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1. Public School Vs Private school (hagwon)

I should point out straight away that I don’t and never have taught in a Public school. The information here is based on what public school teachers have told me, so make of it what you will.

The benefits of public school teaching are that you get longer holidays, more job stability, and that you’ll probably be in a program where you’ll meet tons of other foreigners at the orientation.

Most of the possible disadvantages that I can think of are subjective ones. For example, teachers in Public schools work with a Korean teacher in the classroom. This might be to some people’s taste, others not so much. I think I’d personally feel a little restrained by the presence of a Korean (adult) in my classroom. It also depends whether they are a good co-teacher or a bad one. Experiences seem to differ greatly. Also, in public schools the class sizes tend to be huge-usually over 30 students per class-and I can imagine this making it hard to connect and bond with the students in the same way that you can in a hagwon where the class sizes are much smaller. One more thing is that hours that you will work. Public school teachers tend to work public school hours, i.e 8.30-3 or 4, while hagwons tend to start and finish later (I used to work 2pm-9 pm). Again, whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage will depend on the individual.

It would be difficult to sumamrise the merits and drawbacks of Hagwon teaching because they vary so much in so many ways. In fact, the unpredictability of hagwons is probably their main disadvantage, Good hagwons incorporate a good general atmosphere, good Korean/western/student relations and a reliable director. The negative features of hagwons can be things like being paid late (or not at all in some cases), being fired on a whim by a mercurial boss, suffering the various impulses of said boss, having to teach kids who’ve already been to school once that day already, a colossal deficit of communication (though I think this might be a facet of public school teaching and by extension, of Korea in general), the inflexibility of holiday times and (if in a small hagwon) living with the possibility of a sudden closure of the school.

2. Check if the school has been black-listed on the internet

Seeing as how teaching in Korea is so popular amongst westerners, it’s no surprise that there are websites (www.ratemyhagwon.com) and facebook groups devoted to telling the world not to teach at certain schools. The lists are by no means exhaustive, but they could be helpful if a school you are considering turns up on one of them.  Another potential way of discerning the good from the bad is to speak to a teacher who is or was at the school before. They may not be totally honest, but they should hopefully give you a good idea about the place. You should be able to request their email address from your contact person.

It’s a sad fact that there are many bad schools to work for in Korea, and there is really little way of finding out which ones not to work for. The directors of the schools will often lie pretty blatantly about their schools, so to get a more balanced opinion it’s certainly a good idea to do some research.

3. Where you’ll be living and where you’ll be working

One of the biggest decisions to make is where you’re going to live. Asides from the obvious question of specific city/town, it’s worthwhile checking on the area of the city you’ll be living in. Ulsan, where I live, is huge, and naturally there are fun areas and not-so-fun areas.

Because the big Korean cities are so large, it’s easy to think you’d be getting all the benefits city life when in reality you could be miles away from anywhere even remotely decent. As an example, my old school advertises itself as being in Busan when in fact it was a 20 minute bus ride just to the very outside of Busan and another 40 minutes to an hour to go anywhere interesting. It’s important that you should research online the areas that you want to live in and stick to your guns.

Always check that your school and house is where you want it to be and don’t take your contact person’s word for it (I find Google Earth is a good way of ascertaining the exact location of the school.

On top of all that, it’s worthwhile asking not only about where the school is but where your house will be. Just because your school is in one area, it doesn’t necessarily entail that your house will be in the same one. Commutes aren’t a huge irritation because public transport is good in Korea, but it would be a disappointment to think that you were living in an area that you’d specifically chosen, only to find out that you’re somewhere else entirely.

4. Holiday Allowance in Hagwons

One of the only gripes I had with my school last year was over the holiday allowance. In my contract it said that I was entitled to 10 holiday days per year in addition to the ten or so public holidays that everyone has off.  I had assumed that I could choose the dates of my holiday. However when I asked my director if I could have a week off in June when my parents were visiting, he said ‘Ohhhh I don’t know about that, I’ll let you know’.

In fact, it took a month of wheedling and persistence to get him to allow me to have 3 days off. His argument was that the holiday days mentioned in the contract are set by the school as 3 days in the summer and 3 days in the winter, plus bonus extra days that were only partially of my choosing. This was debateable. He also said that the school would not be able to cope with losing a teacher for that long.

This system seems to be employed throughout the hagwon system, with different degrees of leniency shown by different directors. To some extent I can sympathise, especially given the paucity of the time Korean workers are given off (http://www.newser.com/story/82094/south-korea-to-workers-take-a-vacation-already.html). However to a westerner who has come out to Korea not merely to work but also to explore Asia, this can be disappointing.

Holiday allowance might seem a trivial thing to base your choice of school on, but it is important to consider if you want to do more in your year in Korea than teach-especially if you live in a drab city. Having the freedom to take time off when you want means you can take proper holidays and maybe even head home to see the family for a while. It’s definitely something worth explicitly asking about before you sign up for anything.

5General

This list has gone on far too long already so I’ll do a condensed version of my other tips

Age Group. Do you really want to teach kindergarteners? Really? Because they’re tiny. I mean, just really small. I speak from experience.

Number of Foreign teachers at the school. Social life is made a lot easier by the presence of other foreign teachers at the school. Work life improves as well as you have someone to talk to (and complain to).

Pay (Average seems to be 2.2 million per month.

School Size Like I mentioned above, very small hagwons (say under 100 students) are more liable to sudden bankruptcy. If this happens you leave with nothing….

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So tomorrow night I will be leaving to return to Korea. After much hand-wringing over whether my visa would arrive on time, I received it this morning, much to my relief.

It was a close shave last year as well, and much of the reason for this can be attributed to the complexity of the visa application process. Admittedly the process has been significantly easier this time around, given that I now have experience of it.

As I have not yet left for Korea, it seems inappropriate to go into too much cultural depth just yet. So for now, I have some advice for prospective English teachers in Korea regarding the pre-Korea stage of a Korean adventure.

As I said, the visa process can be daunting at first, especially given that it must be done piece-meal over a course of at least a month. However, there are a number of websites out there that outline the process more fully and accurately than I could possibly do here. I would recommend using the agency Flying Cows (www.flying-cows.com) who helped me to organise my first trip. If you sign up (free of charge) you gain full access to their member’s area and their team of support staff. They are based in England, but their advice and support has proved to be invaluable.

Towards the end of my time last year in Korea, I was already planning my return. Given that I would have a year of experience on the resume I was working on the assumption that it would be easy to get a good job (and a good salary) this time around. After my return, this quickly proved to be a naïve way of thinking. I guess I had not been banking on how much the economic problems in the west may have affected people’s desire to get away. The Hagwon job market seemed absolutely saturated and I didn’t receive a single offer for over 2 weeks. My second piece of advice is, therefore, to apply to as many agencies that you can find (I tracked down over 40) and badger them ceaselessly about getting you a job. Dave’s ESL café (http://www.eslcafe.com/) is the place to start, but a simple Google search will turn up countless other agents desperate to place you in schools (whether the schools want you or not…). Most of these people will be Koreans with varying degrees of English, but as most of the contact is done via email, this shouldn’t prove to be too much of a problem.

Right, I’m off to pack. Next post will be live from Korea with some photos of my new home.