Mission Aborted: Why I Fled Korea’s Private ESL Industry

Optimized-IMG_0707Not the reason why I quit: my kids, while sometimes challenging and naughty, were generally friendly and well-behaved. The aspects that tipped the scales towards my departure were related to the behavior of my employer, using tactics that are shockingly common throughout the private ESL industry.

If you follow my social media accounts, then you may be aware of what has happened in the past week. If not, I’ll keep it brief: I left my teaching job in Korea after a series of legal abuses regarding to things owed to me by my hagwon, in accordance with Korean law.

These specific things included medical insurance and contributions to my pension. One of them provides national healthcare coverage, instead of me having to pursue expensive private health insurance on my own, and the other adds up to about $1,000 or more by the end of the contract.

This was money I was planning to pay my Canadian taxes with, as well as put towards other bills (Hi Mastercard!) next Spring.

Another insidious fact I learned as I dug deeper, is that since I was not receiving pay stubs when I got paid. Given that I was paid 2.1 million won a month, my automatic tax deduction should have been in the area of 30,000 – 40,000 won.

INSTEAD, I was being charged 3.3% tax per month, leading to an outgo of almost twice that figure. Additionally, I have no way of knowing for sure, but since I was not receiving pay stubs, it was plausible he could have been skimming money off my cheque as “taxes” and pocketing the money.

On top of all this, my boss was saddling me with an ever increasing workload, with expectations to teach a “perfect” lesson (e.g. please all the kids all the time). At first, my classes were too boring. Then, I played too many games. Then, they were too boring again. I simply couldn’t win.

With all the legal hassles, insane work loads and expectations, and the general stress of teaching kids you couldn’t effectively discipline (because if you upset them, bye bye precious tuition $$$), it was exacting a heavy toll on my physical and emotional health.


I had a nasty cold that I had to work through (sick days? What’s a sick day? They don’t exist in Korea in hagwons generally speaking.)

My lips were constantly breaking out in nasty canker sores from all the stress I was experiencing.

I experienced a general fatigue that grew worse as time pressed on, only partially remedied by the weekend.

In my last two weeks, I started to slip into a depression … catching myself falling into this dangerous pattern, I knew I had to get out before anything worse could happen to me.

After a plea to my recruiter either led to my boss not caring, or my recruiter not passing along my grievances (I had already complained about my other issues in person to my boss twice before, only to have him dodge the question or provide a convenient excuse/non-answer), and a 15 minute meeting at the end of my last workday that led to him calling me a liar (which wasn’t true — it was related to course materials and such, as he was unaware of what was going on in his classes — if he spent more time out of his office instead of counting tuition money on his spreadsheets he’d know that!)

After all that frustration, and a day off to plan my escape, I had finally had enough – I was going to pull a runner.

30 hours later, I was on a plane to Bangkok via Shanghai, bidding farewell to Korea’s private ESL industry. I do feel bad for the teachers I left behind, but I felt like I was backed into a corner with few options available to me. This whole episode will pass, hopefully with valuable lessons learned by all sides involved.

Have you ever ran/resigned from an ESL job in South Korea due to shady dealings? Feel free to spill yer guts below!

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