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Teach English in Korea: Public School Or Private Hagwon?

From the get-go, there was never a question in my mind that I would only come to Korea if I worked in the public school system, known as EPIK (English Program In Korea).  After speaking with former teachers and watching a number of Youtube videos, I narrowed my efforts to applying for the EPIK program only.  There is no correct choice, or better choice for that matter.  However, there is a better choice for you and for me individually.  My choice was EPIK, though there are many who work in hagwons and have great experiences to tell.  However, since this blog is my little piece of the world, I’d like to share with you the reasons why I chose to go with the public school system’s EPIK program.

First, here are some very basic and general distinctions between the two worlds of teaching in Korea:

Ø         Public school is South Korea’s department of education.  Just like any other country.  It’s wholly supported by the South Korean government.  EPIK is a specialized program within the department of education.
Ø         Hagwon (학원) is a private business entity whose business is education.  Every Hagwon will be run differently and contracts will vary from school to school. 

Better Work Schedule:

  1. R&R; – The main reason I chose to go with public schools is because of the schedule.  I wanted to have my nights and weekends free so I could do the activities I like to do or just relax during the evenings.  Trying to fit in free time activities somewhere in the middle of the day would be uncomfortable for me.  For some, it’s the only way to live.  I also wanted to keep my regular sleep schedule.  By this I mean time to ramp down in the evening, eat, surf the internet and chill until I fall asleep.  I know that if I came home at 10 or 11 p.m. I would still be wound up and not be able to fall asleep.  If you don’t teach morning classes, then it doesn’t matter since you can sleep in – again a personal choice.
  2. Set Number of Classes – public school teachers are responsible for teaching 22 standard classes per week (those during normal school hours), plus some before/after school conversation classes.  Most teachers teach a total of about 25 classes per week.  That’s the requirement of the program.  However, hagwons may expect a teacher to teach more classes.  In fact, I know some teachers that teach many more classes per week than I do.  For example, EPIK teachers teach 4-5 classes total each day including open conversation classes.  My friend teaches between 7-9 classes each day.  That’s a lot!  The number of classes taught can also change without notice in a hagwon.  Public schools won’t change unless for a very unique circumstance.
  3. Overtime – If you do teach more classes for any special reason, you will be paid overtime in public schools.  There’s no guarantee of receiving overtime pay with a hagwon from what I’ve heard.  Also, if a new program arises, EPIK will pay you for taking part in it.  For example, I also teach Saturday classes for a new EPIK initiative called SAM (Science, Art, Math in English).  For that, all teachers are paid above and beyond their standard, contractual pay.

Job Stability:

There are instances of hagwons closing prematurely or even unannounced.  Remember, they are private businesses and if they don’t generate enough profit to cover payroll, rent, and utilities they have to close their doors.  Teachers have been left in the cold and without pay because of these unfortunate (though rare) circumstances.  It was still a risk I didn’t want to take being on the opposite side of the globe.  Public schools are backed by government funding, so this won’t happen.
That being said, EPIK/GEPIK teaching opportunities are slowly shrinking.  In Seoul, the number of jobs was cut drastically.  However, EPIK will never cut a teacher prematurely and leave them to fend for themselves if emergency cutbacks need to be made.  They will hire less new teachers, and try to move a current teachers to a new location to finish out their contract.
The EPIK program is likely not going anywhere.  It is part of the South Korean educational curriculum and will be so for many years to come.  Though cutbacks may occur (as in any other industry), they will not allow foreign teachers to be stranded.  It only makes sense to take care of their EPIK teachers to protect the reputation of the program so they can continue to attract qualified talent in the future.  I have seen no evidence of anything other than this.  EPIK is a solid, professional, respectable program and employment opportunity.

Contract Consistency:

There is only one contract in the EPIK program.  That means the thousands of other teachers will be familiar with the same details in their contract.  If you have a question, you can usually just ask any EPIK teacher and the information will be the same.
Each hagwon has a slightly different way of operating and this can be reflected in the way the contract is penned.  Though “essentially” similar, if you have a specific question about your contract, you may be alone in trying to find an answer.
As I watched videos and sent emails to people already in Korea, perused forums, etc., I started to realize that this was another potential issue I wanted to avoid.

No Sales/Marketing/PR to Attract New Students:

This is one topic I had heard about and still hear about that really makes me glad I went the public school route.  Sometimes in order to attract new business, teachers will be asked to have after school open houses, hand out flyers, or any marketing effort that can bring in new business.  All with the stipulation that a bonus would be received – sales and marketing 101.  That was just something I didn’t want to be part of coming to Korea for the first time.  I knew that if there was one thing I didn’t want looming over my head was trying to make numbers or increase enrollment.

Better Choice for References and Credentials:

Aside of work schedule and avoiding marketing pressures, the biggest reason I went with public schools is for future references and credentials.  Everbody everywhere knows what a public school system is.  There’s no need to explain.  If I had a reference letter from EPIK and my school, it would be easily verifiable and recognizable.  I felt that if some horror story happened and the hagwon I worked for closed I’d have no way to get references for future plans.  Most hagwons are likely set up to provide professional references and I’m sure they do every year, but I just felt more comfortable going the EPIK/public school route.

The Flip Side:

There are benefits to going with the hagwon too.

  1. Firstly, hagwons tend to pay more on average than public schools.  The horror stories of closings and things of that nature are fewer than one might think.  Most are reputable, successful businesses and I’m sure there are vetting processes by the government before someone can just go open a private academy.  Hagwons are widespread in Korea, so you gotta take the bad with the good sometimes.
  2. Secondly, hagwon opportunities are also more readily available throughout the year and if you’re looking to get started right away, you’re sure to find a hagwon opening somewhere at any time.  Public schools have only two intake times – spring and fall.  If you’re anxious to get up and go, then a hagwon is your best bet.
  3. Lastly, if public school openings continue to shrink there will be a growing demand for hagwons.  With or without the EPIK program, it has become clear to me that Korean parents absolutely want English taught to their children by authentic English speaking teachers.  If they can’t have it during regular schools hours via the EPIK program, they will look to a hagwon for the same thing.  This demand will be picked up by current hagwons, or additional ones will be opened.

Is one better than the other?  Yes, for me.  But not for everyone.  As my brother likes to say, “that’s why there are different flavors of ice cream at the store”.  Some people do prefer hagwons for their own reasons. For the reasons I wrote above though, going with the public school system has definitely been the right choice for me.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TEVyPWeh8I

Comments

  1. Thank you for thinking about and posting this. I did some research and learned something fairly similar but this is the most thoroughly laid out post on the topic which I have seen.

    I like public better too. I can stand to make less money for a more stable and less jumbled position. I would really like to go to Busan and as such, due to shrinking employments options, might end up going private.

  2. I'm glad it was helpful. Thanks for commenting.

    I hope you get into Busan – it's the best city imo. Good luck.

  3. Hi Thomas, did you go through a placement agency or did you apply directly to EPIK? Could you share a few details about your application process? Maybe I missed a previous blog about it; I checked through a few others but didn't see you speak to this aspect.

    Thanks for your blog,
    Mantis

  4. Hi, Mantis. I did go through a recruiter called I Love ESL. At the time, all applicants had to go through a recruiter. The topic of application process is a long one. Once you contact a recruiter, they will guide you through getting all your documentation together in a timely fashion to meet intake deadlines. If you are interested in moving forward with it, start with getting your criminal record check and passport now. Those are typically the things that slow the process down – it did for me. Also, start now reaching out to potential references. Everything else is straight forward. Good luck!

  5. Hello!

    I have recently started my teaching journey and I was wondering is the only way to teach over in Korea through a recruiting agency? Are there other options? Thank you so much!

  6. No not at all. In fact, you can apply for EPIK directly through their website now. It's a detailed process though, so approach that method with caution.

    For all other jobs (hagwons, private academies, universities, etc) you can find postings on Dave's ESL Cafe, Teacherport, Teachaway.com, and sites of that nature. Good luck in your pursuits.

    Tom

  7. No not at all. In fact, you can apply for EPIK directly through their website now. It's a detailed process though, so approach that method with caution.

    For all other jobs (hagwons, private academies, universities, etc) you can find postings on Dave's ESL Cafe, Teacherport, Teachaway.com, and sites of that nature. Good luck in your pursuits.

    Tom

  8. Hi Tom, Me again. What's the status update on cutbacks to the EPIK program since you made this vid in 2012, about 1 year ago? Is the competition much harder now?
    My understanding is that EPIK places in hogwans as well as public schools….?
    Would you share, or point to your blog that tells us about your professional background and teaching experience (if you care to share this)? Thanks! Gina

  9. Hi Tom,
    Any other recs for recruiters? I've been in contact with EICO.
    Thanks! Gina

  10. Hello. Things are definitely more competitive now because there are less positions with the same, if not more, # of applicants. I wasn't aware of EPIK placing in hagwons, but that could very well be.

    I had no teaching experience prior to coming to Korea. I spent 15 years in the software development industry. Now I have TESOL and business English certifications and am half way through obtaining my teaching credential in my home state of Florida. Also, just ending my second year here, about to start #3.

  11. Hi, you can only go through 1 recruiter to get into EPIK. Don't double dip or they'll give you the boot. I would also recommend Teach Away and Footprints Recruiting. They are among the largest recruiters out there, very professional and have always been willing to answer any questions of mine. Teach Away essentially has a monopoly on all public school jobs in the Middle East. They have a close relationship with the Ministry of Education there.

  12. Hi Tom, thanks for all this invaluable info. I recently finished a TESOL course and I’m thinking about going and teaching in Korea (hopefully in Jeju) for a year or two. Like you and other people have said on other websites, getting at a public school sounds like the best bet. But it sounds like you really need to apply a good deal of time in advance, like 5, 6 or 7 months ahead of when teaching jobs are going to be starting in either September or March. It sounds like it’s not impossible to get a job if you apply later but then you are less likely to only get a job at a hagwon. So in your experience/opinion would it be possible for me to get a job at a hagwon for six months and then get a job at a public school?

    • I think getting into a hagwon is a great way to gain experience to use for getting into public. The only thing I don’t know about is how the visa works if you break from one contract. Will the new place be able to just get you another.

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