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Korea ranks second on the global education index

Notorious for the amount spent on higher education, Korea reaps the rewards ranking second out of 50 countries by Pearson Education on a new global education index called the Learning Curve.


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If you’ve done some research into teaching in Korea you will have heard the negative stories and may be a little worried about what to expect when you arrive. It may not come as a shock to you to know that living and working in a foreign country throws up numerous challenges that leave you feeling frustrated and wondering why you left the safety net of your home country. Having been in your shoes and helped hundreds of teachers gain employment in Korea we have a pretty good idea of the things that may irritate you in the workplace. We have been the mediator on several occasions when working relationships have become strained and can honestly say the issue at hand is almost always a lack of cultural understanding between teacher and school.

The purpose of this section is to give you an insight into some of the differences you may encounter in your school and to offer some advice as to how best to react to the situation. We do not want to put you off coming to teach in Korea but do we wish you offer you as much information as possible to help you make a well-informed decision about whether the job is right for you. We can confidently say if you arrive with a positive attitude, are flexible and on the most part adhere to Korean etiquette the positive aspects of life will far outweigh the negative and you’ll thoroughly enjoy your life here.

For your peace of mind we offer a support system while you are in Korea, so if you do experience any problems in your schools don’t hesitate to get in touch; we can give advice and will do our absolute best to help you should you run into trouble.

Culture in the Workplace

The Contract

Lack of Communication

Lack of Organisation

Korean Co-teachers

The Business

Final Word

As a teacher you are expected to be professional, work hard and always try your best. If you arrive with an open-mind, show respect to your boss and co-workers, are cheerful and friendly with your students you won’t have any problems in Korea. The job is really not that difficult and Korean employers are fairly easily pleased as long as they consider you to be diligent, active in the classroom and flexible enough to try understand and accept Korean culture and customs.

Most hagwons are businesses and like every enterprise the goal is to make a profit. The students’ tuition is not paid for by the government but privately so your students and their parents are essentially the customers. Often your director will make a decision that may compromise the value of the school’s program and its teachers in a bid to keep a few important parents happy who have a big influence on other parents.  Decisions may seem counterproductive or totally incomprehensible and you will be expected to follow them without questioning in any way.

ADVICE: Remember at all times to try and strike the balance between providing high quality education and keeping your students happy and interested in class so they go home with good things to say about your class. Negative news always spreads faster than positive news so it is vital that you remain professional at all times and uphold the reputation of your school. Also, remember your director is better placed to make important decisions about the future of your school so respect is his/her opinion even if you disagree.

Occasionally there can be some animosity between Korean and native teachers. This can be for several reasons but the most common is that Korean teachers have experienced a foreign teacher they disliked, who didn’t respect Korean values and didn’t follow the customs in the workplace. You have to remember that Korea is based on collective ideas; individuality is only a recent phenomenon so that particular teacher’s actions will have formed their opinion about foreigners as a whole. Furthermore, Korean teachers are paid a lot less than native teachers and don’t get the perks such as free airfare and accommodation, so if they don’t think you are pulling your weight you can understand why they may feel a little aggrieved.

ADVICE: If you are replacing a foreign teacher who wasn’t particularly liked it is up to you to try and break the preconception they may have about you and form a good rapport with your co-teachers. Try speaking to them on a daily basis, having coffee with them and communicating as best you can. To overcome this difference always do your best, offer to help out where possible and you’ll get a lot more respect and you never know, make a few friends along the way!

Some hagwons are very structured, highly organized and very well run, it’s no surprise that these are generally the most successful. On the other hand, in some schools your teaching timetable may change frequently, classes added and cancelled at the last minute. You may find that classes don’t have textbooks or the textbook you’ve been told to use has changed. You may be told the day before, or even on the day that the school is closed for vacation.

ADVICE: If your school is disorganized then you have to be reactive when the unexpected occurs. Look at it as a learning curve! Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned and we have to get on with things despite your frustration and anger. At the end of the day, if you try your best to adapt but fail you will be respected more by your boss than if you don’t try at all and just moan about the situation. If your timetable changes frequently then try to prepare as much in advance as possible, perhaps have some template lessons ready that you can adapt on the spot so you aren’t left in a classroom without a teaching plan.  

As a foreign teacher in the school you are an important asset to the business but in terms of decision making and having new policies and ideas transferred to you, you may find that you are bottom of the communication chain. Often you will be the last person to find out important information and may only be given information on a need to know basis.

Koreans do not like to break bad news; it is part of their culture not to lose face and therefore can be reluctant to give you a straight answer when you raise a sensitive issue. For this reason if your boss or co-worker has some news they think you won’t like, expect them to wait until the last possible moment to tell you. This can be very frustrating and is one of the main issuing causing dissatisfaction for foreign workers.

ADVICE: Try and ask plenty of questions to seek out what the issue is and if you are being met with ambiguous, conflicting or uncertain information prepare for the worst case scenario. You can only do your best so if the news means that you are ill-prepared just try to adapt don’t take things too seriously and don’t get angry or upset. If the lack of communication has seriously negative impact on your then raise the problem in private and try your best to remain calm and understand why it is that a decision has been made in such a way.

Korean society follows Confucian principles and a system of social order. Everyone’s status is strictly defined so if a person is older or of “higher title” they are deserving of respect by all those “under” them. For this reason, Korean workers are submissive, if their boss or superior asks them to do something, even if it is unreasonable, or not contained within their contractual duties they will go to great lengths to please. In comparison, should a boss in the west ask employees to do something outside of their contractual obligations he/she is more likely to be met with confrontation or resistance.

As a result, contracts are viewed upon with flexibility in Korea and are seen as starting point of what is expected from both parties. You will notice that your employment agreement is no more than 3-4 pages whereas in your home country it may be the size of a short novel. The most important thing is rapport, if you have a good relationship with your co-workers and director you can expect a much easier ride than if there is animosity between you. To give you some examples of activities you may be asked to take part in that probably aren’t contained within your contract:

Perhaps the school is moving into a new building and the director asks you to come in on a Saturday to help with the removal service. Obviously this isn’t within your contract but all your co-workers are going to help out. Are you someone who will sacrifice your day off to help out even though you may not receive any compensation?

It is the start of term and the director asks you to stand outside the local public school for a few hours before work to hand out flyers and promote our hagwon to hopefully increase the student in take. You may or may not receive payment for this, would you be happy to help out?

ADVICE: If you go out of your way to help out where possible then even though you may not be rewarded immediately the director will recognize your effort and at a later date you can use it to your advantage. Perhaps you need to leave school early one day, or need an extra day off outside of your holiday allowance, if you get on with your boss and co-workers, they are more likely to accept your request and cover your classes than if you haven’t be flexible yourself. However, if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation where you feel your boss is taking advantage and not adhering to important parts of the contract (salary, overtime, working hours etc.) then do not be afraid to raise these issues, but make sure you do so in private and try to stay as calm and composed as possible.