ESL Teachers in Korea (who break their hagwon contracts)

If you’re an ESL teacher in Korea, and you break your hagwon contract early… there are ramifications.

I’ve compiled some of the different scenarios of why, when and how teachers end their contracts.

Here are my notes:

One of the most common questions foreign English teachers ask is:

“If I give notice to my hagwon that I’m quitting several months before my 12 month contract is fulfilled, will my hagwon fire me immediately and hold back my wages cause problems for me?”

The short answer is yes and no. (More on this in a bit…)

Another familiar question English teachers ask is:

“If I do give notice to my hagwon, how long should it be?”

The short answer is….

That depends.

I’ve heard of ESL teachers who give everything from “no” notice, to 1 week, 2 weeks, 1 month, or even two month’s notice to their employer prior to quitting.

But, how much notice you give your hagwon depends on three things:

1. Your reason(s) for quitting

2. Your relationship with your hagwon

3. Your relationship with your students

What I’m hearing from most EFL teachers in Korea is that two months is what most hagwon contracts state.

If in doubt, check your hagwon contact. I’m sure you’ll find it in the fine print.

If you can’t see a clause your teaching contract, apply some logic and discretion.

I’ll reference employment contracts in Canada or the US (where many of you are from).

In North America, two weeks is the standard for most employment contracts.

If your hagwon complains about this, then reference your country’s labour laws.

If your hagwon owner still argues, then try to agree upon a fair time period.

I think one month is fair (provided a different duration isn’t in your contract)

Most English teachers will say that giving your hagwon notice is simply the right thing to do.

Be a professional and give your school notice. At least 1 month. But, check your contract first!

Unless your school has treated you unfairly, and you’re fearful they may claw back wages, hold your documents from you.. or threaten you, then give them sufficient notice.

If you’ve already taught at your school for many months you’ll have a pretty good idea of how your hagwon owner treats his/her teachers and how he/she might treat you upon hearing your news.

One nice gesture I’ve heard ESL teachers make is to give proper notice (1-2 months) and then help their hagwon find a teacher to replace you.

The obvious risk here is that if you don’t find your school a new teacher, they may ask you to stay longer than you intended.

That is… until they find teacher. I’ve seen this happen.

It can get ugly where the hagwon holds back wages if the teacher wasn’t able to find them a teacher, but leaves anyway once their notice has been served.

Before you give your notice, make sure the school does not have your original degree, passport, ID or anything personal in their possession.

It’s not unheard of for hagwons to hold a teacher’s passport, or university degree at ransom, if they feel they’ve been mistreated by their foreign employee.

Some recent information I’ve heard is that if an employee has worked less than 6 months at their English school in Korea, the employee does not have to give any notice.

It doesn’t make sense to me, from a “fairness to your employer” perspective. Can anyone verify?

Now, if your plan is to teach at another hagwon in Korea after you quit your existing one, you need to be very careful about how you handle your termination notice.

Some teachers will say just collect your final pay check and leave Korea the next day.

Then hand in your ARC card at Korean immigration on your flight out.

We call this a “Midnight Run.”

The reason they’ll suggest a Midnight Run is simply because…..

If you tell your employer you’re quitting before the end of your 12 month teaching contract, they’ll make things very miserable for you before you leave.

(and you’ll wish you had quit without telling them at all)

There’s another scenario where maybe you just started your contract, but haven’t been paid after two weeks or 1 month by your employer?

Maybe your passport is still with Korea immigration and your waiting to get your Alien Registration Card.

In this situation you have no choice but to wait for your passport to be returned. You can’t leave Korea without your passport.

If your passport is at immigration, you can’t open a bank account in Korea, because you need your passport to do so.

So you need your passport to get paid first before you leave!

Here are some other risk in giving notice to your hagwon:

Your Korean school may hold back some or all of your last months pay.

They may even try to deport you by making up a bad story and inform immigration about it.

They may REFUSE to give you a release letter or MAY give you a release letter but in exchange for your last month’s pay.

Your letter of release is important.

Without a signed letter of release from your school, you can’t work at another school until your existing teaching visa has expired with your current institute.

For example, if you quit your hagwon job with 3 months left on your contract without giving your employer sufficient… and don’t get a release letter from them, then you can’t legally work anywhere else until your contract is expired.

Imagine, you’ve quit your teaching job and you can’t get an LOR and you can’t work for 3 months at your new school legally…

How much money do you stand to lose?

Now, I have heard that immigration has a new labour law that states if you fulfill 9 months of your 12 month contract you don’t need a LOR (Letter f Release) from your employer.

In other words.. you’re free to transfer your existing visa over to your job at your new school after 9 months.

This doesn’t happen very often because schools ARE NOT usually happy when you tell them you’re leaving them to go work somewhere else.

Your existing school may ask you to pay them the recruiter fee they paid to hire you.

And if you don’t complete your 12 month contract don’t expect your school to pay for your return flight home.

Even if they don’t stipulate it in your contract, they will most likely deduct it from your last month of pay.

Of course you can go to the Korean Labour Board and argue that you were not paid for your last month’s full pay, but that takes time and will cost you money to fight.

Is it worth it?

I have also heard this question from teachers:

If you fulfill 6 months of your 12 month contract would you still have to pay back your flight to Korea?

I haven’t found an answer to this one, but safe to say… the majority of hagwons would claw back the cost of your flight to Korea even if you taught at their school for 6 months.

Just prepared to pay back the flight value…

Sometimes teachers have no choice but to leave their schools for a variety of reasons:

Perhaps the school didn’t pay them, didn’t take out income tax, or pension, or severance, or health care insurance deductions.

The teacher got a LOR and left the school and Korea right away. Then came in on a tourist visa and got a job at a new hagwon.

Just keep in mind if you didn’t pay these fees on your first contract…you’ll be asked to repay your share of insurances, taxes, or deductions that weren’t paid by your original hagwon.

This isn’t the end of the world, and it shouldn’t be much money and you’re required to pay it by law, so don’t be surprised.

Keep in mind that as soon as your school gives you an LOR, ends your contract and your teaching visa is cancelled, you’ll have 14 days to leave Korea.

When you depart Korea (on or before the 14 days grace period) don’t forget to hand in your ARC card to the immigration office at the airport.

When you come back in to Korea to look for a new English teaching job you’ll be on a tourist visa.

A tourist visa is 6 months for Canadians and 90 days for Americans.

Not sure about other countries.

Once you come back on a tourist visa you have 90 days to look for a new job in korea. Consider your expenses and your accommodations  in Korea though. It can add up quickly if you’re without a job during those 3 months.

Don’t even think about working part-time illegally at a hagwon or teaching privates while you’re looking for a school to hire and sponsor you. It’s not worth it! Two words: Deportation or Jail

The other option is just to leave Korea, and head to Thailand or the Philippines, and get a cheap, comfortable place to stay on the beach while you apply for jobs to Korea from there.

Personally this is how I’d do it. You don’t actually have to return to Korea to get a job. You got your first job in Korea being out of country, didn’t you?

However, some hagwons may not hire you unless they meet you in person. These can often be the better, higher paying jobs.

Something to think about.

If you’re thinking about quitting your hagwon because you just don’t like the place anymore, got a better job offer, or feel your school didn’t live up to what they promised you… here are your options:

Do a Midnight Run. Pass back your ARC card at the airport on your way out of Korea. Then come back in to Korea on a tourist visa and start your job search.

If you leave Korea and come back in on a tourist visa and apply for a new teaching job, you’ll have to get new documents like a criminal records check and degrees apostilled. This could take a month or more.

Give 1-2 months notice to your hagwon. There is a chance they may not give you a Letter of Release and will deduct your flight expense to Korea along with whatever else they see fit.

Be prepared to lose some money.

Think of it as a small penalty to pay for quitting early.

Not much you can do about it except to fight it out with them through the Labour Board. Don’t waste your time and money. Move on!

If your school does give you an LOR then you can transfer your visa to your new school.  Smooth sailing!

Just leave the country (Midnight Run) and try a new country to teach in.

Plenty of teaching jobs in China, Thailand, Vietnam and more!

But, perhaps your safest and best course of action (with minimal damage to you or your hagwon owner in terms of money and reputation) is for you to stay the entire 12 months of your teaching contract.

(provided your hagwon is paying you regularly)

This way you’ll get your 1 month contract bonus, avoid headaches, fulfill your commitment to your school and the students, and leave on good terms.

If you’re lucky enough to get a letter of release from your hagwon and can simply transfer your visa to a new employer in Korea then you probably don’t need to get new documents.

Keep in mind that transferring your existing documents from one job to another  is subject to the opinion of an immigration officer. It’s not 100% guaranteed. Expect the worst.

Anyone have experience good or bad with breaking their Korean teaching contract early and coming back to Korea, or moving on to another country, or even back home?

Please share….

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