Public vs Private Schooling System

You may have heard of typical perks for teaching in South Korea including reimbursed airfare and living accommodations. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

There’s two schooling systems in South Korea – public and private. Here’s a breakdown, along with my (not so valuable) two cents.

Public System at a glance
Salary: 1.8-3.0 million won (typically 1.8-2.0 million won for new teachers)
Class size: 25-40 students
Student ages: Elementary – High school
Hours: Monday – Friday 9AM-5PM
Teaching hours: 22 hours (the remainder = prep time)
Vacation: 18 working days + national holidays
Co-teacher: Yes
Application start dates:
February-July (Fall term: August)
August-January (Spring term: March)

Benefits of teaching in the public system (EPIK) include stability and overall uniformity. Since teaching in the public system is overseen by the government, the teaching environment is set to a certain standard. In other words, those horror stories of schools closing down without paying their teachers? Unlikely in the public system.

Nonetheless, “standards” always have room for interpretation. Just like all things in life, there will be some stingy schools and some generous schools interpreting your contract. (But their range of interpretation will never be quite as large as those in the private schooling business.) Unfortunately, you won’t be able to find out if your school is stingy or not because EPIK won’t tell you where you’ve been assigned until AFTER you’ve completed your orientation in South Korea.

Prior to your departure from your home country, EPIK will tell you the province, and if lucky, your placement city. But they won’t tell you your specific location until you’ve arrived in South Korea for training.

EPIK might also assign you to multiple schools. Due to the lack of resources in rural cities, one native English teacher may need to commute to various schools (can range from 2-4 schools). This limited contact could impact a teacher’s ability to develop rapport with their students and successfully teach the language due to inconsistent access to each school’s resources.

Private System at a glance
Salary: 2.0-3.0 million won (typically 2.0 million won for new teachers)
Class size: > 15
Student ages: Anything
Hours: Monday – Friday 9AM-10PM (occasionally Saturday/Sunday + overtime)
Teaching hours: 30+
Vacation: 5-10 working days + national holidays
Co-teacher: Unlikely
Application start dates: Anytime

Teaching in the private system means teaching after-school tutoring programs – much like Kumon in North America. Commonly known as hagwons (학원) or private academies, the private system in South Korea is much more intense than in North America. Asians typically take education very seriously, and in South Korea, it’s normal for students to attend school almost every waking hour of the day. And no, I don’t mean from 9AM-9PM. I’m talking 6:30AM-midnight.

Now this might feel inhumane, especially when it comes to elementary-aged children, and in April 2010, the South Korean government placed a 10PM curfew on private institutions in Seoul. Many cities outside of Seoul have opted not to follow this recommended curfew.

For English teachers in the private system, you’ll likely be working in the evenings after public school has let out. Of course, you could also be teaching during the day. All of this depends on your hagwon. Private academy clientele, while generally specialized, can also be very diverse. You could teach business professionals, high school students getting ready for standardized testing, or even kindergarten students.

Classes are also smaller, but you typically work more hours and get less vacation days than your public counterpart.

In short, when you go private, it’s the lottery. You could land a phenomenal contract with specs comparable or even better (read: visa sponsorship, prepaid flights) than that of the public school system. But just like the lottery, most tickets are not winners and you might be at the game for a while and still never hit the jackpot.

In contrast, public schools are relatively consistent. Every ESL teacher gets, more or less, the same thing. The process is streamlined by one giant organization, and you won’t need to interview with multiple different employers. It’s efficient, but do be weary because its downside (uncertainty in your location) can definitely be a deciding factor for some.

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