Bad Hagweon Experiences: Teaching in South Korea — A Travel Tale

With only seven and a half weeks left in Korea, I’m stunned that I’ve never described something that is crucially important: my teaching job here in Busan! After all, teaching is the *primary* reason I’m here. But since you can tell from the post title that I’ve had one of those bad hagweon experiences, I guess I might have avoided writing about it for a reason…

Bad hagweon experiences in South Korea were had in this classroom...
Depressing building, late hours, tired kids…

Lousy Job

Well, you should know that I don’t do much teaching. It’s more like babysitting.

I teach at a hagweon, a private school, for about 28 hours per week. Usually one class lasts one hour and I see most classes only once per week. These classes are composed of elementary school students throughout the entire grade spectrum.

A hagweon isn’t a private school as we know it, it’s an after-school school. So all Korean students go to school after the regular school day is done, but this is outside of the governmental education system. There are no curriculums, no standards.

Kindergarten students are there in the afternoon, elementary school students in the late afternoon and early evening, middle school students often stay until 10 p.m., and high school students are often there until midnight. So grateful I don’t teach high school students!

My job in most classes is to give the students speaking tests and help with their pronunciation. So, I must have each student read that day’s test aloud and correct their pronunciation. They are then given study time. Afterwards, each student comes up to my desk and one by one, I ask them a question from the page they’ve been studying, to which they give me the memorized answer. I then evaluate them on their pronunciation (and memory, since they lose marks for forgetting words).

It’s dull and hardly beneficial to the students. I’ve tried to make some changes, but Mr. Kim always makes me go back to the speaking tests.

I’ve got three younger classes who take speaking tests that I see twice a week — the second time around is activity class. This involves playing word bingo or other word games, or going to the park or playground and learning vocabulary there. I find these kids actually do pick up a lot of vocabulary, so I feel that with them, it’s worthwhile.

Otherwise, I’ve got two middle school writing classes, which involves setting them a short essay on an easy topic so that they can practice writing. I don’t actually teach writing, though sometimes I can’t help it.

I don’t find this class very helpful to the students. I haven’t seen any improvement in their writing. If I was allowed to teach writing skills and techniques, perhaps it would be a valuable class, but as it is, they keep repeating the same errors. Which is why I can’t help but teach them something every once in a while…

I’ve also got two middle school conversation classes. We play a lot of the same games as I play with the younger kids in activity classes, because their English is piss-poor and they’re completely unable to string together a sentence in English, never mind have a conversation.

So what I gather is that speaking tests are good early on, but they’ve got to come to a stop earlier than middle school conversation class. Once the students get there, they haven’t learned enough syntax to put sentences together. They can read and understand, but their communication is still inhibited.

And of course, the middle school classes start at 8 or 9 p.m., so no one even wants to be there… I get a lot of attitude from them. I don’t blame them, really…

My job sounds boring and meaningless, right? Right. Well, it is one of those bad hagweon experiences. But…

The Bright Side

Thank goodness for my genius class!

These kids, sixth graders, are almost fluent in English. I teach them speaking, conversation, and writing and I teach them every day. These classes are actually worthwhile and I feel like I’ve taught them a lot.

Our conversation classes can sometimes be really interesting, especially when we get onto the topics of North Korea and environmental issues.

I was pretty surprised yesterday, though, when one girl said that North Korea is gay. Where the heck did she learn that from?

The most amazing thing about this class, though, is that we can joke around in English. It’s great that their knowledge of the language is good enough that they can even make puns! It might seem average, but it takes a lot of comfort with a language to go beyond study terms and necessary words to injecting humour into your communication. I can’t help bragging — I’m really proud of these kids!

It All Comes Back to the Money

Still, it’s demoralizing, having to do a job I know is useless most of the time. And I can’t just quit and find another job; the red tape for doing that is unbelievable, plus my contract stipulates I have to repay flights and certain expenses if I don’t finish my term…

There are other reasons why this has truly been one of those bad hagweon experiences. Like not getting paid on time, or not getting my entire pay cheque at once because of lack of funds. Or finding out that the reason none of the other (Korean) teachers aren’t always all that nice to me is that they haven’t gotten paid in months so that the school can afford to keep me on staff. Or worrying that the school will close and I’ll one day come home from a hiking trip to find all my stuff in the hallway outside my apartment. Turning the corner, it’s always a relief to see the worst of it is that the trash hasn’t gotten picked up.

These bad hagweon experiences are stressful, to put it mildly.

Read plenty of anecdotes about teaching English in South Korea in Memories of a Carnivore.