When applying to teach English in Korea, most people are confused when comparing private vs. public schools in Korea. There are many varying opinions online so it difficult to know which is better.
Many people from the US and Canada believe that a government-run program of any kind is more reliable and trustworthy than a private program. Why? Because it’s the government! This way of thinking, however, does not carry over to Korea, especially when it comes to the public school program EPIK (English Program In Korea).
What people forget are the most important aspects of a job. This includes job security, satisfaction in the school as well as in their personal life in Korea.
We have outlined below the reasons why EPIK is no longer as safe an option as it used to be and why private schools are a better option overall.
- The Original Goal of EPIK (That Failed)
- Private Vs. Public Schools in Korea
- Why the EPIK Program has Failed
- Why Teaching Through EPIK Isn’t a Safe Option for Teachers
- Why Travel and Teach Stopped Working with EPIK
- The Misconception of Private Schools (Hagwans)
The Original Goal of EPIK (That Failed)
EPIK was first created to stop parents from paying high fees that private schools (hagwans) were charging. It aimed to eliminate the need for private schools by providing proper English lessons (taught by foreign English teachers) at public schools. While the intention was noble, the results have been disappointing.
EPIK is dying a slow death thanks to less government funding (a result of families having fewer children), poorly created curricula and sub-par teaching.
Private Vs. Public Schools in Korea
All too often, people looking to teach in Korea are too focused on aspects like location and vacation time. EPIK, for the most part, offers better vacation than private schools (about 5 days more per year).
Location, however, is not guaranteed, even though you are told that before arriving in Korea.
Other aspects of teaching at a public vs. a private schools are simply unknown by most when considering which to apply for. Here are some of the major comparisons:
One English Teacher vs. Team of Teachers
There is usually only one teacher that is hired per public school, which means that you will be the only Westerner and likely the only English-speaking teacher at the school. Aside from the other Korean teachers who may speak some English, you will be essentially be on your own during the time you are at school, which makes for very long and lonely days.
In comparison, private schools (hagwans) usually have 5-15+ Western English teachers at the school.
Therefore, on your very first day at school, you will instantly inherit a group of friends. Having this support after just arriving in Korea is very comforting as there is a lot coming at you in your first days and weeks.
So while public schools offer slightly more vacation time, you won’t necessarily have anyone to travel with unless you meet some friends outside of your school. And, if those friends work at private schools, your vacation days will not line up.
Cold Working Environment vs. Warm Working Environment
In the EPIK program, you go through a group orientation soon after arriving in Korea. After that you are sent to your school and from that point are on your own. The other Korean teachers at the school may be welcoming, but will not likely speak much English, so conversation will be limited.
On top of that, while the classroom teacher is supposed to assist you while teaching your classes, many Korean teachers will use this time to catch up on marking or may not even be in the classroom while you are teaching.
In comparison, once you arrive at your private school, you will be trained and then assisted during your first days and weeks at the school. Should you need direction, there will be plenty of help available to you, either through your manager, Korean co-teachers (who will be able to speak English) or through your Western co-teachers.
The working environment at private schools is often family-like as teachers are made to feel like they are part of a team. Outings such as teacher dinners, nights out at the karaoke bars and weekend team building trips all contribute to a better working experience.
40 Students per Class vs. 10 Students per Class
In public schools, you will be responsible for teaching 40 students at time.
This is quite a large group of children to handle, so teachers are supposed to have a Korean co-teacher to assist. However, as stated above, some teachers use this time to catch up on marking, while others just disappear from the class, leaving you on your own.
Trying to get 40 students to listen to your lesson is one daunting task, which makes for very long and frustrating days.
Private schools limit their class sizes to 10-12 students at the very most. This allows for much better class management and participation. On top of that, the students are actually learning what you are teaching making it a more rewarding experience as you will see them progress from week to week.
Teaching ABCs vs. Teaching Conversational English
As public schools teach per grade level in comparison to the students’ level of English, you will be teaching students who have little or no English ability the same lesson as those who have a very high English efficiency.
Therefore, some students will have no understanding of your lesson whatsoever while others will be bored as it is far too basic for them.
It’s a one size fits all approach that simply does not work.
In comparison, the classes at private schools are separated by levels where each student in the class will have the same English ability. This also adds some variation to your day, where you will be teaching some classes the basics, while teaching others advanced conversational English.
Multiple School Locations vs. One Location
As government funding for the EPIK program has dwindled, teachers are now expected to teach at more than one school – sometimes up to 5 or more. This means you as a teacher will be spending a large part of the day commuting. Not fun.
We constantly receive emails from applicants who opted for EPIK over private school positions complaining about this. Unfortunately, once you are in Korea under an EPIK contract, it is really difficult to get out of it.
Here are two emails we recently received:
Subject: EPIK teacher looking to work at a Hagwon
Message: Hello, I am currently working as an English teacher at six different public schools in the Jeonbuk province (4 Elementary and 2 Middle schools). I am only at the beginning of my contract, but honestly once I complete this semester I do not wish to continue working under these conditions.
I really enjoy living in Korea though and I would prefer to work with younger students at the Kindergarten level in a private school that offers teacher support (I receive NONE now).
I really need guidance and advice on what steps I should take to apply at a Hagwon even though I am currently signed to a one year contract with EPIK. Do I apply to Hagwons first, wait to get a job position, and then notify EPIK 45-60 days in advance that I am ending my contract. I appreciate any advice on what I can do to escape the situation I am in.
Subject: Looking to work at a hogwan
Message: My name is Alison and as of August 2019, I have been an EPIK English Teacher. It is time to renew or terminate my contract but I simply cannot see working under these conditions any longer. While I have enjoyed Korea, I’d gladly welcome a better opportunity than the this position. One with more support, involving more foreign teachers, and only working at one location as I am working at 3 different schools resulting in 2 hours of commuting each day.
If you have information in reference to how I can go about finding a new job with a private school while already living in South Korea, that would be great. Thank you!
At private schools, you will be teaching at one school and one school ONLY. As schools find their teachers apartments as close to the school as possible (oftentimes in the same building as the school), the ‘commute’ is usually a 5-10 minute walk.
Why the EPIK Program has Failed
Korean parents sacrifice everything for their children and their future. Accordingly, they want the best of the best when it comes to English lessons. This is because speaking English offers many opportunities for Koreans. The curriculum that EPIK provides is very generic in nature, so children with medium to high levels of English learn nothing they don’t already know; conversely, those with little or no knowledge learn only the very basics.
Lessons are taught to 40 students at a time (often with only 1 teacher!). As a result, there is no individual focus on speaking. On the other hand, private schools offer extensive individual practice because class sizes are typically 8-12 students. Also, students are grouped by ability so there are never large discrepancies between students.
As parents realized that their children were receiving mediocre English lessons at public schools, enrollment in private schools skyrocketed.
Why Teaching Through EPIK Isn’t a Safe Option for Teachers
At first, we at Travel and Teach wanted to offer both private and public school positions to our teachers. That way, people could make a decision depending on individual preferences. We therefore worked with EPIK for 4 years before multiple problems started happening. Eventually, it got to the point that we no longer felt comfortable and safe sending our teachers through EPIK.
Problem #1: The application process requires applicants to apply 6 months in advance.
In fact, they are forced to apply even before they have the necessary documents ready to apply for the visa. This resulted in lost jobs when documents were not produced in time. Applicants then had to start their job search all over, by which time most private schools had completed their hiring. At best, this caused many people to go to Korea 3-6 months after they originally wanted to. At worst, it caused many to not go at all because they didn’t want to through the process again.
Problem #2: EPIK hires twice the number of people they need.
For one intake, EPIK will ‘hire’ around 2,000 teachers for 1,000 positions. This is so that there aren’t any teaching positions that are not filled. The ‘first come, first served’ way of recruiting results in hired teachers losing their jobs after completing most of the required steps. They then have to start all over.
Problem #3: EPIK promises that if you send your visa documents to Korea in a hurry, you will secure your desired location.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. We had multiple reports of teachers being promised positions in large metropolitan cities. When they arrived at EPIK orientation, however, they were given placements in rural areas. They were then told that they could either accept that position or return home on their own dime.
As schools could no longer afford to employ foreign teachers. While losing your job before getting to Korea is a problem, losing your job while in Korea is infinitely worse. At that point, the entire visa process needs to be redone, and you must do this all on your own.
Problem #5: Teacher support through EPIK is essentially non-existent
EPIK teachers commonly complain that there is a serious lack of support. Whether it is from EPIK representatives or within the school, there is often no support structure. At private schools, you have managers, directors and co-teachers who can assist you or answer your questions.
Why Travel and Teach Stopped Working with EPIK
In addition to the problems outlined above, in late 2009, EPIK cut 150 jobs 1 month before those positions began. For Travel and Teach alone, we recruited 35 of those teachers. We then had to inform them that they were jobless, even though they had already completed the visa process and purchased plane tickets.
Once we realized that we essentially had no control over the security of our teachers’ positions, we stopped working with EPIK once and for all.
The Misconception of Private Schools (Hagwans)
Is it true that some private schools will not pay you on time, add on extra teaching hours or fire you in the 11th month of your contract to save on severance and plane ticket payout? Unfortunately, we still hear stories like this. However, these stories are usually from people who have either 1) been hired directly through a school or 2) been placed through a Korean recruiting agency. While not all schools that hire directly are bad, nor are all Korean recruiting agencies, the fact is once you have a visa sponsorship with a school in Korea and are unhappy, your only two options are to 1) quit, go home and do the visa process all over again or 2) stay put and deal with the poor working conditions or treatment.
Don’t Listen to the so-called online ‘ESL Experts’
Unlike what the so called ‘pundits’ of the teaching industry in Korea say online on Dave’s ESL Café or other online forums, the majority of private schools are well-run institutions that would not risk their reputation for the sake of saving some money by not paying a teacher what they are owed.
At Travel and Teach, we have always been very picky about which schools we work with. This gives us full confidence when we send teachers to these schools year after year. We have partnered with many of these schools since 2001. Therefore, we pass on extensive information to prospective teachers so they know exactly what they are getting into. And if there are any issues or miscommunication, we are there to help figure everything out. This is the Travel and Teach Guarantee.
Once people are informed of the differences between private vs. public schools in Korea, the choice seems pretty clear.
If you are ready to get started on your job search, you can check out our list of private school teaching positions in Korea here.