Teachers who work in hogwons are people and teachers too

On a recent thread in a Facebook Group I am not a member of  there was a discussion on how to attract hogwon (aka academy, cram school, private institute) teachers to be members of an association I am not a member of. The discussion was a learning experience for me, to say the least.

Here are some things I learned about teachers who work at hogwons from the discussion:

  1. They are glorified baby sitters.
  2. They have backpacks permanently attached to their bodies.
  3. They don’t care about teaching.
  4. They do not consider teaching a career.
  5. They don’t care about learning or developing.
  6. They are just in Korea for a paid vacation.
  7. They only provide a warm body to check student work.
  8. They work incredibly long hours and are tired all the time.
  9. They are actually lizards pretending to be humans.
  10. They are in a bad position now but things can be better for them if they accept and are gently pressed into the bosom of K0TESOL and learn the proper ways of teaching and being.

Only 2-3 of these were not said (according to my reading of the thread). I am choosing not to link to the thread here but I am sure the most industrious and resourceful readers can find it if they truly want to. I have to admit that I was surprised at the tone of this conversation as I read it. I was ready for such a conversation because a friend recommended I read it, with the hint it would be interesting in the negative sense of the word. Unfortunately, it was more interesting than I expected or was prepared for. I got the sense that the majority of those commenting were very much looking down on hogwon teachers. I wavered between annoyed, defeated, and frustrated at what I saw as the condescending tone from most (but not all!) people participating in the discussion. I’d also like to mention I think the original poster was coming from a good place with his question.

There was some questions in the discussion if the original poster was talking about Korean or foreign teachers. My assumption is that most of the 10 statements above were intended to be about about foreign teachers working in hogwons. Speaking of assumptions, there seemed to be quite a few assumptions about hogwon English teachers who are citizens of the Republic of Korea, too. It was interesting to see the perceived needs and wants of such teachers and the assumptions about them. I am not in a position to say much beyond, “it was interesting to see” because I really don’t know what professional development opportunities or goals Korean teachers of English in hogwons tend to have. I suspect it is not nearly as uniform as certain Facebook discussions would suggest. I wonder how poised K0tesol is to meet the needs of these teachers.  I’d also prefer not to comment on the professionalism or needs of a large group of teachers I don’t know much about.

Before continuing here, I’d like to share 3 posts from this very blog.
a)  A guest post entitled, “Why do I work in a hogwon?
b) “Competitions for Urination Distance” in which I talk about some of the bragging and comparing I have seen around.
c) A post on some lessons I learned about (not) judging people by their teaching context. 

I believe these posts are related to this topic and the Facebook conversation that prompted this post.  I’d love it if you could just go ahead and read them, especially the first one. This current post will still be here. No rush, take your time.

Welcome back. Where were we? Nowhere, you say? OK.

My focus today is not the mission and purpose of K0TESOL or even the need for it to the teaching population of South Korea, though that might be an interesting topic. I am not focusing on the assumption that a bigger K0tesol is a better K0tesol. I am not here to talk about the best way for K0tesol to attract any specific categories of teacher. I am not here to make friends. I am also not really here to offer advice on how to attract more hogwon teachers for that particular organization. I am no expert on marketing, as you very well know, but maybe not being condescending and attempting to limit pomposity are good ways to attract new members. Maybe? It could be a start. Maybe treating everyone as people who are not less than those who work in other contexts could work.

And now it is time for an attempt at amateur psychology. Maybe, just maybe, non-hogwon teachers find it very appealing to look down upon hogwon teachers because they fear they might be considered to be something similar by students, others or the citizenry of South Korea. Maybe by “othering” and looking down on hogwon teachers some folks feel like they are boosting themselves up. I can’t say if this is an effective strategy but from my view it looks childish or worse.  Another thought is  many teachers in Korea worked in hogwons before “moving up” to public schools or universities or something else. This could create a desire to differentiate themselves from those doing what they were doing X years ago. Of course, this is just amateur (and armchair) psychology here. I’d welcome any other theories or perspectives on this.

I’d also welcome people (ideally those familiar with the conversation, I imagine) to tell me they think I am overreacting and my outrage is misplaced or unjustified. At the same time I’d like to hear if others felt the same way as I did when reading that thread. Basically, any thoughts on this are welcome.

Finally, I wonder if there would be any interest in hogwon classes for K0TESOL members on “how not to be a dick” “how not to sound like a jerk.”  Imagine it: Beginner Being a Human, Intermediate Empathy. I am, of course, not the person to teach such classes, but I think there might be a need.




  1. Leonie Overbeek

    I did not comment on that thread, and I think some comments made there are perhaps as extreme as you suggest, but I also think people don’t always think before they post. As for KOTESOL’s motives – we need members, and it seems as if the hagwon population is where most of our future members will come from, if at all, if the present rate of shut-down of uni and public school programs continues. Do we look down on hakwon teachers? No, because we know (my daughter was one) a lot of them. Do we think they work for their money? in some cases, hell yeah! In some cases, HELL YEAH! they get put through hell in some cases. Do we thing some of them are in it just for a gap year? Sure, because some are. But we also think some are in it for the long haul, and are teachers who care and want to make a difference. And those are people we need to talk to. Condescending? Maybe, just a bit, but that’s how uni vs the rest always comes across, doesn’t it? Would you be prepared to teach the course you offer? 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello Leonie,
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Last things first; I am not qualified or willing to teach the type of course I mention at the end of the post! 😉

      I don’t think uni teachers need to come of condescending. Only if they talk in condescending way or perhaps don’t think before speaking/writing. You suggested people don’t always think before they post. I agree but I think that is not an ideal situation if the idea is to attract members. Maybe I am reading things wrong.

      I agree with much of what you wrote, and I appreciate your realistic perspective.

      I guess from my perspective if K0TESOL is going to have such condescending views they will not attract the people they are looking down on. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  2. purpleHand

    This is maybe not a good respond, but I saw that post on fb and just simply thought ‘well,… there isn’t enough sessions on young learners (especially very young learners… and I am not talking about those commercial ones) that I would be interested in attending if I were a hogwon teacher’. I also wish there were more hogwon teachers presenting!

    Working in publishing, I think I have had many good chances to meet hogwon teachers (both Korean and non) around the country. Some encounters weren’t very pleasant (showing no interest and even an angry face because I stole their break time), but many were impressive and I learned a lot about young learner classes from them. There was even once a hogwon owner who asked me to revisit because their teachers wanted to get more teaching tips and talk about teaching. And when you look at these hogwons, they have several things in common (my observation says). The teachers are getting along very well. They have great teamwork, especially among Korean and non-Korean staffs. They come in laughing, joking, and talking about their students. They also have a good head teacher. Most hogwon owners are business minded, but it’s the head teacher’s job to stand for the teachers and work things out with the owners on behalf of the teachers. Many great head teachers I met or our sales reps met were enthusiastic and very passionate. And no wonder that you see these hogwons doing extremely well (tons of students walking around hogwon peak time), That all brings me back to the ‘people’. So many times, it is about the person and the dynamic people create by working together. I agree that there is this ‘hierarchy” of English profession and part of creating or demolishing it is in the hogwon teachers’ hands. Like those amazing teachers who proved me that the stereotypes are very wrong. And from my petit personal experience, I see them more and more. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello Ms. Hand,
      Thanks for stopping by. I think any response is a good response and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and experiences here.

      I think your initial thought to the thread is a great one. Maybe the organization is not appealing to a wide range of teachers.
      I think someone wote somewhere it is a sort of chicken or egg thing too. Like if there are lots of sessions on YL then maybe YL teachers will come more but there needs to be lots of YL teachers coming.

      I loved your points here about some of the places you have seen. Your write that demolishing the stereotypes is in the hogwon teacher’s hands and I think there is something there but I also think it can be a tough challenge if others are too entrenched in their stereotypes (which is what I think I was seeing in the thread). Thanks for sharing your optimism, thoughts and experiences.

  3. karunacare

    My personal thoughts on this: I work in a hagwon by choice, although I am qualified for university positions and have done that before. I work for a hagwon because I like spending time with my students and seeing them grow and progress. I like the challenges and the successes and failures that help me become a better teacher. I don’t look over at EPIK or Uni teachers with envy. They have more vacation, but I have more freedom over method and curriculum. They have more time off, but I have smaller classes and more face-time with each student. It depends, I guess, on what you value. Like every teacher at my workplace, I am responsible for my own professional development. I don’t think that KOTESOL has a monopoly on PD available. I read articles, attend online classes and webinars, and spend time reflecting on my classes alone or with others. I don’t like the insinuation that I need to be trained up by KOTESOL. I don’t like the assertion that hagwon teachers are “warm bodies to dispense ritalin”. It’s true that hagwon teachers work a lot of hours and have less free time than teachers in some other positions, but I make time for the things that are important to me. I don’t like the assumption that I’m just here to make money for a couple years and drink all the time. We are ALL here to earn a living, but it is the intangible rewards that truly keep me in the job. As for my backpack, it’s normally filled with textbooks and papers to grade.

    p.s. I am a member of KOTESOL and am deeply offended by the tone of that thread – for myself, for my hagwon teacher friends, and for the professional Korean hagwon teachers I have had the pleasure of working with over the years. I wish that some of those commenters would come down off their high horses (and out of their ivory towers) and get to know us. It’s possible that we have something of our own to offer.

    p.p.s. And the commenter who wondered why kotesol would want hagwon teachers anyway – quality over quantity, after all – can go *^@$ himself.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Karuna,

      Thanks for the comments. High horses and ivory towers are two expressions that fit my impression of that thread. Unfortunately, maybe most people that it was completely normal and fine. And if hogwon teachers put in the corner that is their business. I am still struck by the irony of badmouthing the very people they are supposedly interested in attracting. Maybe my “they” is too big and I should just talk some/most of the people on the thread who might not be interested in recruiting members anyway.

      Oh my take on the “quality not quantity” was not about hogwon teachers being low quality but just that in the constant drive to improve numbers it is easy to forget the point and the reasons. That is how I took it, is all.

      You wrote, ” I don’t think that KOTESOL has a monopoly on PD available. I read articles, attend online classes and webinars, and spend time reflecting on my classes alone or with others. I don’t like the insinuation that I need to be trained up by KOTESOL” I think this is wonderful and perfect and I thank you for sharing it. In fact, I am sad that all the powerful and great things you wrote here will only be read by the readers of this blog and not the people commenting. Thanks again for the great and inspiring thoughts.

  4. BakJB

    While I don’t agree with the tone of the replies to the KOTESOL post, I can understand where many people are coming from. Having lived in Korea for several years I’ve met many teachers who work in all different kinds of situations from hagwons to uni jobs. I can say, just based on my own observations that GENERALLY the hagwon teachers (as was stated in the thread) are here for no more than 1 or 2 years, have little to no experience teaching, and do not view teaching as a career. I’ve met dozens of hagwon teachers here but can count on just one hand the number of hagwon teachers that do not fit this profile. The bar for entry for many hagwons is lower than many PS and Uni jobs as well which also feeds into the stereotype. That said, stereotypes don’t just come from nowhere. There’s a reason why they exist, and I’ve found that for the most part the stereotype for hagwon teachers is generally true. Of course, there are exceptions to everything. There are many Uni teachers who probably don’t care about their jobs either, but with that said and with the bar for entry now much higher (i.e. an MA is needed for most positions these days), you will find that the people at the uni level IN GENERAL take their jobs more seriously. Getting an MA is a large investment of time and money, so that group will by nature IN GENERAL be more committed in the end to their jobs. Again, I’m speaking in generalities, and there are exceptions. All that said, before the hagwon teachers go pouting in the corner, take a good hard look at your colleagues (and not just your close friends) who also teach at hagwons. While you may be the exception, there are hundreds more out there will continue to perpetuate the stereotype about hagwon teachers (for better or worse). That won’t change. Continue doing the amazing work you do, and don’t allow others to define who you are.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for the comments. I hope you had a chance to see David’s response as well.
      I appreciate your acknowledgement that we are talking in general terms. 🙂
      I am not sure what it was exactly but that post on FB really rubbed me the wrong way.

      I am not sure if it matters either way but I was thinking that a very solid % of the teachers I respect most in Korea are working in hogwons.

  5. David Harbinson

    I’ll start this with a caveat: I’ve not seen the Facebook thread, I don’t even have a Facebook account, and have no desire to join or visit the page. Typically, I wouldn’t usually respond to a post like this, without seeing the conversation firsthand, but as it is Mike’s blog, I’ll make an exception.

    I’m a hagwon teacher, and have been since 2007. I worked at my first job for a year, and then at my current job since 2008. I sincerely enjoy my job – I wouldn’t have stayed if I didn’t – and I do consider my job a career. I’ve not had a bad experience with either of my employers in Korea. When I first came, my first school actually found me, through TEFL.com. The teacher in charge of recruiting in the school contacted me to introduce the hagwon and said that because I had the Trinity CertTESOL, I was a suitable candidate for the academy. I accepted and thoroughly enjoyed working there for a year. In my current hagwon, all but one of the teachers have a CELTA/Trinity CertTESOL, 4 of the teachers (myself included) have either completed an MA AL/TESOL etc. or are/have been at some point studying towards completing one. In the past 2 years one previous-teacher also completed his, and another left the hagwon to return to the US to study for his MA. In fact, I think almost all of the previous teachers from my current job who I’ve had the pleasure to work with are all still involved in TEFL. @BakJB – perhaps a visit to my hagwon would do you good. I can assure you, you’d need another hand.

    So what’s the point? I’m not trying to show you how far I can piss, rather that there are hagwon teachers out there (here) who do treat what we do as a career and actually want to teach.

    Perhaps my view of hagwon teachers in Korea is skewed? I have been lucky enough (put myself in the position to be lucky enough might be more correct) to work with some great teachers and the company that I keep reflects the type of teacher/person that I am and/or want to be.

    Sure, I realise that there are some teachers (hagwon employees or otherwise) who go out and show themselves up. But then aren’t there those people anywhere in the world? I remember when I first came to Korea (Daegu more specifically) and would see all of the US soldiers out on the town – and quite quickly made some generalisations about US soldiers. Then one evening during the World Cup (of the rugby variety) I was in a bar watching a game and heard an American voice behind me, explaining play-by-play what was going on, surprisingly accurately (another generalisation there I guess). I got to talking to him, and it turns out he was a US solider, on one of the rare occasions he was off base. He was intelligent, articulate and not what I had in my mind of a US soldier. He told me that many of the soldiers don’t need to leave base because they have everything they need there (apart from rugby apparently). So whatever impression we make of the army boys is based on those that we meet.

    I’d say that the same extends to hagwon teachers. If you are making these generalisations, what hagwon teachers are you meeting? What does that say about the type of company you like to keep? Perhaps those teachers who look down upon hagwon teachers need to do so because of something lacking in their lives.

    Up until this year I wasn’t a member of KoTESOL because I didn’t really see the point. I went to the international conference every year (I met quite a few hagwon teachers there as well you know), but never really saw the point of becoming a member. This year, with the national conference being in Daegu, I signed up because it made financial sense – the cost of membership + reduced attendance fees worked out as less. Other than that, I have had no real dealings with KoTESOL, nor do I really have any desire to do so.

    With all this being said, I don’t think that Mike is overreacting at all. I know that the way some view hagwon teachers is like this. It just so happens that I don’t associate myself with those, or the selection of teachers from which they base their generalisations. In all honestly, I don’t really care what anyone else thinks about me. I’m happy in my job, I love what I do, and I love my students.

  6. mikecorea

    Hi David,
    Wow that is great stuff. This was another case where I was so happy i decide to write something I wasn’t really thrilled with. The conversation that came out of it was fantastic so I thank you for making the exception and sharing your thoughts here. I don’t have too much to say in response except thanks. What great comments. Much appreciated.

    I do like your points about how our situations and contexts can impact how we see things. I love your line “Perhaps my view of hagwon teachers in Korea is skewed? I have been lucky enough (put myself in the position to be lucky enough might be more correct) to work with some great teachers and the company that I keep reflects the type of teacher/person that I am and/or want to be” and I think that cuts right to it. Of course there are good and bad (whatever those terms really mean) teachers from each stripe. As with Karuna above I feel a bit sad that your comments will only be read by those who find their way to this page on my blog. Well perhaps at least one person will see them!

  7. Pingback: Why do I continue to work at private academies (hagwons) in Korea? | David Harbinson
  8. Laura

    A lot of what I want to say has been said already, but keeping my mouth shut isn’t always my strong suit, so here we go. Apologies in advance for the novel.

    I’m in a lot of Korea expat/foreigner groups on Facebook. As a member of those groups, I get the pleasure(?) of observing the personalities of my peers. It is true that a lot of people who come here to teach are not what you would call “serious” teachers. In fact, I would go so far as to say that your average foreign English teacher in Korea:

    -is a recent undergrad college graduate with a degree not related to teaching English
    -has had little to no experience teaching anything in a formal context
    -doesn’t really know what he/she wants to do with his/her life yet, and/or
    -has had a difficult time finding a job back home that isn’t hourly/minimum wage
    -primarily came to teach in Korea because he/she likes to travel (vs. because he/she likes the teaching profession)

    I would also say that a minority:

    -don’t take the fact that they are working seriously, and put in minimum effort or less at their jobs
    -are primarily concerned about partying, and treat their time in Korea like a 5th year of frat life

    Of the types of jobs to be had as a foreign English teacher in Korea, I also think it is factual to say that there are practically no university professors or teacher trainers who meet any of those descriptors. Among public school teachers, the first list mostly applies, but that minority of bad apples is becoming practically nonexistent. The teachers who care the least, who are really the worst kind of foreigners in Korea, are pretty much all working for hagwons. Why is this? Quite simply, it is the fact that the bar of qualifications for hagwon teachers is pretty low. If you are a warm-blooded native speaker who managed to pass uni without any federal crimes, you’re in. Public schools are now requiring TESOL certificates with an in-class component on top of that, and due to budget shortages resulting in fewer positions to fill with no reduction in the number of applicants, they are now able to be even pickier with whom they hire. Uni positions require an MA degree plus experience. You know all of this of course, but where I’m going with it is – the more qualified you are, the more likely you are to be a “serious” teacher. And, while not all hagwon teachers are slackers, most slackers are hagwon teachers. These are generalizations, of course, but I do think they are fair.

    Now, having said all of that – when I first came to Korea nearly 3 years ago, I ticked nearly all the boxes in the first list. And I worked at a hagwon. But I came in with a strong work ethic and a desire to be the best teacher I could be. And I figured out pretty quickly that yeah, this is what I really want to do for a career, and I spent a fair amount of my free time on PD, even if that meant simply reading articles. I went on to do my CELTA, and now I’m teaching in an international school, where I am fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues who are also striving to improve their craft. But I have found it difficult to find other like-minded, “serious” teachers here who aren’t university professors. The number of people I talk to and observe online who work in hagwons, who are also invested in what they do, is slim. Additionally, my (admittedly not in-depth) observation has been that most PD opportunities here aren’t centered on young learners, or relevant to the hagwon context.

    The way to ultimately solve this whole problem is for Korean educational institutions on all ends of the spectrum to start attracting and hiring *qualified* teachers. Until that happens, I think we will continue to see these patterns in people who come here to teach. And those of us who are “serious” teachers will continue to struggle to be taken seriously. I think it is unfortunate that those in ivory towers don’t believe there are people like us at the “bottom” of this ladder. That perception needs to change. But as long as it is easy for Joe Frat Boy to get a job here, the more he will continue to color outsiders’ perceptions of us.

    I hope that makes sense.

  9. jdslagoski

    Hi Michael! I just came across this blog post as part of my research project. I totally agree that the ELT community (both researchers and the high falutin teachers) should support hagwon (Korea) and eikaiwa (Japan) teachers. Whether we like it or not, they represent the ELT community to most students and the host country. When these teachers come to conferences for professional support, we should not turn them away. It’s isolating enough to teach English overseas. I love the expression “a rising tide lifts all boats” when considering the professional development of teachers who work in what is considered entry-level positions. Speaking from informal observation, I have encountered as many talented teachers in hagwon and eikaiwa as I have in universities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s