Thursday, December 30, 2010

Teaching English in South Korea


Times have been growing increasingly austere for foreigners teaching English in South Korea. When I first started teaching in 2005, the economy was booming. Korea's newly developed middle class had made their money through fierce competition and, like all parents who had struggled for success, wanted to give their children every advantage. For kids, this translated into an education regimen that would make even the nerdiest westerner blanch. 

It is not uncommon for students to spend more than 14 hours a day in one classroom or another. Standard school runs from roughly 8am to 3pm, much the same as anywhere else in the world. But unlike my youth, in which my after school hours were occupied with sports, then dinner, then homework, then an early bed, Korean students usually visit at least one after-school academy called a hogwan. These programs usually run 2.5 to 4 hours, extending the amount of time students spent learning from 7 hours to at least 10 with many attending one hogwan from 4 - 6:30 and a second from 7:30 - 10pm. 

Students at 9:00pm...roughly their 13th hour of academics.
Each hogwan typically assigns their own homework as well, which increases the post-school workload. Students who get home at 10:30 then must work two hours on their homework before any thought can be given to whatever leisure activities they may enjoy. They typically hit the hay between midnight and 2am, leaving them with insufficient time for sleep before the cycle repeats the next day. Every other weekend would be a half-day of regular school on Saturday and usually another hogwan, leaving Sunday as the only day for rest, assuming all their homework was done. 

This breakneck pace enabled a powerful industry to develop around the hogwan system. Fierce competition turned into a battle ground for franchises as smaller institutions were unable to compete. And any hogwan without at least one native English teacher on staff would rapidly be driven from the market in the more populated areas near Seoul and Busan. Nascent industries quickly flourished in the fields of recruitment and textbook production as the industry hummed. 

Upon graduating from college, my initial job board perusals kept throwing 'TEACH ENGLISH IN SEOUL' in my face. The perks seemed too good to be true. Round-trip airfare paid for, apartment paid for, roughly $2k USD per month and a handsome package of incentives to complete a full year's contract. Unable to find anything remotely as interesting in America that paid as well, I decided to take the plunge. I contacted a recruiter, had a phone interview, processed visa paperwork, and shortly thereafter was on a flight to Seoul. 

Those first months in South Korea only five years ago illustrate how quickly this country is changing. In the summer of 2005, I was one of a handful of foreigners in my entire city of Guri. Anywhere I went I was greeted with long stares from the elderly and accompanied by shrieks and giggles from packs of school girls. There was no subway system connecting my satellite city to downtown Seoul and I counted every foreigner in Guri as at least an acquaintance. I worked for two local businessmen who a jointly opened their first franchised hogwan and, though I was not privy to their financial data, soft indicators suggested that their business was booming. (Seemingly every week my boss sashayed into work in a shiny new suit.) 

Packed in like sardines.
Five years later the industry feels bloated. Guri is now home to more foreign teachers than I could ever possibly meet. Even in my local neighborhood I see white, black, and brown faces with whom I have never spoken. Gone are the bonds of minority status and the titters of Korean students. Hogwans pepper every main street and building in town, with no less than one on each of the first 6 floors of the building where I currently work. And business is clearly nowhere near as strong as it was in 2005. 

This shouldn't be a surprise. Both parents and teachers quickly realized the increasingly ridiculous demands being placed on them in the name of competition. Students couldn't handle the pressure and workload of a 14 hour academic day and parents couldn't afford up to 5 different hogwans per week. So the government stepped in and reduced the importance of English on the statewide high school entrance exams. The government also started hiring more native English speakers to teach in the public school system, robbing the English hogwans of their primary competitive advantage. These measures, combined with the over-supply of English academies, brought about the burst of the hogwan bubble whose effects are just now starting to materialize. 

Last month, one of the hogwans in my building shut down, forcing two of my friends out of the country. Since the school was closed before they had fulfilled their one-year contract, they were forced to pay for their return ticket out of pocket. They also didn't collect their pension funds or contract bonus. Suddenly we all realized how risky this employment could be for foreigners. The impressive perks in times of plenty plus our venerated status as native speakers created a feeling of entitlement among foreign English teachers. Our community of friends sympathized with the two who had to leave by calling their boss corrupt and saying their situation was unfair. 

But their boss wasn't corrupt. He perhaps wasn't the most competent manager but he was one of the first victims in our neighborhood to the bursting of the hogwan bubble. And the raw deal my friends were left with was no more unfair than any capitalist market is unfair. It has been a healthy wake-up call for those who remain. Our sense of entitlement is eroding and we are beginning to fully appreciate that we moved halfway around the world for an opportunity without any guarantees. 

C'mon kid. Don't let us down.
Thankfully, indications suggest that the burst won't be catastrophic. There is still a market for hogwans, both English and otherwise. The Korean middle class still cares deeply about the success of their children and English is still a vital skill for advancement in the global economy. The market will correct itself and I'm sure I will say goodbye to a few more friends before it's all finished. The true threats to sustained economic success in this industry is the same that threatens all industry, all order, all life in Seoul. And if our dear neighbor to the north sees fit to push us beyond our threshold of tolerance, then all bets are off for everyone. Until that day comes though, NO KOREAN IN CLASS!

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