First, here are some very basic and general distinctions between the two worlds of teaching in Korea:
Better Work Schedule:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
ESL, Travel, and Judo!