Teaching English in South Korea: Public vs Private School English Teachers

Teaching English in South Korea
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Authors, Beatrix and Jennifer are both English Teachers in Korea. When applying for teaching jobs, they both seriously considered these options and decided to choose alternate routes. Beatrix is a private school teacher, and Jennifer is a public school teacher. After much discussion of the huge number of differences between the jobs, they were shocked to find out there were so many things they had no idea about before considering teaching English in South Korea! 

In this series they will discuss all the important differences between public and private school jobs that they wish they would’ve known before applying. As they have discovered, once teachers arrive in Korea, there is not usually much overlap between public and private school teachers. Hopefully this helps any prospective teacher gain a better understanding as to what life is really like for teachers in Korea, and help them choose which route is more appropriate for them. 

The Application Process to Teaching English in Korea

There are two main routes to becoming an English Teacher in South Korea – either through the public sector (known as EPIK teachers) or the private sector (known as Hagwon teachers). EPIK is the recruiter for public school positions in Korea, and Hagwon means ‘Private Academy’ in Korean. Most prospective teachers will probably consider both of these options before submitting applications. Both options have huge pros and cons to their name. A public school job will be perfect for one teacher, and absolutely terrible for another one. Similarly, a private school job will be much more appropriate for some teachers interested in teaching English in South Korea than others.

Teaching English in a Private School

Recruiters

The most common way for teachers to find a job in South Korea is through a recruiter. They make the process a little less overwhelming, and this way, there is less chance of getting a job at a dodgy ‘cowboy school’ especially if you’re new to teaching and aren’t 100% sure what to look for in a job. They will guide you through the entire process, set up interviews with potential employers, and answer any questions you have. Some recruiters specialise in either EPIK or Hagwon jobs, and there are others that specialise in placing teachers from certain countries.

Knowing which recruiter to go with can be difficult, but do some research, read some reviews, and ask around to see which one best suits your needs.

When/Where to Teach English in South Korea

The main reasons to chose Hagwon over EPIK depends on the month you want to start your job, and where you want to live. Hagwon jobs are available all year round, whereas the EPIK intake is limited to twice a year. There was no way I could have sorted my paperwork for the Fall intake, and I didn’t want to wait around until the intake in February. However there are still more Hagwon jobs available at those times because schools – where possible – prefer teachers to work to the public school semesters that start March and September.

Another major pro for taking a Hagwon job is that, unlike EPIK, you can choose where you live in the country and accept a job according to your location preference.

Paperwork

The paperwork required is another important reason to go with a Hagwon job. The EPIK application process is long and the amount of paperwork needed is daunting. The two hand-signed letters of recommendation with very specific content would have been difficult for me to get hold of (one needed to come from my previous job in Vietnam). Whereas the documents you need for Hagwon jobs are much easier to sort: a current resume, criminal background check (with apostille), and a copy of your BA degree certificate (with apostille). A TEFL Certificate is not a requirement, but it can help you stand out to employers. 

Arriving in South Korea as an English Teacher

Some schools provide money for flights to and from Korea, but most only provide money for one direction (in my experience, usually the return flight at the end of your contract). You will usually be met at the airport either by a contact of the recruiter, someone from your school, or by a taxi organised by your new employer. You will then be taken to your apartment that is provided by the school (unless you have chosen to find your own accommodation with the housing allowance the school will give you). 

Settling in Korea as an English Teacher

Depending on the school, the teacher you’re replacing, and flights etc. you may have a few days of orientation at your new school to observe some lessons, or you may be thrown into teaching on your first day. Unlike in EPIK, Hagwon schools usually hire more than one native-speaking English teacher, so the existing foreign teachers at your new school can help you settle in and show you around.

Your recruiter should also have put you in touch with one of the foreign teachers before you signed a contract, this way they can answer any questions you have about the school/daily life from a teacher’s perspective. Most foreign teachers have been through it before so they are more than happy to help you out and introduce you to new people etc.

Teaching English in a Public School

Recruiters

Public school English teachers in Korea are usually referred to as ‘EPIK Teachers’. However, EPIK is just the recruiter for various Ministries of Education (MOEs) around Korea; they do not actually employ English Teachers. EPIK essentially disappears after teachers enter their schools, but they are very important when securing a public school job. Some applicants choose to apply directly to EPIK and others use an additional recruiter to help guide them through the EPIK interview, application, and then upon arrival in Korea.

When/Where to Teach English in South Korea

The EPIK application process is a whole journey in itself. From the date I submitted my application, to when I actually left for Korea, a total of seven months passed. With the added pressure of having only two annual intakes – Spring and Fall – this route is definitely not appropriate for many people. Public and private schools jobs often have very similar requirements (such as that applicants must hold a Bachelor’s degree and a TEFL certificate). However, EPIK teachers must also be a citizen of one of the following seven countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, UK, USA, or South Africa which limits who can apply. 

Another important thing about EPIK, is that you cannot choose your placement. You will receive confirmation of the city or province you have been placed in prior to departure, however, there will be no information about the area in that city, or even what type of school you will be working in, until you arrive at orientation. In my opinion, this is one of the big disadvantages of public school jobs.

Although I was incredibly happy with my location and school, it all ultimately comes down to luck and you have no control over where you will live or work. You can express a preference, but you cannot choose. So applicants need to remember this important detail when choosing between private and public schools. 

Paperwork

The initial paperwork for EPIK includes a lengthy application form, three personal essays, a detailed lesson plan, and two letters of recommendation with very specific instructions. After this, applicants will have an interview and then receive an offer if successful. Before the offer is confirmed, applicants need to send more paperwork, the ‘Required Documents’, to Korea. Then, the recruiters make recommendations to different MOEs around the country and find a placement for teachers. It is an incredibly long process and most of the time was spent either gathering paperwork or waiting between different stages. 

Arriving and Settling in South Korea as an English Teacher

One of the big positives about EPIK is the orientation. When teachers arrive in Korea, there is an orientation for all the teachers in that intake. This is a great opportunity to meet new people and gain a good introduction to teaching English and life in Korea. We had to complete a series of compulsory training classes, demo a lesson, and had the chance to participate in cultural events and learn some Korean. I met some of my closest friends at orientation and I think this is a great feature of the EPIK program.

Unlike private schools, public school teachers are usually the only foreign teacher in the school, so this is a great opportunity to establish a network of friends in Korea. 

Things to Know Before Teaching English in South Korea

Hopefully this overview of the initial differences between Public and Hagwon schools has given you some idea of what to expect from both options when considering teaching English in South Korea. If you are new to teaching, don’t mind where you live in Korea, and have time to organise paperwork then, potentially, a Public school job is a better option for you. That way you have the security of knowing it is a reputable organisation.

However if you want to start a job at a time that doesn’t match up with the school semesters, organising a lot of paperwork fills you with dread, or working with other foreigners is important to you, then maybe a Hagwon (Private school) job would be a better fit. 

Although it is still important to note that regardless of Public vs. Hagwon differences, every teacher has a different experience. Each school is different, with different management, expectations and workloads. The experience between two Public school teachers or two Hagwon teachers can still vary wildly. But we hope this series will give you some insight and help you decide which route to take for your English teaching adventures in South Korea.  

For a walk back in time to learn how teaching English in South Korea began, check out our article on Teaching English in South Korea in the 1880s.