After spending almost a year teaching English in Korea I decided to call it a day. I didn’t necessarily want to leave Korea, since I truly loved the country, however my Hagwon situation became unbearable and I decided that for my own well being it was better to just leave rather than stick out something that was making me miserable.
Unfortunately, of the many Westerners that fly halfway around the World to teach English in South Korea, a number of them have a “Hagwon Horror Story”.
Korean Hagwons are privately operated after school academies. Since they operate as businesses, and are not managed by the government, they have a pretty bad reputation for not really giving a damn about either their teachers or students, provided that they are in the green. Since so many of them are continually opening up left, right and centre (education is big business in Korea), it is not uncommon for them to just suddenly go out of business either.
Hagwon horror stories happen when Teachers are treated particularly badly.
Now this isn’t to scare you, I know plenty of people that work in Hagwons in Korea and haven’t had the bad luck that I did, but I think that it’s important for me not to gloss over my experience. Though I’ve written many blog posts about my travels through Korea, my day to day working life is one aspect that I always kept to myself.
I also believe that it is difficult to truly convey a bad situation in your life to others (through writing or otherwise) without coming across as a Debbie Downer or seen to be exaggerating. I’ll let you draw your conclusions if you let me share my story.
When I first arrived in Korea, tensions were high at the school as the last teacher had left abruptly due to not seeing eye to eye with the Hagwon management. At the time, they made it sound as though she was just being a Diva, but in retrospect I now believe that she was treated badly.
I was moved into the girl’s former apartment (schools and Hagwons in Korea provide foreign staff with accommodation) and the place had not even been cleaned before I moved in. I slept on clothes for the first night since I arrived late on a Saturday evening and spent the next day shopping for cleaning supplies and tidying the place. When I swept the floor, there was so much hair that it looked as though someone had been scalped, and I found a nice little pile of nail clippings under the bed (!) Perhaps the most trying task of them all was sitting crouched on the bathroom floor, unclogging the former teacher’s hair from the drain with a knife. (These things are sent to try us, huh?)
After my first day at the Hagwon, I was asked to perform a mock lesson in front of the other teachers. During this mock, the head teacher noticed the sheer horror that was my handwriting and warned me that I had a month to improve it or else I’d be sent back home.
I didn’t see anything wrong with my writing (and neither did the other teachers) but promising that I would make a conscious effort to improve wasn’t enough for them and for the first month, I was made to practice writing the alphabet on the blackboard for an hour every day like a naughty child. The head teacher came in to check up on me every ten minutes or so and her scrutiny on my writing bordered on clinically insane.
“Those small t’s don’t look like small t’s… Make them more like t’s!”
I had to take photos of my boards every day for a month and then she would sit down with me and we’d analyse my ‘mistakes’ together.
My boss was clearly abusing her power, and even my coworkers were shocked at the situation, but no-one ever found it in themselves to stand up for me which, in my opinion, is almost as bad as conducting the wrong doing yourself.
At this point I really wasn’t happy with the situation but having given up my career, my house and leaving everything behind to come to Korea, I wasn’t prepared to just throw in the towel so soon and head home so I tried to make the most out of my time in Korea and take my mind off my work situation.
There were many problems that followed – I’m sure that I could write a piece about my Hagwon that would rival my university thesis.
There was a Woman, let’s call her “professional smile checker” as that seemed to be the predominant focus of her role, that was employed to patrol the halls and check up on foreign teachers during their lessons. If we didn’t look smiley or happy enough, she would enter the room and yell at us in front of the students, and we would later be given a talking to by the management to reassert to us about how much people were paying to attend the Hagwon, and that image was everything.
I recall one particular day when Professional Smile Checker was checking the student’s books – not to check that the student’s work was completed, but to check that the foreign teacher’s marking was to a good enough standard. She called me into her office to tell me that my red circles were not big enough and started analysing the circle sizes. When I told her that I had to leave, because I had another class waiting for me she pulled me back into the office by my wrist and twisted my arm.
We had five days vacation a year at the Hagwon, and if we got sick, the sick days were to be taken from this allowance. Now I knew this when I signed the contract, and I wasn’t overly phased by it. However I became very sick with norovirus (which I suspect I probably got from a child!) and the school were very aggressive about my inconveniencing them by being ill. I was projectile vomiting like the exorcist and could barely walk without feeling faint, but the Hagwon made me both go to the Doctors to obtain a sick note, and then come in to apologise for being ill every day that I was sick, so that they could check that I wasn’t lying about it.
After two days I was more stressed by constantly being hassled by the school than I was by being ill, so I dragged myself in, and taught by propping myself up on the podium because I felt so weak.
To add to that, I discovered that the school were illegally documenting foreign employees as independent contractors and we didn’t have a pension or healthcare (a legal requirement in Korea), the school tried to use my image on an advert, and when I refused to be featured on it, they became scarily angry, foreign teachers had to message the school every Sunday afternoon to confirm that we would be back to work on time. The list goes on, and we were really treated like petulant children as opposed to professional adults.
Reading that back now, I realise how ridiculous it all sounds, and it was. However at the time it was terrifying.
The only person that I got along with at the Hagwon, a fellow British Teacher, came in distraught one day after receiving the news from home that his Dad had suddenly passed away. The Hagwon showed not the smallest ounce of compassion and tried to guilt him into staying in Korea. When he announced that he was going home, they made all manners of (illegal) deductions from his pay cheque – cleaning fees, agency fees to find a new teacher, fees for leaving early – you name it. Of a final pay cheque that should have exceeded £2000, he left with around £250.
I decided at this point that I wanted to leave, however I had to bide my time. Leaving a contract in Korea is a scary and daunting process. Foreign workers have very few rights and although the labor board is in place to mediate situations where a Hagwon tries to exploit a foreign worker, the process can be long and arduous. The school advised that I had to give three months notice if I wanted to leave, and should I leave ahead of that time, I’d have to pay a fee for every day missed. This was also illegal, since the notice period is 30 days. I told them that I would think about it and look to complete my contract but I knew I couldn’t face doing so.
Given what had happened to my friend, I didn’t trust the school not to make illegal deductions to me also if I tried to leave amicably, and I didn’t want the stresses of a legal battle with the labor board so I decided to flee the country.
That sounds dramatic, and believe me, I would have much rather left on good terms but at the time I was so terrified of my Hagwon, I didn’t trust them not to steal my money, and I didn’t want to be trapped in my situation any longer so I felt that running away was the only alternative.
There is actually a term for Teachers that flee Korea and that is called a “midnight run” where the Teacher seemingly disappears in the middle of the night. Many ESL Teachers consider this the ultimate faux pas as they believe that it gives Westerners in Korea a bad name. However, equally, I believe that those that stick out terrible and abusive work conditions, just for the sake of completing a contract send the message that it is okay for foreign employees to be mistreated.
Hagwons pay their staff on the 10th or the 15th of the month for the previous month to deter them from midnight running, as to do so would mean that they are losing half a month’s pay. This is not an insignificant amount to lose. However for me, I knew that talking to the Hagwon first would result in more money lost so I decided to cut my losses and go. I felt bad about leaving my coworkers behind, of course I did, but they knew how miserable working there was making me so I am sure that they could understand. As I passed through the gate at Seoul’s Incheon airport and boarded my flight to Italy, I felt nothing but relief…
Are you teaching English in Korea? Have you heard about any Hagwon horror stories or even experienced one yourself? Let me know in the comments below!