I read the warnings--they said "Don't Teach English in South Korea! You're really stupid if you do!
Something about indentured servitude....specifically this:
whatever you do STAY AWAY FROM HAGWONS!!
It's not teaching, you won't make a difference in the life of anyone and furthermore nobody will have any respect for you. You are a joke! You may as well run away with the carnival or make animal ballloons at children's birthday parties or wear the mouse suit at Chuck E Cheese Pizza.
I read the part that said you're stupid if you read this and choose to go to South Korea anyhow. No, it won't chalk up to valuable teaching or life experience on your resume . It won't look any better on your resume than the title of lead teacher' in the 2 year old room at Kindercare when you change diapers for $8.00 an hour.
Yes, there are some bitter current and former English teachers with many strong opinions on the South Korea experience. I won't lie, there are other things I'd rather be doing for money, but at least here I don't even have to pay for the roof over my head
As I parrot some worse case sentiments about hagwon teaching I read online, while I know I’m certainly going to have some things to chuckle about when this year is over, I don’t think it’s going to go down as a wasted year in my professional or personal history.
Honestly, I'm not the best qualified person for the job. If I were, I'd be far too expensive.
Hiring someone like me to do this job is just one example of questionable educational practices in the for-profit South Korean English mills. More than a teacher, I feel like a waitress who serves English out of books cooked in a Korean kitchen. And there are way too many tables in my section.
Two places in the office building where my hagwon is located are bulletins board where prospective parents can see my picture, a copy of my visa information, and brief work and educational history (complete with typos). My employer states that I’m TEFL certified, but that’s a lie. That’s a work that’s been in progress since December of 2009 when I was in Guatemala. When I had time and the attention span, and I sprinted through lessons1-9 of the i-to-i 100-hour online course. By the time I got to lesson 10, which happens to be the ‘lesson planning unit,’ I seemed to have sprained my ankle. While I’m confident that I could produce something resembling acceptable enough answers to move on, I’ve been stuck on simple things such as how to actually engage my students in ‘pair work’ activities.
It seemed to take me an eternity to realize that at times, the best possible thing I can do is interrupt my Korean co-teacher or the hagwon manager and to use them as an interpreter. It also took a while for me to figure out how to communicate with my Korean co-teacher. We alternate our four groups of students on a every other day basis. The idea is that I present the material, while she teaches them the grammar. How can she possibly do that when the simplest conversation is a huge strain....? Well, it’s taken some time for me to figure out the basics of the not quite creole language of ‘Konglish.’ Who says I’m not going to have anything good to put on my resume when I’ll be able to add ‘a basic understanding of Konglish language structure and usage’?
I’ve found that if I find a Korean to explain what I want them to do, the next time I want them to do something similar all it takes is simply pointing, the questions and answers in the book and saying “you and you, speaking.” Ahhhhhhhh. Get one set of them to do it and then hand them a sticker or a chocolate and suddenly everybody gets it. Promise them that once everyone has completed the desired task that we’ll all go play ball in the game room. Make sure that the activities will last just long enough to not give them too much free/fun time because they don’t know how to handle it and the room will soon turn into a scene from Lord of the Flies; it gives them something to work for and creates some positive peer pressure and student to student explanations.
Four days a week, between 10-12:00 am, my hagwon farms me out to a kindergarden where I teach different six groups of kids aged 3-6. My primary job at the hagwon is from 3-7:00 pm, five days a week. Four days a week, after my regular classes are finished, I have two private students who come to my classroom. What this adds up to is 32 teaching hours a week! I generally wake up at eight thirty in the morning, and am generally home around that time every night. On my first day, I refused to do the ‘English Cafe’ hour at a nearby middle school that showed up on my work schedule. And they had me slotted in at another once a week kindergarden job, I initially refused to do.
The ‘Bluebird’ kindergarden gig is another story that lasted about a month. The school had an elaborately decorated English ‘Cafe’ without any actual English books. Different parts of the room were done up like a restaurant or a supermarket, and the books on the shelves were there just for show, wrapped in plastic even. The ‘English Show’ consisted of a book/CD series called ‘Magic Time,’ and a bunch of annoying chant and point activities that didn’t make any sense 50% of the time. There I had very little room for improvisation and very little to work with if I did. The youngest group had these horrible, bizarre gigantic flashcards...there’s a blond haired cartoon teacher sitting at a table with two kids and some red and blue paint. They each point to one color ask her “what color is this?” I couldn’t get past the two strategically placed gigantic cherries on the chest of the teacher’s sweatshirt.
‘Bluebird’ kindergarden sent a minivan to pick me up everyday, with a driver I could not communicate with. On the first day, I asked him to drop me off at the grocery store instead of the hagwon so I could pick up something for lunch. He did it but then he called the manager and told him I did not get out at the hagwon. I don’t know why the manager even asked me about it when he doesn’t actually care. I didn’t want to get off there because I didn’t need or want to be there right away. A few times I started getting off of the van and walking into the building and waiting until he drove off. Even though on Thursdays, I didn’t start work until noon every day, Magic Time just put me in the worse mood. The hagwon manager didn’t even put up a fight when I told him they’d need to find someone else to do that. Incidentally, whatever once a week teacher I replaced made it up to page 20.
Some of the best advice I read about working in South Korea: don't be afraid to just say no, I won't do that. Otherwise, especially in a hagwon, if it were possible you could find yourself working 32 hours a day. They might ask you 20 times, but in certain situations there is nothing they can do about it. Say it again and again and again. No, no, no, no, no NO! It's okay, really.
At my regular kindergarden gig, I was somewhat mortified after my first encounter with the director of the Jujubee English Program. She introduced me to the ‘Hello Song’, the ‘How's the Weather’ song, the ‘Days of the Week’ song, and the ‘Counting’ song, complete with hand gestures.
The neat thing about the kindergarden is that the kids are mostly enthusiastic and extremely cute. If they get particularly annoying, they all leave after just 20 minutes. The Korean teacher is supposed to stay in the room to provide back up. If nobody else in the world loves me those kindergardeners do. I've learned though, to try to avoid looking too competent or the Korean teachers start disappearing during my time with their classes.
The on-the-job songs brought me back a little bit to my corporate waitressing days, when I was required to sing different birthday songs and bring balloons and the whole crew to someones table when someone said the magic words “It’s my ___________’s birthday today.” In Korea, once I got past the aversion to the on-the-job song and dance, I started to work it to my advantage, and even made up my own variations to the gestures that give me a chuckle when I get the kids to do them. I found the songs particularly useful on the days when I’m supposed to make alphabet activities or a book that has 20 words fill 20 minutes.
Sometimes the ‘Start Reading Series’ book has a title such as ‘All About Family.” And this is the content: Up, Uniform, Uncle, Umbrella, U is for Up U is for Umbrella, U is for Uncle, U is for Uniform. That’s the whole book. Every kid knows the book by heart and I can’t understand why the book is called ‘All About Family.” I read it three different times, using three different voices and then have six kids read the book, and fill the time with other nonsense. In certain classes, especially the ones where the Korean teachers have started pulling the disappearing acts, on occasion I drag out the songs as long as I can.
At the kindergarden, I bring something new to the table when I can and sometimes I invent something brilliant on the spot. It took me a few weeks to figure this out: save the energy for the English show at the hagwon where there isn’t a Korean teacher in the class to save me if I’m drowning or if my students are on the verge of putting my head on a stick.
After I’m done at the kindergarden, I'm "free" until 3 pm, when my "real" job starts. Kind of, except I lose approximately 40 minutes of that time walking in a triangle between my apartment and the two different locations. And then, there's lunchtime and I'm really supposed to be at the hagwon 40 minutes before class for "prep time." That's when I sit around at a table and listen to my manager and the other Korean teachers speak emphatically to one another or on the phone in Korean. Except I've figured out how to opt out of but all of 15 minutes of that part. It’s understood that I’d rather stay after a few minutes to make copies and look over the next day’s materials. And that I bought a printer for my apartment so I don’t have to compete with the three other teachers to use the school’s printer, when the manager is not on the one computer.
The six groups of kindergardeners don’t change from day to day. At the hagwon, however, my four classes a day alternate between two groups every other day. What this adds up to, is not only 32 teaching hours, but 14 different groups of students that I see throughout the week and a pile of textbooks that include the following titles; ‘English Time’ books two, three, and four (created by the same people who brought us the ‘Magic Time’ series), ‘Let’s Go,’ books two and four, ‘Side by Side’, and ‘American Headway,’ book one. Only each of my 4:00 pm classes share the same textbook. I’m happy to say that starting this week, for the first time none of my classes are using the ‘See Saw’ series and I no longer have to explain why the cake is in the tree or the helicopter is in the kitchen. I’m not sure if the authors of the ‘See Saw’ intended the joke to be on the teachers or the students. Now that I’m familiar with the texts, I’m over the shell shock that dealing with any questionable content on a day to day basis. I’ve figured out a lot of strategies around it.
It took me a good month to figure out what book I was supposed to be using with each class each day. At last, in my third month in South Korea is when something resembling a system has been emerging. I’ll discuss more about that at a future date.
It’s true, a hagwon might be designed as more of a business than it is a place for students to actually learn something. As a result of the design of the Korean educational system, many of the students are stuck in other hagwons until 10 or worse at night. They have little time for fun or even enough sleep. Their poor little brains certainly can’t have time to assimilate all of the information that’s being crammed into their heads. When they’re somewhere between climbing the walls, drooling on their desks and staring blankly into space, these things need to be taken into consideration.
Given the challenges it presents, hagwon teaching definitely isn’t for everybody. In my case, several aspects of the job keep me going in spite of it all. One class I thought was my worse nightmare has become my favorite class. I’ve developed a talent for juggling this immense pile of textbooks and figuring activities that can crossover into any combination of my classes. Certain aspects of this job would have already driven me insane if imagined this as the rest of my life.
At this point, I know how quickly I’m approaching the halfway point in my year contract. It’s only a year out of my life and I get so much more of my job then when I was working at the ticket counter or the departure gate at the airport as a customer service agent. My friends and family have been bugging me “so have you thought about what you’re gonna do next?”
Yeah, I think about a lot of things
But anyhow, if you’re thinking about teaching in a hagwon, though there will be some common themes 100 people will tell you 100 different stories about what it’s like and what you can get out of it. If I could say that working at every hagwon is just like working at my hagwon, it probably takes certain qualities to make it the best experience possible. If I had been truly confident in my ability to teach English as a foreign language without much in previous related experience, I probably wouldn’t have chosen the hagwon route. If this is the route I choose for a while, now I know yes, actually I can teach English. In my case, being here feeds several of intrinsic motivations.
When I think about the future, I think about those job interview questions that the airline I used to work for was so fond of asking:
“Tell me about a challenge that you overcame at your last job.....”.