Hagwon Horror Story Update March 2019: I wrote this post about my experience at Lykeion Language Forum Suwon back in 2017. I had a bad time working there and it made me depressed. I left, I moved to Europe and I moved on with my life. I wanted to leave this behind me however I feel obliged to provide an update considering the fact that several other teachers have contacted me to tell me that they have experienced equally terrible conditions at the Lykeion Language Forum. A Teacher fled the Suwon campus in October 2018 on account of unbearable/borderline abusive working conditions at the school. FOUR more teachers left the school in Feb 2019. You can read more info on these incidents here
I also know that some weird dude has set up a hate site about me – whatever weird dude. I have moved on and I’m living my best life in Greece. I trust anyone that sees his malicious post can see it for what it is: online trollin’ at its saddest.
This hagwon horror story article was one of the early posts I wrote on my blog. It contained simply my personal experience at Lykeion Language Forum, however, I have now updated it with more information since many people that are considering teaching English in South Korea reached out to me about the school.
In the more objective post I wrote on this site, I have included a copy of the contract and reviewed its many illegalities (illegal fines, no pension/healthcare) as well as details from those who fled the school more recently.
- 1 Hagwon Horror Story:My Personal Experience at Lykeion Language Forum Suwon
- 2 Hagwon Horror Story: Arrival in Korea
- 3 Hagwon Horror Story: The Critique Begins
- 4 Hagwon Horror Story: Abusive Staff Member
- 5 Hagwon Horror Story: Getting Sick in Korea
- 6 Hagwon Horror Story: Illegal Terms on Contract
- 7 Hagwon Horror Story: Treated Like Petulant Children
- 8 Hagwon Horror Story: Illegal Deductions from Salary
- 9 Hagwon Horror Story: Time to Go
- 10 Hagwon Horror Story:What to Do if You Find Yourself in an Unbearable Situation
- 11 Hagwon Horror Story: Conclusion
- 12 Melissa Douglas
Hagwon Horror Story:
My Personal Experience at Lykeion Language Forum Suwon
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.
Hagwon Horror Story: Arrival in Korea
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?)
Hagwon Horror Story: The Critique Begins
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. This was not just a standard “board practice”, it was unnecessarily aggressive. As you can see from the images, there is nothing wrong with my handwriting. I assure you, it did not look like a bag of dicks. I felt singled out.
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 wrongdoing 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.
Hagwon Horror Story: Abusive Staff Member
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.
I went straight to my foreign head teacher and told him while very upset and he just stared blankly as though it was no big deal. The Teacher that did a midnight run from the Hagwon in October 2018 would later tell me that he had similar experiences with the Professional Smile Checker and that she would scream at him and give him warnings over outrageous things like a student’s pencil breaking while he was sharpening it.
Hagwon Horror Story: Getting Sick in Korea
We had five days of 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. I am not someone to pull sickies or take days off without real cause. I also have a pretty good immune system so I didn’t imagine I’d get seriously ill.
After being at Lykeion Language Forum for six months, I became very sick with norovirus (which I suspect I probably got from a child!) and the school was 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. Honestly, with the way that I looked, I think it was pretty evident how ill I was. I was appalled at the lack of empathy.
Hagwon Horror Story: Illegal Terms on Contract
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 was illegally documenting foreign employees as independent contractors and we didn’t have a pension or healthcare (a legal requirement in Korea). It was specified on our contract at the beginning that the school operates its own pension plans rather than the governments. I hadn’t realised at the time that this was extremely illegal. It seems to be a way for the school to pocket teacher’s pensions themselves, as they did with mine. In total, I lost more than $1000 to Lykeion – in lost salary, lost pension, and lost security deposit.
Hagwon Horror Story: Treated Like Petulant Children
At Lykeion Language Forum, the foreign teachers had to message the school every Sunday afternoon to confirm that they would be back to work on time. If we took any of our generous five days vacation, or we had a public holiday, we had to message the school with our whereabouts and itinerary. Big Brother is always watching. Sometimes they would have the head teacher contact us on our days’ off to make sure that we would come back to work again.
I guess the reason that Lykeion felt the need to watch and monitor us like this was because they were terrified of Teachers leaving. Why? Because many Teachers have fled over the years. The hagwon can dress it up any way they like and imply that these teachers are just “irresponsible” or “can’t handle the culture” or whatever. I call BS. One midnight runner is a rogue instance, multiple midnight runners equal a screaming red flag.
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.
Hagwon Horror Story: Illegal Deductions from Salary
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 paycheque – 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 am not sure about how familiar you are with Korean contract law, however, the school are not allowed to make any deductions from your paycheck. Agency fees are agreements between the hagwons and the school, nothing to do with the teacher. It is illegal and unethical to charge this to the Teacher. My friend could have contended this but rightly, why would he feel the strength to do this when he was dealing with someone’s passing?
Hagwon Horror Story: Time to Go
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.
I have had some nasty troll comments off the back of this article criticising me for being “irresponsible” or “childish” or whatever else for fleeing. I reiterate – in a normal circumstance, I would have liked to stay in Korea. I would have given my notice period. I would have sat down with the Head Teacher, and the Professional Smile Checker and came to an agreement, but I felt depressed in my situation and afraid of the hagwon. I had seen them take money from other workers already, how could I trust them to come to a reasonable, logical agreement with me?
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 co-workers 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…
If you do find yourself approached or offered a role at Lykeion Language Forum, Suwon, then I urge you to avoid it at all costs. If you need help clarifying as to whether a Hagwon or a Hagwon teaching contract is reputable then please feel free to contact me as I would hate to see someone end up in the same misery as I did.
Hagwon Horror Story:
What to Do if You Find Yourself in an Unbearable Situation
If you find yourself living a real life Hagwon horror story like I did at Lykeion Language Forum in Suwon, I understand how traumatic it can be. The problem is that in Korea you are at the mercy of your hagwon’s administration. You always expect people to act in the correct way but in Korea, there are no government bodies enforcing fair treatment laws for foreign workers at hagwons, and there are many, many hagwons that exploit their workers.
Feel free to reach out to me if you want to discuss your situation with someone. Another useful resource to use is the forum at the Facebook group LOFT: Legal Office for Foreign Teachers . Many members of this group will be happy to discuss and assist you with your specific problem.
Another useful resource is this article on quitting your job in South Korea. Fortunately, the writer was able to leave her hagwon amicably and obtain a letter of release that allowed her to remain in the country and find work elsewhere.
I strongly suggest that you also document any instances of abusive/inappropriate hagwons to the Korean government via this petition. As mentioned, there are currently very few laws protecting foreign teachers in Korea, but by addressing the issue and helping others avoid experiencing the same problems and upset, we can start to initiate positive change.
Hagwon Horror Story: Conclusion
I know that my blog has become very well known in Suwon and Seoul. Honestly, when I wrote this back in 2017, I just wanted to share my experience. I know that I was a good Teacher and I know that my students would have been wondering what happened to “Melissa teacherrr”.
My leaving had nothing to do with a lack of cultural awareness or being an inept teacher or anything like that. I travelled to Korea to teach English and make a difference. I left because I did not feel I should continue working for an employer who treats their staff in such a manner. I left because it was having a damaging impact on my mental health and wellbeing and honestly, I am surprised I stuck the conditions at Lykeion Language Forum for as long as I did.
By the way, if you are considering a role at Lykeion and this hagwon horror story is the post you read first, I strongly recommend reading this Hagwon Blacklist post about Lykeion Language Forum.
Admittedly, this hagwon horror story is just one person’s (my) experience and opinion. In the blacklist post, I have tried to be more informative and have provided evidence of the hagwon’s illegal operation – including excerpts from the contract. It rings alarm bells to me when you consider the fact that there are numerous forums online discussing the illegal contracts, and numerous teachers who have fled over the last few years.
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!