So You Want to Come to Korea Part 3: Public school vs. Private academy

Ok, so I know I said I’d have this here by the end of the weekend, but it’s the weekend somewhere right? Or is that it’s 5pm somewhere? I don’t know, and I doubt you care readers. You’re too eager to hear about the differences between working for a public school and a private academy (or hagwon as they are known).

Let’s begin.

Working Hours

Working hours are probably the most noticeable difference at first glance.

Public schools, as I’m sure you can guess work to the normal school hours, beginning at 8:30ish and finishing around 4. For the early risers among you this might be the better option, however, bear in mind that getting to school by barely-conscious-o’clock can often mean getting up at 6:30 or 7, as your housing probably won’t be next door to the school.

Most hagwons work in the afternoon as the kids are busy being educated by their real teachers for the morning. So, you will most often find a hagwon working from 2 until 9 or 10 at night. This suits me just fine, as I like to get up around 10am. Actually, I’m not sure this isn’t just the result of working these hours, having spent the last 16 years jumping out of bed at 6:50 to squeeze in breakfast and a nap before leaving for school or college.

Class Schedule

Next, we’ve got the schedule of classes you are to teach. In hagwons you will probably have mostly class hours for your day. Usually this is 6-7 classes depending on the hagwon. During this time you may or may not have planning periods or time to do work like report cards. This isn’t an issue for me as I do have time to plan, and I am spared the responsibility of report cards.

Public school is a very different kettle of fish altogether. In a public school, teachers, or at least foreign teachers, are only in lessons for about 5 periods. Following the classes you have to remain in the school and prepare for the next day’s lessons. Often this turns into ‘deskwarming’ or online game time, I’ve been told, as the Korean teacher prepares most of the lessons. I shall have to reserve my bitter comments on this one as many of my friends teach in public schools.

Personally, I’m not a fan of having someone looking over my shoulder and dictating what and how I teach so rigorously, so I chose hagwon. At least, that’s what I tell myself now, as I came to Korea after the recruiting for public school positions had closed until the following September. Which brings us right up to the next point.

Applicant Intake 

Public school recruit twice per year, once in January/February, and then again in August. Needless to say you should have found your recruiter and have everything ready to go by this time as that’s when they fly everyone to Korea to begin training. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on what training involves, but I can surmise it involves the indoctrination of the teachers to believe it’s public school or nothing. I joke, truly this orientation is a run down on teaching methods, and a time to get used to being in Korea before beginning work.

Hagwons on the other hand, recruit year-round. Obviously, some months are busier than others, such as May and September. Usually, schools recruit one to two months before they need a teacher and then fly you out just before you start work. This can be intense. Going from Ireland to Korea and beginning work the next day was definitely a shock to the system.

Job Security

Once again, I’m going to have to admit the public school teachers are in somewhat of a better position on job security. Public schools rarely close and fire all of their teachers, so you have comfort in knowing your job is guaranteed for the time you are contracted. Although if word on the street is true, these positions are becoming more and more difficult to find.

Due to the nature of the hagwon beast, i.e the private education business, hagwons can begin to lose business and may let teachers go. Some do pay their teachers late and try to get away with shirking certain responsibilities. As such, I recommend talking to the teacher you are replacing before accepting anything. Ask in your interview if you can. If the school says no, ask why. There may be a reason they don’t want you to talk to them. Also, ask if the director speaks English. This can save a lot of drama, as messages have been known to be incorrectly communicated.

Vacation Time

Finally, it comes down to the vacation days. In a hagwon, you will usually get 8-10 paid vacation days as appointed by the school. These may not be days of your choosing, or they might be at the end of your contract (meaning you finish 8-10 days early). This can seem like a real drag, especially seeing the public school vacation.

Public school vacation is very nice. You get one vacation in summertime and another in the winter. These usually commence following a week or two of winter teaching camp. You’ll hear the odd story of complaint that a teacher had booked a holiday before consulting their boss about when their vacation actually was, and then pitching a fit when they can’t get the time off. Pros and cons to everything I guess!

I’m not sure if this makes public schools look far superior to hagwons, but I assure you that if it does, that was not my intention. I really love working my current job in a hagwon. The style of teaching suits me, and the freedom of having some wiggle room in the way you teach the material is refreshing. You can change a lesson if it didn’t work with one class, or improve on the bits you felt let you down.

No matter which you choose, teaching in Korea is definitely a wonderful experience, and I would recommend it to almost anyone… Well, maybe not anyone, but anyone thinking of TEFLing abroad shouldn’t discount the idea!

Click here for Part 1 or here for Part 2 of my guide for coming to Korea!


6 thoughts on “So You Want to Come to Korea Part 3: Public school vs. Private academy

    • Thanks Allison! It’s kind of just a gathering of many things I’ve read and been told by many other teachers, so I can’t take credit for being a font of knowledge 😉

      I wish I had read it before I jumped onto the next jet and landed over. Although, I probably still wouldn’t change things! How about you?


  1. Very good and informative! I’d like to help out a bit with the public school perspective, I hope that’s okay!

    -You teach a maximum of 22 classes per week (40 mins at elementary, 45 mins at middle school).
    -My shortest day is only two classes, my longest is 5. Usually classes are spaced out quite nicely so you have plenty of free classes during the day. So there is a lot of desk time which is great if you want to do online courses (or waste hours on Facebook!)
    -The co-teacher relationship varies a huge amount. I know people who feel like glorified babysitters because the co-teachers don’t let them do much teaching, and others who have really nice, cooperative relationships. In my case (middle school) my co-teachers just sit in the back on laptops or reading a book. I like doing all the planning and teaching myself but classroom management can be tough.
    -You get 8 days off in Summer and 10 in Winter, and 5 bonus days if you renew.
    -I think a big advantage of Hagwons is that you can know what you’re in for more than with public schools, by speaking to current teachers etc. With EPIK you only know your MOE of POE (metropolitan or provincial office of education). You don’t find out your school until the last day of orientation. So you could be in the back arse of nowhere with a big commute, or in the middle of the city within walking distance to school, you just have to hope for the best. Another is that you are likely to have smaller classes at Hagwons (I have up to 35 and that can be hard to manage) and are more likely to work with other foreigners so you feel like less of an outsider.
    -Orientation is 10 days long and fairly intense but in a good way. There are lectures about teaching , Korean culture, Korean language classes, a Taekwondo class and cultural field trip. You share a room with one other person and get all your meals there. You learn a lot and make a lot of friends and contacts so it’s a really good experience.

    I hope you don’t mind me throwing those points in, thought it might be helpful 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      • No bother at all! With EPIK you know your MOE or POE before you accept your place, so if you get Busan MOE you know you’ll be somewhere in Busan. But Busan is a huge place, I guess it’s like if you’re placed in Dublin, you could be in the middle of town or out in Tallaght! I got lucky with an apartment within walking distance from Seomyeon and very close to my school, but I have friends who need well over an hour to get anywhere central. It’s just the luck of the draw! Having that control with a Hagwon is definitely a big plus.

        Liked by 1 person

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