TEFL in Korea: The Bad

Teaching English in Korea is an opportunity that offers all your recruiter will try to persuade you with, if you manage to play your cards right. Whether you are a first-time traveler or an experienced world-conqueror, the ease with which one can move to Korea and teach in either a public school or private academy (Hagwon) makes it one of the most popular places for TEFL professionals.

In nine months of living in Suwon and teaching English at a hagwon, I’ve found that my decision to move here was justified. I’ve finally begun to put away savings (after months of limbo in the Land of Inexplicably Disappearing Money), my apartment has not fallen apart or dissolved in black mold, I’ve learned and grown as a teacher, and I’ve even been able to check off most of the places on my list of things to see in Korea.

But it’s not all fairy tales and soju parties. Life in Korea as an English teacher has its surprises, and not all of them are positive. Although the majority of blogs I read before arriving made ridiculous claims of “death by hagwon” and the tendency for non-Koreans who move here to complain way too much, there are real things that can turn sunny day of kimchi and Starbucks coffee from down the street into a bummerfest.

Here are the annoyances that I’ve experienced since my arrival in February 2012.

1. Culture of Illness

One of my coworkers is currently asleep on her desk in the teacher’s room, her winter coat over her head. She’s been there about two hours at this point, and shows no signs of stirring. I assume that she caught the nasty cold going around, and is ill with the fever I had just two days ago. Because this is Korea, she cannot be home in bed where she probably belongs.

It feels like it looks. Underwear strapped to your face.

This is one of the most annoying things about working in Korea. We’re given a few sick days by law, but it’s hard to actually use them. I got two strains of influenza at once in April and burst into tears in the doctor’s office when I thought that they might make me stay and teach in a sick mask (My worries were well-founded, as they’d done just that to one of our teachers the week before). I could barely stand, much less control a classroom. Mercifully, I was allowed to go home after providing the official sickness letter (5,000 KRW).

The kicker came about two weeks later when a violent gastroenteritis bug seized on my still-weakened immune system. I literally barfed all morning until there was no more to barf, and then threw up on the sidewalk outside my hagwon on the way to work. My coworkers were sympathetic and even took me to the doctor, but going home was never a part of the discussion. I taught in a chair all day and threatened to vomit on my students when they misbehaved.

Being sick, not merely somewhat sniffly but full-blown throwing up high-fever hacking cough sick, is not an excuse to miss work in Korea. This is one of the biggest cultural differences I’ve experienced, and it’s certainly affected my own conception of illness and obligation to one’s work. I didn’t think twice about coming to work with a high fever this week, and the only mention to my coworkers was to ask for a Paracetamol. I’ve adapted.

2. Unexpected Culture shock

You move across the world. The country speaks a different language. The culture is influenced by Confucianism, the isolation of the country and its history don’t always make it welcoming to foreigners, and you are most obviously and visibly not Korean. You’re expecting massive culture shock with Korea and Koreans.

*This* culture is awesome! What do you mean, culture shock?

Yet as is true with every other time I’ve lived abroad, the bulk of the culture shock has been with other 외국인 (way-gook-in, “foreigners”). There are complex circumstances that brought all of us here, including but not limited to the economic crisis that the world is currently experiencing and the fact that Korea’s National Health service kicks the ass of healthcare in the United States. We all come to work, to make money, to save, to learn something, to meet new people.

But perhaps because we are often lumped together as “foreigners” and treated as a cultural block by the country in which we reside, the expectation that we will all have the same cultural ideas and practices seems to come up more often than it should. I’m from Louisville, Colorado. I’ve lived in Italy, Chile, Switzerland, and Korea. I’m the product of a very specific set of socioeconomic and cultural circumstances that are almost entirely different from many other 외국인. And so is everyone else.

I’ve been called anti-American a record five times in Korea (by other US Citizens). I do feel a certain level of conflict with those from my own country in particular, possibly because I’ve been actively outside of it for several years now and this may be the first time they’ve ever lived abroad. It’s unfair of me to try to hold them to the standards I have for myself, because our backgrounds are different and I’ve been lucky enough to explore other cultures in depth already. But it sure grates on you after a while.

I’m working on a post about feeling nationless, which will deal with this phenomenon in more depth.

3. Hagwons are Educational Businesses, Not Schools (Obviously doesn’t apply to teaching in a government school)

I literally pulled this verbatim from the Powerpoint at our last training meeting.

“I know that a lot of you have very academic minds,” the presenter said. “But you should let that go.”

Just like this advert is selling a camera, we’re supposed to be selling English.

They hire people who are trained to be teachers and who have worked as a teacher before, and then expect them to walk the line between educator and babysitting English clown without much direction except to keep the kids and parents happy at almost any cost.

I get it. They want to make money. They want the students to enroll again. The goals of hagwons are currently shifting from a focus on prepping students for international university education to one of inward focus and rubber stamp English scores to add to their massive résumés (in part due to the educational culture of Korea and in part due to the new NEAT test). Parents and students want the illusion that they are getting better at English, and if one school doesn’t give that to them then they will find another. It wouldn’t bother me if I could find the ON/OFF switch for my near-completely academic brain.

At least at my hagwon, we are not asked to falsify test scores in order to make more students pass (Yes, that happens elsewhere). But as the trainer said, the students need to “feel like they are learning.” Note that he didn’t say they actually had to learn. By extension, that pretty much means we are not really here to teach. Candy and puzzles it is!

4. Differences Between Reality and Class Level

Another annoyance comes along with working in an business masquerading as a school. Students are often, maybe even mostly, placed into class levels that do no reflect their actual English abilities.

Supposedly a mid-high level student. Epic, but lacking grammar.

In our neighborhood, there are at least six major English hagwons. Parents routinely drag their children to the other schools and check their placement tests to see if they “should” be in a higher level than the one at our academy. Since all the hagwons are in competition with one another, the temptation to place students on the higher side of the coin is high. If they place higher, they are more likely to enroll.

Even though we routinely check the students’ progress with monthly tests and an annual retaking of the placement exam, ostensibly to ensure all the students are in the correct classes, there are still a lot of students in over their heads.

Yesterday, I discovered that a student of mine literally understands about 5% of what I say in class. It was a mystery to me that he never seemed prepared for class, and never wrote anything in his workbook. Yesterday I caught him with his forehead on the wall, turned away during class. His contribution to the essay contest? Three one-word incomplete sentences.

I asked about it later, wondering how he could have made it into that level without having someone teach him how to write a sentence. The answer? It’s normal to push students into levels they totally are unprepared for just to make it seem like they are making progress. He’d repeated the same level four times over the course of a year, and in order to avoid having him quit (and losing his business), they leveled him up. Thus he’s now literally beating his head against the wall in frustration and I’m unsure how to help him.

5. Bullying

This semester we’ve had a couple of incidents with bullying, culminating in a few students having to write letters of apology. Cookies have been smashed on heads. Names have been called. Apologies have been refused. It’s a little out of hand.

The difference here is not that bullying is more prevalent in Korea or even that it is more visible. The main difference is that the bullying is somewhat the “reverse” of what it was in the place I grew up. The bullies are the smart kids, and the bullied are often the ones who struggle a bit in class. It’s like revenge of the nerds but in a twisted, messed up way.

Because of the huge emphasis on education in Korea and the competitive nature of the schools here, the kids who have trouble in school and may be bullied also don’t receive a lot of attention from their Korean teachers. They are seen as “bad students,” and that occasionally gives the others a pass to treat them like shit.

It’s hard to negotiate the line for bullying, and to battle those ingrained ideas. It’s even harder to bring up with coworkers and explain thoroughly, across a language barrier. As happened for us, the problem sometimes slips through the cracks.


This is the kind of student we all want. Happy, slightly crazy, but learning!

Keep in mind that all things, travel and settled, personal and cultural, depend on one’s response to them and the ability to adapt. Consensus says that I should probably just tone down the whole “caring about shit” thing that I’m so attached to and live a happy and non-stressed teaching life. Unfortunately experience (from Chile) tells me that I am incapable of letting it go, and that I will continue to try to be a real teacher who actually teaches even to my own detriment.

Next week, less pessimism. Wait for the good list.

3 thoughts on “TEFL in Korea: The Bad

  1. Great post. I too am finally seeing some harsh realities about being out of the country. I understand that at the end of the day, in the eyes of most of the Koreans I encounter, I’m just another foreigner. Sometimes, it’s quite overwhelming too! How did you adjust to all of that? I know that you are no newbie to living abroad. I’ve traveled internationally several times but never lived abroad so this is a first for me.

    1. Hey, great to hear from you. Don’t worry about the negative parts I talk about here too much, and embrace being a “foreigner.” Basically it works as a pass to break social norms because you’re not expected to know better. Dress as you like, eat as you like, talk as you like…and you can pick and choose which customs to follow and which to flaunt. It still gets to me sometimes, but adjustment to long-term living in another country is always an up and down curve.

      I have a list of things that I do to adjust and maintain while I live abroad, and I could do a post about that if it would be helpful. I’m a trained international professional (seriously…as lame as that sounds) because my other career is study abroad advising. Got anything specific I could address?

  2. EXCELLENT post, my dear! So true. Like any career, teaching EFL (no matter the country) is a mix of the good and bad. To think otherwise, is delusional. 😉

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