Hagwons are private academies in Korea that can supplement the information students learn in school. A familiar concept in K-Dramas, like SKY Castle, hagwons are often depicted as incredibly academically rigorous, putting immense pressure on young students.
But the brutal realities of hagwons are not simply fictitious. A viral advertisement from a mother paying someone to keep her son awake while he studies proves how seriously studying is taken.
I am looking for someone to wake my son up at a study cafe. All you have to do is sit next to him and wake him up when he falls asleep. If you feel he needs to sleep, let him sleep for 15 minutes then, wake him up. Please check to see if he gets 10 minutes of rest every hour and if he studies after his rest.
-Mother of student
But while the difficulties that students endure at hagwons are more commonly understood, in a recent video for VICE, a former teacher revealed the brutal and even dangerous reality of her experience working at a small, private hagwon.
The former teacher explains that she wanted to teach at a hagwon because her cousin lived in Korea for a while, and working with children was her passion.
I wanted to teach at a hagwon originally because my cousin has lived in Korea for over six years. Teaching or working with children was more my passion.
But despite her passion, teaching became one of the “worst experiences of [her] life.”
Working at a hagwon turned out to be one of the worst experiences of my life.
She confirms the reality seen in many K-Dramas, that the students “definitely are overworked.”
The children definitely are overworked.
And while her main job was as an English teacher, she also “illegally” taught ballet because the hagwon she worked at didn’t have enough employees to distribute work properly.
I was teaching them mostly English, but also illlegally was teaching them ballet. There were not enough people working in the school, teaching.
Because of the lack of teachers, she had to watch multiple classrooms at once, which led to potentially dangerous situations for the children.
I was watching multiple classrooms, like three at a time almost. With four year olds, you know, very young kids. Kids are jumping on tables. One kid actually tried to jokingly throw himself through a window. It’s just complete madness.
But as a foreign teacher, she was actually allocated more breaks than the Korean teachers.
The Korean teachers would have far less breaks than the foreign teachers. They were way more overworked. I’ve seen teachers running through the school, not sitting down for like eight hours a day. I’ve seen many of them cry. One of them would be in tears because my director just yelled at her. And I can’t even go over there to hug her or console her because I will get yelled at not to talk to her. It was a very hostile environment.
In fact, the former teacher confesses that they were “being watched 24/7” and weren’t allowed to say “anything negative” about the hagwon.
We were being watched 24/7. CCTV was everywhere, in every classroom, in every hallway. I also think that there was audio [recording]. We couldn’t speak freely about anything negative that was happening.
But despite the extreme surveillance, the former teacher explained that her school director only cared about protecting the school, not the employees, even when the former teacher approached her about being sexually assaulted by a superior.
I felt very uncomfortable around my assistant director. He had brushed up against me a few times. He touched my butt a few times. And he got very close to me. And when it was just me and him in the break room I was like ‘Nope, I’m good. Please get away from me.’
I wanted to tell my director because I knew that that was a big deal, especially with hearing other instances with him touching my coworkers. And I thought [the director] would be understanding. [But] she did not care that he had done that. She basically wrote it off as not being a big deal. Which was very upsetting. Because I thought even maybe as a woman she’d understand that.
Even when her coworker found evidence of the assistant director having porn on his computer, the director refused to take action.
My coworker found porn on my assistant director’s computer. It was in a folder on his desktop. So all you had to do was open that folder and you would see them. And there were children around, he teaches children. I just find it incredibly repulsive.
My coworker did report it to my director, but as usual nothing came of it and she shrugged it off. This shows you the lengths this woman is willing to go through to keep her business afloat. That she does not want to fire someone that is looking at porn and sexually harassing her employees.
The former teacher explains that sometimes the only resort left to teachers at hagwons that are similar to hers is “midnight running.” This is essentially where, because of the severity of the situation, English teachers run away from work without telling anyone.
‘Midnight running’ is a term specifically for Korea, for English teachers who are in similar positions that I was in. [Where] their bosses are breaking laws or breaking rules or treating them horribly, whether it be racism, sexual assault. It is for people who their last resort is leaving and not telling anyone.
For this former teacher, her “breaking point” was when her employer lied to her about COVID.
My breaking point was when I was exposed to COVID and the school lied to our faces about it.
I had to be in quarantine and my director flew to Jeju when she knew she’d been exposed. They lied to my face multiple times, they lied by omission multiple times. It was beyond upsetting. And I was definitely not okay. And I was very depressed.
‘Do I need to midnight run? Do I need to leave, tell no one, and speak of it nowhere and just get a ticket and run?’ There [were] all these thoughts going through my head of what should I do next. But I couldn’t do anything because I [was] stuck in a room [quarantining].
But, ultimately, the former teacher didn’t need to go on a “midnight run” because her director fired her, which gave her the escape she needed.
I would have done [a midnight run] if she didn’t try to fire me and give me a way out. My director told me ‘Hey, you don’t follow me, you don’t follow me.’ Which I believe she meant, ‘You don’t do what I want all the time so I don’t like you.’ And she said, ‘Okay so you’re just going to have to go.’
Although this may not be the reality for all hagwons, this former teacher’s personal experience was certainly traumatic.
You can watch the full video of her experience here.