An Initial Acknowledgment
My acknowledgement: yes, there are Hagwons in Korea with well-intentioned owners and caring managers. Fortunately, I worked in such an environment. The more I live, the more I understand the nuances of individual existence and how we each react to our societal structures.
There’s a tendency for black-and-white thinking on this topic, and I don’t actively discourage anyone from teaching in Korea or anywhere else. Everyone’s experiences and perceptions are unique, but there are patterns of problematic behavior that I want to put forward and contextualize.
Anyone familiar with Korean culture and media sees the vast content describing education in South Korea. If you would like a more detailed look into Korean education, I’ll leave a link to an academic article I wrote here.
The TLDR: Korean education is highly competitive and examination-centered. China set the education standards from the civil service examinations, an exhaustive assessment requiring hours of memorization to secure a position in government. The system evolved and has been implemented throughout East and Southeast Asian nations’ rigorous educational structure today.
Pressure & Elitism
At a young age, Koreans prepare to take the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT)—an exam only held once a year. There’s immense pressure on students to achieve a high score because it dictates which university they can attend. Blind hiring is becoming more common, but social expectations and bias still lead to the SKY phenomenon.
Elite schools in Korea are acronym-ed SKY: Seoul National, Korea, & Yonsei.
After all, the sky is hard to reach.
There’s a reason “SKY Castle”—a 2018 Korean drama depicting the difficulties students face to enter these top universities and the unsettling actions of cut-throat parents to secure their success—resonated so well with Korean audiences.
Parents feel pressure to ensure their children’s success by making a comprehensive investment in their child’s education in hopes they’ll attain work abroad or in a good position at one of the nation’s top companies: Samsung, Hyundai, LG, SK, and Lotte. These gigantic conglomerates, known as “Chaebols” in Korean, are the powerhouses of the nation’s economy.
Some critics in America point out the seemingly superior data in test scores coming from Asia vs. American students. But these stats are not inclusive of those with learning or cognitive disabilities, those who enter trades, and there’s a byproduct of unaddressed mental health issues that youth experience.
The Hagwon industry covers many subjects. Parents scramble to give their kids a head start in the competitive environment by enrolling them in numerous cram schools. One of the essential subjects? English.
Parents with more money may enroll their kids in English kindergartens. It’s a kindergarten conducted in English with Korean & Native English Teachers (NETs) co-teaching to create an immersive linguistic environment. For more income, most English kindergartens also hold after-school classes for older kids.
It’s a lucrative industry for entrepreneurs. The government stepped in to tame the industry by mandating a 10 pm operation rule. They also limited how much hagwons can charge for their services to prevent low-income students from lagging behind. However, this price ceiling does not include English kindergartens, which means parents pay generously in tuition.
The social hierarchy influences how many NETs interact in their workplace to varying degrees.
Due to the Confucian values entrenched in Korean culture, communication is more vertical; it’s seen in the honorific stem endings in the language in various terms of address for those older than you (Oppa, Noona, Hyung, and Eonni). Confucianism stresses filial piety, a system of superior and inferior relationships needed to maintain a harmonious society.
America has these structures too. Yet at the same time, we conversely value individualism, self-reliance, and being outspoken due to our history.
Korean culture demonstrates respect and goodness through modesty and operating under a group mentality. In the workplace, the employees participate in outings after work (less common after COVID), routinely work overtime (coming in early, leaving late), and limit how much they break from the collective identity and speak their minds.
New start-ups are challenging the extreme company-loyal policies to make the workplace environment better by limiting compulsory outings, honoring work hours, and overall, promoting better work-life balance.
Where do foreigners fit in all this? Well, foreigners are exempted from certain expectations and standards that Koreans face. But—there is another side to the coin.
The White Monkey Mentality
White Monkey was coined in China to describe “the phenomenon of white foreigners or immigrants being hired for modeling, advertising, English teaching, or promotional jobs on the basis of their race.” But any skin color can technically be a ‘white monkey’.
A similar practice occurs in South Korea as well. There are no anti-discrimination laws based on race and ethnicity in South Korea, so there have been instances of hagwons putting on job ads that they prefer certain races.
While foreigners get a “pass” on Korean beauty standards, there are still “looks” and nationalities that many Hagwons prefer their teachers to have. It’s common to hire younger, white or white-passing applicants (bonus points if you’re North American), and value it over relevant experience or degrees. Of course POC NETs still work in Hagwons, but it’s not uncommon that they face racially motivated workplace harassment. Some Hagwon managers even hesitate to hire NETs too dark in skin color because it can “frighten” parents. It made me incredibly sad to see POC face these challenges domestically and abroad.
Many English Hagwons face the challenge of the nation’s rapidly declining birthrate and ramped up the marketing to justify rates and stand out. Appearance and the use of a foreigner’s likeness mean more than the quality of education. Unfortunately, you’re not more like to be more highly regarded in Asia as a teacher because they value education more, especially in the majority of Hagwons.
In reality, the struggles that teachers face are universal. And for hagwons, they’re first and foremost, a business. It’s not even uncommon for owners to not have any personal knowledge or interest in English at all. On the other hand, some foreigners who’ve established themselves in Korea may open their own Hagwons to try to change the industry stereotype.
Common Exploitative & Shady Situations NETs Experience
- Wage theft
> “The failure to pay wages or provide employee benefits owed to an employee by contract or law.”
- Inconsistent contributions or late enrollment for national health insurance (NHS) & Pension
> Pension and NHS are required by LAW and failure to pay into NHS results in penalties
- Expected overtime work without proper pay
- Vaguely worded contracts
- Minimal prep time & little/no breaks
- Unexplained deductions of pay
- Registering teachers as independent contractors
- Hagwons posing as accredited “International schools”
> They are not legally registered; they merely have the word ‘international’ in their name & adverts
> Real international schools are authorized by the Korean education office & must hire teachers on E-7 visas, not E-2
- Misleading accommodation info to overseas applicants
- Have E-2 visa teachers take on roles that are outside their visa allowance without additional compensation such as:
> Curriculum building
> Subject teaching rather than conversational classes; also teaching subjects like science, history, etc.
The Limited Freedom of an E-2 Visa
Sponsored work visas vary by role and qualifications. Teachers in Korea are mainly E1—professors or E-2—conversational foreign language for private academies and public schools. E-7—specialized professional workers—are given to subject teachers at registered international schools.
You cannot quit your contract and get hired at another job without a Letter of Release (LOR). A LOR is your employer saying, “I’m releasing them to pursue other work opportunities in Korea without finish their contract.”
Therefore, it’s used as a bargaining chip for teachers who want to quit but stay in Korea.
And…how many employers would be willing to do that? You may think it makes sense if they pay to fly teachers over and set up living utilities, but this is the case even for teachers hired in-country already. Some employers give a LOR if the teacher is willing to pay for it. But honestly, most NETs wouldn’t leave their school mid-contract for another in-country job unless they were facing workplace toxicity or suddenly offered a better opportunity.
The outcomes: threats, sometimes bribery attempts, and “Midnight runs” (teachers who leave the country without telling anyone). Some people risk harassment even if they put in a 30 days notice. As a result, those who wish to stay in Korea simply endure their workplace, miserable until they complete their time.
You might be thinking, why are teachers in Korea not exposing their schools more often? Well, it’s because the defamation laws in Korea are intense. Most teachers won’t speak out about their experiences if it’s tied to their face unless they leave Korea, though some who opt to stay may be as vague as possible about the previous school. Most share anonymously online.
In Korea, if you speak negatively about a person or organization (even if true), you can still be sued for defamation. Additionally, defamation cases are criminal offenses, not civil ones, making punishment more severe. The UN and Human Rights Watch both criticized the inability of citizens to shed light on the injustices they experience. More on this article here.
Online blacklist forums such contain such stories to warn others. Reddit threads and Facebook groups will share legal resources, and other users will share any red flags and what to look for in contracts for first-timers. Due to the nature of Blacklist stories, I took time away from reading sometimes to protect my mental health.
In sum, my experience teaching in Korea lifted the veil on the state of education, because what I saw abroad reflected a similar image at home. The disrespect, poor pay, and overwork teachers face have been a longstanding reality for many American teachers, something that I also discuss with career-teacher friends.
In the end, everyone loses: the teachers, the students, and the parents.
Teaching in general is regarded as a profession which doesn’t pay well, and while it doesn’t have to be on the same pay scale as other professions, the workload versus compensation is undeniably abysmal.
Just because something is the norm doesn’t mean everything should be accepted and tolerated.
Should You Teach at Hagwons?
Every country, to some degree, experiences these aforementioned problems that threaten the well-being of those further down on the social pyramid. And every location has distinctive pros and cons.
Korea holds a special place in my heart. The history, the people, the language…it’s astonishing how quickly the nation boomed into modernity. It’s a place of strength, grit, and determination.
I don’t necessarily recommend coming to Korea through Hagwons, but everyone has their own situation that I cannot account for. Whatever you decide, I hope this blog post produced a fuller picture of the Hagwon industry.
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