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Teaching overseas takes courage. It’s not easy to take a blind leap to teach in a country you know little about, without out knowing factors of how or where you’ll live or what the work environment will be like. With any country and no matter how good something sounds on paper, your choice is always a gamble. So your decision is key.
Korea offers one of the best teaching packages out there: rent-free apartment, signing bonuses and a roundtrip flight. But it’s garnered negative experiences as well. So there are many reasons why I chose EPIK over a hagwon.
Recently I got a comment on my YouTube videos, from Julian:
What was it like living and teaching in Korea?
Looking back on my time in Korea, I’m filled with fond memories. There are many things about Korea which continue to dazzle, confound, irritate and me. Overall, I know if it weren’t for my confusion of where I want to be in my work life, I could easily have extended my time there.
There’s many things which I fell in love with about Korea, from food, Korean culture, the tons of Korean festivals (seems they have one practically every month), my BB cream and beauty care products, technology and the list goes on. It’s a relatively safe country with a low cost of living and yet high quality of life. Due to the fact, I had a rent-free apartment and the cost of living was low, I was able to save over $10,000 of my salary (after expenses and vacation trips), to produce my travel fund for a seven month backpacking trip and more. At the moment, I’ve still got money in the bank for a couple more trips.
But then there were the not-so-great times too. My life didn’t go without those.
Marrying Korea: Vacation travelers vs expats
There’s a huge difference between travelers and expats. I don’t like to say it. There is.
As a traveler, it’s easy to rock-n-roll with the culture shock, language barriers and dislikes, when you’re not committed to living with them. Like marriage, when you live with anything for a committed length of time, even the little things start to annoy, like eating kimchi everyday or using Korean toothpaste (it’s sweet). Those annoyance can feel giantess when you’re abroad in a foreign land.
There’s many ways to fall in love with Korea if you live there. But if you asked me if I loved it when I was going through it on a daily basis, I might answer differently.
I both, loved it and not.
Like the acclimatizing process goes with any country, life in Korea wasn’t without its rough bumps (and I’ve certainly bitched here about those too!). It was my first year living abroad and although I’m a traveler, who loves the challenge of culture shock, this was my first time doing so on a long-term basis. I didn’t have a helpful Korean co-teacher, I had trouble finding vegetarian food and language barriers posed small frustrations.
However, as bad some of my times felt, I still always felt privileged to be living in Korea. I did not regret my experiences one bit.
For more information and resources go to my page on Teaching in Korea.
Why I chose EPIK over a Hagwon
There are many reasons why I chose EPIK over a hagwon. I was contracted with EPIK, but I also worked briefly at a hagwon in Seoul. Ha ha.. betcha didn’t see that coming. Yes, I slide under the radar to pick up a temporary job at a hagwon (Note: you are not allowed to do this). But I still prefer EPIK, for many reasons.
If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably also already read a handful of rants about hagwons and that some can be shady. Before choosing EPIK, I read a lot of those too. To put everything into perspective, everything is in the luck of the draw in Korea. I’ve met people who both, loved and hated teaching in a hagwon and same goes with EPIK. The choice depends on which structure fits best for you.
Stable schedule & Accountability
EPIK is a government program, where you’re working in the Korean public school system. I liked that as a regulated system, when one thing changes, the change is widespread and affects all public schools and teachers in it. You know you’re going to get paid on time and your overtime hours will be honored. This doesn’t mean shadiness can’t exist, but if it does you could go to your district office to ask for help. They often play mediator and law officer.
Should a situation ever go south, hagwon teachers often feel helpless in this regard. They don’t know where to turn to help, as a hagwon is a privately owned business, which makes its money from student enrollment. I had read forum rants, where schools fold overnight or a teacher has to chase an employer to get paid and I’ve met a couple of those teachers. While those experiences are generally, the exception more than the rule, I never wanted to be that “exception” .
I wanted a structured schedule, where I could enjoy my evenings and use my weekends for travel. I had a standard 40 hour work week, with a 8:30am-4:30pm schedule, Monday to Friday. I taught 22 hours a week, averaging to about 4-5 classes a day and each day. I taught roughly a grade level a day, utilizing the same lesson. Any classes I teach or events outside of that 22 hour limit, I received overtime pay.
As hagwons are after-school programs, peak operation hours are when students don’t have school (aka nights, weekends and holidays). Teaching at a hagwon I averaged around six classes a day, but you could teach more. As I juggled different levels and lessons each hour ( vs repeating the same lesson throughout the day, like with EPIK), it personally, took a quicker toll on me.
Vacation and Holidays at EPIK
I like to work hard, but I also like to play hard, and as a traveler, vacation time is important to me. Not only does EPIK have twice the amount of vacation days than a hagwon, but we also got to take them in chunks. With a hagwon, the employer decides how and when you’ll split up your vacation time to use. I didn’t like that.
Additionally, working with public schools, I got all national holidays off. If there’s a holiday on a Friday, that makes it a three day vacation holiday for me. With hagwons, holidays and weekdays are potential work days.
Support, Variety & experiencing the Korean Community
EPIK has a wonderful support system, which embraces a very Korean way– community. The program wants you to adapt to Korean culture and to enjoy it. My first week in Korea, EPIK held an orientation of workshops, priming us on what we needed know about teaching in Korea. During that orientation, we got to meet and make friends with fellow EPIK teachers, so we had a community foundation. Each district office also, occasionally sponsors excursions and clubs, bringing EPIK teachers in your city together to socialize.
Working in the public schools can be equally fun, because you get to experience what a Korean school is like and there’s a range of fun activities, such as school dinners, overnight school excursions, teacher excursions and teacher social clubs. Even English camps can be fun work. One EPIK teacher I knew had an excursion to Everland (Seoul’s famed amusement park), while another had an overnight camping trip in a different city. Participation is mandatory, but you get paid overtime for it.
Hagwons tend to be more capitalistic and the sense of community is limited to the number of English teachers at your school. At the hagwon I worked at, the native English teachers and Korean teachers never seemed to interact. Also, as it’s a business, hagwons may require you to be an “English face” to help sell enrollment; thus, some of your free time is spent engaging with students and meeting with parents to encourage this.
In Korea, being a teacher holds a high respect. If you ever wanted to advance to teach at a Korean university, EPIK is considered a more reputed program. EPIK teaching is recognized as real experience, whereas some colleges explicitly state that hagwon teaching doesn’t count.
The two teaching methods are different. EPIK teachers are trained by and collaborate with Korean teachers to create lesson plans, as well as occasionally create their own. EPIK teaches us to teach and create lessons for a broad range of levels.
Hagwon teaching, on the other hand, primarily uses teaching manuals, which have pre-formed lesson plans, which you administer during class. At a hagwon, I went into teaching with only 5-10 minutes of orientation time. As long as I had the teaching manual in front of me, I could easily jump into teaching without having spent much time looking the lesson over.
Challenging but Rewarding
I was looking for a program where I could make a difference with children. I’d looked a countries like Nepal, but didn’t know if I could live in such a rural setting or forfeit making a decent salary. Working in a Korean public school felt perfect to me, because I could make decent money and yet, still feel like I was doing something meaningful. Seeing and interacting with my public school students thoughout the week, I got to track their improvement, weaknesses and strengths. Public schools are the underdog system. Often, one class will be a multi-level class and you’re working as a teacher and need to find techniques to get them all to learn and focus.
Hagwons are generally for families that can afford extra tutoring for their children. These families strive for their children to be successful, so the studies are more advanced and the students are primed to study. Many of the students in my public school couldn’t afford a hagwon, so teaching them was an additional challenge, but my English classes were their only exposure to the English language and opportunity to learn a tool, which could sculpt their future.
EPIK Fears that will make or break you
The Pros of a Hagwon
Unfortunately, this post favors the EPIK environment. I enjoyed being a part of it and I’m a better teacher because of it. But obviously, there are advantages to working in a hagwon system also, or people wouldn’t want to work there.
Potentially better salaries
There’s the potential of getting a higher salary. Standard salaries for new teachers are 2.0-2.2 million depending on experience and training. But with highly reputable hagwons, they grow as high as 2.4-2.7 million. I’ve not see many of those on job boards, but they are there.
Freedom: No 40 hour week
You’ll need to double-check my facts on this, but because your schedule is occasionally broken up and there are times you will teach half a session and then have a few hours before your next session, you can go home or do errands. While you may have to teach more classes than an EPIK teacher, you don’t need to stay at the hagwon to do what EPIKers call “desk-warming”. Desk-warming is when you have nothing to do, but must still stay at school to fulfill your contract hours.
Some teachers like to feel independent and don’t care for working with Korean teachers. They want their own class. While you’ll probably be given at least one class per semester, which is entirely yours, you’ll share the teaching space with a Korean teacher. There can be occasional power issues, as you’re paid roughly the same as a Korean teacher but get extra perks of an apartment, flight, signing bonuses, etc..
Choosing the city you want to be in
You get to choose the city you’ll be in and the school you’ll work for. With EPIK, placement is based on a variety of factors I’ll explain in my next post.
For more information and resources go to my page on Teaching in Korea.