Koreans have got food delivery down to a fine art. Order a bowl of kimchi jjigae, and it will arrive piping hot alongside a serving of rice and an array of side dishes. All of this deliciousness is served in real Continue reading
I’ve always had an appreciation for colorful language: idioms, proverbs, slang, regional dialects. They’re proof that language is about more than communicating; it’s about sharing something — a history, a wink, common ground. Studying Korean has been a challenge, but learning these little nuggets make me feel a little less like an outsider.
My friend and language exchange partner, Hui-yeong, and I love to compare common proverbs in English in Korean. For example, the Korean version of “The grass is always greener on the other side” is Continue reading
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been chronically late. I’m usually no more than five or ten minutes late, but my life has been punctuated by more dramatic examples: Continue reading
I’m often asked how I got into teaching English in South Korea. As a senior in college, my roommate was an international student from Incheon. Mil-al and I became close friends. My family welcomed her home for Thanksgiving, and she taught me about Korea. The first Korean words I learned were 건배 (cheers) and 딸부자집 (house that’s rich with daughters).
As graduation approached, Mil-al was the one who suggested I look into teaching English in South Korea. I did some research and was surprised that the only job requirement was a bachelor’s degree in any field! I’d always wanted to live abroad, but I wasn’t quite ready to make the leap.
After graduation, I accepted a position as a newspaper reporter in Huntington, Ind. (population 17,000). My beats were county government and education. I visited schools and interviewed inspiring teachers nearly everyday. I soon decided that teaching and living abroad was something I wanted to explore, so in 2012 I left my job and moved to Daegu, South Korea.
Three and a half years later, I’m still living in Daegu. After finally tying the knot in May, Chris and our beagle, Clark, joined me. We are currently enjoying our first year as newly weds in South Korea! Earlier this year, I was asked to reflect on my experience as a hagwon (private academy) instructor for the Daegu Foreign Language Education Association newsletter. You can read more about my experience below.
The following is edited from my article “My Hagwon Experience” for the Daegu Foreign Language Education Association newsletter.
When I meet other English teachers in Korea, the conversation tends to go like this: “Where are you from?” “How long have you lived in Korea?” And, eventually…
“EPIK or hagwon?”
My answer – hagwon – is often met with “How’s that going?” accompanied by a look of curiosity and sympathy. Hagwons have a bad reputation among native English speakers and Koreans alike, but the stereotypes – overbearing directors, indifferent teachers, lethargic students – don’t tell the whole story.
The good, the bad and the ugly
No two hagwons are alike, and I’ve had jobs on both sides of the spectrum over the last three years. I landed my first job through a recruiting agency. I found that I enjoyed teaching, and I became close friends with my fellow teachers. However, the director didn’t honor the terms of my contract; I was never enrolled for health insurance or the national pension. Also, my passport and alien registration card were held hostage for the first three months lest I attempt a “midnight run.”
Looking back at my first year, there are a lot of things I wish I had done differently, but I was inexperienced and didn’t know where to turn for help. At first, I assumed that this was just how things were done in Korea, but after talking with other English teachers, I started to realize that my situation was far from typical. After a year, I turned down an offer to renew my contract and flew back to the United States.
Although my first hagwon job had left a bad taste in my mouth, I was determined to return to Korea in pursuit of a more positive experience. This time, I decided to forgo a recruiter and turned instead to social media, pursuing leads and asking for recommendations in Facebook groups like “Daegu English Teachers.”
It wasn’t long before I received a positive recommendation for a hagwon that was looking for a teacher. Soon after, I had a great interview with the director over Skype. She even put me in contact with two former teachers in case I had any questions. I accepted the job, and two months later, I was on a plane back to Korea.
I couldn’t be happier with my current job. My director encourages open and honest communication, and our relationship is defined by mutual trust and respect. Questions about my contract or concerns about my housing are addressed promptly and directly. My coworkers are helpful and supportive, and I feel involved in workplace decisions and activities. I recently renewed my contract, and I’m looking forward to another year.
A day in the life
The differences between EPIK and hagwon jobs are, quite literally, like night and day. The differences that define teaching at a hagwon are the evening hours, smaller class sizes and the absence of a Korean co-teacher.
I teach elementary school students, and my classes generally have no more than eight students. I like teaching smaller classes because they provide me with more opportunities to interact with each student. I can’t imagine teaching 30 or more students!
Outside the classroom, my duties include grading papers, preparing tests, writing monthly progress reports for each student and lesson planning. I teach a series of storybooks, but there’s a lot of room to supplement my lessons with practical activities and creative projects.
Lesson planning has been a wonderful creative outlet. After reading a story about making tacos, I made tortillas with my class. After reading about a crayon factory, we made our own crayons. And after reading about a TV news program, we wrote a script and filmed our own! Recently, we filmed a cooking show called Korean Kids Cook. I spend a lot of time searching for fun activities online. Some great resources have been Dave’s ESL Café and Pinterest. I also think it’s important to have a few games up your sleeve that require little or no preparation for those times when the lesson is finished early.
Tackling common challenges
No job, especially teaching, comes without its challenges. Teaching demands flexibility. It’s not uncommon to get surprised with a new student or a make-up class or a change in schedule. Workplace communication and classroom management also rank high among challenges faced by hagwon teachers.
Open communication among coworkers is key to a healthy workplace. Korean hagwon staff already have a lot on their plate, including phone calls with parents and preparing students for exams, but it’s important that foreign teachers feel like their voices are heard.
Implementing discipline can be a challenge when the teacher and the students don’t speak the same language. My advice is to make sure students understand your expectations. And if you’re not already using a system of positive reinforcement, work with your hagwon to put one in place. My school already has a great system set up. Students can earn stamps for completing homework and good behavior. They can then use stamps to buy snacks from the school store.
Planning a lesson for a class of students with varying levels can be frustrating, but remember that patience and encouragement are a teacher’s most important assets. The best advice I can give new teachers is to take a Korean class. It has really helped me see the classroom through my students’ eyes.
Teaching is an adventure; no two days are alike. It has definitely taught me to think on my feet. Each child learns differently, so I’m constantly trying different approaches to find out what works and what doesn’t. Interacting with my students and seeing them learn has been such a rewarding experience. To my fellow teachers: Have fun and don’t forget to celebrate the small achievements. It’s through these small footsteps that we reach success.
UPDATE: Hagwons are a fickle business. Since the publication of this article, my school has suffered a series of financial hardships and can no longer afford to employ a full-time foreign teacher. While I’m disappointed that I can’t finish my second contract at my current school, I appreciate everything my coworkers and director have done for me. I recently accepted a great new position where I’ll be teaching fewer hours so that I can focus on writing. Stay tuned to The Naked Foreigner for new articles on food, travel, Korean culture and more!