Friday, May 8, 2009

Teaching Adults in Korea: Is it worth it?

Here's the question:

I've been researching about teaching English in Korea and was considering Pagoda until I began hearing horror stories. I'm also considering Asknow (I see you also suggested them) and they seem really nice and legit. I haven't heard anything bad about them. What do you think? Any helpful suggestions would be very much appreciated!


Some of these questions are really hitting close to home and this one is just about as close as you can get. I was once a teacher for the 1:1 adult mega-hagwon Pagoda and it's sister company Direct English. And while there are some good things about the job, there are some things that one must be aware of before really considering signing the contract.

First of all, teaching adults in Korea gives you a much different perspective on the nation. You will be exposed to adults, who will obviously share their life with you, rather than kids who will most likely spill their lunch on you. However, most adult jobs offer the split shift (7-11am and 5-9pm or some variation of that). With hours like that, you will discover that weekend getaways, benders and even normal social life will be difficult. Secondly, from my experience, some of the teachers at these places have a tad more baggage (large debt, marriage, old age, unable to interact with kids etc..) than your average hagwon or school teacher. That doesn't mean you won't find some good friends though, but it might take a little digging. The shift seriously hinders your ability to get out there and interact with the Korean people and culture.

Rather than opining about the ups and downs (we will do that on the podcast which will be out tomorrow), I'll tell you my personal story from the interview to when I decided to quit.

I had just finished a couple years of working at a kids hagwon in Daechi-dong and had just gotten married, so I was looking for a job that offered more than the basic two-point-something that often comes along with teaching kids. I took a look at Daves and Worknplay and eventually was contacted by Pagoda's recruiter that I'll call "Bill". This guy was an overly friendly Canadian who didn't appear to have anything to hide. At the interview, he spoke bluntly about how teaching for his company was more about "perception", hence the coat and tie, and less about "quality instruction". He painted a picture that working there was so simple, that no matter what you do, you'll always hit the minimum or base pay of 2.4 million won a month. Of course, no one wants to do to the bare minimum, so he addressed that mindset with a quick glance at what some of his teachers were making. I saw 6.5m, 5.8m and 4.3m a month. He said they worked a lot, but not that much. I was pretty thrilled.

Between the probability of a higher salary, great chances to make close to 5m a month and a relaxed boss, I was totally pumped up. I told my wife and she was equally excited. So, I decided to take a good look at the contract. The contract is written in a very sneaky way. First of all, that minimum pay is before you pay all your bills and your rent (which they only pay 100,000-150,000) a month. Then you start to look at what they hours are, what your vacation is and how your pay is calculated. In the end, hitting that 2.4 minimum would have been a dream. Of course, I didn't know that yet. The promise of a huge ESL teacher salary blinded me from the glaring problems with such a job.

I started my first day. It was fine. I liked teaching there. I had my own office, my own computer and good students. Right away, I discovered what was going to be an issue. There is a tendency to ignore teaching English and begin teaching your life. I did this. Luckily, my students liked it and continually enrolled in my classes. After a few months, I got the highest raise possible which was an extra 1,500 per class. The management applauded my hard work and thanked me over and over again. I was proud of that of course, but when it came time to have my paycheck meeting, I always left angry. I worked there for six months and only one of the six paychecks were close to that minimum.

Why? Well, you're not paid for your time, you're paid for students. If you have a lot of students, then you'll do okay. I constantly had the most students at my branch and still had trouble keeping a full schedule. I had some days where I would work for 2 hours. Sounds good, but if you want to earn money, especially the money promised to you by "Bill", it hurts. 1:1 English is the most expensive hagwon for adults with prices typically ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 won an hour. On top of that, most 1:1 places require the students to pay several months in advance which totals between 1m to 3m won. That's a lot of money to ask students to pay BEFORE they have even had one class. This system is extremely susceptible to the economy as well. If the economy goes down, then students don't enroll and you get paid lass. I have friends who are teaching there still and they have yet to make over the minimum and have very limited and mostly Seoul-based experiences in Korea.

So I left. They tried to get me to sign a bunch of things and scare me with heavy penalties, but I did not relent and in the end I escaped having only lost 6 months of decent salary.

My advice?

Don't work for Pagoda, Direct English, or Wall Street. They promise big things, but offer nothing but low wages, bad hours and a big headache. If you want to teach adults, then stick to teaching groups, not 1:1.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

1 comment:

A Direct English worker said...

[Anonymous since I'd rather not tie my name to where I work]

I've worked at a Direct English school for about 2 1/2 months. When I started, I received 3 half-days of training (not really needed since the material is fairly easy to work with), which was 3 half-days more than my previous hagwon job.

I get paid on time, in full (minus taxes, insurance, and the like), via direct deposit. My only complaint about that is that I was asked to open a Shinhan bank account since that's where they bank - I now do a little more money shuffling than I used to.

I work with professional adults genuinely interested in learning English for various reasons - work, graduate school, travel, or just interest in the language. I'm expected to dress professionally as a result (slacks, dress shirt, tie). It's a little awkward working with a man in a suit who's 20 years your senior if you don't have some sense of professionalism.

The split shift is a little awkward, and I dislike getting up rather early. The thing that makes it nice, however, is that you have between 6-9 hours during the day to get out and see the sights. That's more than enough time to see a temple, palace, hike a mountain, then get home, take a shower and get back to work. The night life? I'm too old for that.

The downside is that the housing allowance is miniscule (100,000 won is spot on), and making more than the minimum is essentially impossible. That the minimum is a livable salary (and a bit more than I made at the last job) means anything more is icing on the cake. The minimum is up to 2.6 now, including the housing allowance, for the record.

"Bill" is a good guy who tends to answer questions as a recruiter should: like a realtor selling a house. He ensured that all the i's got dotted and t's got crossed, that I got a copy of the contract, and so on - the contract does add in some substantial penalties for leaving early since your students schedule their clients with you up to a month in advance. I don't like it, but compared to most of the schools I've seen, heard about, and worked for, this is the best one.