Job Hunting in Korea: Part II: Public vs. Private

In Part II of Job Hunting in Korea, Amanda Segal, a world traveler and English teacher, shares her experience and knowledge when it comes to the private vs. public teaching job debate.

The Arrival Store - Amanda SegalContinuing the experience, this post (click here for Part I) is from our friend Amanda Segal, who hails from Glen Ridge, New Jersey. She is currently living in a small town in South Korea teaching English to high school students. While not representing the Western world, she enjoys making people laugh, going on spontaneous trips, taking long walks to new places, and going to the movies just to eat the popcorn. She blogs at:

3) The public vs. private debate, there’s no avoiding it, so we’ll dive right in.

Why do private schools (hagwons) catch such a bad rap? Well the biggest reason is that public schools are held accountable by the government and have standardized contracts, where as hagwons are private business that are unregulated and can pretty much do whatever they want…including going out of business. However, I’d like to be optimistic and say that where you choose to work should depend on your personality.

Public Schools

Pros: standard contract, less teaching hours, more vacation (20-25 days)

Cons: usually only one foreign teacher, can’t always choose location, much longer application process

Neutral: Lesson planning

Native English teachers (NETs) apply to public schools through the GEPIK or EPIK offices (though private recruiters can help facilitate this process). These are government run offices that provide the teaching contracts for public schools. NETs can also contact these offices if they have questions about, or problems with their schools. Among to the pros listed above, people tend to gravitate towards these jobs because the government technically ensures stability.

HOWEVER, and this is a big however, these jobs are losing their stability. The rumors are true: as of this year, high schools and middle schools in Seoul will no longer receive funding for foreign teachers! While NETs can finish out their contracts in Seoul, their schools will not be rehiring them for next year. I currently work for GEPIK (schools in the Gyeonggido province surrounding Seoul) and it seems that these jobs are becoming scarcer as well, as provinces tend to follow what is happening in Seoul. If you’re interested it’s still worth applying, but beware these jobs are becoming extremely competitive. You will need to get at least TEFL certified, and online certificate programs cost $300-$400. In the next couple of years, public school job numbers could continue to decline, or go on the rise again. It’s hard to tell because it depends on each province, annual budget votes, and of course, current politics.

You can also apply through EPIK, which serves all of Korea, but because of increasing competition you can no longer request a specific location…which means you can be placed anywhere…including the middle of nowhere. You do not find out in advance, so once you’re there you are kind of stuck. The application process is also lengthy, and may not be worth it if you cannot chose your location. In terms of personality, if you would like to be surrounded by other foreigners or expats at work, then public schools are definitely not for you. You will more than likely be the only foreigner at your school.

I put lesson planning in a neutral category because I think this definitely depends on the person. If you enjoy devising lesson plans and thinking of creative ways to teach then you will certainly enjoy working at a public school. If you’d prefer to follow a book and just cruise along, or have zero interest planning lessons, then you should definitely look into working at a hagwon.

Private (Hagwon)

Pros: usually higher pay, many foreign teachers, easier application process, can choose where you want to go!

Cons: non-standard or lack of contract, less vacation (7-10 days), more teaching hours

Neutral: no lesson planning, the unusual work schedule

Due to slightly longer hours, overtime, and less vacation, hagwon teachers tend to get paid more than public school NETs. If you’re coming to Korea to save money or pay-off student loans or debt, this may be something to seriously consider. In addition, you’ll also enjoy the company of other foreign teachers, which certainly makes for a much easier transition! While I like my school, I live in a smaller city and definitely have to make the extra effort to meet people.

Applying to a hagwon also involves considerably less paperwork than a public school. The best part is that hagwons are everywhere, so you can choose where you want to go! So here’s the tough part: how do you make sure it’s a good school? I don’t want to undermine those who’ve had bad experiences at hagwons because there certainly are problems that I’ve heard from teachers who work at them. Because they are run like businesses, their priorities are a bit different from public schools…namely money and customer retention, which can but additional stress on bosses and employees. There’s no 100% fool proof way to ensure your hagwon is great, but here are some tips:

1) Another example of why it’s better to speak to an actual person than sift through internet forums for job advice…the best hagwon jobs often come through word of mouth!  If you talk to someone living in Korea, they might know a friend who is leaving at the end of the month and needs someone to take their place at a job. Many schools use private recruiters but they also take private referrals!

2) If you can’t find a friend, or friend of a friend living in Korea to speak with, don’t be afraid to ask to speak to a current NET at the school you are interviewing with! If the school doesn’t want you to speak to current employees, then that’s a red flag. I would not recommend taking a job somewhere 6,000+ miles away that won’t let you talk to its other employees…

3) Ask detailed questions during the interview: “What amenities are included in my apartment?” “Is public transportation easily accessible from the school and my apartment?” “How long have the other foreign teachers been working there?” “How often will I be expected to work over time?”….think about what’s important when you’re moving to a new place and what types of things impact your daily happiness (accessible transportation will be a big one here). If they refuse to answer these questions or you don’t like the answers, maybe it’s a good idea to look for a different school.

4) Go with your gut and be patient…although it’s hard to give up a job that looks great on paper, if you speak with someone who rubs you the wrong way, or there’s a clause in the contract that no one seems to able to clarify, then follow your instincts. I’d say this applies to both private and public schools…if you reject just one job others will come along!

5) If you follow the above advice hopefully you won’t need this, but there is a hagwon blacklist that you can check on the internet, for schools that are unusually atrocious (though usually they get shut down eventually anyway).

To address the general cons about private schools: you’ll be physically in the classroom teaching about 28-30 hours a week, whereas you’re only the classroom 22 hours a week with public schools. However with public schools, the rest of the time you are at work is spent lesson planning…so if you want to teach more and plan less, then a hagwon will be better for you. I will be honest and warn you though that hagwons often ask you to come in on the weekends or stay late, but you should get paid overtime.

I listed the unusual schedule as neutral because again I think this is personality based. Most hagwons, unless you’re teaching kindergartens, have their hours from 1-9pm or 2-10pm. If you’re a night person who likes to stay up late and wake up late, this might be your dream schedule! Even if you haven’t historically been a night person, many hagwon teachers who adapt to this schedule don’t mind it since their friends and co-workers will be on it too!

While there is certainly less vacation time during the year with private schools, if you’re planning to travel after you leave Korea, which most people do anyway, this doesn’t have to be a big problem. There is also so much stuff to see locally in Korea! You can easily satisfy your need for a break with day or weekend trips. Having less vacation, or being in a more rural area like myself, really encourages you to get to know Korea and have an authentic living experience.


The overall point is your experience is going to be what you make of it. People have good and bad experiences at public schools and at private schools, in rural areas and in urban areas. The pros and cons are endless and I realize that my opinion is not the final word on this topic, but I think lots of research, talking with people, being open minded and patient, and going with your gut will take you far.

I’ve met people who’ve been in Korea for many years and held several different jobs, and although some have been better than others they are all still here because the fun they’ve had and the friends they’ve made have been worth it. The happiest teachers are the ones who take the good with the bad, and chalk it all up to experience.