By Gina Nordini
A year after graduating college, I jumped into the world of teaching English abroad. I spent 15 months working at a hagwon in Gwangju, South Korea. Six months after my contract ended, I decided I wanted to go back and teach with the same program again.
There are three things that have stood out in my decision to return. These are good considerations for anyone thinking about private academies in Korea.
Every hagwon differs when it comes to the number of teachers, but many have multiple native English speakers on staff. In my case, the multiple native speakers at my hagwon provided a built-in community ready to assist my transition to life in Korea. My very first night in my new apartment, the other teachers showed up at my doorstep with all the essentials (toilet paper, bottled water, snacks, and even an ethernet cable so I could get in touch with my friends and family back home). The next day, they showed me the best places to buy groceries and apartment furnishings. When I arrived at work, I was met by a team of native speakers and Korean teachers that were more than willing to help. Some were brand new teachers, like me. Others had years of experience. We were all able to be more effective teachers because of two things: the environment of mutual support, and diverse backgrounds.
The number of native speakers and Korean teachers at your hagwon will have a huge impact on your teaching, and on your day-to-day life. A smaller staff will allow you to collaborate more often, and work closely together on student improvement. A larger staff will ensure you have other teachers who understand the good and the bad of teaching in a foreign country, and who can help you along the way. Consider your needs and expectations in a work environment, and be aware of the influence your coworkers will have on your teaching style.
You will hear this again and again—hagwon teachers have more freedom in planning their curriculum than public school teachers. My hagwon provided a very structured curriculum and sufficient class material. However, when the curriculum wasn’t engaging the students, or simply didn’t work, I was given permission to change the class plan. I could go off-book and try different approaches to language lessons. My students got to explore their own interests through essay topics and research projects that didn’t come straight from the provided textbooks. I worked alongside other teachers to create events that allowed the students to show off their progress at the end of semesters. I explored ways to cultivate a passion for English learning among students.
Yes, hagwon teachers typically work more hours than public school teachers, and they may not get as many vacation days. But the trade-off is getting to be creative in the classroom and gaining teaching skills that build on your own abilities. When your lessons aren’t required to fit within a predesigned box, you emerge with skills that are adaptable.
When most people begin applying to teach in Korea, they want to be in Seoul. I was no different. Ultimately, I found myself far south of the capital, in Gwangju. This city has a vibrant international community, fascinating history, amazing hiking trails, and (rumor has it) the best food in the country. It would have been a mistake to limit my job search to one city based on the limited knowledge I had from reading online. The truth is, it is difficult to know a place until you’ve been there. When you’re willing to venture outside the comfort zone of what you think you know, you could end up somewhere better than you ever imagined.
Furthermore, South Korea is a well-connected country. Public transportation is cheap, the trains are speedy, and the intercity bus system is easy to use, even if you only know English. I was able to spend plenty of time in Seoul, as well as dozens of other cities, because most places are located within a few hours of Gwangju. Chances are, you won’t be limited to the city you work in. My recommendation is to look for local group pages on social media for any city you are considering. Do a bit of research, but also be willing to take a chance on a lesser-known location.
These three considerations led me to a teaching position that I enjoyed for over a year, and to which I am happy to return. Every hagwon is different, so you have a good chance of finding one with the right mix of staff size, teaching freedom, and location to fit your personal needs.