Hagwon Horror Stories: Why I Left My Korean Hagwon

Hagwon Horror Story Update 2020: 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.

Hagwon Horror Story Update

Four teachers flee the school in March 2019
Four teachers flee the school in March 2019

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. 

A Hagwon Horror Story in Suwon, Korea

Hagwon Horror Story - Numerous teachers have fled from Lykeion in recent years.
Hagwon Horror Story – Numerous teachers have fled from Lykeion in recent years.

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. 

In the more objective post I wrote on this site, I have included a copy of the contract and reviewed its many illegalities. Illegal aspects of the Lykeion contract includes things such as illegal fines, no pension or healthcare, and fees for leaving early.

Additionally, it contains details and messages from those who fled the school more recently. As such, I urge you to review this post if you are considering working at that particular hagwon. 

Hagwon Horror Story:
My Personal Experience at Lykeion Language Forum Suwon

Hagwon Horror Story
These amazing little kids are definitely not the reason that I decided to leave!

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”.

The school I was teaching at was Lykeion Language Forum, Suwon. There is even a post on Reddit  and another on Waygook discussing the illegality of their contracts. Avoid at all costs. 

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. However, I think that it’s important for me not to gloss over my experience. 

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 stories
Hagwon Horror Story

Hagwon Horror Story: Arrival in Korea

Teachers flee the school every year.

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.

In hindsight that should have been a red flag. It was no coincidence that I found myself being treated poorly when the former teacher had conducted a midnight run.

The Apartment in Korea

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 headteacher 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.

Hyper-Criticism and “Board Practice”

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). However, promising that I would make a conscious effort to improve wasn’t enough for them.

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 headteacher 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. Then she would sit down with me and we’d analyse my ‘mistakes’ together.

My boss was clearly abusing her power. Even my coworkers were shocked at the situation. However, no-one ever found it in themselves to stand up for me. In my opinion, this is almost as bad as conducting the wrongdoing yourself.

Trying to Make the Best of a Bad Situation

At this point, I really wasn’t happy with the situation. I had given up my career, my house, and left everything behind to move to Korea.

I wasn’t prepared to just throw in the towel so soon and head home. I tried to make the most out of my time in Korea and take my mind off my work situation.

I was 26 when I moved to Korea. I had given up a great job in strategic procurement, with a respectful salary, generous vacation time, and wonderful perks. I had not left all of that to be treated like a petulant child. 

Hagwon Horror Story
Korea is otherwise a fabulous country and I hope that more people have the opportunity to experience it!

There were many problems that followed on from the board incident. I’m sure that I could write a piece about my Hagwon that would rival my university thesis.

Hagwon Horror Story:
Abusive Staff Member

Numerous teachers have reported issues with the working conditions since I left

There was a Woman, let’s call her “professional smile checker” as that seemed to be the predominant focus of her role. She 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. 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.

Unacceptable Physical Contact

trazy.com

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 headteacher and told him while very upset and he just stared blankly as though it was no big deal.

Abusive Scrutiny

A few days later, Professional Smile Checker came in with a thick bible-like collection of spreadsheets for each foreign teacher to take a look at. What data was stored on these spreadsheets? Why it detailed which pages of the students’ homework books had insufficiently sized red circles.

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. It transpires 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

Hagwon Horror Story:
Getting Sick in Korea

We had five days of vacation a year at the Hagwon. If we got sick, the sick days were to be taken from this allowance.

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. 

Contracting Norovirus

After being at Lykeion Language Forum for six months, I became very sick with norovirus (which I suspect I probably got from a child!). 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. However, the Hagwon made me go to the Doctors to obtain a sick note every day.

I was also made to go to the school to apologise for being ill every day that I was sick. This way, 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. I taught my students by propping myself up on the podium because I felt so weak.

Teachers Documented as Independent Contractors 

To add to that, I discovered that the school was illegally documenting foreign employees as independent contractors. We also 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 vacations, or we had a public holiday, we had to message the school with our whereabouts and itinerary.

Monitored During Days Off

Big Brother is always watching. Sometimes they would have the headteacher 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.

Extreme Micromanagement

The hagwon can dress it up any way they like. They can 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. 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. 

I could never have imagined myself being in a situation like this. I would not believe it unless I experienced it for myself. Various other teachers that have fled the school have contacted me since this post was initially published in 2016 and have said the same thing.

Hagwon Horror Story:
Illegal Deductions from Salary

Hagwon Horror Stories

The only person that I got along with at the Hagwon, a fellow British Teacher, came in distraught one day. He had received 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, it was deducted. Of a final paycheque 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 is 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. 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.

Illegal Fines and Contract Clauses for Leaving a Contract Early

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. I didn’t want the stresses of a legal battle with the labour board. As such, I decided to flee the country.

That sounds dramatic, and believe me, I would have much rather left on good terms. Yet at the time I was so terrified of my Hagwon, I didn’t trust them not to steal my money. I didn’t want to be trapped in my situation any longer so I felt that running away was the only alternative.

Life is Too Short to Stick Abusive Conditions

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? 

The Midnight Run 


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. 

Deterrents to Stop Teachers from Leaving

Hagwons pay their staff on the 10th or the 15th of the month for the previous month. This deters them from midnight running.

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. However, 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 as 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. However, in Korea, there are no government bodies enforcing fair treatment laws for foreign workers at hagwons. Not to mention, there are many, many hagwons that exploit their workers.

Useful Resources to Use

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.

Make Sure You Report and Document Any Abuse in Korea 

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.

Parting Words

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!


Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer and Blogger based in Athens, Greece. She writes for numerous high profile travel publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, Matador Network, The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post.

12 thoughts on “Hagwon Horror Stories: Why I Left My Korean Hagwon”

  1. Oh my god this sounds awful, I don’t know how you coped as long as you did!! I have been teaching English in Japan for 2 years and have had the complete opposite experience. I work directly for the Japanese government so get full healthcare, sick leave, 30 days holiday etc. And my supervisors at the board of education are really kind. I feel really lucky, as I know there are private companies in Japan that also treat their foreign staff badly, but never to the extent that happened to you in Korea. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Yep. They are out there. Hagwon is just the Korean word for private institute but you can find them in other countries too. Like for example in Taiwan they are called buxibans so you could do a search for buxiban horror stories.

    I did both public school and hagwons in Korea. 2 contracts and quite a few sub jobs. My experience in a public school was worse actually.

    I did have kind of a similar experience once. I did work for like a month in a hagwon and when I moved in to the place no one had cleaned it. It was kind of a bummer, but it was just for a month.

    Reply
    • Hey Sean! Yeah, I’m still based in Italy at the moment (though I’ve been travelling a lot recently). I was teaching English at first but unless you have a teaching degree, then TEFL/CELTA teachers in Italy are somewhat restricted in what they can do – schools prefer those with a teaching degree or bilingual Italians so I was effectively freelance, working for two agencies and covering classes or tutoring here and there so I was literally running all over the city working in various places for a couple of hours… Not the most stable or ideal schedule! Now I just work full time as a Writer/Blogger. Do you want to continue teaching? Have you thought about Japan?

      Reply
  3. I’ve just spent the most wonderful year teaching English in a private kindergarten in China, only for my follow up gig to be an abhorrent experience which has seen me leave China and come home. I’m looking into going to Korea and Korean schools so I stumbled across your post whilst searching horror stories. I can’t believe you stuck it out for so long and I’m glad you never let a bad experience get in the way of your sense of wanderlust.

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  4. I totally admire how you manage to stay there, it was probably a worse experience that any teacher could have in a foreign country.

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    • Thanks Gwen – I don’t know either! So happy that I left and regret not doing so sooner. I guess my main reason for staying as long as I did was because I’d left everything (job, apartment, etc) to go to Korea and didn’t have much saved up as a plan B (lesson learned there).

      Reply
  5. You did the right thing. Sadly, I have firsthand knowledge of South Korea, an experience I would not recommend to anyone. Whatever the little good that comes out of experiencing their culture it is no match for the horrendous working conditions that prevail in that country. Some of them are quite comedic, though, such as hogwans trying to get my Kiwi friends to learn an American accent.

    The Korean government, however, is not part of the solution; it is part of the problem. The Korean society is simply decades behind the West in labor relations. Moving to South Korea to work is not a mere trip in space, it is a trip in time.

    Reply
  6. I totally hear you. Good for you to not let other people – less happier than you to bring you down. I lived in Korea for over 7 years. I did return in 2018 for a year but that only lasted about 3 months. I mean the staff were just off the wall. School! It was more like a lunatic asylum. Anyways, good for you. The only down side is that you were not there long enough to have discovered more of the wealth that is the country’s culture, people and natural beauty.

    Reply

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