You’ve probably heard great things about all the wonderful vacation time ESL teachers enjoy. Perhaps you’re already visualizing those long weeks on golden beaches. Maybe you’re already plotting that epic backpacking trip from one corner of Asian paradise to another. Before you get carried away, let me make things crystal clear for you.

The vacation time for English teachers here in Korea is not all that it seems. There are some smoke and mirror tricks that may not be entirely evident when you sign up. But all will be revealed here – no longer shall it be a foggy and often frustrating mystery.

What you’re told, as a public school teacher working with EPIK,  is that you’re entitled to 18 days of vacation time. With a hagwon, you’ll more likely be restricted to 5-7 days. These days are yours by law and are to be used on days you would normally otherwise be working. That means they cover Monday to Friday only not including national holidays.

While some hagwons tend to play games and may insist on teachers splitting their vacation time up into separate days throughout the contract year, any decent academy will allow you to take a straight week. Most hagwonites seem to take their vacation over the Christmas and New Years period.

Me and a student in Korea
My best student and part-time co-teacher!

When you have a choice it’s great!

In public school, your 18 days will be split between the school summer and winter vacation periods. There is a degree of flexibility with these days though the done thing is usually a 10-8 split and unless you get landed with a slave-driving ‘mare of a school, there should be little opposition to your requests to run these days consecutively.

In my first year in Korea, the annual holiday of Seollal [설날] – better known as Chinese New Year – served up three national holidays on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I used my ten days vacation in the preceding fortnight and rolled on in to Seollal. Counting the weekends I had 17 days off work!

But when you don’t have a choice, well….it sucks.

When I got a nasty Korean surprise with my vacation period I almost missed my sister’s wedding.
I’m not the only person to be feel duped by the democracy and ultimately you must never forget that you are the minority. The school is not going to bend all the rules in your direction. Most schools will have a window that you must take your vacation days within.

It won’t matter to them if your best friend’s dog is getting married to the neighbors cat. Nor will they be phased if your grandmother wants to see you one last time before she flies to the moon. If they say you need to take vacation days within the 15 and 31st of Julember, then that’s what you gotta do!

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I requested my dates six whole months in advance. I only renewed my contract on the stipulation that I get my requested dates. Did it stop the school from pulling the carpet from under my feet after the contract was signed? Hell no!

And that’s public school, I can only imagine what games hagwons might play…

Korean kid designing Overwatch t-shirt
Creepy skull guy is popular here in Korea

What about the rest of “vacation time” during summer and winter?

Korean public schools have a long winter break from just before Christmas until March 1st and about a month-long break from mid-July to late August.

So if there are no kids at school then, can I just have extra vacation?

Wouldn’t that be amazing? Sadly, dreams like that are…well, dreams.

This can differ on a school-by-school basis but more often than not, you will have class.
You may have finished the textbook and all the testing will be done, but you have to pull some material and lessons from somewhere to entertain the kids who show up to winter or summer school.

Your co-teacher will tell you it’s not camp.

They may call it something like ‘English conversation class’. Then they’ll tell you they are creating mash-up classes of several grades together at once and encourage you to make it easy and enjoyable.

“Ah, so it’s like camp?” you ask.

“No, no! Not camp!” they insist, “It’s ‘special bonus fun English conversation activity lessons’, definitely not camp!”

“Ah, I see” you say, all the while thinking “It’s definitely camp!”

My main school are a stickler for that EPIK contract and want to ensure I am being utilized for the full quota of 22 hours a week. This means they bungle classes together from the unfortunate kids who have been signed up by their ambitious or preoccupied parents. Condemned to spend the majority of their vacation at school, these kids may be the cream of the crop but they don’t want to be there. I know how they feel.

I find myself “teaching” little 1st and 2nd graders ABC’s and sing-songs or else working through a cleverly-crafted movie-based course with the older kids. We watch 20 minutes a day then converse and play movie-related games. Rinse, revise, repeat for every grade and every school.

If you don’t have summer camp or winter camp disguised as a short games-orientated-extra-curricular-foreign-language program, then you will actually have straight-up, run-of-the-mill, bog-standard camp.

What is camp?

I would like to tell you it involves fires, smores and sparklers. Oh wait, it does! At least it did at my most rural school. With EPIK, you can be sure to have to attend several camps within the year. Some schools have them exclusively in summer. Others may have them in winter too.

Fun is the name of the game.

A poster designed at detective camp in Korea
Four Star Agency – solving the mystery of Hawaiian pizza

I treat my ‘extra conversation classes’ as camp and plan as such because I know the kids hate the fact they are there. However, at the legit, Real McCoy camp, there is less emphasis on any English learning and more on just simply having fun.

What should you do at camp?

Movies are fine but as camp can be the same kids for several days or even weeks, you might not get away with a movie everyday. I’ve yet to find anyone who had the cojones to try and run a full-length Lord of the Rings movie camp.
I would suggest you keep the movies to less than 20% if you don’t want to ruffle any feathers with your school.

The other 80% should be as much fun as possible. The waygook website is a life-saver for this and you can find great ideas and materials to save your bacon at the 11th hour.
I ran some superhero themed camps last year and had the kids designing t-shirts, making hero masks and playing top trumps before watching The Avengers.

Another one was a detective themed camp where all the students were put in teams (aka: secret agencies).
They had to design posters with logos, spy names and secret passwords. Through three days of activities, they were trained as secret agents and learnt code-cracking skills and riddles. On the final day, they had to use these skills to find clues throughout the school and solve a mystery.

There really is no limit to what you could come up with here and although it’s a lot of work, you can be sure the kids will appreciate the fun and games.

What if you have no camp? No class? No supplementary-joyful-linguistic-wisdom-imparting-sessions?

Then you, my friend, are one lucky son’ bitch.

That’s my personal opinion anyway, for you are in the polarizing zone known as desk-warming.
For the vacation period outside of your allotted personal days, anything that isn’t scheduled is a desk-warming day. Your duty is to show up to your main school during normal hours; let’s say 8.30am til 4.30pm.

If you have a classroom then you can use it. You’ll more than likely have it to yourself, all day, everyday. You will be one of the few skeleton staff in the building along with the big wigs and the admin staff. You may get free reign to wander to a restaurant at lunch or perhaps your school will invite you out to eat with them. Otherwise you’re largely left to your own devices.

Mask designing at Summer camp in Korea
Masks on everyone! Let’s hit the bank!

What you do is entirely up to you. I love and cherish this time.

Play an instrument, study a language, build a model airplane, start a blog, study online, plan a dream backpacking trip, read a book, write a book, watch some movies, work out, become ridiculously good with a yo-yo….

The possibilities are almost endless. You can learn a new skill or improve an existing one, turn dreams into solid plans and create inroads to the future you want.

Whatever you do, don’t complain. Don’t be one of those people who actually moans about the fact that they get paid to sit and “do nothing”.

Boo hoo, I have to do nothing and have all this free time. I’m so bored, I hate desk-warming.

These people exist. They’re real humans. Don’t be like them.

So to put that all in a nutshell

There is about three months of school vacation time in one calendar year.

In your first year with EPIK, 18 days will be your own personal days. You get 23 for renewed contracts.
Hagwons have as little as 5 days and the amazing university jobs or international school teachers may have several months to wander as they please.

You spend the remainder in school. With hagwons it will be business as usual. With EPIK, expect some form of camp. You’re like 95% guaranteed to have at least a weeks worth.
Anything left over is desk-warming time. This time is gold. Don’t do nothing! Put it to good use!

Teaching in Korea has many great benefits, vacation time being one of the best. Whether you’re on a beach or in a classroom, there is plenty of time for you to enjoy and improve your life. This lifestyle of being an ESL teacher really does provide a lot of time and opportunity for you to figure life out. Your vacation time is prime time for this. Don’t waste it.

Camp fire at Korean school
“So kids, are you ready for the human sacrifice?”

What are your plans for summer vacation? How will you best use your free time? Vacate your mind in the comments below!