What ESL teachers in Korea want to tell hagwon owners

What ESL teachers in Korea want to tell hagwon owners

Last night, I spoke with an ESL teacher in Korea…

He’s a good instructor because he combines education and entertainment in his classroom.

He’s well prepared for his English classes, engages his students, and makes sure they have fun while learning a second language.

His qualifications are:

An English degree, a teaching degree and a TEFL certificate.

Now, he’s approaching the end of his 1 year teaching contract.


He told me he’s leaving his school AND Korea.

I told him, “You can’t leave Korea,” because… you’re one of the few sane foreign friends I have in Seoul.

He bluntly answered, “At this point I’d rather teach the president of North Korea English, than deal with my hagwon owner anymore; he’s intolerable on so many levels!

Unfortunately, this sentiment continues in Korea among many foreign English teachers.

You can read all kinds of rants about working conditions at certain Korean hagwons all over the web.

It’s estimated that about 80% of new ESL teachers who hail from the 6 magic kingdoms (US, CA, UK, AU, NZ and South Africa) stay in Korea an average of just 1.9 years.

Many of them list unfair or even horrible hagwon owners as one of their main reasons for calling it quits.

Sometimes leaving before their contract even ends!

Some foreign teachers are so disappointed with the way they’re treated at their schools, that they just leave their school, their students and the country.

(without telling anyone)

While there’s no doubt Korea has improved over the years in terms of better labour laws for foreign teachers.. let’s face it…the more negativity and lack of job satisfaction teachers receive on a weekly or daily basis from their school managers,  the harder it becomes to stay on.

And with social media, these “horror” stories circulate fast!

So, what do teachers really need their hagwon owners to hear?

Here are 9 things your hagwon must know (and that your wise to):

9 things ESL teachers in Korea want their hagwon owners to know

1. Don’t sneak in red days (holidays) as part of my vacation days

Most teachers understand that unused sick days cannot be added to vacation time.

But hagwon owners have no right to inform teachers they can have 10 days of vacation time and lump in 3 days of Chuseok or Lunar New year as part of it.

This means you’re ony getting 7 vacation days instead of 10.

Not fair…

2. Hire more foreign teachers (at least 1 that I can talk to )

I’ve met several teachers who’ve worked at schools outside of Seoul, who teach all day and go home at night having nobody to talk to in their native tongue.

Yes, of course, there are Korean teachers at their schools, but I’m talking about a foreign teacher whom you can have a meaningful conversation without communication barriers.

Having just one other teacher around who is walking in your shoes just to chat with from time to time can make a huge difference in your quality of life in Korea.

3. Don’t put me up in a love hotel (for no more than a couple of days)

I remember when I was first hired by my hagwon. I had to spend the first 5 days in one of these establishments back in 1997 in Gangnam, Seoul.

It was an eye opener for a guy who grew up in a small town.

Watching the Eastern European ladies streaming in and out of the hotel… along with the Korean couples.

You can imagine the racket!

I’ve heard of teachers who were actually put up for weeks or months in these types of accommodations.

Hagwon owners:

Get your teachers safe, clean and comfortable accommodations. It doesn’t have to be the biggest, or newest apartment, villa or officetel. Just something livable!

4. Don’t refuse to give me a “letter of release” from your school

Teacher gets fired or decide to quit and work at a different school for many reasons. Don’t hold it against them!

Hagwon owners who refuse to provide a letter of release are holding grudges.

I’ve know teachers who have written up a LOR for their hagwon owner to sign, but they ignore it.

I’ve heard of teachers who just sign the owner’s name on a LOR themselves, just so they can move on.

Not a best practice, but sometimes it’s their only recourse.

5. Pay me on time and stop overworking me!

Please pay me if you want me to meet with parents or do English level tests for students over and above my teaching and office hours.

Don’t try to avoid paying me overtime.

(especially if these requests aren’t written in my contract)

And please pay me after 30 days of teaching each month NOT 45 days.

I’ve seen hagwon contracts where the school sets their payroll from Jan 1 – January 31, but doesn’t pay the teacher until the 15th of February.

This way if the teacher decides to bail from the hagwon on the last day of the month they’ll lose 2 weeks of pay.

Not sure if it’s illegal, but something teachers should watch out for.

6. Don’t tell me I’ll be working at this school and then send me to a another school

The is a classic  “bait and switch” tactic.

Not sure if hagwon owners do it on purpose, or because they just can’t afford to keep the teacher at his/her original school.

On the other hand, some schools know full well before they hire a teacher of their scheme.

They may even be paid by a partner school to send a teacher to that new school, to generate more profit.

If a hagwon owner has to send a teacher to a different school, or wants to outsource them part of the time, they should at least sit down with the teacher and explain why.

If nothing is communicated it creates bad blood.

7. Don’t make me commute so far to work (it’s exhausting)

Foreign teachers in Korea must adjust to a new time zone, a new job, new food, a new culture and air pollution which can wreak havoc on their immune systems.

Throw in extra long commutes with a couple of bus or subway transfers and it doesn’t take long for even the fittest, twenty something teacher to get run down and sick.

This will definitely affect their performance in the classroom and can have a negative impact on your students’ progress.

Let me put it another way:

Your students (clients) may not enrol at your hagwon next month because of a “burned out” teacher, so you’ll lose them and their money.

Take care of your teachers health … and they’ll make more money for you.

8. Don’t pocket my pension payments.  I’ll eventually find out when I leave your school.

A hagwon owner deducts a teachers pension payments from their monthly payroll and the teacher assumes the owner is contributing to his/her Korean pension plan too.

Then find out later, the owner wasn’t making pension payments at all.

The teacher loses his pension when he leaves the country and the hagwon owner makes no effort to reimburse the teacher either.

But, lastly, and most importantly…..#9

9. Deal with teachers and their issues in a professional manner.

Below is an “open letter” one ESL teacher asked his new hagwon owner to read and sign before he started at his new job. The teacher counter-signed it.

I think this is just one way to set expectations early… and will remind your hagwon owner to act promptly and professionally.

Dear hagwon owner:

While employed by your English academy, and during the full term of my contract if, for whatever reason, I feel the need to express my grievances, kindly allow me to visit your office and speak to you personally (even if through a translator) about my concerns, in an honest and respectful way.

I am your employee. Please listen to me, respect me, and try to help me… and I will do the same for you.

If you don’t like what I say about specific working or living conditions, students, management, or co-teachers… and you are unfortunately, unwilling or incapable of resolving them, then let’s work out an amicable exit strategy for me.

This would only be an exist strategy that is as fair as possible to the both of us, and has limited negative impacts for the students or employees at your school.

Whatever ever happens, happens…. 

But the last thing I want is for us to burn bridges with each other. That’s a lose, lose situation.

I hope this letter helps us better understand each other, clarify expectations, and leads us to a long term and prosperous employer – employee relationship.

Looking forward to working at your fine school!

Your Dedicated Employee

Final Thoughts:

I realize there are many hagwon owners who treat their teachers fairly, but for the purpose of this article, I wanted to address the issues I hear time and time again from teachers.

You know how it goes.. the negative news often overshadows the positive.

Having said that…

If you’ve had a positive relationship with your hagwon, please share your experience.

Would love to hear about it!


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