What Ordinary Teachers Want More than Becoming a “Superstar Teacher”

Hidden Labor: Interviews with Four Hagwon [Cram School] Teachers

Hee-jeong | 기사입력 2021/05/05 [09:30]

What Ordinary Teachers Want More than Becoming a “Superstar Teacher”

Hidden Labor: Interviews with Four Hagwon [Cram School] Teachers

Hee-jeong | 입력 : 2021/05/05 [09:30]

Editor’s note: In collaboration with a women workers’ writing group, Ilda is publishing a series examining the previously ignored work and lives of female laborers. In this article, group member and investigative journalist Hee- jeong writes about hagwon teachers. This series is being produced with support from the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.


What’s the best way to deal with this?


A child asks his hagwon teacher to buy him a snack. When the teacher says no, the child says, “But my mother’s money pays your salary.”

The teacher is uncomfortable. But still she says no. The child speaks again.

“Then I’m gonna quit this hagwon. If I quit, you’ll get fired, right?”


What should the teacher do in this kind of situation? This is a question frequently posted on an Internet forum for hagwon teachers. There are always replies. Some say the kid meant no harm and so advise talking him out of it kindly, while others recommend giving him a stern talking-to while also telling him not to quit the hagwon. No matter which advice you accept, the question remains: how does the teacher deal with the feelings caused by being “put in her place” like this?


Hagwon teaching is often called “the end of the line for eggheads.” The expression “end of the line” may not seem fitting for the education field, but if you look into it, you’ll see there’s a reason why even people within the industry refer to it this way.


Several questions are posted each day on the forum site mentioned above. I was fired with one day’s notice. I haven’t been paid in several months. They want me to come in on weekends to make up classes that students missed. What should I do? The forum is filled with questions that are also complaints. These are the concerns of most teachers at comprehensive hagwon, who make about 2 million won [1,880 USD] per month working full-time; the lives of “superstar” teachers who make hundreds of thousands of dollars seem as distant as the stars in the sky.


Y’s story: Ever-lengthening work hours with no overtime pay


Korean teacher “Y” first started working at a hagwon when she was in her third year of university. The hagwon owner hired her with the reasoning that even though Y was young, they needed someone to help grow the business. Because she had no experience, they would pay her 300,000 won per month to teach a [2-hour] class twice per week. At the time—2005—this didn’t even cover the comparable tutoring fee for a single middle-schooler, but Y accepted it. Finding private tutoring work was not easy. And compared to getting 4,000 won per hour at a café or convenience store, this was pretty good. Y was just a university student who needed work.


When she started working, however, things began to change. The hagwon owner said Y had to make up classes that students missed. Y’s working hours lengthened by an hour or two each time. Then the owner said Y had to do extra classes to prepare students for their school exams. During the two weeks before their exams, the hagwon was unceasingly busy. But there was no talk of extra pay for all these extra classes. The owner said that this was just how hagwon are. They would, however, provide meals for the teachers—but these turned out to be kimbap and cup noodles.


This is how Y’s first month passed. When payday rolled around, though, nothing appeared in Y’s bank account. The hagwon owner said the money would be ten days late. And that that was just how hagwon are. Why are so many things “just that way?” Y wondered silently. Ten days passed. No money came in. She called the hagwon owner, who said, “Oh, really? I’ll check on that.” Even then, it was a few days before 300,000 won—minus 3.3% for taxes, which the owner had not warned her about—was finally given to Y.


Y says that even now, on forums advertising for hagwon teachers, you can find some hagwon that pay 600,000 won per month for a five-day workweek. Conditions that don’t improve. Yet all Y can do is leave comments warning people not to work for this kind of hagwon.


▲ illustration by Park sang-eun


P’s story: The horrible practices of the hagwon world


Teaching at a hagwon brings in pretty good money for university students. That’s why they don’t complain much about the objectively low pay and frequent contract-breaking. The problem is that when they graduate and decide to pursue hagwon teaching as a career, the working conditions don’t change much. That the field is open to university students means that hagwon owners have a practically-unending supply of potential employees. Why would they value any one teacher when there are so many willing replacements? In view of this, “P,” who has taught writing for eight months, says that hagwon teachers are treated “cheaply.”


P was hired one year ago by a large writing hagwon that has 10 directly-managed schools and 30 franchise branches. Before beginning to teach, P went through a three-month probationary period, during which he received training and gave demonstration lessons.


The demonstration lessons continued even after P became a regular teacher. In addition to a demonstration lesson every week, the teachers were split into two teams to have a debate once a month. Their performance in these activities was evaluated, and when they were judged as inadequate, the hagwon owner would rebuke them on the spot. Scoldings—and sometimes chalk—flew. Demonstration lessons and debates could only be prepared for after regular classes, make-up classes, teaching-material research, parent counseling, and some trivial duties were taken care of. The teachers were always scrambling to keep up.


Because the hagwon placed importance on parent counselling, teachers had to call each student’s parents twice per week and meet with them face-to-face every month. There were some days when all P did was meet with parents. Even if the owner doesn’t demand it, counselling parents is an important duty for hagwon teachers. If the teacher didn’t make them feel comfortable, parents would move their children to another class as easily as if they were exchanging an item at a store. The competition and tension was unending.


Most teachers couldn’t endure it. After eight months, only four of the twelve who had started with P remained. P was gone soon after. Many teachers left the hagwon. There was high turnover. The hagwon’s management was unconcerned. There was a line of teachers hoping to work for a large company like theirs. Just like P did, new teachers cut down their sleeping time and work as hard as they can to show that they’re better than their coworkers and to sell the educational “goods.” If they tire of running on this treadmill and quit, other teachers take their places. That’s all there is to it.


One reason that P started working at a hagwon was because of an interest in writing, but another was that he was trying to enter the working world at past the optimal age. P and some of his coworkers called themselves “screw-ups.” They were those who had spent too long preparing for civil service exams or other careers that hadn’t worked out, and so found themselves starting out in hagwon. Or those whose failed attempts to pass the public school teacher exam made their temporary hagwon work into their career. They are said to have nowhere else to go. That’s why hagwon work is called “the end of the line for eggheads.” 


The end of the line is a dark and stifling place, and the main reason that hagwon teaching has earned that name is the other working conditions. The field’s “practices” that owners follow are awful. They show no regard for employer duties like pay for overtime or extra classes, yearly vacations, severance pay, or giving a month’s notice before firing.


I asked each of the four teachers I interviewed whether they had had a contract with their hagwon. Only one had. (This was the same person who was fired with one day’s notice, though. The contract was meaningless.) When I asked them if they had received severance pay, only one had – half of what was owed and only after appealing to the Labor Office. There was hardly any point in asking whether they had paid vacation or workplace accident insurance. In the hagwon world, you’re glad just to be paid properly every month.


M’s story: Teachers at the end of their run


Middle school math instructor M was teaching science just two years ago. While the number of students in Korea has been declining, hagwon just keep springing up, and the competitions between hagwon have become fierce. To survive, many owners have attempted to convert their general hagwon to one that specializes in English or math. It has become difficult for teachers of Korean language or science to even find work. Many have changed to teaching English or math. M is one of them.


But that wasn’t the only reason that M changed subjects. She was suffering from vocal cord nodules and a sore throat. Her voice was hoarse all the time. She was like that for a year. She taught eight hours of class straight each day. Science was more explanation-heavy than other subjects. There was no reason her throat would be in good condition, when she was doing all that talking and eating chalk dust all week. There was nothing she could do, though. There was no sick leave, and she couldn’t quit. The hagwon owner had no intention of acknowledging that her condition was an occupational illness.


All M could do was change her subject from science to math. Once she did that, both her teaching hours and the percentage of teaching time that she spent speaking were reduced, and her throat recovered completely.


M is currently trying to move up to teaching high school students. She says that middle school hagwon teachers have a short lifespan. Once you are over forty, owners don’t want to hire you. As a woman in her mid-thirties, she’s looking to high school teaching to help her survive a little longer.


When I ask her what happens to teachers whose “lifespans” are all spent, she says that they become owners. Since it is the only thing they know, they start their own hagwon—if they can afford it. These young owners then avoid hiring teachers older than they are, because it can be hard to manage them comfortably. It’s a vicious circle.


Also, as the number of hagwon continues to rise, the competition becomes fiercer. In order to survive, owners ask more and more of their teachers. The frequency of parent consultation increases, and make up classes can be scheduled at any time. Teachers are required to teach one-on-one classes. Under owners who have no choice but to bend over backwards to please each student, teachers’ workload can only continue to intensify.


Perhaps it is foolish of me, but I advise teachers not to give in to owners’ demands. I ask what would happen if they refuse to teach make-up classes. In reply, they talk about the poor students stuck in the classroom like wilting flowers.


K’s story: Forging a relationship with students who go from one hagwon to the next


K, who has taught science for four years, also first started working at a hagwon as a part-time job during university. At first, she never talked to students about their personal lives. She had no thought of building relationships with them. She considered her job temporary work that could end at any time. She never took an interest in her students, and didn’t take on make-up classes until the owner began demanding it.


But spending half the day with children with for whom she had no affinity made the work exhausting. Slowly, K began to listen to the kids’ stories, counsel them, and share their worries. As she did this, she began to notice their academic shortcomings and feel like she should help them improve. She worried that a student who missed a class wouldn’t be able to keep up. She soon found herself voluntarily taking on make-up classes.


K says that she doesn’t really like hagwon teaching, but that what has kept her going for four years is the relationships with the kids. She’s afraid of being fired, but more afraid of causing harm to her students. Also, Korea is a society so focused on grades that a crisis can arise over one neglected make-up class. The constrictive university entrance exam system doesn’t allow anyone to relax.


Students start going from hagwon to hagwon when they are young. They are used to competition and to being controlled. Children who go to this hagwon and that one with their shoulders drooping like wilted flowers. They judge their teachers to their faces, based on their long experience with the educational “service” they have received. At the same time, they often try to have fun in their oppressive daily life by hazing and making fun of their hagwon teachers. Sometimes that involves mentioning the teacher’s low status.


The student who asks, “Won’t you get fired if I quit this hagwon?” might just be suffering from the same sickness that this stifling educational system inflicts on the teacher.


My story, in brief


I’ve also taught at hagwon now and again since my student days. Even now, I teach part-time in addition to writing. I am a powerless teacher who has seen her hours somehow lengthened from five per day to seven and yet hasn’t said anything to the owner about it.


However, there are a few new things I’ve learned while researching for this article. For one, that—aside from a few specialized instructors—hagwon teachers aren’t legally considered regular workers (they are “economically-dependent workers”), though they of course are. That there are more owners than you’d think who use this as an excuse not to give teachers things like severance pay, that teachers actually have many rights (for example, even if they sign a form saying they won’t receive severance pay, they still have the right to receive it), but also that the number of teachers actually enjoying these rights can practically be counted on one hand.


I also learned that there are places like Busan’s Hyorim Hagwon, where teachers formed a union. Included in the collective agreement signed by Hyorim Hagwon (a branch of Stepping Stone Netschool) in 2002 were conditions like hourly overtime pay and one day of paid vacation per month, which, though stipulated in the Standard Labor Law, are beyond the reach of ordinary hagwon teachers. Conditions that were just as dreamlike and improbable as becoming a superstar teacher—and yet, worth dreaming about.


By Hee-jeong

Translated by Marilyn Hook

*Original article: http://ildaro.com/6121


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

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