Pros and Cons of Teaching English in South Korea

I have been teaching English in South Korea for just over 2.5 years. I spent one year at a private after-school English Academy in Osan, a year teaching at a public High School in Icheon and now I am at a Public Elementary School in Ansan. There are so many pros and cons to both Academy (Hagwon) and Public School jobs.

Hagwon Pros

Working at a private Academy (Hagwon) does have it’s pros, even though many people will tell you to work for a public school. In my opinion, I enjoyed working at a Hagwon because there is a small faculty of teachers. This means that you can get to know your co-workers well, join in on school dinners, make Korean friends and also – depending on your boss, get take-out delivered to your school for lunch. Now, of course this pro will vary, as you may not like your co-workers – but the majority of mine were great and it turned out to be really helpful when I was in a situation where I needed some Korean assistance (buying a cell phone etc).

You will teach your classes by yourself, which I really felt was a con while I was there – but now have realized that it’s perhaps not. Being at a public school now, working with a Korean teacher side-by-side, I often have to hide my anger or frustrations because it is their job to discipline. There were very many times where I would walk out of my Hagwon class in an exceedingly bad mood, but it was still perhaps better to show my emotions at all times, take full responsibility and control your classroom alone.

Another pro, would be that the class sizes are small. You will teach about 4-12 students in one lesson. This also helps you get to know your students, remember their names easily (they are given English names) and help them one-on-one.

Hagwons are also great, because the children are forced to speak English as there is no Korean teacher present. I spent six months teaching 5-6 year old students and they could barely speak a word of English, but they were forced to try. I would play very simple games with them, like drawing objects on the board, teaching the English word and then turning it into a game, with points.

It is also very easy to get a job at a Hagwon, with only a Bachelors Degree. They are abundant and plentiful.

Hagwon Cons

A con of working at a Hagwon, is that you probably will not have your own classroom. At my old Hagwon, we were 8-10 teachers and the office was very small. There were 4 computers, and 2 were mainly for students who needed to do homework or activities. I would often be kicked off the other 2 computers by Korean teachers, as their work was more important than mine (Facebook, Gmail), which is fair but so frustrating. I would have 5 minutes between classes, and would not really have a place where I could sit or even stand.

You will teach about 30-35 hours a week. This is actually insanely high when I look at my current job at a public school. I taught 6-6.5 classes a day out of 7 and so often I did not have a chance to eat or sit down for a long time at work. It does get tiring. After 6+ months, you may get the feeling of  burning out.

Your boss is really a key factor in whether you will have a good time at your Hagwon or not. My bosses were a married couple. The wife spoke English, but the husband did not. When you work at a Hagwon, it is solely a business. You are basically attracting as many kids as you can to come to your school. The boss pays your salary, and thus you may have problems when it comes to receiving your salary. If your school is doing well, and your boss is great – you won’t have any problems with getting paid (on time). However, if your students start leaving the Hagwon, it may very likely go out of business and you are left either not getting paid or without a job. This has happened to my friends in the past. On the other hand, your school may be doing fine yet your boss either forgets or I suppose deems your salary unimportant, and thus you will need to remind them about paying you, as I did 11/12 months at my Hagwon.

Your severance pay is also debatable as I was able to leave my contract 1-2 weeks earlier, for specific reasons and it was conveyed to me that I would only lose x amount of money, do I want to take or leave it. I agreed to take it, and when I checked my bank balance, it was not at all the figure which was conveyed to me. My boss told me “If you see a problem with the amount, please let me know” which is already sketchy. I told her it seemed too little and she gave me some more money, in cash, but it was still not up to standard.

It will be very tricky for you to get a sick day at a Hagwon. Some could even be fired because they were in need of a sick day. I took 1 sick day out of the year, and my boss was OK with that. She took me to the hospital and paid for my bill, which was nice but probably all in vain as they had not set up my medical insurance (illegal). As an English Teacher in Korea, you pay 50% of your medical insurance and your employer will pay the other 50%.

Holidays are basically non-existent at a Hagwon. In my year, I got 5 days of vacation time. 3 days in summer and 2 in winter. My contract stated that I was to get 5 in winter and 5 in summer, excluding weekends – but they told me that weekends did count – and at a Hagwon, a contract means NOTHING.

Public School Pros

You now work for a school with a very large faculty, who teach an array of subjects. That being said, not many at all can speak English. You will not remember their (Korean) names, and they will most likely not know yours. You will, however, have a Korean co-teacher that will teach classes with you – but that again, is Russian Roulette as you may not like your co-teacher. (Korean woman can be very difficult).

You will no longer teach by yourself, but with a Korean teacher. This can actually be considered a pro and a con. Pro – you may have a fantastic co teacher, who is helpful and who is a great teacher and great at discipline. This takes a lot of sweat off your back, as well as the fact that 25% – half of your teaching time is done by him/her.

Class sizes are big. There are about 36-40 students in your class, and that is why having a Korean teacher is also useful. As a teacher who cannot speak their language – this comes in very handy.

You will have your own classroom, with your own computer and better equipment (screen projector etc). I have my own classroom in a basement and I am alone the majority of the time. I quite like the personal space and lack of noise. I am able to do my lessons and whatever else I choose during my off lessons (type my blog, watch movies).

You will have many more free lessons, and often classes are cancelled. I teach, on average, 3 classes a day. Some days, I will have 2, some I may have 4 (5 if you include Club Activity, where we watch an English TV show). I enjoy time off because – who doesn’t? In the English teachers’ world – we call this Desk Warming.

You work for the government, which means – no more late pay days and no problems with not getting paid at all. Your salary will be paid into your account on the same day every month. This has proven to be one of the best things that I have enjoyed while working at a public school – reliability.

You are given 11 paid sick days per year. As you know, I have just broken up with my boyfriend and felt it necessary to take a “personal day”. I called in sick, and was given the day off. This was very  useful for me. I also am studying PGCE through correspondence with a University in South Africa, and I need to write exams in Seoul. My school was perfectly happy to give me the day off to write my exam.

Vacation time is great – you will have 2 weeks off in summer and 2 weeks off in winter. I was able to visit Vietnam in my 2 week summer vacation, as well as Busan (one of the best locations in Korea, by the beach).

Public School Cons 

I am not able to establish relationships with my students, as I see them once a week in a class of 40. It is hard to get to know them.

The students do not have English names, which also makes it harder to maintain a relationship. They are given numbers, not called by name. They will sit at a desk in conjunction with their number. So, number 1 is at the first desk on the left. I find this completely detached, and personally, do not like it.

You will teach with a Korean teacher, and sometimes – they can be very difficult to work with. I have not really had any problems with mine but – they may make you re-do all your lessons, criticize your teaching methods or even belittle you in front of students. Also, they are in charge of discipline. If they are not very stern and strict with students, you will be left with a chaotic class.

The Korean teacher will also translate every single tiny word that you say. This, for me, is a con because I feel the students are not really learning English. They will switch off when I speak, and listen to the Korean teacher explain. They also are not challenged to learn English in that manner nor are they forced to speak English, ever.

It is also much harder to find a Public School job. They are very strict with their list of qualifications. You will need to have a TEFL certificate, as well as a Bachelors Degree. Coupled with that, experience is good but regardless – with a TEFL, Bachelors and experience – you may still be on the bottom pay scale. I am now receiving 100 000 won (about $100) less than I did last year at my private Academy.

To conclude, I usually would recommend a Public School position, because of all the benefits – sick days, vacation, helpful co-teachers but I do however find it less challenging than working at a Hagwon. With all the time off at Public, I do not need to do much work and thus, get bored easily. Yet, after experiencing Public School Elementary this year (2013) I am quite ready to return to a Hagwon, as my co teacher is very difficult and has made this whole experience awful!

One VERY important tip for those who are about to get a Hagwon job – SPEAK TO THE CURRENT OR PREVIOUS FOREIGN TEACHER! Ask them if the pay is always on time, what the school and boss is like and if they are happy there.

Important tip for Public School with Korean co-teachers – the younger the woman, the easier it will be. Older Korean women tend to make your life hell with lessons planning, changing plans, execution and treating you like a bottom bitch.

If you are trying to get a Public School job – I used KORVIA or EICO. They were extremely helpful, I would definitely recommend them.


28 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Teaching English in South Korea

  1. Hi there
    i jus read your article and needed some more info please
    i am intending to come to s korea to teach english will get my degree this year and want to further my studies with unisa and write exams in seoul as well next year wen im ther so how does that work

    and second question with a chemical engineering degree can i do pgce and what wud i need to do

    thank you

    1. HI!

      I am doing a PGCE via UNISA at the moment.
      What exactly do you need help with? You will register with UNISA etc and then you do all your subjects online. When it comes to exam time, you will have to take the day, or some of the day off work to go to the embassy in Seoul and write your exam. I’d suggest doing the PGCE over 2 years, not one because of working full time.

      Check the UNISA website, under Education facility. I am doing PGCE FET (Further Education Training) for High School. I major 2 subjects – you have to check if you took subjects at University that you can teach. Maybe Science or Biology? You choose 2 subjects – you would have to have had those 2 subjects on 2nd or 3rd year level in order to teach them. That is for FET. If you want to do the babies, I am not quite sure how it works. Check it out on UNISA site!

      Hope this helps.

      1. Hi there
        Ok I’m going to get my degree in bcomm acc from ukzn and want to study pgda thru unisa I will register n stuff but how will they know that I gna write exams in korea.
        My wife did chemical engineering and wants to study pgce to teach hi skool maths any info on that
        Sent via my BlackBerry from Vodacom – let your email find you!

      2. So you write in seoul at the korean embassy and they already have your paper with them waiting for you to write. Yes she took maths at 3rd year level but wen I was chekin the unisa website they also want u to do two languages on 2nd year level one more tin I’m not too clued up with pgce but I assume once u done u can teach that subject at a normal school
        Sent via my BlackBerry from Vodacom – let your email find you!

      3. Hi thank you so much for your help jus out of info sake what degree do you have
        Sent via my BlackBerry from Vodacom – let your email find you!

  2. Hi and thanks for the report on teaching in Korea!

    My question is definitely premature, since it probably wouldn’t come to that, but I want to prepare for the possibility.

    My girlfriend LOVES Korea, was there a couple of times, speaks Korean well, and would very much like to earn her Master’s degree at a Korean university one day. Whether it will come to that or not is completely open at this point, since she has to earn her Bachelor first. (she’s not a teacher, btw)

    I’m a teacher with a Master’s degree. My degree allows me to teach at grammar schools and comprehensive schools. My subjects are Biology and Chemistry. I’ve finished my Master with an excellent grade (1.3), so that’ll be no problem I hope. I can speak English fluently, since it’s taught as first foreign language here, but have no specific certificate for that.

    We’re both Germans. I have agreed that I would come with her to Korea, in the event that she earns her Master’s degree there. This would take about 2 years, but given her love for the country, she’d probably want to stay there permanently. I, for my part, have little knowledge about Korea (yet), but would of course want to keep our relationship. I’m generally open to the idea of accompaning her, should it come to it. I find Asian culture fascinating in general, and would of course learn the Korean language and do my best to fit into the Korean culture.

    As I said, this question is premature, but I want to ask it anyway, since asking doesn’t hurt.

    My question: I have read from certain sources that Korean teachers who teach at public schools are required to pass a central test before they are hired, even after having earned their university degree. This test (employment test administered by the Metropolitan and Provincial Offices of Education) is generally believed to be very hard. Does a foreigner, who wants to emigrate to South Korea, have to take this test, too? I sadly could not find any piece of information about it.

    Like I said, I don’t know if it’ll ever come to this, but I wanted to ask someone who really is a teacher in Korea so that I’ll know what to expect.

    Kind regards and thanks in advance! 🙂

    1. Hi Sebastian,

      Thanks for the read and the comment.

      The information that you have is for subject teachers – not ESL teachers. For Korean natives to become a teacher, they do need to do some kind of test. But, I only have knowledge on how to become an ESL teacher. Do you want to teach ESL or be like a legit teacher in Korea?

      1. Thanks for your answer! 🙂

        In the event that my girlfriend and I would one day emigrate to Korea, I’d want to teach Biology and Chemistry, so legit teacher it is…though I could imagine myself teaching ESL, too, if the school has a need for it.

      2. Ok, well I’d assume you’d have to teach Biology and chemistry at an international school then seeing as you have no knowledge of Korean. But, ESL is and will be around for a good few years to come. For someone who is and has practiced being a qualified teacher, though – I think you would find ESL very unchallenging and maybe even boring. For ESL – you don’t need to write a test.

      3. Sadly, I just learned that one has to have a citizenship from an English speaking country to teach ESL, which isn’t the fact for Germany.

        But you mentioned international schools in Korea – that’s a start. My girlfriend mentioned this to me. Do you know whether I would have to take a central test in order to be hired there, as an biology and chemistry teacher? Or could you ask someone who knows?

        I can’t stress enough how premature this is … probably years in the future, if it ever comes to it. I hope you can understand my desire to know whether I would realistically be able to work as a teacher and make a living there. Korea is my girlfriend’s dream, always has been since her childhood, and I would gladly accompany her if it’s possible.

        So if you could somehow get this information, I’d be very delighted. I’ll be patient and wait. 🙂

      4. Thanks! 🙂

        Sadly, Germany is not one of the official English speaking countries (like e.g. Canada, Ireland, South Africa, …). Native language is German, and English is taught as first foreign language in secondary schools.

      5. Yes, but I was wondering if you maybe studied something in another country that speaks English. Why don’t you google KORVIA and ask them about it. They are the best recruiting agency for ESL teachers in Korea.

      6. Ah, now I understand! 😀

        I studied in Germany, for the entire length of my studies.

        KORVIA states on their website: I would have to be a citizen of the USA, Canada, UK, Republic of Ireland, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand to be able to teach as an ESL in Korea. ( So, no English teaching for me.

        There’s a German school in Seoul, the one my girlfriend told me about. This would be an opportunity for me, because I could just simply apply there. They require the same certificates/degrees as any other grammar school in Germany, teach in the same way (no rigid memorizing-testing-memorizing-testing), and I could teach my subjects there. Although the chance of getting into their program might be very slim, I would of course try.

        I’d still be interested in knowing whether teaching at a public school requires taking the hard test by the government that I mentioned. I’ve read that Korean students prepare for it through their whole studies, instead of learning their subjects. (don’t know whether this is true) If it’s true, I’d probably never make it through the test. So it would be interesting to know if it’s required! 😉 But like I said, the answer can wait, take your time.

        Have a nice day! 🙂

      7. I’ve spoken with my Korean friend who said that if you want to be a teacher of biology and chemistry then you will have to study education at a Korean college and then take the test. So it’s almost impossible. But you are right, you can teach at the (German) international school.

      8. Thank you very much for asking! 🙂

        If you don’t mind, I have another question. There seem to be some “alternative schools” in Korea, which are neither public schools, nor hagwons. They teach in alternative ways, more like what education is like in western cultures.

        Do the restrictions (studying at a Korean university, taking the test) apply to them as well?

      9. No problem! Then I’ll just inform myself about that aspect when and if the time comes.

        Thank you very much for your comments, they were very helpful for me! 🙂 Have a nice time in Korea.

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s