I have changed names in this blog post due to protect the privacy of others and to prevent legal problem.
It’s been 3 months since I left the U.S. to go to South Korea and I made the decision to come back to America. Those past three months were a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from fast enough. Between the job, my living situation and some personal experiences, it turned out to be an incredibly hard time for me.
I will explain some of what happened without getting to specific, but I hope that my experiences serve as an example for others looking for work in Korea.
A few months ago I had decided to make the difficult decision to go back to South Korea. I decided I wanted to go to graduate school at a near by University but I would need money. Seeing as how I wanted to go to school and I also wanted to go back to Korea, I thought it would be a good idea to teach again but this time I wanted to go the private route. For those of you who don’t know what a hagwon is, it’s similar to a cram school except they are considered private academies in Korea.
Hagwons have pretty bad reputations among both foreigners and Koreans. However, hagwons are definitely the way to make money, they pay a lot more than public schools, but there is a good reason for that. Many hagwons work long hours, with little to no breaks and prep time. There are also stories of employees being treated terribly; not getting paid on time, fired for no reason and the list goes on. So it seems insane that I decided to make that decision right?
Well there is such a thing as a “good hagwon”, I have met people who genuinely liked their hagwon and would not trade it for a public school. I have even met a public school teacher that decided to go into a hagwon and is happy with her place of work.
I also decided I wanted to go the private route because I wanted to get some experience teaching kindergarten. You cannot work in the public school system and teach kindergarten, so my only chance to do that would be to work at a hagwon.
I thought I could find a good hagwon because I knew the typical work hours that would work for me, the pay, the conditions that are acceptable and the way the contract should look and be stated. I thought that it would serve me well when it came time to chose, I had no idea what it wouldn’t matter in the end.
I was still skeptical of how it could turn out with the job hunt so I decided to use a recruiter. I tried a few recruiters because some seemed unreliable, and others never bothered to contact me back, it seemed like everything was stacked against me. Finally I received responses from two different recruiters. One of the recruiters immediately found a job with an SLP hagwon near Seoul University. I interviewed with them and they talked to the recruiter to hire me. I received the contract and looked it over. Although I knew what to look for I thought it couldn’t hurt to have my friend look it over since she was better acquainted with Korean laws. She looked it over and told me some of her concerns; among them was the lack of breaks and prep time. Officially I had no prep time and only an hour of break, which happened three times a week.
I discussed this with the recruiter and decided to drop the school because they were not willing to budge on their decision. Although my recruiter was very kind and helpful I decided to try a different recruiter.
I received a message from another recruiter shortly after this incident, TeachESLKorea. I read plenty good reviews and they seemed enthusiastic to try to help me to find a great school, so I felt at ease with them. I tried to focus solely on jobs in Seoul, so it did make the process of looking for jobs more challenging. One of the recruiters presented an English emersion school that seemed ideal. The hours looked like a nine to five, I wouldn’t work past thirty teaching hours and the pay was fantastic. I felt like if I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity then I would regret it.
I received two interview dates with two separate branches of the same school. A friend from Korea messaged me right before the interviews and asked how the job hunt was going. I mentioned the school I was about to interview with and she told me the name sounded familiar to her. She messaged me back a few minutes later to tell me her friend had just finished working at one of the schools. My friend mentioned how her friend had been tricked into paying for an apartment that was supposed to be promised to her, over worked and that one of her colleagues had gotten into a physical altercation with a higher up at this particular school. Immediately after I heard that I decided to cancel my interviews.
I told my recruiter what my friend had told me. My recruiter told me I had to take what she said with a grain of salt. I mentioned that because it happened to a person I knew, I was not going to take it lightly, and there would be no reason for her to lie to me. Why would I believe the school, a recruiter or a stranger over someone I knew? (I actually had met my friend’s friend) He told me that even though I knew her, I should try and interview with the schools and then see what happens. (I’ll call this school, BM) I figured if they were the same company, I could not trust either BM schools, so I refused both schools.
After a few weeks of waiting and not receiving any other offers, I started to worry. I knew that even though you can get a hagwon job throughout the year, the best pickings come right before March and August. My time was running out.
I decided to tell my recruiter that I would be willing to interview for the BM schools and that maybe he was right. They immediately contacted the schools and set up interviews. I was shocked that both schools were still looking for teachers 3 weeks right before the beginning of the school year.
I interviewed with the BM school in Yongsan first, although the pay and the apartment promised seemed great, I got a strange feeling from the director that interviewed with me. An hour interviewing with the Yongsan BM, I interviewed with the Songpa BM.
The person who interviewed with me spoke flawless English, which seemed like a great sign. She mentioned the school was not textbook-based like other schools, that I would normally teach one main kindergarten class and have enough prep time. She later said that I would also teach some afternoon classes but it wasn’t every day. We both agreed that I would be a good fit for the school and she immediately offered the position to me. She told me the only condition would be that I would have to be in Korea within the next four days.
That was shocking to my family and I because we knew there were still two weeks until the start of the new semester. I still needed to get my working visa but they wanted me to rush to South Korea? My recruiters told me I would have to go on a Visa run when I arrived in Korea so there could be no problem
It seemed rushed but I thought it made sense and it was the right thing to do. I had also wanted to make it back to Korea in March because my (now ex) boyfriend was coming back to Korea. I hate to admit that I partially wanted to go back to see him but I was willing to do whatever it took to see him. I talked to my parents and let them know that I would be leaving for Korea in three days. My parents told me that it was too soon and that something was probably going to go wrong. I thought the same thing but I didn’t want them to know I was unsure of my decision. I reassured them that the school would let me go on the visa run the first or second week I was in Korea so I could get my ARC immediately and then I would be able to communicate with them.
My father was entirely against me going back to Korea and trying to work at BM hagwon. I understood his feelings but I reassured him that if anything seemed to be going wrong or that if I felt I was in danger at any point, I would come home. I never thought I would make good on that promise.
I hastily prepared for my trip to Korea. My recruiters messaged me that the school figured out the date I was going to fly out and that they found a decently priced airplane ticket. I checked out the information and noticed it was a connecting flight. The waiting time was about 4 to 5 hours, which would make my flight time almost twenty to twenty-one hours. It seemed incredibly strange to me that they would even look for the flight, so I looked for a shorter one that flew directly from New York to Incheon. I messaged my recruiters and they told me that the school had already picked the flight and that if I wanted to change it, I would have to pay the difference.
In my contract it mentioned that the flight allowance was up to $700, so I figured that paying for a ticket that was $800 wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately because they found a ticket around $600, I would have to pay the difference from $600 to $800. The instant they told me I would have to pay more than I thought, I considered dropping the school. ‘ If the school is acting this cheap now, is it even worth it? *SMOE never did this to me. Should I still do it?’ *Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education
I thought it over for a day until I decided that it might have been a seldom case and that maybe I was overthinking it. I went against my better judgment and bought the ticket. It was official, I only had the weekend left in the United States and then I would be heading off to Seoul, South Korea that Monday.