Teaching English in Korea

Teaching in Korea: Public School vs. Private (Hagwon)

Teaching in Korea comes in many different shapes and sizes with one big distinction coming between public and private schools. This is not a question of simply, which is better, rather which is better for you. Both have their ups and downs, as with any job you are guaranteed to face challenges and obstacles, but these will likely be matched with rewards and memories. While floating through the paperwork, applications, and locations, here are a few (sometimes overlooked) things to keep in mind.

Hours and Vacation

Public school positions in Korea will secure you a typical 8 to 5 workday. Teachers are expected to be at school during the normal working hours, but will only have classes about of 22 hours throughout the week. The rest of the time is spent on lesson planning. Vacation per the contract includes 8 days in summer and 10 in winter, as well as all public holidays.

Private schools offer a variety of working hours, and this is where you have to be careful. A typical day will start between 2 and 3pm, ending around 9 or 10pm, the exception being Kindergartens where hours are comparable to public schools. What varies between hagwons is the expectations while you’re at work. Some schools schedule prep time for their teachers, while others have fully loaded class schedules, meaning you will be teaching for a majority of the time. Ask questions and review your contract to know what you’re signing up for. Vacation is a different story and again varies, sometimes as high as 10, but possibly as low as 5 days per year – again, review your contract. If considering teaching in Korea, you really should be careful when trying to find the right hagwon for you.

Class Size and Student Attitude

The class sizes in public classrooms don’t vary drastically, often hovering around 30 students. The classes will be of mixed ability—you may have a handful of students who could hold a conversation with you, while others struggle to get out their name. Also, in a public school, some of the kids couldn’t care less about learning English. It’s just something they have to do, so you can’t always expect the most eager of attitudes.

In the hagwon world, things are a little different. Class sizes often don’t exceed 15 students but are often caped at 10. Classes are usually arranged by ability level, which allows you to tailor your lessons accordingly. Additionally, students (or their parents) have chosen to be there, which means a greater effort and more participation on their part. Finally, students may join or quit with little notice, unlike public schools there’s no ‘first day of school’ here.

Co-teacher or Fly Solo

Public school placements will come with a co-teacher who is there to help you through this maze. This co-teacher is your ‘go-to’ both for school and life issues (phone bills, apartment issues, etc.) in the classroom these teachers are there to help guide the class, but the amount at which they do so varies for each person—ranging from a 50-50 class teaching to the co-teacher being there ‘just in case’. Essentially it’s up to you and your co-worker to discuss what system works the best, but knowing they are there to assist you can be a comfort for new teachers.

Entering a public school is a little bit like letting a dog off its leash. Aside from initial guidance from your director or co-workers, the classroom is yours. Most private schools follow a curriculum so it won’t be hard to grasp what the expectations for your classroom are, but daily instruction takes an independent effort. Additionally, there is no co-teacher in the room to instantly assist should you run into a problem with translation or understanding. Generally though the kids that attend private academies have a higher grasp of the English language and will be able to catch on.


Teaching in a public school provides you with more than just a job, there’s not much slipping under the radar here. After all you’ll be the only foreign teacher in the faculty. Although they may not be able to speak English, you will be surrounded with co-workers, math, history, PE and English teachers who will most likely be curious about you. Public schools often host staff dinners and weekend trips, seen as bonding experiences. experiences. If approached with the right attitude, these could offer memorable experiences. Finally, school lunch – get to know Korean food and you will appreciate this.

Although every academy varies, the business culture of these schools doesn’t embrace relationships as much as public schools. With multiple foreign teachers, your uniqueness factor may decrease, and there will definitely be no awkward (yet interesting) Konglish conversations with the PE teachers. Staff dinners and outings may or may not happen, but again that varies from school to school.

By Stephanie

Stephanie is a storyteller, yoga enthusiast, and wandering sole who recently settled in for her second round of teaching in Korea. After her first stay in Korea, where she taught in a public High School, Stephanie spent nearly two years traveling, exploring the world, making new friends and becoming a certified yoga instructor. If you want to read about her travels, teaching tales or just learn more, check her out here: www.yogifootprints.weebly.com

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