The sheer thrill of being a teacherWhen Lim Dae-geun was at Yonsei University, studying chemical engineering, “hagwon teacher” wasn’t a career he was thinking about.
Not that he had no experience in that area. In fact, while his fellow students were working part-time jobs at gas stations or restaurants, Mr. Lim was teaching at a hagwon to earn his extra money.
But the general perception, at least back then, was that being a hagwon teacher was a temporary job, or even that hagwon teachers were simply people who couldn’t get real jobs.
Mr. Lim, now 28 years old and a math teacher at a hagwon for the past five years, thinks that perception has changed.
“We’re in business, and we can’t lose our clients, who can easily change their minds,” he said. “Therefore, hagwon teachers have to have more precise, efficient and effective strategies of teaching.”
Hagwon, of course, are a major industry in Korea. With Korea’s highly competitive educational system, and the desire of many Korean parents to give their children every possible edge in the crucial college entrance exam, there’s no lack of demand.
According to the Ministry of Education, public expenditure on middle-school education last year totaled 4 million won ($3,380) per student. For high school students, the figure was 5 million won. Tuition fees at a hagwon average about 70 to 80 percent of per-student public expenditure; still, many parents are willing to pay the fees to give their children that edge.
Many middle schoolers and high schoolers spend their winter and summer breaks from public school taking hagwon classes. Some parents even send their children to hagwon before they’ve entered elementary school, though middle school age is a more typical starting point.
On a recent weekday, while the public schools were out of session for the winter break, six middle schoolers watched Mr. Lim hash out a math problem on a white marking board.
“A lot of people made a mistake on this problem in the exam. Why?” he demanded.
Mr. Lim teaches for Daekyo, one of the better-known names in the hagwon industry. It has numerous schools around Seoul, publishes its own educational materials and advertises on TV.
“He’s a really funny teacher,” Mr. Lim’s students told a visitor. “Not only the way he says things, but also the way he looks. But don’t tell him we said that.” The four girls giggled as Mr. Lim mimicked eavesdropping.
Any nicknames for Mr. Lim? “Cockroach!” the girls yelled.
Mr. Lim explained that he’d once told the children that a friend had nicknamed him “cockroach,” after he came out of a beauty salon with two long strands of hair sticking out from his head. That’s been the students’ nickname for him ever since.
“But actually, Mr. Lim is fastidious,” one student said. “He can’t even leave the curtains alone when they’re not in their proper position.”
Mr. Lim teaches math to about 90 students. Ten to 15 students usually make up a single class. When public school is in session, his day runs from about 4 to 10 p.m.; during winter and summer break, he’ll typically teach from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., without a lunch break.
Mr. Lim says it’s the opinion of some hagwon teachers that they have more influence today than public school teachers. And they make up for the failures of the public system, he said.
“Although people say the number of students in a class has gone down from the time I was a student, it still is a large group ― an average of 30 to 40 ― and therefore a teacher cannot attend to every student in the class, whereas an average class at a hagwon consists of 15 students,” Mr. Lim said.
His student Lee Seol-ryeong said her math teacher at public school simply carries on with his lesson plan without seeming to care whether the students really understand the subject or not. “ But Mr. Lim is different and teaches us on a more personal level,” she said.
“He helps us understand the questions better and clarifies anything that is confusing,” added another student, Yoo Young-eun. All six students in the class said their math scores had gone up.
On a certain level, Mr. Lim said, being a hagwon teacher means becoming an entertainer. “Remember, this is business, not like the schools,” he said. “Our customers are the students we teach, and our primary purpose is to bring these students’ grades up.”
Mr. Lim remembers the first class he ever taught, when he was still a college student. “I was a junior then, and I remember walking into a room of 15 students,” he said. “Although it was not a large crowd, it surely wasn’t a small group, and my hands were shaking and my mouth felt like cotton. I was really nervous, with cold sweat streaming down my back.”
By the time he’d graduated, though, he knew that teaching was what he wanted to do. Unfortunately, by that time the laws governing teacher qualification had changed.
“In the past, all you had to do was take additional courses, and receive an additional degree in education,” he said. “But now you have to either attend a college of education or apply for graduate school.”
He got an office job, but couldn’t stand it and quit. He then began applying for teaching jobs at hagwon, and was soon hired by Daekyo.
At first it wasn’t easy. His father didn’t approve of his choice.
“My father, until recently, thought that my job was temporary until I get a real job,” Mr. Lim said.
But this is his real job. Other teachers might complain about working on Sundays, but Mr. Lim says his heart pounds with excitement when he’s teaching, whether it’s on Sunday or any other day.
“You can’t put it in words, but there’s an indescribable excitement just at the thought of delivering what I know to others,” he said.
by Lee Ho-jeong