The Hagwon of Legends (2)


On the plane ride to Korea I read the power points, letters and rules that the school wanted us to look over before starting work. I wrote a letter to the parents of my future students introducing my goals and myself. I was hopeful that this job was going to be great.

When I arrived at Incheon airport I was picked up by a driver, sent by my recruiters, who drove me to a hotel that was being paid for by the school. The new teachers couldn’t move into the apartment immediately because the current teachers were still living there.


When I arrived, I realized that I was going to stay at a love motel. The assistant director was waiting for me outside of the motel. He gave me a T-money card and told me to meet the other new teacher in the lobby at 9 A.M. the following day. He was very awkward but kind, so it made me think that all of my worrying was for nothing.


The next day after meeting my new coworkers, we went to another branch of the BM school that was located in the outskirts of Seoul. We were able to shadow teachers from the other school and see how the kids had learned. I think all of the teachers were optimistic at that point.


After we finished having lunch, the principal of both schools, Miranda, came to talk to us about what our duties were going to be as teachers. She handed us binders with our schedules, lesson plan examples, teaching guides, PPT outlines and so much more. I was entirely confused. I also didn’t understand why three days out of the week I worked from 9 to 5 with no breaks. Where was the prep time? Why would I be teaching until 5pm if my students were only Six-year-olds? I was so confused with everything that I couldn’t focus on her explaining anything. The first day only served to show me I was way over my head with this job.


When we arrived back at the motel I was trying to start lesson planning, I didn’t want to fall behind. I also didn’t want to admit to anyone that I felt I had made a mistake by taking this job. That same night as I was messaging my boyfriend, I received a message from one of the other teachers asking me if I felt over whelmed. I was so shocked to find out that it wasn’t only me. She was a trained teacher from the U.S. and had prior experience teaching kindergarten in the States, so if she felt overwhelmed I felt my worries were justified.


Shortly after, I received a similar message from a new friend I made at the other BM school, Sam. She and I both taught in public school in Korea before decided to switch to a hagwon. We both agreed on how overwhelming this hagwon experience was. I felt bad for feeling this but I was glad I wasn’t the only one who felt lost.


The following day all of us went to the BM school near Jamsil to shadow the teachers there. Some of the teachers wanted to meet their future students and others were more focused on asking for advice and materials for their new class. I wanted to know as much as possible about teaching kindergarten students from someone who had taught the same level I was going to teach. I shadowed a teacher that gave me plenty of advice and materials to use. Seeing as how I was getting along so well with her, I felt like I could ask why she had decided not to renew. She told me she needed a change in atmosphere. A lot of the teachers who were not renewing mentioned something similar.


Though for all of great teachers at this school, there was also one teacher who wanted to see us all burn. As it turned out, she was the teacher that my recruiters recommended I talk to. When I was still in America I asked her what the school was like, break times, prep time and if they were honest people. Of course she said nothing but good things. She seemed like a genuinely helpful person, that is, until I actually met her.


Her name is Alice and power flaunting is what she lives for. Alice is possibly the most conniving hypocrite I have ever met. She tried to come off as sweet, overly happy and helpful but in reality she wanted everyone to know that she was the head teacher. She wanted everyone to know she held power above us.


Alice had been telling some new teachers that they were supposed to have two weeks worth of lesson plans ready by the end of our shadowing week. That meant we had two days to finish six lesson plans. We were already confused and stressed, so her adding more work was sending us into a tizzy. I was so shocked that I asked Miranda if it was true but she told me that we only had to do one week’s worth of plans.


I was lucky to have listened to one of the prior teachers who suggested I just use her old lesson plans as guides or just copy it all together. I thought I was starting to get the hang of the lesson plans until Alice came over to “check on me”. “Um yeah… Here at BM we like to make our lesson plans sound fun and happy, you know? So the parents and the kids get excited when they see it. So make sure you add some cute, fun clipart okay?” Alice said my wording was too direct and not fun. She wanted me to do the whole thing over. I was angry and frustrated but I had to remember I was new and maybe things ran differently at this school. I kept trying to pretend I didn’t dislike her and she was just being helpful. Eventually I found out she liked to make more work for us than there needed to be.


The first weekend in Korea wouldn’t even be used to rest. That Saturday was an open house for the parents of our students to come and meet the teachers. We had to introduce our coteachers and ourselves (although it was stressed they were NOT co-teachers but rather “teaching partners”). That Saturday I thought that instead of the mandatory lunch we had to go to with the staff and the former teachers (who were smart enough to ditch) I would take the time to remake my lesson plan. I tried to come in early but instead ended up being late.


I was the only teacher who had not been assigned a coteacher so I was hoping that when I arrived I would meet her. After a few minutes, a Korean woman walked into the office and said she was the new coteacher. I was happy to meet her and I finally felt like I did not have to worry as much.


I was told during the “orientation” that besides making the lesson plans, we had to make all of our teaching materials and decorate our classrooms accordingly. It was quite an overwhelming task considering that there wasn’t a lot to work with, this included laminating paper, computers, projectors, etc. If you order materials it would arrive two or three weeks later. Not to mention that sometimes we would have to share or buy our own materials. I was overwhelmed with decorating my classroom, making materials, writing the lesson plan and making the materials for the activities. Now that I had a coteacher I felt a little less pressure. I thought she and I would get along well.


After our short introductions and a lot of awkward talking to the parents, I got to know the newest teacher to arrive, Lawanda. She missed the orientation because she had just finished her last day of work that Friday and immediately came up to Seoul on Saturday. Something told me we were going to be great friends. I look back on it now and I am so glad she and I became friends, I don’t think I would have been able to handle so much stress and backstabbing if it wasn’t for us being able to talk and exchange information.


During the staff lunch the director of BM made a toast to the teachers leaving and she introduced herself to all of the new teachers. She seemed like a sweet woman who cared a lot about her work and the children. She sweet talked us and made us feel welcomed. It made me feel bad about having thoughts of leaving the hagwon, so I didn’t mention how stressed Lawanda and I were and the regrets we were having when she came and talked to us.


After taking a break Sunday, I returned Monday to find out that my coteacher had quit. I was getting very nervous. I was assigned to a group of 6-year-olds, who spoke no English, and I had the largest group, which consisted of fifteen children. It may not seem like a lot but the thought that, for someone of them, it would be their first time in school was a little daunting without any help. When I asked why she had quit, the other coteachers said she wasn’t trained or informed properly about the position and there was no way she was ready to take on that much responsibility. I felt a jolt go through my body. ‘Maybe she had the right idea. I can still get the hell out of here’ I thought to myself. But I refused to go home and feel like a failure just yet.


Later that day I asked the principal when I was going to go on my visa run. I told her that my recruiter said I would go when I arrived in Korea, probably before classes started so I can work with no problem. Miranda said that because the first week was crazy and hectic, it would be best to hold off until the following week, after the children got to know me. I reminded her, as politely as possible, that I would be working on a tourist visa, which was not allowed. I also wanted to get it done so I would be able to get a new ARC and thus get phone service to talk to my parents and boyfriend. Miranda said she understood but that I also had to think of the school’s position on this.


I realized a lot of us were still coming back late to our motel rooms after work. We were only getting paid around $25 to $30 a day for our “orientation” and we were staying well into the night ever since we starting working on our lesson plans. We were working for free all of those hours.


Two or three hours after I got back to my motel room I received a message from Sam asking me if I understood what was going on or if I was still at school working. I asked why and she said she was still working. It was already 10 P.M.

Sam was trying to stay positive but I was already starting to lose hope. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to tell anyone I was really considering quitting half way through the year to apply to public school. Would I be pathetic? Should it matter? I knew I would be embarrassed to go back home and admit I failed.

Finally the day came for us to move out of our motel rooms and into our new apartments. I knew nothing would compare to the amazing apartment my school had provided for me in Mokdong. A giant *officetel with a shower separate from the rest of the bathroom, it was a luxury few of my friends had. I was preparing for the worst.


The assistant director drove us himself to our new apartments. When it as my turn and he pulled up to the building where my apartment was waiting for me, my face immediately washed over with disappointment. I was going to live in a villa.The building had only five floors, which at least meant I wouldn’t have to climb too many stairs. He opened the door and I could see the whole apartment from there. There was a giant dresser next to the kitchen sink and on the right was a sliding door the separated a small bed from the kitchen. The only things in my bedroom were a small table, a chair, a small bed and broken clothing rack. When I looked inside the bathroom it was my worst nightmare a showerhead on top of a sink. The only good thing about the apartment was the giant washing machine, but that was it. It was basically a goshiwon*

After my disappointment, I figured I should go back to school to finish preparing. It was supposed to be our only day off that week because it was a holiday, but the school said it was on us if we weren’t prepared for our first day. No one wanted to make a bad impression.

After putting in at least five to six hours of work I decided to call it a night. On our walk back to our apartments, Lawanda and I started talking about our workload.

I wasn’t so sure how much I could trust her so I starting dropping hints that I thought I might go back to public school. We stopped walking and she told me she had called a family member telling them she wasn’t sure why she was still there. She said she had considered just running away from the contract. I told her some of the teachers mentioned it was only this bad at the beginning of the year because we had to prepare but that it would get better. Maybe we were making a big deal out of nothing. I felt like I was trying to lie to her to make myself feel better too. She told me if things kept going the way they were, us leaving the school around 8 or 9 P.M., she wasn’t going to make the year.

I told Lawanda that we should at least try for 6 months at the school so that way we didn’t have to pay the deposit, the flight ticket or the recruiter fees that the contract mentioned. We both agreed that we would try to stay for the next six months and then leave or move on to a different job but I knew she was serious about leaving before that.


After endless preparation, teaching and finishing our first official work week we still couldn’t relax the weekend. We had to go to an orientation with all of the BM teachers in Korea. Apparently headquarters wanted to train us properly. The orientation started at 9 A.M. to 4 P.M. both Saturday & Sunday and it was mandatory. Miranda said if we felt prepared enough we didn’t have to attend but it was mandatory. I debated with myself if I should go or not. I resolved it by deciding that I would attend Saturday but not Sunday.


My coworkers and I went together that Saturday morning to Sinchon, where the meeting was being held. One of the directors flew in from Canada, because the emersion school is Canadian, just for the orientation. The reality was that the whole program was a waste of eight hours. There was so much useless information and plenty of videos. All I learned was that BM had already made guides for us to copy and make our lesson plans out of. Something Miranda neglected to mention during our orientation. I was so irritated with the waste of a day I actually had to go for a drink for the first time in my life.


Going back to the work on Monday I realized a lot of these tips were useless. We were told that we shouldn’t just print out worksheets but make tons of crafts. How could we make so many crafts with little to no materials? How are we supposed to teach phonics or reading without any books? My problem was that my students didn’t know the alphabet but were expected to already start an advanced reading program. I was completely overwhelmed.


My schedule was terrible, I worked three days from 9 to 5 with a one-hour break, which was used to plan and create materials. We also worked an hour for free which didn’t count as overtime. The BM director said we weren’t technically teaching, just helping, so we couldn’t get overtime. I was just starting the third week into my contract and I knew I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew I was reaching my breaking point when the stress and work caused me to get sick with bronchitis.


I told my new coteacher, Ms. S., that it was too much work and I was not sure how I was going to keep dealing but I was hoping the workload would lighten up soon. She told me that because she had worked at a BM school before, she knew it was going to get worse. That’s why she had quit the first time. She said she only took the job because she needed the money and that the director begged her to come. I was getting incredibly scared. I told her that if I couldn’t handle it, I was going to quit and look for a new job. She said to warn her before doing that. I told her I would and not to worry, that I felt I would be able to adjust in a matter of time. What I didn’t know was that Ms. S. went to the director, behind my back, and told her everything I said.


Later that same day the director called me into a meeting. She mentioned that Ms. S. talked to her out of concern. She asked me why I had wanted to leave for public school. I told her I was very overwhelmed and working late almost every day. I had spoken out of frustration. I also really thought that I wasn’t doing a good job as a teacher. I told her that I knew I could do better and become less frustrated with time but that everything was over whelming me then. I was thinking on the spot to try and save myself from drowning. I just managed to convince myself to stay until August but now I had to convince the director. Ms. S. had just thrown me to the wolves.


I said I would work hard to get used to the hagwon system. All I wanted in return was for them to send me on the visa run. I felt I would be less stressed because I wouldn’t have to worry about my immigration status. The director said that because there was no one to cover my classes she couldn’t send me to Japan yet, but that as soon as a new teacher would arrive, she would send me on the visa run.


I left the room nervous and worried. On one hand the director seemed understanding and told me she was there to “support “ and “help” us but on the other she denied my visa run again. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that I made a big mistake trusting my coteacher. All I could do was brace myself for the abuse that was to come and start thinking of a way out.


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