What Is a Hagwon and Should You Work at One?
If you’ve done any research into teaching abroad you’ve likely noticed some countries place a heightened importance on education as a whole. South Korea is one of those places and entire industries have been established to support students of all ages that are looking for supplemental learning opportunities outside of their normal schools. One such business aimed at providing English classes every day of the week is known as a hagwon.
Note: I worked in a hagwon during my year in Korea and loved it! You can read more about my experience here.
What Is a Hagwon?
Hagwons are private education companies that cater to students ranging from young children to adults. The word itself, pronounced just like it is written in English, translates from Korean to “for-profit, private institute.” Hagwons exist to cater to students looking for additional English lessons outside of their normal schools or jobs and therefore tend to operate during nontraditional hours like the nighttime and weekend.
Hagwons are designed with the intention of fostering a more personalized level of learning through smaller class sizes. Classes are usually filled with dedicated and driven students that are paying premiums for extra help and are therefore super motivated to improve their abilities or simply reinforce what they have learned previously.
Some classes may also be comprised of struggling students looking to gain a foothold in their everyday curriculum and the smaller teacher-to-student ratio benefits them as well.
What to Expect From a Hagwon
First and foremost, it’s important to know that hagwons are a business. If you choose to work for one, understand that you will not be working with the public education system/government. This comes with some drawbacks, ranging on the scale from mild to extreme wishing-you-had-never-even-started-working-there regret.
Younger hagwon students often attend regular schooling with their hagwon classes falling in the late afternoon or early morning. Older students, including adults, typically attend during the evening and it’s common for classes to run until 9 or 10pm to accommodate everyone.
Because of the driven nature of the students and the fees they pay for lessons, hagwons almost always require their teachers be native English speakers. Luckily, they also hire applicants with little to no experience and typically offer training based on their curriculum and methods. While the application process may be tedious, working for a hagwon is a great way for first-time teachers to get a feel for ESL in Korea.
Benefits of Working in a Hagwon
The plus side of working in the private sector is that one often makes considerably more money at a hagwon compared to a public school (again, great for travellers, more money in a shorter amount of time). The number of hagwons operating in Korea is staggering with some blocks boasting multiple hagwons chains. Thanks to their abundance, there are ample job opportunities and a wide variety of establishments to choose from.
Another bonus about working in a hagwon is the additional expenses that are covered by the business – oftentimes the schools will pay for your housing and reimburse your airfare. Beneath the surface perks of working at a hagwon, you’re likely to have a greater say in the age group that you instruct (children, teens, or adults), as well as time. Since hagwons have classes running all day long, you can often choose to work mornings or afternoons. You will still have a full-time job, working the average 30-40 hours per week, so the worries of making ends meet should be nullified.
Downsides of Working in a Hagwon
Teachers working in the private sector are covered by fewer protective policies than teachers who work in public education. There is also the ever-present risk of either incoming or sudden business failure. If the business fails, you then run the risk of dealing with much more dire issues such as difficulty renewing or maintaining a visa, potential threats of eviction, and also the rare possibility of being shorted a paycheck.
Another common complaint among teachers who have previously worked in hagwons is the limited vacation time as public school teachers receive more vacation days than hagwon employees. That’s not to say vacation time is null at hagwons, rather all national holidays are recognized and many hagwons will offer sick days plus a week off in both the summer in winter. Being private entities, all hagwons are different and operate with their own set of rules and regulations. It’s up to you as the potential employee to research what values you would like to see expressed in potential employers (pro tip: speak to current teachers). If you’re willing to work for six months straight through, you’ll be receiving a higher salary than if you were to work for eight months at a public school, plus have more time for yourself to travel and explore the country.
Are Hagwons the Place for You?
Hagwons are perfect for teachers who love to travel or are looking for a job in Korea with limited experience. During your time spent teaching at the hagwon, and depending largely on your personal schedule, vacation time can seem a bit limited when comparing them to working at traditional schools. However, they are great for those seeking to travel and spend a relatively short amount of time working in the country. The seasons are slightly shorter than the traditional school term and ensure you don’t get tied up working for one small place for a year-plus like other more traditional schools. That being said, if you really enjoy working with a hagwon, you do have the ability to renew your teaching contract and stay for a longer period of time.
The pros and cons of working for a hagwon in South Korea must be tallied and weighted by you. If you’re looking for a more intimate classroom setting and are interested in having a higher pay with a shorter time commitment, then hagwons may be perfect for you. Conversely, if you are a seasoned teacher or interested in maximum time off, it might be better to consider one of the public school programs.