Experience teaching at a hagwon

I finished a one-month contract at a children’s hagwon (학원), which is why I’ve been too busy to keep up-to-date on other things, like this blog.

It was a good opportunity—most particularly my first opportunity to work with and teach children full-time—and a lot of fun, as well. We’re now focused full-time on our business, which is aiming at adults and older children, but there are a lot of things that I need to digest from my time working with younger children. My boss told me during our first meeting that “someone who’s good at teaching adults isn’t necessarily good at teaching children; but someone who’s good at teaching children must be good at teaching adults”. It may be exaggerated a little bit, but I think there is a lot of truth in that.


The youngest kids I “taught” were kids in a bilingual kindergarten, starting at roughly 4 years (international age). I put “taught” in quotation marks because while there are a couple things we directly teach them, like vocabulary, mostly we guide them in play and activities. In “bilingual kindergarten”, the kids don’t have enough English proficiency to communicate naturally or fluently in English. They communicate almost entirely in Korean. The biggest things I got out of this experience, beyond how cute the kids are, are:

  • It’s important to have a system. Young kids respond well to regularity and predictability. They actually have a pretty well-established inner sense of morality of right and wrong (or, less strongly worded, a sense of what they should be doing and what they should not be doing). They don’t lie or deceive, generally speaking. If they’re misbehaving, it’s because I’ve broken the system, or given them no system at all.
  • How to communicate with someone who can’t speak English well. My Korean is not very good (more on that in a later post), but judiciously using a bit of Korean here and there helps a lot. The key word there is judiciously. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using too much Korean, at which point the kindergarten class would probably be benefiting me over the kids. The point of the class is to expose the kids to English and make them comfortable listening to it, so Korean is a last resort.

Both of these points transfer over to teaching older kids and adults in a fairly obvious way, I think. Even though older kids and adults are more flexible, more interested in novelty, more capable in English, etc., they still benefit from having predictability and can gain a little bit of comfort by having a wee bit of English—just a word or two—thrown into confusing situations.

Elementary school kids

I taught two different groups of elementary kids at two different ages. One group was very comfortable in English, almost to the point of a native English-speaking child of the same age, and the other group could use English at only an intermediate level. The two age groups were grade 1 (early elementary) and grade 3/4 (later elementary).

Kids at this age are learning how to be funny, how to be individuals, and, for lack of a better word, how to be evil. They were actually quite fun to be around, so long as I kept a system in place and let them know what was expected of them and where the line was.

They felt too strictly regimented, to me. We had a pretty heavy curriculum that we had to go through in a short period of time. The kids understood that, and blasted through the work when needed, but it’s not what they wanted to do. What they wanted to do was be silly and play games and get a lot of personal attention.

Early on with my early elementary school kids, I allowed them to write a really silly sentence, because they all thought it was hilarious and I thought it would improve their motivation. The silliest they could come up with were things like “the talking dolphin swims”, which I suppose showed a good mastery of the structure and semantics of English, but from my view showed they need some more practice at being silly.

What I got most out of this was the complete shock at just how much studying kids here do at such an early age. These kids do their regular school, plus this hagwon, plus maybe another hagwon or two, plus homework at all of them, and somehow they all cope and they all survive. Really remarkable. But they don’t get a lot of opportunity for creative work, sadly.

Middle school kids

The middle school kids were the most fun, for me, and the most rewarding. I think there are different ways of looking at education being rewarding. Teaching the youngest kids can be rewarding because you can see that they’ll eventually grow up to achieve the highest levels of English mastery, probably even with little to no accent (native-sounding pronunciation). The older kids will probably never achieve that.

However, the older kids have their own type of reward. They can be a bit moody and sullen at times, and so with the older kids, teaching them becomes a game of motivating them more than anything else. Younger kids don’t need motivation, but older kids definitely do. If they’re not motivated, they’ll check out.

I find teaching middle school kids quite similar to adults in the way that I can teach things. I can explain things to them explicitly and they’ll understand. “This is why we’re learning this”. They can understand why something’s useful and can work towards an abstract goal. Younger kids, I almost feel like I’m tricking them into learning. They understand they need to do work, and are good at following directions, but a goal years down the line may be difficult for them to conceptualize.

Before taking the job, I had watched and summarized a lot of TESOL videos, and one of the strongest points I got from those videos is that all ages of English learners are task-oriented. They don’t want to learn English for the sake of learning English: they have a need to communicate. This is something which starts fading at the middle school level, actually. The kids at this age have become so accustomed and focused on testing, that they sometimes think of English as just another test, rather than an actual skill. However, if you show them and remind them that English is actually useful for expressing yourself, they can rekindle their inner motivation.