Teach English in Korea: Public School Or Private Hagwon?

From the get-go, there was never a question in my mind that I would only come to Korea if I worked in the public school system, known as EPIK (English Program In Korea).  After speaking with former teachers and watching a number of Youtube videos, I narrowed my efforts to applying for the EPIK program only.  There is no correct choice, or better choice for that matter.  However, there is a better choice for you and for me individually.  My choice was EPIK, though there are many who work in hagwons and have great experiences to tell.  However, since this blog is my little piece of the world, I'd like to share with you the reasons why I chose to go with the public school system's EPIK program.

First, here are some very basic and general distinctions between the two worlds of teaching in Korea:

Ø         Public school is South Korea's department of education.  Just like any other country.  It's wholly supported by the South Korean government.  EPIK is a specialized program within the department of education.
Ø         Hagwon (학원) is a private business entity whose business is education.  Every Hagwon will be run differently and contracts will vary from school to school. 

Better Work Schedule:

  1. R&R - The main reason I chose to go with public schools is because of the schedule.  I wanted to have my nights and weekends free so I could do the activities I like to do or just relax during the evenings.  Trying to fit in free time activities somewhere in the middle of the day would be uncomfortable for me.  For some, it's the only way to live.  I also wanted to keep my regular sleep schedule.  By this I mean time to ramp down in the evening, eat, surf the internet and chill until I fall asleep.  I know that if I came home at 10 or 11 p.m. I would still be wound up and not be able to fall asleep.  If you don't teach morning classes, then it doesn't matter since you can sleep in - again a personal choice.
  2. Set Number of Classes - public school teachers are responsible for teaching 22 standard classes per week (those during normal school hours), plus some before/after school conversation classes.  Most teachers teach a total of about 25 classes per week.  That's the requirement of the program.  However, hagwons may expect a teacher to teach more classes.  In fact, I know some teachers that teach many more classes per week than I do.  For example, EPIK teachers teach 4-5 classes total each day including open conversation classes.  My friend teaches between 7-9 classes each day.  That's a lot!  The number of classes taught can also change without notice in a hagwon.  Public schools won't change unless for a very unique circumstance.
  3. Overtime - If you do teach more classes for any special reason, you will be paid overtime in public schools.  There's no guarantee of receiving overtime pay with a hagwon from what I've heard.  Also, if a new program arises, EPIK will pay you for taking part in it.  For example, I also teach Saturday classes for a new EPIK initiative called SAM (Science, Art, Math in English).  For that, all teachers are paid above and beyond their standard, contractual pay.

Job Stability:

There are instances of hagwons closing prematurely or even unannounced.  Remember, they are private businesses and if they don't generate enough profit to cover payroll, rent, and utilities they have to close their doors.  Teachers have been left in the cold and without pay because of these unfortunate (though rare) circumstances.  It was still a risk I didn't want to take being on the opposite side of the globe.  Public schools are backed by government funding, so this won't happen.
That being said, EPIK/GEPIK teaching opportunities are slowly shrinking.  In Seoul, the number of jobs was cut drastically.  However, EPIK will never cut a teacher prematurely and leave them to fend for themselves if emergency cutbacks need to be made.  They will hire less new teachers, and try to move a current teachers to a new location to finish out their contract.
The EPIK program is likely not going anywhere.  It is part of the South Korean educational curriculum and will be so for many years to come.  Though cutbacks may occur (as in any other industry), they will not allow foreign teachers to be stranded.  It only makes sense to take care of their EPIK teachers to protect the reputation of the program so they can continue to attract qualified talent in the future.  I have seen no evidence of anything other than this.  EPIK is a solid, professional, respectable program and employment opportunity.

Contract Consistency:

There is only one contract in the EPIK program.  That means the thousands of other teachers will be familiar with the same details in their contract.  If you have a question, you can usually just ask any EPIK teacher and the information will be the same.
Each hagwon has a slightly different way of operating and this can be reflected in the way the contract is penned.  Though "essentially" similar, if you have a specific question about your contract, you may be alone in trying to find an answer.
As I watched videos and sent emails to people already in Korea, perused forums, etc., I started to realize that this was another potential issue I wanted to avoid.

No Sales/Marketing/PR to Attract New Students:

This is one topic I had heard about and still hear about that really makes me glad I went the public school route.  Sometimes in order to attract new business, teachers will be asked to have after school open houses, hand out flyers, or any marketing effort that can bring in new business.  All with the stipulation that a bonus would be received - sales and marketing 101.  That was just something I didn't want to be part of coming to Korea for the first time.  I knew that if there was one thing I didn't want looming over my head was trying to make numbers or increase enrollment.

Better Choice for References and Credentials:

Aside of work schedule and avoiding marketing pressures, the biggest reason I went with public schools is for future references and credentials.  Everbody everywhere knows what a public school system is.  There's no need to explain.  If I had a reference letter from EPIK and my school, it would be easily verifiable and recognizable.  I felt that if some horror story happened and the hagwon I worked for closed I'd have no way to get references for future plans.  Most hagwons are likely set up to provide professional references and I'm sure they do every year, but I just felt more comfortable going the EPIK/public school route.

The Flip Side:

There are benefits to going with the hagwon too.

  1. Firstly, hagwons tend to pay more on average than public schools.  The horror stories of closings and things of that nature are fewer than one might think.  Most are reputable, successful businesses and I'm sure there are vetting processes by the government before someone can just go open a private academy.  Hagwons are widespread in Korea, so you gotta take the bad with the good sometimes.
  2. Secondly, hagwon opportunities are also more readily available throughout the year and if you're looking to get started right away, you're sure to find a hagwon opening somewhere at any time.  Public schools have only two intake times - spring and fall.  If you're anxious to get up and go, then a hagwon is your best bet.
  3. Lastly, if public school openings continue to shrink there will be a growing demand for hagwons.  With or without the EPIK program, it has become clear to me that Korean parents absolutely want English taught to their children by authentic English speaking teachers.  If they can't have it during regular schools hours via the EPIK program, they will look to a hagwon for the same thing.  This demand will be picked up by current hagwons, or additional ones will be opened.

Is one better than the other?  Yes, for me.  But not for everyone.  As my brother likes to say, "that's why there are different flavors of ice cream at the store".  Some people do prefer hagwons for their own reasons. For the reasons I wrote above though, going with the public school system has definitely been the right choice for me.

the Red Dragon Diaries

ESL, Travel, and Judo!


Re: Teach English in Korea: Public School Or Private Hagwon?


lots of what you say between the two in comparison to each other is true. i differ in opinion when it comes to R&R. when i worked for epik, i managed to get my summer and winter vacations off. but obviously some bad seeds took advantage, and they systematically eliminated that. having 10/11 or 9/10 days off during the breaks whilst the korean counterparts get the full 35-40 days off is not what i'd call getting the good end of the deal.
sure the contract is consistent, after working there for 12 years, you begin to see a pattern very early on. EPIK contracts and hagwon contracts aren't different. I've read the same stuff in all the contracts i've signed: same perks, same rules etc etc etc. 
if any job would offer me a car, a cell phone, a laptop computer and gauranteed time off like the 2 months i have approaching at the end of october, i may, just may take them up. of course, as a teacher trainer, 2.5 million won, just won't cut it.
yeah they don't advertise for students, but you still do lots of extra things and almost ALWAYS at the last bloody minute.
an aside: referrals my ass, i worked for epik for 3 years, they shifted 3 teachers as my main korean co-teacher.  let's face it, its public ed, its government, AND its korean, the minute you don't agree, you don't get nuthin. which i didn't. 
i blacklisted an employer in korea when i was in my 20's, it bit me in the ass in the future, but i wouldn't hesitate now at 40 to do the same thing to the bogus 'epik program'. just because i don't agree with "the boss".
korean teachers i worked with were fantastic people, overworked and under appreciated as are many in hagwons and the public school system. bottom line, it ain't that great a job. 

Re: Teach English in Korea: Public School Or Private Hagwon?

It is a downer to have to come to school and sit there when noone else is there.  I think next break I'm going to do some great videos in my empty school!

My goal isn't to paint EPIK as flawless.  No program or company is.  But by and large, it is a better thing for me than a hagwon would be.  Again, the schedule is the main reason.  The people related issues will be there no matter what you do.  So I just roll with those just the same as if I was sitting in a corporate cubical somewhere back home.

Hopefully, I'll be able to get great references from both my school and EPIK.  12 years is an incredible commitment so you definitely deserve something.