By: Rachel Corseri
I think it’s about time to talk about what I spend most of my time doing: my job. I have spent most of my time working, so I have certainly gained the insight to speak at length on this subject. It is also the reason why my blog posts seem few and far between (but hopefully that will change next year!). I do not have a job that I would call typical for a person who wants to teach English in Korea. I work at a hagwon (학원), which is a private academy, usually focusing on one particular subject. There are hagwons for math, history, piano, and probably about every other subject you can imagine. English hagwons seem to be pretty popular, and many towns have at least one. For kindergartners, it almost serves as a daycare with English thrown in. For elementary schoolers, it is an extra series of classes that kids take after their normal school day is finished. Korean studies are intense, and I even know some kids that go on to a math or piano hagwon after they’re finished at my school. Phew, god speed, kids. Anyway, I’d like to spotlight some of the experiences unique to working at a hagwon. Why a roller coaster? Because this job has its highs and lows, it’s intense, and it never lets up. Let’s get this ride started!
THE APPLICATION PROCESS
This one was a bit unusual, because I went through a lot of the process of applying to a public school before I knew that I’d end up at a hagwon. I managed to get into a program called GEPIK, and from there I was given a few options. I was emailed about several different schools, and I had interviews to see if any would work out. I have to mention, one phone interview I had was particularly creepy and uncool (at a different school than the one I currently work at). This man wanted full body pictures of me, and told me that he expected me to visit him at his house. All my stranger danger red flags immediately went up, but I thought maybe I was just being culturally insensitive. Turns out nope, that guy was just a creepy, creepy man. I obviously turned that down, although the job seemed guaranteed (ew). Good to note: cultural sensitivity aside, always listen to your inner weirdo alert! Later, I had a nice interview with the head teacher of my hagwon at the time. It went really well, and I thought the job and the teacher seemed super cool (she really is, by the way). So I decided to go for it when I passed the interview, and boom I had a job! I submitted many of the same documents I had handy already (letters of recommendation, transcripts, and the like) and I was on my way! For the whole story of my first few days of work, please check out my other blog post, “Frouple Deployment Complete: Rachel’s First Week in Korea”.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
I think my hours and schedule are what makes my job the hardest. They are definitely the reason that I sometimes get home from work just to immediately plop on my bed and await the next grueling day. I work from 9am to 7pm on average, meaning that I have 10 hour days and 50 hour weeks. It truly is a full time job, and I must say this is the first time in my life that I understand what that means. It can get very tiring and intense, especially if I decide to do anything fun with a weeknight (Fun nights, instant regret in the morning). Allow me, if you will, to take you through a typical day of work. I start at 9am and have an hour to prepare for the day. Except on Tuesdays, when I am in charge of “greeting,” which means I need to sing a couple of songs with the kids and get them to their classes from 9:45-10:00. My first class is at 10am, and depending on the day, I might have one class period in the morning which serves as a break. However, it is not really a break, as my boss has made it clear that he wants us to work during this time. Morning is for kindergarten, and each class lasts 35 minutes. At noon we have lunch break, which is actually an hour long break yay! We have a resident cook/grandma who cooks our lunches in the kitchen, and I eat at my desk. It’s a pretty sweet setup. After lunch, there are two more kindergarten classes, then the little ones go home. At this point, things start to get hectic, as the elementary schoolers pour in and it’s time to start the more advanced classes. Elementary classes start at 2:30pm, and they are 45 minutes each. Depending on the day, I teach between 4 and 5 elementary classes. Phew! These are certainly difficult, as the classes are one right after the other with no breaks. However, the kids are older and their English is at a higher level, so it’s a trade-off. I finally finish, and what happens at the end changes depending on the day of the week. I might have more prep time, or a teacher’s meeting. Finally, at 7pm, we’re allowed to leave. I am always exhausted at the end of the day, and it is always so nice to take that elevator ride out of there. Freedom!! Until the next day anyway.
WHAT KEEPS ME GOING (MY KIDS)
My kids are hands down the best part of my job, and they keep me coming back to work. Maybe that means I really do deserve to be a teacher in some capacity? They affirm that I am doing something good here, and something that will have a lasting impact. My kids are usually great, and only a fraction of them give me a hard time. I really do love them, and I have to admit that I have a few favorites as well. Because this is an English hagwon, the kids have are at a very high level in general. After a semester or two they can communicate at a basic level, and by the time they graduate to elementary school, the level they achieve is quite astonishing. Also, they all have an English name, which makes remembering them all much easier. To be honest, I remember almost none of their Korean names, so it’s good that I have an alternative! A few of the kids have formed a special bond with me, and I feel we are linked in spirit somehow. We don’t need to talk too much, because we just understand each other so well after spending every day together. Some students make sure to see me and hug me when they get to school, which keeps me going throughout the day. Even the kids that I feel like strangling at times have their moments where they are sweet and loving. On the whole, they really are a great group of little ones! I will certainly miss them (and not much else) when I leave
THE PEOPLE I WORK WITH
I have an interesting relationship with the other teachers at my hagwon, because I don’t actually have co-teachers. In most schools, especially public schools, you will work with a co-teacher and teach classes together. Check out Kelly’s blog about working at a Korean Public School for more information! At my school, I am in charge of all of my own classes. If something goes wrong or we fall behind in the textbook, it’s my fault. But also, I have more opportunity to use my own teaching style, and work with the kids directly. This definitely has its pros and cons. The Korean teachers will mostly get involved when it comes to discipline, because I can send the kids to them when they misbehave. I will also ask them for help when I have questions, and sometimes they need my help too! It is truly a give and take relationship with the other teachers, and I really like them. We are all in the same boat, so we have a camaraderie which makes working more enjoyable. Sometimes we buy coffee or other snacks for each other, and it is a firmly held Korean belief that everything should be shared. Especially food sharing is considered to strengthen friendships. Because of this, fruit, cookies, chips, or other snacks are given to me throughout the day, which is always a nice pick me up!
My boss… hmm, what to say about my boss. He certainly isn’t a creep, or even a bad person. Whenever we have a work dinner outside of the workplace, he is pretty cool, and I think he must be a good person when he’s not working. However, in a work context, he is very, very demanding. He expects too much out of his employees, especially his foreign teachers. I will explain more in the next section, but suffice it to say that we are worked very hard. It seems that I never have time to catch my breath before there is something else he just thought of that I need to do. He also expects a lot from me because I am in charge of the class that his daughter attends. He definitely shows favoritism to this class (I wonder why), which adds extra stress to the position. Additionally, there is the issue of days off. I get three sick days, but I need to provide a doctor’s note and advance notice, which is pretty tough. Also, I get five vacation days in the winter and five in the summer. Catch is, the vacation days are on his terms. They are non-negotiable, and they are whenever he wants to go on vacation and take a trip. This is a definite low, as all of my days off have been at different times than Kelly. So much for planning week trips together. Oh well, there’s always next year.
Hoo boy, where do I start. First, I have my everyday responsibilities of teaching 8-9 classes, and keeping up with the textbook. Staying on schedule with textbooks is of utmost importance in my school. Next, two of the elementary school classes need to write an essay every week. Every other week, I must write them a sample essay. Also, every month there is one class or another that needs to recite speeches, or do speaking tests. If it is a class I’m responsible for, I need to write a one page speech for each student, and questions for the speaking test. We have dinner class every Tuesday and Thursday, which is alright except I am always stressed out when we need to walk to or from the restaurant. I always worry about safety and possible problems that I wouldn’t know how to handle. Thank goodness, so far so good! At least I get a free meal out of it!
I also need to write two class schedules each month, and there are these things called outings. I take two classes on outings each month, in which we go to a cafe, and I take a video of them reciting the mini script they needed to learn about a given subject. This part is stressful as well, since my boss and the parents watch these videos to see how well I’m performing as a teacher. I have not gotten many complaints over the months, so I must be doing something right! No complaints mean praise in this job. I must also grade all the tests I give and edit everything the Korean teachers write in English. Finally, the worst parts are probably writing speeches for the Speech Contest and writing report card comments. Speech Contest is once a year, in which every single elementary student must recite a page-long speech. I have about 75 students to write speeches for over the next month or so, and I have to say, I’m not looking forward to it (as of this blog post, I’ve gotten started, and I’m trying to do 4 or 5 a day). Report card comments are every month, and they range in difficulty. It all depends on how many classes I need to write about. Mercifully, it’s sometimes only one class. However, there are also months that I need to write a paragraph about each student that I teach. This is quite a task, and probably my biggest source of exhaustion. I’ve never done so much writing and editing in my life! All part of the job.
I will keep this section short and sweet, because most extra activities are field trips, and I want to save that for another blog post. For now, let’s just say that I’ve been to some strange, interesting places! I actually enjoy the field trips quite a bit, even though they can be tiring. As long as the kids have a good time, I do as well. The other extra activity is Cooking Day, which is like a mini field trip. Once a month, we take our kindergartners to the supermarket, pick up ingredients, then return to school to cook a lunch item together. “Cooking” usually means assembling something like sandwiches or spring rolls. These are nice as well, since I can spend some time just having fun and making food with the kids. It serves as some nice bonding time.
RECOMMENDATIONS AND WARNINGS
I definitely don’t want to say that working at a hagwon is all bad, or that all hagwons are terrible places. Even my own job is fun sometimes, and it does have its high points. The good parts of this roller coaster include great kids, field trips, and bonding with my coworkers. There are scary, low points as well, which is mostly the long hours, relentless succession of classes, and endless writing assignments. It is nonstop and intense, and I go through quite a wild ride every day.
If you are planning to teach English in Korea, my advice is to keep all these things in mind if you are considering working at a hagwon. Make sure you understand the work hours, your responsibilities, and how days off are handled. There are some great hagwons with great bosses, and hagwons usually pay well. However, be wary. I would recommend going for a public school, at least for your first year of teaching English in Korea. At least read both Kelly and my blog posts about our respective jobs, and decide for yourself which job sounds more in tune with your teaching style. If you decide to work at a hagwon, just remember that it’s like a roller coaster ride with constant work, but also more free reign and personal responsibilities at times. If you want to be in charge, cautiously search for the hagwon that’s right for you. Whatever you choose, enjoy the ride!
I will leave you with some of my favorite parts of the job. Through it all, good to have these little passengers with me on this roller coaster! ❤