, “I think it is rather rude for other foreign teachers to assume that where you work makes you a better teacher” and as you might expect I fully agree. A while back I wrote something about “pissing contests” that happen when foreign teachers get together (http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/urination-distance-competitions/) and I think it is related to what both you and the original writer wrote. I still can’t decide if it is a teacher thing, an English teacher thing, an English teacher in Korea thing, a human thing, or a it’s just my imagination thing. In any case it bugs me.

      You mentioned aspect of respect “wow factor” in Korea. I recently had a guy in my apartment complex talking to me in the elevator. It was fun to notice his chance in attitude when he discovered I work at a uni. Yet, I don’t know if I felt better or proud or annoyed.

      You wrote, “It seems to me that the author is more focused on explaining how a teacher can prefer to stay in a hagwon, rather than why people tend to view the teaching hierarchy in the way they do” and I think that is an interesting point and well said.

      One other thing that caught my attention was this, “Also, consider that for better or worse, KOTESOL is what most of us (foreign English teacher) have for professional development. The vast majority of people active in that organization work in universities.” Is this related to the wow factor..or the prof dev aspect or the perceived hierarchy? My point here would be that uni folks often have more time and thus more involvement in that particular organization. I am not sure if that is a relevant point in response to yours though. Since we are on the topic I’d also say that there is some very serious chicken-egg considerations related to K0TESOL and who it serves.
      (meaning that it doesn’t serve hogwon teachers because they are not there or they are not there because they are not served)

      You made a point about the requirements for jobs. I suppose that fits into the perceived hierarchy as well.

      Now I am just being picky…

      You mentioned the long vacations that tend to come with uni jobs as offering potential opportunities for development and I’ll ignore the specific mention of the CELTA here…and just say yes, I “can” offer chances but so can teaching (and perhaps reflecting?) during that time.

      To speak personally, I feel am much more on my game in times when I get more hours in a week. That said, I think your point regarding burnout is apt.

      I am not sure if I can say much about what makes a JOB better I can just say that vacation is one of the factors that we can weigh like anything else. My reading of the original author’s post was that he/she likes teaching kids very much and likes teaching so much that the hours (or vacation comparison) are not such a big issue.

      You talked about moving up and moving up the ladder. I am not sure if you meant up the perceived ladder or up the ladder. My argument is that the rungs on the ladder are not as clear as many might think. I loved your questions regarding the teaching situation at the hogwon and I think that is a key point.

      You said you have the better job than the author. I am still thinking there are factors beyond things like vacation, hours, and prestige right? I am really unsure about this idea of better job and think it is more like “better job for me right now based on what want to do now and in the future.” I dunno. :)

      I am not in the position of hiring people but I can certainly say I wouldn’t automatically assume experience at a public school or uni to be superior to a hogwon. Of course there are tons of factors to consider.

      Thanks again for the comments!

      • Joshua Adams

        “You said you have the better job than the author. ”

        Yeah of course I did. It’s my job, I worked hard to get it. I would wouldn’t be one bit surprised if the author claimed their job was better than mine. It’s pretty clear the main point here is that we all take pride in what we do, and we don’t like people saying our own jobs aren’t the bee’s knees.

  5. John

    “At my university we had over 110 people with MA’s apply for 5 jobs.”

    An MA doesn’t actually mean you know anything about teaching and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve developed professionally. It can often mean that you’ve spent a few hours online every week and not once interacted with any students.

    I know a number of people who have acquired MAs simply to land a Uni gig and don’t give a flying one about developing as teachers. Worse than that, I know one guy who has an MA yet still thinks it is “an university.” Apparently he is now far more qualified to move up the ladder than someone with basic grammar because he has an online piece of paper.

    Universities have become the top of the totem pole and far too many people who work in them have started to believe their own hype.

  6. mrsmissoveness

    I respect the writer for his choice of location and educational institution. I recognise that no matter where you teach and what you teach, if you are up to date with current educational pedagogies, in this case, ESL/EAL/EFL, willing to learn new methodologies, etc. you can provide the best professionally.
    This is my understanding – A hagwon is a language school, a tuition centre, a private lesson (individual or group). Could the writer please clarify what ESL/EAL/EFL pedagagies underpin his teaching, the language skills thought, how these are taught and what responsibilities does he or any hagwon teachers have in their centres? I’m interested to learn more about hagwons from someone in the field and not via wikipedia :) They do work like ‘Kumon’ centres in Japan?
    Has the writer taught in a school – state (at home or abroad), international school, private school (not a language school) but one using a national/international curriculum?
    I’m keen to learn more for a comparative study of English Language Learning specialists in Asia and any feedback from the writer is highly valuable. (personal interest, not for publication)

    Thanks.

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks for the comments. The following is from the original author:

      “Thank you for reading and for your questions. I am going to try to respond, although I am not sure this is the information you are looking for or how it relates to the original post. Perhaps you could clarify in turn?

      You asked “Could the writer please clarify what ESL/EAL/EFL pedagagies underpin his teaching, the language skills thought, how these are taught and what responsibilities does he or any hagwon teachers have in their centres?”
      This is a very big question, especially given the great variation between hagwons and individual teachers (as has been mentioned by previous commenters). In the academy in which I work, all teachers are responsible for teaching all four skills. More importantly (in my opinion) we are responsible for assessing what each class needs and filling gaps rather than just turning pages. We are responsible for communicating with each other and reinforcing each other’s work with the students.

      You asked about methods and pedagogies. I suppose I could start name-dropping the great thinkers in EFL, but I don’t really know how well they fit into a real classroom. I can’t really answer you well except to say that we are not tied to specific methods or underlying pedagogies. For myself, I tend to focus rather heavily on fluency and on helping my students relate the lessons to their own experience. This means developing lessons around topics students choose and using those topics to teach certain skills (like scanning, listening for gist, noticing, genre writing, pronunciation and intonation…). One of the things I love about my job is that it is so centered on student needs and I can test what I teach, rather than teach to a test – a rare situation in South Korea.

      You asked, “Has the writer taught in a school – state (at home or abroad), international school, private school (not a language school) but one using a national/international curriculum?”
      All my teaching experience comes from Korea, from a mix of hagwon and university, so I haven’t used a national or international curriculum. My understanding is that only public schools and some international schools in Korea use mandated curricula.

      I hope this has helped give you another perspective (though it is certainly not the only perspective) on hagwon teaching and what goes on in a private academy.”

  7. adamfromteachthemenglish

    Similar hierarchical thinking exists in Turkey, for fairly obvious reasons. Dershanes, the local equivalent of a Hagwon, are deemed to be poorer employers due to their often shady business practices, namely not obtaining legal work permits for their teachers or paying the legally required social security contributions. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t great teachers working in such places, nor does it mean that everyone working in more prestigious positions are automatically likely to be better teachers. The perception comes, therefore, from what the teacher is willing to put up with in terms of job conditions, rather than their ability to teach.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Adam and thanks very much for the comments. It is always nice to get an outsider perspective because it is too easy to think many things are just about the situation here in Korea. As a little bit of a side note I remember talking to a dance teacher in the US and hearing all sorts of horror stories and being visibly happy to hear such things because in a sense I thought it was just our industry. Again your comments are very helpful for that.
      I like your emphasis on teachers being able to put up with certain things vs. their ability. Thanks again for commenting!

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