Korean TEFL jobs: Exposed

It seems like most of my audience is paying attention to my advice for starting a hagwon job in Korea.

I am not surprised.

When I was in your shoes not that long, I read very polarizing takes on work-life in Korea. There was one camp of people who absolutely loved it and it was amazing! Everything was bunnies and sunflowers and “OMG! The job is FAN-TAS-TIC! You’re going to love it here, and the kids are just darling!”

On the other hand, there’s the people who seemed to always be at their boss’ mercy. You read things like:

“I haven’t been paid in 3 months.”

“My boss is stealing money from my paycheck.”

“I’m not receiving health insurance or a pension.”

“My boss stole my vacation/ sick days.”

etc. etc. etc


For a while now, I have had a recurring image that I can never seem to get out of my head.

I’m walking in a beautiful field with an abundance of colorful and fragrant wild flowers. Overhead the sun is shining bright and warm, while I listen to the native birdsong. At some point in my leisurely stroll, I’ve realized something seems off. I stop walking as it dawns on me: I’m not actually in a field.

Someone has pulled the line for a projector screen and the fabric rolls up instantaneously. Revealing that I’m actually walking in a military zone. Millions of active land mines sprawl out before me which seemingly stretches into the infinite horizon. Realizing my true situation I have no choice but to continue onward and ever so carefully- as any sudden movement could cause everything to blow up in my face.

“May the odds be ever in your favor.”

I’m not sure if anyone else feels this way, but I expect I am not alone. Horrible jobs are, unfortunately, not uncommon in Korea.

The good news is that there are things you can watch for. Things to be mindful of when you’re working at a hagwon. If you encounter any of the following red flags at a hagwon job, it might be time to evaluate your options…

10 Warning signs your job isn’t what you thought it was:


1. It’s been over a month, and you still don’t have your Alien Registration Card (ARC).

Your employer is supposed to take you to the Korean Immigration Bureau within a month of your arrival. There is a fee associated which, of course, means that some employers will try and make you pay for it; or make an attempt at escaping it all together by never taking you at all. #becausekorea

Your ARC is extremely important as an expat in Korea. It allows you to come in and out of the country as you please. If you’re planning any sort of traveling during your time in Korea, you cannot leave the country and expect to be allowed back in without one.

2. You don’t have health insurance

As I mentioned in an earlier post, you are required by law to have health insurance. It is illegal for you to be working in Korea without it; and it is your boss’ duty to enroll you in the National Health Care Plan (NHCP). However, there is a caveat in the law: if an employer has less than 4 full-time employees they don’t have to enroll you.

Even if you are told you have health insurance, even if you are getting money taken out of your account every month- you don’t have health insurance if you don’t have a health insurance card! Know your rights and be weary of a hagwon with few employees!

3. Your school has more part-time employees than full-time

I think this should be obvious at this point, but I will continue explaining because I am a “teacher.” For whatever reason unbeknownst to me, 4 is the magic number in Korea. If your school has less than 4 full-time employees they don’t have to enroll you in the NCHP. Furthermore, they do not have to enroll you in the National Pension Plan.

Separately, do your part-time teachers mysteriously disappear? They are there for months and then one day they aren’t and you don’t get an explanation. This could mean that your boss is having trouble keeping their employee quota down. Which means they might try and add classes to their full-time teachers’ schedules to make up for the loss of their Part-timer.

Before you start a job, make sure you ask how many full-time employees and part-time employees they have. If it’s less than 4 FT, decline the offer. I know you might be desperate to get to Korea, but believe me it just is not worth it!!

4. Your school pops up on hagwonblacklist.com

This is a handy website for expats looking for a teaching job. It is what it sounds like: a list of hagwons in Korea that have afforded teachers with a less than satisfying experience as an employee. It’s a popular website which allows you to anonomously post your experience thereby sharing it with future employees.

Use it- preferably before your interview!

5. You are paid late/not paid at all

This is probably the biggest, glaring red flag of all red flags. If this is happening to you, I would advise you to leave right.now. There are places you can go as you look for a new job. You can pack all your things and buy a ticket to anywhere but Korea- it’s called a midnight run. You buy the next ticket out of Korea and pack your things. You tell no one where you’re going and silently slip away into the night, never to be heard from again. You get a new email address and phone number so you can’t be traced as you wait out the rest of the time on your Korean visa. After your visa has expired you can freely enter Korea again.

If that isn’t your style, you can ask your boss for a letter of release. In order to quit a job and get a new one in Korea, your current boss must write you a letter granting you permission to leave. Which you must then give to the Korean Immigration Bureau. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. This is the only way to transfer your visa, and work in Korea legally.

The point is: you don’t have to deal with this. Your boss not paying you is indicative of a number of misconduct practices on your bosses end. You don’t want to stick around any longer- that ship is going down, friend!

6. Your boss hasn’t made good on promises made in your interview

This is another thing I suspect happens all the time. Employers will promise sick days and paid time off. The next thing you know they are taking your vacation days to pay you for a day you already have off…like Christmas Day when it falls on a Friday.

**It’s a very good idea to write down everything your boss has promised in your interview. If it’s a phone interview you can write as s/he is speaking, or better yet you can record the conversation. Keep it for your records because you will want it if it turns out they don’t want to give you those things once you start working.

7. You are taking work home

This is a big one. It was a deal breaker for me, but it depends on what you’re willing to do for your job. Do you want to miss out on trips around Korea because you have 90 report cards to write over the weekend? Do you want to spend a ridiculous amount of time doing extra work you didn’t agree to in the first place?

8. Class sizes are getting smaller

When you first started each class had about 5-10 kids. One day you stop and realize your class size has dwindled significantly. Months later, you now have around 2-4 kids in each class. This is a sign that the children and parents aren’t happy with the school. If a lot of kids are dropping out, it means your boss is likely experiencing a significant decrease in income.

This can be a problem for you because you could potentially get fired- if they can somehow link their financial problems to you. If they can’t, it still means your boss is losing money, which opens up the door for you to be paid late or in the wrong amount… or even your boss borrowing money from you.

9. You feel like you’re being watched 24/7

It is true- there is CCTV in every room of most hagwons. It’s a little unsettling knowing that someone from your school will have the responsibility of watching your every move.

What I mean by this item on the list isn’t CCTV- that’s normal here. I’m talking about the feeling that that every single thing you do seems to be an issue for your boss. Are they nit-picking everything you do? Do they bring you into an empty classroom to scream at you as your students are coming into school? (That actually happened to me).

The point is: if you feel like your every move is being watched; if you feel like somehow, you can’t do anything right the problem might be bigger than you. It could mean that your boss is really going through financial hardship and s/he is looking for any excuse to tally up your wrongdoings.

10. You are asked to do a lot of things outside of your contract…and you aren’t paid overtime for it

Many Korean hagwon bosses will try and sneak extra things into your workload. An extra class here, writing curriculum there…and they don’t have any intention of paying you overtime for it. You end up working without a break, or doing work on Saturdays. Before you know it, you don’t even remember the last time you went to Hongdae with your friends…don’t be that person! Here’s a little life lesson for you:

Work = work        and         life = life

Work + life = work-life

Work-life ≠ life

Solution: there is work, and there is your life. Leave your work at work- even if you love it but especially if you hate it. Once you leave the building, stop thinking about work until you walk back through the door. If you’re constantly worrying about your performance at work your performance will suffer. Fact! (Bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica).

Once you can master that, you can master working in Korea. Even if you have the most amazing job; I would bet one million won that your patience will be tried. You will want to flip the desk and walk out like Bender from The Breakfast Club. If you can just…stop caring so much about your job that doesn’t really matter anyway, you will be happier and your life will be better!



Are any of the aforementioned happening in your school? If the answer is yes, what is more important: your sanity, your moral compass and overall quality of life- or numbers in your bank account?

I know you. I have been you. Believe me, I know who you are. “I am your father, Luke!!!” (sorry I just saw STAR Wars and ERMAGHERD!!!)

But for real, I have been in your shoes.

There are teachers who have stuck out a horrible job for an entire year just to collect a lot of money at the end. But don’t you think for one minute that they haven’t paid a price. A lot of them have dealt with a considerable amount of dung for 12 whole months…and to them, I tip my hat.

If you can deal with whatever it is you’re dealing with, do it. It’s worth it!

You will benefit from it. You’ll be a better employee when you get home because oh-my-God! You won’t have to deal with this ever again…hopefully.

You learn when to speak up and when to hold your tongue. Take it from me, it is far more rewarding to speak up when your boss has wronged you than it is to hold it in.


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