Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Public school jobs vs hagwon jobs

elementary school kids in korea"At a public school, you are part of a community..." - some second graders rehearsing for the school performance night.
blue dot
Aug 06 2012

This is a supplement to the Waegukin big guide to teaching English in Korea.

There are many web pages which discuss the pros and cons of hagwon (private academy) and public school jobs. Unfortunately, they tend to discuss this as if someone interested in teaching English in Korea should carefully balance the advantages and disadvantages of each. They usually conclude by saying that hagwon jobs have some benefits, while public school jobs have different benefits, and it depends on the individual.

Don’t believe this.

Public school jobs are better than hagwon jobs.

I am going to be absolute on this. Public school jobs are just better; hagwon jobs are second-rate. In a public school you are part of a community whose purpose is to educate. In a hagwon you are part of a business whose purpose is to make money. If you value your free time, your sense of security, and your soul, you are better with a public school position.

Here are the reasons usually listed as to why, in some instances, hagwon jobs may be better for some people than public school jobs.

The “advantages” of a hagwon job

1. You can choose where you work. This is partly valid. If it is essential that you work in a specific city, perhaps because you have friends there, then a hagwon is your only option. Increasingly it is difficult to make any sort of choice at all with public school positions. With EPIK these days you can’t even specify more than just “Seoul”, “city” or “provincial”.

However, if you only want some control over your destiny, there are options. With the GEPIK program your recruiter will work to place you in a specific school in Gyeonggi province. It is also possible to contract directly with Incheon or Busan city, or Gyeongam and Chungnam provinces, and in these cases you will have some control over where you end up.

2. At hagwons, you are paid more. Based on job advertisements I’ve seen, this is not true in most instances. Hagwon jobs generally pay the same. Actually, they pay considerably less, if you take into account the greater working hours and fewer holidays and average it to an hourly rate. There may be some positions that are exceptions to this for highly qualified or Korean-speaking teachers, but the general hagwon job does not pay better than a public school position.
3. At hagwons, you will have other foreign teachers with you. This is very misleading, because it gives a sense that native teachers in public schools are isolated and never have contact with other native teachers. This is not my experience, nor the experience of any public school teacher I’ve known here. Yes, at a hagwon there may be other foreign teachers. And this is much less likely to be true in a public school, where you will probably be the only foreign teacher. I know this seems like a big deal if you’re going overseas to live for the first time. Please believe me – it will not be a problem. All the public school programs have orientations that allow you to meet other native teachers**This may not be true for GEPIK – see the comment below. Regardless, I think all cities have facebook groups of local waegukins – it shouldn’t be too hard to make friends., and all those other native teachers are new to Korea like you, and very anxious to make friends. There will be other foreigners in your city. You will not be isolated and alone, unless you have social problems.

Also, as hagwons tend to attract the bottom rung of recruits, there is a very good chance that some of your co-employees at a hagwon may be the sort of person you would run a mile to avoid. I’m not trying to be snide – I have heard many stories from hagwon teachers about “my psychotic co-worker”. It’s practically a genre. They are good stories, but it’s probably not worth experiencing it just for the stories.

4. At hagwons, there is no deskwarming. This is just absurd. You will be teaching, continuously and without respite, instead. I am no fan of deskwarming, but after six months of teaching six hours a day at a hagwon without a holiday or day off, I don’t know of any hagwon teacher who wouldn’t be happy to spend a week coming to work without any responsibilities.

5. At hagwons, you have smaller class sizes. This is true as far as it goes. But in my experience Korean students’ willingness to be quiet and pay attention decreases the farther they get from what they perceive as the “real” education system. In their own class, with their homeroom teacher, they are well behaved. In English class? Somewhat less behaved. In an after-school class, again: more rowdy than they are in a curriculum English class. I doubt that they are so very easy to control in a hagwon. From the teachers I have known who have worked at both hagwons and public schools, none have said that a smaller hagwon class size was any easier to control.

Why a public school job is better

1. You are part of a community, and not a business. It is just more pleasant to be in a school environment than a business one. There are lots of hagwon stories about teachers getting pressure from their bosses to retain students and increase their numbers. There are stories of teachers being told never to discipline students, for fear that their parents will withdraw them from hagwons. You don’t hear these stories from public school teachers.

2. Longer holidays. Contractually you will get nearly twice the holidays. Beyond that, if you play your cards right and are lucky, you might get substantially more.

There are also many days in public schools when you will come to school, but not have to teach – school holidays, opening and closing days, field trips, sports days, etc. These are generally relaxing, and if you can participate in the activities, quite pleasant. In  a public school it is not unusual to go an entire month without teaching a full five day week.

3. You won’t get screwed out of your pay or end of contract bonus. There are many hagwon horror stories like this. I take them with a grain of salt because, as previously noted, hagwons tend to attract the worst sort of foreigners, and some of them just like to complain. By and large, the good teachers I’ve known who have worked at hagwons haven’t experienced these sorts of problems. However I have no doubt that some of the stories are true.

4. You can teach all students, not just the privileged ones. Do you want to spend your time helping to increase the class gap in Korean society?

5. You will have a Korean co-teacher in class with you. In truth this could either be an advantage or disadvantage, but I know it is reassuring to people who haven’t taught a foreign language before. Ideally, your co-teacher will help you and share the workload.

If you want a more visual, less ranty assessment, Footprints Recruiting has a table listing most of the above points, which I think is honest.


A hagwon job might suit you if you really need to be in a specific place in Korea, if money is your prime concern and you can get a high paying position, or if you are unable to get a public school position. Otherwise you are better off with a job in a public school.

I realize that it might seem that I’ve implied hagwon teachers in Korea are socially awkward suckers with psychological problems, and the bottom rung of native English teachers in Korea. Do I mean this? In some cases, yes. In other cases they are good, hardworking teachers who either through ignorance or some other reason have ended up working in a hagwon. Just the same, if some of those teachers are reading this now, I imagine cognitive dissonance is kicking in. If you want to say how I’ve got it wrong, and hagwon positions are really great – or if you want to tell me about how you have the fabled Good Hagwon Job, then go ahead in the comments.

Waegukin wrote these 1376 words on August 6th, 2012 | Posted in Teaching |


22 comments on “Public school jobs vs hagwon jobs”

  1. JH says:

    I’ve worked at two seperate hagwons with varying experiences. The first was just as you describe above. My current, however, one is excellent. It is a small branch of a large firm so there is a feeling of community. I teach 24 lessons a week and the students are a lot better behaved than my previous hagwon. I cannot compare as I have not worked in public school but I am very happy with my hagwon job 🙂

  2. CA says:

    I have met several of those hagwon teachers…. It was for the most part as you have described. I am in a private school, with no co-teacher. They just gave me a catalogue of books and told me to choose what ever I wanted. I teach from 9-4. I get one hour, or more, of prep time, and one hour for lunch, which is provided. I am the only native speaker in the school. I am really happy here. Since they plan to hire two more native speakers, it should be more fun.

  3. RL says:

    Hi I have just started at a hagwon and am starting to realise that I may have made a mistake in choosing this. The teachers are great and so is the director but between all the class I teach I only get a 10 minute break.

    Also you cant choose when you can take your ‘leave’.

    Is this normal?

  4. The Waegukin says:

    Ten minutes break between classes doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

  5. LES says:

    What is the role of the co-teacher in a public school? I worked at a hogwon last year and want to work public school primarily for the vacation days and to avoid having to spend my time dealing with badly behaved boys. The plus was that I could pretty much do what I want, but I am kind of looking forward to having a co-teacher and a bit more direction. Do you and the co-teacher typically lesson plan together? Or do you do all the lesson planning and the co-teacher is there for support?

  6. LES says:

    p.s. at the hogwon I had 10 minutes between each class but instead of relaxing I often had to make photocopies of textbooks for kids who decided to drop in at the hour of their choosing. I also had no lunch break. 1:30-7:30pm of non-stop motion was pretty exhausting, although 6 hours sure beats 8 in theory.

  7. The Waegukin says:

    Co-teachers… it varies, that’s about all you can say. Both the scenarios you mentioned are possible. It could be anything from the co-teacher doing all the work and you acting as nothing but a human tape recorder, to the co-teacher doing literally nothing. Or anything in between. Ideally, of course, you have a mutually helpful relationship making use of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It does happen… sometimes.

    But why do you think you won’t have to deal with badly behaved boys at a public school? I know some teachers think that discipline is their co-teacher’s problem – and some co-teachers do, too – but it’s a sure way to emasculate yourself in front of the students.

    Teaching 1.30-7.30 without a break sounds exhausting. At a public school you generally will teach four or five classes a day (at least when the schedule is in session… a lot of classes get cancelled for one reason or another), so there are many breaks and off periods.

  8. JonB says:

    Not ALL public schools programs have pre-start orientations. I’m in a GEPIK high school and have never had an orientation. GEPIK is pretty notorious for having “orientations” mid-semester and requiring the attendance of people who have been here for several years.

    Sorry for the nitpicking… :-/

  9. The Waegukin says:

    Fair point, Jon. As I am GEPIK these days I probably should have noted it. In my case there was an orientation shortly into the semester after I started, however my presence wasn’t requested. As I had already been through two of these with TaLK and EPIK, I wasn’t too worried.

    Either GEPIK saw this and sensibly realised I didn’t need to attend, or I am lost somewhere between the cracks in their system. I’d like to believe it’s the former but as I haven’t heard from them since I’ve been here, I think it’s the latter. Which, honestly, I’m quite happy with.

    I’ll update the post to reflect your point.

  10. Michele says:

    I worked for 2 years at a public school, then 2 years at a hagwon. There are amazing hagwons out there, but you’ll never see them advertised on job boards, because the bosses never have to hire agencies, as friends of employees are given preference. I worked from 2-7:3opm most days, had the same amount of holiday leave as I had had at public school (and was able to book trips 3 months in advance, instead of 2 weeks), and the quality of the students was higher. I’ve since gotten a university job, with 5 months of paid holiday leave and 15-hour workweeks, but a friend (with 5 years of experience in public schools in Korea, as well as a few years as a certified teacher back in the states) jumped at the opportunity and now works at my former hagwon.

    Networking is a far better resource than agencies.

  11. David says:

    Sounds like you need to get off your high horse to be honest mate. The vast majority of my friends work in hagwons, none of whom I would describe as undesirable.

    As for “helping increase the class gap in Korea”…. have a day off lad! We’re all here to earn some money, pay off debts, meet new people and experience a new culture. Nothing more, nothing less.

  12. The Waegukin says:

    Well, I work at a public school, so I almost certainly have a lot more days off than you. But I’m glad you and your desirable friends are enjoying your hagwon experiences.

  13. Michele says:

    Most public schools have reduced the amount of vacation time. In Incheon, at least, renewal leave has been reduced to 1 week, and there are camps throughout winter and summer holidays, leaving workers to just their contracted holiday. Perhaps you get more time off in the sticks.

  14. Johan says:

    Haha David, some people, when they teach, actually care about their students and do appreciate being able to help the less privileged rather than just tutoring the kids of the highest rung of Korean society. Why you think this kind of attitude is “being on a high horse” is beyond me.

  15. John says:

    understating choosing where u work… have fun spending a year in rural Korea, while i am teaching in hongdae area of seoul at a hagwon i chose with a contract i accepted found easily after spamming recruiters.

  16. Waegukin says:

    Based on your comment, John, the idea that you are teaching English anywhere is terrifying.

  17. JV says:

    I have plans to teach in Korea after I graduate from university (~2 more years). I’d prefer working at a public school, for obvious reasons. However, since I will most likely be coming with my girlfriend, my options are rather limited. Being placed together would be nearly impossible, unless we were to go through a recruiter and find hagwon jobs in the same city.

    This post made me a little sad, and more than a little scared for my future.

  18. fgibbens says:

    I work in a really great hagwon. i get paid a lot more than if I worked in a public school, I chose my location in Seoul, I have a free 4 room apartment and I teach 15 hours a week with the rest of my days being prep time. My kids are lovely. This is my third year as an ESl teacher, I am educated and sociable and far from ignorant about teaching in Asia. I’ve heard good and bad stories about both hagwons and public schools, and I worked in a nightmare hagwon in korea for 5 months before I managed to get out so I’ve seen both sides but don’t appreciate the generalisations about hagwon teachers!

  19. Laura says:

    The longer I am in Korea, and especially after reading this post, I am convinced that I have the #1 hagwon job in the entire country. I teach 28 hours a week with a dinner break each day and lunch provided before my first class each afternoon. My co-workers are easy to get along with and we enjoy planning special lessons or theme days together. Boss #1 is incredibly kind and generous, always going out of his way to drive me the 2 hours roundtrip to immigration, fix my washing machine, and send me home early when I have a fever. Boss #2 surprises us teachers with coffee or chicken. My opinion on curriculum and class placements is respected; I am frequently asked to choose whatever book I want to teach (within certain parameters). Last year I asked if it would be OK to combine my 4 vacation days with our brief winter break and go home for Christmas, and my boss’s only concern was that I could find affordable airfare. My classes are small, and as you note the children are as rowdy as you might expect, but for the most part they are well-behaved enough and it’s easy for me to give them one-on-one attention.

    Basically, I feel like I won the lottery with this job. I plan to pursue a public school job in my 3rd year, but for now I’m happy to not rock the boat. I will take less time off in exchange for such an ideal working situation.

  20. Rachel says:

    Hi Laura,
    What is the name of the hagwon you work at?
    I am looking for hagwon jobs right now, through a recruiter and through personal connections (I am a Canadian born korean). Please let me know because I would like options.
    Thank you,

  21. Z says:

    I love how you started this post by essentially saying “close up your mind and from this point forward base your judgement on the personal experience of myself and those closest to me.”
    Other than the working hours, my hagwon job offered me infinitely more educational job satisfction than the public school i am at now which puts in bare minimum effort in curriculum and does not encourage hard workers to improve its flawed and shallow system.
    At the end of the day, next to luck, your best bet in securing the job in Korea that suits you best is by knowing someone who currently works there whose values as an employee line up with yours. Encouraging a narrowinded perspective of good and bad Korean employement isn’t going to help anyone reading this who is plannig on living here for the first time.

  22. natalie says:

    Tjis is such a wonderful website im so glad I found it!
    I would like to go to South Korea and working in a public school.sounds perfect. Just incase i am not able to get a job though, please would you minding emailing me the name of a nice hagwon? ive been tutoring for 5years since my degree and recently completedmy CELTA . Laura, michell and fgibbons I would be forever in your debt and happy to return the favour anyway i can:)

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