Thursday, February 28, 2013

Teaching English in Korea: Hogwon (Private) versus EPIK (Public)

This probably won't be a particularly humorous or interesting post, but it covers some stuff about teaching here, which is probably something I should at least touch upon in this blog.

As of the beginning of February, I've been back in Korea for about three months. I think this means I'm probably overdue for a post about my job, since it is, after all, what allowed me to come back to this part of the world. As I've mentioned previously, I'm now a middle-school teacher at a public school. I got the job through EPIK (English Program In Korea), the federal government's English-education program. When I was in Korea before, from August 2010 to September 2011, I worked at a “hogwon,” a private, after-school English-education academy. Aside from the fact that my job title – teacher – hasn't changed from hogwon to public school, the job itself couldn't be more different.

Sharing (albeit slightly shorter) hours with the worker drones most of them are destined to become, kids in Korea go to school Monday to Friday from 8AM to 4:30PM. As I understand it, they used to attend school every other Saturday from 8AM to noon as well, but a recent increase in Monday to Friday hours has since eliminated the fortnightly Saturday classes. A generous move by the government that hopefully will allow Korean kids more time to be kids, a concept with which a great many of them are completely unfamiliar. This means that my working hours are now 8:30AM to 4:30PM, Monday to Friday. I'm uncertain whether I'm ashamed or proud to be holding down a semi-legitimate nine to five for the first time since April, 2008.

At the hogwon I worked at in 2010-2011, I was required to be in the school from 1:30 to 9PM. This change in working hours has been the basis for the biggest differences in my experiences in Korea. And like everything else, it isn't a matter of “which one is better?” My working hours at the hogwon allowed me, if I so desired, or lacked the personal responsibility to do otherwise, to stay out as late as I desired, any night of the week. Accordingly, I had a more exciting, and in all likelihood, more expensive social life. My hours at public school, especially when combined with the fact that I live a fair way outside of town and buses don't go there past 10PM, have made my Monday through Thursday social life less exciting (i.e. nonexistent). The upside to this is that I'm probably spending less money, and I'm certainly being healthier and more productive. Before I signed my current contract, I was aware that I wanted a more personally productive year than my previous Korea-experience encouraged, and this was actually my primary motivation for going after a public school job. So far, so good.

Nearly all aspects of teaching English are different at a hogwon and at public school. Bear in mind I've only worked at one hogwon, and one public school, so the generalizations I'm going to be making may not be true across the board. Below are some of the most glaring differences, and my opinions thereof:

  • Class sizes: At my hogwon, class sizes ranged from three to twelve students, with an average of probably seven or eight per class. I taught the same groups of students Monday to Friday, or in some cases, two or three days a week. All told, I was teaching roughly 60 different students in a given term, and 90% or so of these students would carry over to the next term. They all had English names, like Kevin or Suzy, and because of the limited class sizes, I was able to get to know each of them. At public school, class sizes range from twenty to thirty-five students, and I see each class once a week. I teach 20 classes per week, which means I see approximately 500 students each week. I am not attempting to learn their names, even though roughly half of them are either “Kim” or “Kang,” and don't feel particularly guilty about this since most of the Korean teachers don't do so either – and they share a common language. Obvious advantage: Hogwon.
  • Class frequency and working hours: At my hogwon, I spent seven and a half hours per day at school, the first one and a half hours of which I was required to be in the office, even if I had no planning to do. The rest of the day, from 3 to 9PM, I spent in class, with a rare 45-minute break every now and then. I probably averaged 35 40-minute classes a week, and for the most part, these classes didn't change with the days of the week. At public school, I teach 20 different classes each week, and each class is 45-minutes long. All told, I spend 15 hours teaching each week, although I am required to be at school for 40. Since I teach roughly the same lesson to each class, this means I do very little planning, and accordingly, have approximately 20 hours per week (discounting 5 for lunch) during which I am in my office. What I'm getting at is that this job provides me with a great deal of free time. I have a computer and an internet connection, so it's easy to kill time, but I've been trying to be productive with it. Basically, I've been working my way through 5 years of backlogged photographs. It's been one hell of a chore, but it's going to be amazing once I'm done, if I ever truly am. Student advantage: Hogwon. Personal advantage: Public.
  • Student ages: At my hogwon, I taught students from first through eighth grade. The younger the kids were, the more enthusiastic about learning they were. Also, the cuter they were. I now teach at a middle school, which was not my first choice, but it allowed me to come to Jeju, where I really wanted to end up. Middle schoolers, as we all know, kinda suck. I guess that's unfair, because I have quite a few good classes full of enthusiastic learners. But I also have jerks, and while I'm sure they also exist in grade school, they certainly don't exist with the frequency they do in middle school. Also, they're often pimply, self-conscious, and awkward. Hopefully I'll be able to move to an elementary school in the near future. Personal advantage: Hogwon.
  • Teaching assistants: At hogwons, teaching assistants don't exist. But since classes don't usually exceed ten students, it's not too difficult to maintain a semblance of order in class. At public school, each class I go to has a teaching assistant, who is a Korean English teacher. The job of the assistant is primarily to maintain discipline, but also to help me to answer questions and translate as necessary, but as little as possible. I've learned something about assistants. Sure, everyone wants a pretty, young assistant to help in class, but the best assistants are the older women. The younger teachers are more likely to take abuse, but the older teachers don't take crap from anyone, and their classes are always full of well-behaved students. My ideal teaching assistant would be a 70 year-old ajima (an endearing and not necessarily familial term for “grandmother”) with a perm, a scowl, and a “love stick.” Yeah, yeah, now is the appropriate time to make a penis joke. A “love stick” is a ruler, or a bamboo rod, or some such thing that is used – more often as a threat than an actual tool – to encourage students to listen. It goes like this: if students aren't listening, they get slapped. Awesome. Advantage: None given, this is a draw.
  • Methodology: This could be (and certainly is) the topic of many doctoral theses. I have mixed feelings on how this should be handled, so I'll try to stick to the facts. At my hogwon, each class was expected to cover a particular book (or books) in a particular amount of time. Usually, a class would be expected to make it through a reading book and a workbook every two months. If the students weren't grasping the information, too bad. They had to finish the material in the time allotted, and they had to move up to the next level. Parents wanted to hear that their children were making progress, so we told them that's what was happening, even if it wasn't. Ideally, there would be some way to separate the education from the money, since I feel it is this connection that causes most of the problems with hogwons. But overall, teaching from the books we used did result in improved reading and writing skills. Unfortunately, this left very little time for speaking and listening – critical skills that are much more easily improved in a hogwon setting with 8 students in a class than in a public school setting with 30 students per class. Frustrating. At public school, I had zero days of training. I arrived and they said “teach them English.” Zero materials, zero standards, nothing. I usually pick a topic for the week, download a relevant PowerPoint presentation, and go through it in class. Maybe there is time for some kind of activity or game at the end. It's still a bit chaotic. Methodology advantage: Public school – but this advantage is negated by the class size and frequency.
  • My conclusions:
    • Students learn more English at hogwons than at public school. And unfortunately, lower-income families cannot afford to send their children to hogwons – they ain't cheap. So as with any other place on Earth (to my limited knowledge, anyway), education is more a function of economic standing than anything else.
    • Public school is a better environment for me to teach in, given my life objectives at present. I have a lot of free time at work in which I can, in theory, be productive. Additionally, my weekday life, although not as exciting as it was when I worked at the hogwon, has resulted in my living a healthier, not necessarily more fulfilling, but certainly more productive life.

If anyone made it through this whole post, I'm sorry. That was boring.