Wishing Hell – aka What Hagwons Are Actually Like – an installment of probably many

Now for those of you who have read Dan’s blog, you may be thinking, “WOW, that sounds great.  What an awesome job!”.

Dan has the dream hagwon deal in Korea.

I, on the other hand, have the more typical experience which is nothing like the glowing smiles and gleaming hallways of Dan’s existence.

Welcome to Wishing Well.

Warning: this blog definitely contains expletives.

When we were picked up for school on day one we were told that this week would be an easy one, just getting to know the students and hanging out etc.  Well for me, that was not the case at all.  I was immediately thrust into my first class and left alone.  They sensed my fear and were relentless until I cottoned on to the fact that if I let them play hangman they could practice English Vocab and I could sit and rock in a corner.  This worked okay for the first two lessons of the day but by lesson 3 textbooks were shoved in my direction and I was instructed to teach.  Which would have been sweet (a) had I known in advance what I was supposed to be teaching; (b) if I had time to prepare a lesson; and (c) – best of all – if my textbooks were in English.  They’re not. They’re in Korean.  From the pictures, somehow I’m supposed to guess what to teach.   Joy.

Now to put things in perspective a bit here, it turns out that this particular school have lost a number of foreign teachers in a row.  I can understand why.  The first week was like pushing shit, no diarrhoea, uphill.  My school hires their English teacher in conjunction with Dan’s school and Dan’s director, Lira, is fuming about the fact that each time my school fucks up and loses a teacher, that she loses hers too.  Sick of this happening and wise to the bullshit that goes on at my school, she had some heated conversations with the Directors of my school.  My school’s Directors, Mr and Mrs H, don’t speak ANY English.  Which does make me wonder how an English school seemed like a good idea to them (cough cough *cash cow* cough cough).  The staff consists of the Hongs, two Korean teachers and myself.  The Korean teachers – let’s call them K1 and K2.  K1 is apparently the manager though I don’t think she could manage her way out of a paper bag.  Both K1 and K2 teach English in Korean to the children.  Now I’m still not entirely sure how that works but I think the gist of it is that they teach grammar and writing by explaining the contexts etc in Korean and then I do all the rest.  It’s confusing as hell anyway and no one has really explained it to me.  Still.

Anyway, a heated discussion led to a foreign teachers guide “suddenly” being pulled out of thin air – “Oh, by the way did we show you this foreign teacher’s guide?” – UM NO, YOU DIDN’T MENTION THAT ANY OF THE FIRST WEEK I WAS PLEADING FOR HELP.   They also deigned to now show me how the computer changed from Korean to English so I get access to resources etc.  Nice one.  K1, then very grumpily snapped at me (she had had her arms torn off from what I could gather by both Dan’s director and Mrs H) that if I had any questions I could ask her.   With such a warm invitation, how could I refuse!  But being that this was already towards the end of the first week of hell, I kinda just nodded and continued on determinedly figuring out things by myself.  It was my kinda “Fuck You, I’ll just figure it anyway” attitude.  And it seems to be working.  Sometimes.

The Students:

The students in my classes range in age (maybe 6 or 7 through to 15) and English ability (beginners through to very simple conversations in pigeon English).  Each class has its own trouble makers, bright sparks and challenges.

In terms of behaviour, they also range the full spectrum:

  • Septic, rude, disobedient Omen-style children.
  • Hard to control but not totally evil children.
  • Noisy thick brats.
  • Noisy precocious brats.
  • Standard (?) children.  Haha.
  • Quiet achievers.
  • Glowing angels of hard work and politeness.
  • Adorably cute, teeny munchkins who look at me with reverence – obviously, they are my favourites.
  • Funky teenagers that are very smart and capable and who like to shoot the shit.  Also top of my list of favourites.

It may be apparent that teaching children in this context is NOT something I was born to…However, there are some things I would like to point out.

Children in Korea, even from very young, attend school all day.  They are then packed off to various music, taekwondo and private math, computing and English lessons.  This is where we come in.  I work from 2pm until 8pm (sweet hours, but see Omen-reference above) so by the time the kids even get to me, they are absolutely exhausted from a full day of stuff prior.  They also don’t necessarily want to be here.  So holding their attention can be somewhat tricky.  These long days also mean another important thing about hogwans (the private English schools) – that children are sent here to hang out with their friends and have a bit of socialisation, which can prove a bit disruptive at the end of an already long day!

The hardest thing by far though in terms of the classroom management, is that old chestnut – the language thing.  I speak very little Korean and most of my students speak very little English.  That works okay most of the time as it’s my job to teach them in an immersion context.  However, you can imagine that they are chattering away constantly in Korean – and I have very little idea of what they are saying.  So if one kid sets another kid off laughing hysterically, it pretty quickly spreads around the room like wildfire and I am at a total loss as to what/how to stop it!  This is particularly the case when, as happens from time to time, I am the butt of the joke – so any attempt to reign them again just meets with refreshed circles of laughter.  Goody.  I have figured out a couple of tricks to date but definitely require many more in my pathetic arsenal.  I think my biggest advantage is that I am BIGGER AND TALLER THAN ALL OF THEM so if the little fuckers challenge me, I have the ability to tower over them menacingly. Which often makes them crack up laughing but generally makes them sit down too 🙂  Most of them study taekwondo but I’m still pretty sure I could take on an entire class by myself if I had to.  I’m not as keen to test this theory with the oldest students – however, they are so far through their schooling that pressure to excel actually makes them great students.  Middle school students (14-16 years old) have to sit huge, stressful exams to even get into high school.  The reward for getting into high school is then attending school seven days a week for around 12 hours a day until sitting an extremely high pressured full-day exam to get into university.  I can understand somewhat why hagwon seems like playtime to some of them.  I’d need a break too.

Side note:  a student just came into the teachers’ office – where I am typing furiously in my free period – and proceeded to sit down, look at me and dissolve into giggles. Ahhh, that NEVER gets old.

Where was I? Ah yes, classroom management.  My only other tactics at this stage are confiscation of objects (usually cellphones – these kids are ADDICTED – but also craft knives, bouncy balls, soft toys, yo-yos, model-kits, hoodies – commonly used for pulling over face when they don’t want to speak or hiding the headphones they’re not supposed to have on….the list I’m sure will grow as the year goes on) and pulling out the big guns – the Korean Teachers.  I have no idea what they say but angry Korean sounds pretty cool and it sometimes works.  I have yet to find out how absolutely effective it is.  During my second to last class yesterday I walked out leaving one of the Korean teachers to yell at them for the entire remaining 15 minutes of the lesson.  Whether that proves to have put me further in the shit with the Omen kids or will have a radically reformed class is yet to be seen….watch this space.

The physical boundaries between students as well as between students and teachers are wildly different here to anything that would be deemed tolerable or even legal in New Zealand.  The children hit each other constantly.  They bash each other on the arms, legs, heads with open hands, closed hands, objects, each other… And it’s all done in jest and is really just part of the social fabric here.  It’s pretty hilarious mostly but of course there’s the odd time it goes too far and a kid cries.  But mostly it’s just entertaining.  With teachers the boundaries are different too.  For instance, little girls will climb into my lap while I’m teaching, or pull at my arm to try and drag me across the room to mark their work.  I often feel tugs on the back of my clothing when attention to someone is required while I’m selfishly paying attention to someone else.  A child today poked me in the cheek with his finger (not sure why!) and one little two foot high girl who is unbelievably cute and always in her taekwondo outfit, ran past and punched me in the arm, looked at me with an adorable cheeky smile and then ran away giggling.  Awwww….’

All in all, teaching at my school is glorified babysitting with few resources, no support and massive behavioural problems in a lot of the students.  There are definitely fun moments but most days are a slog of trying to bribe children to complete the work that is set in the schools curriculum and negotiating deals involving games and free time.

Watch this space for details of a day in the life and the particular peculiarities of Wishing Hell.  And thank your lucky stars we don’t have hagwons in New Zealand!

Categories: Korea, Teaching, TravelTags: , , , , , ,


  1. 12 hours school….Souds just what the boys need…Im send them over to live with you! Malcolm

  2. My poor darling, I bet you could take them all down, those years of karate will serve you well!!!

    Loved the skype last nite and look forward to more very entertaining if somewhat disturbing bloggs from you both.


  3. I liked your comment about the hagwon being like “glorified babysitting.” I’ve often been scared to work for one of these sorts of places for reasons very similar to what you seem to be experiencing – unruly kids, language barriers, troublesome management….etc etc. Despite the annoyances and frustrations, do you still find it worth your time? Do the positives of getting to live and work in Korea outweigh the negatives of your day-to-day employment situation?

    • Hi! Thanks for your comments. Its hard to make a totally general conclusion about hagwons – as you may have seen my husband is having a totally different experience at his hagwon to what I am at mine. However, our impression from speaking with other foreign teachers and from what we’ve seen on the many ESL websites is that the experiences can tend more towards my situation. I genuinely think that good management is the key to a successful hagwon but of course that’s extremely hard to gauge until your in the school. The biggest piece of advice I can offer if you are thinking about embarking on this type of teaching is to talk to the foreign teachers at the school you’re thinking about working at. If there is only one foreign teacher and that is who you are replacing, make sure you talk directly to that person and find out exactly WHY they are leaving. Its also good to talk to past teachers. The only hitch here is that you are totally reliant on the school providing the means for you to get in touch with these teachers but basically if they can’t or won’t provide their details there’s a really good reason why. The foreign teachers can give you the insight into whether the school will pull tricks re your pay, whether they pay on time, what the students are like, what resources are available, etc etc. Of course, if the teacher is talking to you with the management standing over their shoulder, their opinions may be slightly skewed (as it turns out happened in my case).
      The whole experience itself is an eye opener. I definitely wouldn’t change the fact that we have done this – and I always would have wondered if we hadn’t. Korea has some really amazing aspects. Its worth doing your research about where you would like to be based. Somedays we come home absolutely drained from dealing with disrepectful children, frustrated with the lack of support and upset (hitting children in schools is the norm here and though we would never do it ourselves, being exposed to it is extremely upsetting and hard to deal with). But most of the time we’re grateful that we live in a rent-free apartment, that we’re earning pretty good money (with very little expenses) that we can save for future travel/business ventures and that we have the ability to visit a bunch of interesting places within close range.

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