The English Program in Korea (EPIK) is not just one of the options you should consider when deciding where to teach English abroad. It’s the one.
There are other options of course, but over the next few minutes, any doubts on what is the best option for a first-time teacher should be dispelled.
However, what if you’re not a first time teacher? If you are a registered teacher in your own country – also known as a ‘real teacher’ in some ESL circles, you could possibly do better than EPIK.
The Holy Grail
Certified bona fide teachers or folks with a Masters degree in education can leave their home turf and walk into a high-paying, tax-free role in the Middle East. In Korea, the same applicants can snap up a position at a university without too much trouble. University jobs are highly-coveted in Korea and it’s easy to see why.
Imagine working as little as 12 hours per week and still earning close to $3,000 per month. Better still, long vacation periods are common. I encountered one lucky guy who enjoys four months of annual vacation.
Four months a year. Paid.
He spends most of it chilling on a beach in South East Asia, living even cheaper than he would in Korea while working on personal projects such as writing or film-making.
Unfortunately, the university posts are but a dream for most of us. So what’s the next best thing?
For people embarking on teaching English abroad for the first time, Korea is the undisputed king.
I researched the options to death for months upon months. I first started the process in 2012 but withdrew my application and decided to stay in Oz a little longer. Eventually I made it here in 2015 but not without reading and scrutinizing the first twenty pages of Google and every blog, keyword and ESL country comparison worth looking at.
With Korea, the choice is simple; public school or a hagwon [학원] – that’s the Korean word for a private academy.
In a nutshell, a hagwon means working evening and night-time hours, wall-to-wall classes, short vacation time, more pressure and less job security. By comparison, public school is a government-protected role with daytime hours, less classes, more vacation time, great benefits and greater job security.
A word on hagwons…
There is no science or definitive law to say public school is always great and hagwons are always bad. However, the reality is that the scales tend to tip heavily in that fashion. Most of the horror stories you hear about people having a dreadful experience with their working situation in Korea will invariably come from hagwons.
Even if you are a model teacher and generally a stand-up guy or gal, that’s no guarantee that you won’t be sacked on the spot for some arbitrary reason. Tales of hagwons sacking foreign teachers just before the end of a contract are rife. This is so they don’t have to pay completion bonuses. Many culls have happened where groups of foreigners are out on their ass overnight with no job and nowhere to live. Hagwons are not government protected. They are businesses and businesses demand results. Businesses can be cruel and cut-throat and as the foreigner, your rights and feelings are rarely considered if the business doesn’t feel you’re up to their high and mighty standards.
Why would anybody risk a hagwon?
The main reason is because you get to specify what city you will live and work in. For some people, this is more important than the job itself and they’re willing to gamble and deal with the troubles many hagwons can have just to live in that perfect city or town. Public school on the other hand is not something you can easily choose. You can state preferred locations in your application but you may not get your first choice. You must apply and then you are placed according to the demands of the education board.
Ergo, there is an element of chance in either route. Personally, I haven’t met a lot of hagwon friends who didn’t have some sense of envy at the contrast in roles and benefits with public school. Ultimately, you must consider what is best for you. Some people enjoy having their mornings to do their own thing. Perhaps you’re a night owl and need that city life. A hagwon may well be for you. Just do your homework and may sure you find a good one.
Personally, I don’t think you can go far wrong with EPIK. If this is your first time teaching, you want the transition into your new life to be as painless as possible. If you want an introduction to teaching English abroad, this company makes it easier than any other.
Here’s 7 reasons why you should look no further than EPIK:
Picture the scene – you’ve made it to Korea, 20 hours of travel time and airport adventures. You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards, you’re exhausted, you’re jet-lagged and you have 101 things on your list to get settled in your new home. Your boss picks you up and takes you straight to school. They take you to your class and you’re ushered to the front of the room in front of twenty young smiling faces, ready and eager to learn. You make eyes with the boss.
“You want me to teach? Now?”
“Yes! Go, teach English!”
This happens. That’s right, you guessed it, it happens in hagwons. In public school. Not so much. I personally had two full weeks after orientation to prep my first lessons.
But what exactly is orientation?
With EPIK, you get picked up at the airport and spend the next 10 days living on a university campus with several hundred fellow newbies. You and your new classmates are college kids again, in Korea.
Grouped in separate classes depending on what province you are going to, you stroll corridors with your classmates, eat lunch together and chill at the coffee shop.
You attend lectures together, take basic Korean language classes, attend seminars on Korean culture and learn all about what to expect in your new life as an EPIK teacher. There are opposing views on just how valuable some of the lessons at orientation were but the chance to recuperate and adjust your body if not your mind is definitely worth yawning through a few lectures for. You also get to go on a culture trip to Jeonju hanok village to get an insight into authentic Korea at its best.
The real gold at EPIK orientation is the opportunity to mingle and network with hundreds of people in the same boat, making friendships that will be so important in the year (or years!) to come. This week is among my most memorable of my time in Korea and some of us still pine nostalgic for the days when we were the worst Korean college students ever.
One of the benefits in an EPIK contract is a settlement allowance of 300,000 KRW. However, it doesn’t end there.
While I do occasionally have my own personal grievances about the lack of a co-teacher in the classroom, my adjustment to life in rural Bonghwa was made that little bit easier by the support I received from my school.
My co-teacher Ms. Jang took lengthy bus journeys into the boonies with me to each one of my (even more) rural side-schools to meet the hierarchy in each and also to show me the bus route.
She and other at the school were great at rallying around with many essentials to help me get settled in as quick as possible. From opening a bank account and organizing a contract phone, to supermarket runs and building a bed, setting up and residency registration…the list goes on.
If ever a problem is too big for Ms. Jang, I’ve been able to turn to the EPIK co-ordinators with a quick email that is usually responded to pretty quickly. I’ve never felt alone or overwhelmed with any issue in Korea and I put a lot of that down to the network of support that is available to EPIK teachers.
3) Free trips
Who doesn’t love free stuff? How about free trips around Korea? Better yet, how about a paid day off work where you hang out with other EPIK teachers and experience some new part of Korea, sampling all the cultural aspects from the sights to the food to the soju and card games in your hotel room, at least until the staff bang on your door and send you all to bed?
Yeah, you can have all of that with EPIK. I got a two-day trip to see the famous Gyeongju and many others availed of the opportunity to see the islands Dokdo and Ullengdo.
EPIK teachers also have umpteen social media groups that organize trips and meet-ups all around the country so you can always have something to look forward to.
4) Vacation time
Some hagwon teachers get as little as five days annual vacation and are lucky to have choice in when they actually take that. Don’t be a slave!
Korea is a great base to visit other countries from with Japan, Taiwan and China just a few hours away.
South East Asia can be reached in half a day and even Australia isn’t the mission it would be from your home country (Unless you happen to be Aussie or Kiwi!). To only have five vacation days would be a shame.
With EPIK, you get 18 days paid vacation in your first year and also have about 15 national holidays, many of which fall on Friday or Monday, thus giving you a long weekend. three days in Tokyo or Shanghai perhaps? Renew that contract and you’ll get another five days vacation time. Play your cards right and you’ll have three weeks straight in January to go off on adventures while all the hagwon teachers are back at work.
Ahh, possibly the most polarizing aspect of EPIK life.
The practice of sitting in an empty classroom without classes to teach purely to satisfy the contractual requirements seems rather pointless to many. A lot of EPIK teachers groan at the prospect and wonder why they can’t just take the day off.
During winter and summer vacation time, aside from the personal vacation days, you will have to attend school during normal hours. Some schools will set up a schedule of summer classes or winter classes for you to teach. Others will have English camp. Some will have both, while others will have none. I have both. I wish I had none.
The days I do get to myself are great and this time is pure gold for anyone with an interest in pursuing personal projects or goals such as learning a language, playing an instrument, writing a blog, reading a book, planning a travel dream or simply trying to break a record of the most Netflix shows completed in one week.
I don’t know why anyone would complain about getting more free time without a class full of hyper kids.
Each to their own I guess.
Another joy of EPIK life that hagwons will rarely experience, if ever, is the chance that all their classes are cancelled. A surprise day of desk-warming is a great way to break up any week and get a chance to work on those other interests.
6) Severance pay
Legally speaking, every business in Korea owes their employees severance pay at the end of a contract. Changes in recent years mean this even applies to businesses with less than five employees.
The reality is, that many hagwons will find ways to evade this or if the employee does get it, it is not always straight-forward.
With EPIK, you can be sure there will be little trouble in this matter and if you work several years, you will accrue quite a sizeable windfall on your departure.
With a month’s salary owed for every year completed, the severance pay is a great step to your next chapter.
7) Novelty factor
You’re a foreigner in Korea. A waygook. People will stare at you a little, get used to it.
In the bigger cities this is less of an issue and if you work in a hagwon, you may just one of many foreign teachers from the Western world.
If you’re an EPIK teacher, chances are you’ll be the only foreign teacher at your school. The only non-Korean. You may even be the only foreigner in town or at least one of a very small waygook population.
My home city of Yeongju has a population of roughly 100,000 and there are less than 40 English teachers. All four of my schools are in small habitats in the remote county of Bonghwa, where I’m the only waygook in the village.
As the solo waygook at school or one of the minority in town, you achieve rockstar status and people are always happy to see you. You’re made to feel more welcome and people will do more for you as the guest in their country.
Lap it up!
Perhaps this article came off as a hagwon-bashing post written by an EPIK affiliate.
Sadly, EPIK did not pay me for this. These are my own views and while I do have some gripes, I stand by the points above and would recommend EPIK to anybody considering teaching English abroad. While the location may be a lottery, if you apply early you can still snap up a place in Seoul, Daegu or Busan if you tick all the right boxes. Ultimately, EPIK is definitely the way to go if you want a great introduction to teaching English anywhere in the world and the best way to adapt to life in Korea.