Star instructors teach thousands, earn millionsThis attractive man is lavished with fan clubs and “guesses” he must be earning at least 10 billion won ($10 million) annually. He is not another Korean wave pop star, yet his influence among teenagers may be even greater.
Cho Dong-gi, teacher extraordinaire at a hagwon, a private cram school, gives classes to middle and high school students on Korean literature and essay writing in preparation for the national college admissions test. The 39 year-old is one of a handful of “star hagwon teachers,” whose annual income is estimated in the billions of won. He teaches over 80,000 students (if you include those who log on to the Gangnam district office Web site to watch his lectures), writes workbooks and runs a giant chain of hagwons. At just the Seoul branches of his Cho Dong-gi Korean and Essay Institute, more than 3,000 students are listening to his advice on “how to write a good essay.”
This time of the year is particularly hectic for Mr. Cho, as students prepare for the January college admissions essay tests. On a recent morning, this reporter followed him from a fitness center to a broadcast studio to one of his institutes in Daechi-dong, the heart of Seoul’s private tutoring sector. No time to sit and talk for Mr. Cho.
He spends most of his day researching, teaching and counseling nervous students. He even has to calm down the occasional high school girl who insists he is her ideal man and must marry her.
“I tell them to come back after they get into college. But they seem to forget that later,” he said chuckling.
Indeed, he is charming. In a low voice, he carefully chose his words to deliver the maximum impact. He gestured colorfully and drew diagrams when a long explanation was needed.
“It is a habit of mine to make everything look simple for students. That way, they can understand the logic,” he said.
Despite his cool, relaxed demeanor, however, he took pains to follow Korea’s frequently changing educational policy, he said. That is how he has stayed on top of this competitive market for 16 years.
In the early 1990s, when the key to getting high scores on the college entrance exam involved memorizing as much as possible, he taught by the hour in a giant lecture room. Now, he teaches smaller groups on debating and essay writing, which are important topics these days. As an expert on the tests, his reviews of the latest exam are closely watched on the Internet.
“As soon as the test’s first section ends, we start analyzing it,” using teachers dispatched to test centers, he said. “By the time second period begins, we are on the air with reviews for next year’s test takers.”
He knows well the criticism hagwons face. Many in the public say his job encourages students to depend on expensive private education instead of public schools.
“It shouldn’t be the hagwon itself that is viewed negatively,” he said. “Students enroll here to raise their grades and study in a helpful environment.”
But he added that he could not deny the entrenched stereotype that many hagwon teachers are more like salesmen than respected teachers.
But as younger hagwon teachers enter the hagwon world and push out less competitive instructors, they are also replacing the notion that hagwon teaching is a short-term job. Many now plan to make careers of the work.
An example of this is Lee Ji-sun, an English hagwon teacher at Cedu (which stands for Comprehensive English Education). Ms. Lee says she never felt satisfied with her previous jobs ― she felt stifled by the bureaucracy of public schools she taught at, and was personally unfulfilled (although well-paid) working at the Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, and later as a banker.
But at Cedu she realized her true passion.
Now 31 years old, she has became a star teacher. Her employer, Kim Ki-hoon (see box above), says she “can easily fill her classes” in a few hours after registration begins.
During eight weeks of summer vacation, she earned 200 million won, which is a fixed percentage of total sales at the institute ―a large payment conditional on her attracting a certain number of students.
But Ms. Lee could not talk for long. Her students were waiting outside with questions.
“I sleep normally only every other day,” she said. With many young teachers seeking stardom, the competition drives her to work into the wee hours.
In order to keep her act fresh, Ms. Lee makes extensive margin notes in her textbooks, even noting when to tell jokes. Staying fit and wearing sophisticated clothes and makeup is also essential to maintaining her popularity among teenagers. She runs personal blogs for high schoolers and sets aside midnight to 2 a.m. to exchange e-mails and text messages with her students, making sure she is always there for them.
“Teaching 10 students is easy,” she said. “But when you teach more than 70 per class, you have to develop your own know-how to keep them alert.”
She does everything she can, because if the students get bored, her star will wane.
“The number of students enrolled is the difference between a star teacher an an ordinary instructor,” said Winnie Wee, a marketing manager at Cedu. “We don’t have to evaluate our teachers. The students do. They know a good teacher when they see one.”
Cultivating teachers, serenading students
They call him “Mr. 20 billion won.” That’s how much in sales Kim Ki-hoon, English teacher, thinks he can attract for MegaStudy, a company that distributes test prep lectures online. But MegaStudy is just a side job for Mr. Kim, who is also pursuing a the noble goal of rearing more star teachers like himself so more students have fun while learning quality English.
Mr. Kim, who also publishes books and teaches at his own offline hagwon, Cedu, recently started a new class designed to give systematic tips on becoming a celebrity teacher.
The program, dubbed “Project: Make Billions in a Year,” seems to be attracting star teacher wannabes in droves. Teachers currently working at public schools and other hagwons have signed up alongside college graduates who dream of being successful hagwon teachers.
The curriculum includes “Becoming a teacher who can listen,” “Making your own lecture guide,” “Making active presentations” and “Building the image that suits you.”
Mr. Kim explains that he films students giving presentations “so they know what bores the students. But applicants to the class have to pass a placement test to make sure they are qualified first, of course.”
“It feels rewarding when I hear my high school students say they want to become a good hagwon teacher,” said Mr. Kim. “The image [of hagwon instructors] was so bad in the past that working at a hagwon meant you were essentially jobless.”
Mr. Kim, 36, started tutoring as a part-time job when he was a junior in college. He helped students get into their dream colleges. Word spread among students’ mothers that he was competent, and he was hired at a bigger hagwon. There he discovered that he had the talent to teach Korean students to take English tests well.
He earned even bigger fame as students said his classes helped. Mr. Kim indeed has a record worth boasting about. Since 1995, 471 of his students have gone to top-ranked Seoul National University, while 2,410 students went on to study at Korea and Yonsei Universities.
He then began working for MegaStudy, which disclosed last year that it offered him stock options if he could bring in sales of at least 20 billion won in three years. If he cannot, he only gets half of the options.
He says he is confident about attracting that much business.
Aside from the MegaStudy lectures, he has so far published 30 workbooks, taught students online from his own hagwon’s Web site and released rock singles of him singing Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” and Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend.”
The lyrics have been revised into cheers for test takers. “No matter how far the road to my dream college; You know I’ve always done my best; Aim high, your life will be soaring; Aim low, your life will be boring,” he sings in his remake of the Loverboy tune.
“There are ways to get students interested in studying English,” said Mr. Kim when asked how he manages to stay popular. “You cannot be a good English teacher simply because you are a good English speaker, just as a being funny would never make you a famous comedian.”
by Lee Min-a