Running a school is physically, mentally and even emotionally a harrowing business.
With constant pressure from policymakers, teachers and pundits amid cutthroat competition and stifling costs, private English academies are hard enough to run as it is.
One foreign hagwon owner in Korea, who goes by “TheBoss,” says it is compounded by the fact that few outsiders attempt to understand Korea’s English education system before they condemn it.
His blog, Wangjangnim’s perspective ― a play on the Korean words “wangja,” prince, and “wonjangnim,” director ― attempts to shed light on a side of the hagwon business English speakers rarely hear about: the pressures of being the boss.
“I am trying to be a voice not heard in the ESL community. My somewhat unique perspective as a foreigner in Korea, having opened a hagwon and having had a real taste of the difficulties in running a hagwon might bring the two ‘opposites’ closer together,” he told The Korea Herald in an email interview, requesting anonymity.
“It also helps me to take a step back and force myself to take a wider point of view. Tunnel vision is easy to get into, but difficult to get out of.”
With five years of experience running his all-ages school based outside of Seoul, TheBoss ― who said he has an MBA but no formal teaching experience prior to opening his hagwon ― writes extensively about the challenges of running a small business that he has poured his life savings into.
One recurring challenge is finding quality employees who will do more than the bare minimum, who are looking to make a long-term difference versus those seeking the highest bidder, and who will help improve the quality and image of his school.
“Searching for good teachers is like searching for decent-sized carp in an overfished lake,” he quips in one entry. “It is in there somewhere, but catching it might take more energy and time than you have.”
He tries to explain the hagwon owner’s side when things go wrong between teacher and school: One bad teacher can make a school lose an entire class of students in a matter of weeks, and it is better to cut him loose as soon as possible than to sink more money on him.
This mentality can perhaps be seen as ruthless, but he challenges readers to see it from the boss’ side.
“Most small hagwon owners have a vested interest in the success of their endeavor, and therefore are more likely to make the necessary personal sacrifices to make a good class great,” he writes. “When you hire teachers, their motivations are slightly different. It’s a job.”
He says hagwon owners, especially of small schools, must be assertive in the fiercely competitive market, where he claims his rivals have spread rumors that his school is facing closure and even stuck nails into the tires of his school bus.
A successful school’s biggest defense, he says, is finding its niche. Now he markets his anti-textbook teaching philosophy that education should cater to students’ individual needs.
“Business is about efficiency and effectiveness. I have found any standard curriculum to be severely lacking in either,” he said. “Education is not a mass consumption industry, it works with individuals. Therefore, to be able to be effective and efficient, you need to adapt the curriculum to the individual.”
A learner of English as a foreign language himself ― he is from a European country where English is not the native tongue ― he believes that it is more effective to teach English as a practical skill rather than an academic principle, just as a student driver does not need to know how to put a car together in order to drive it.
He has found that while Korean parents may often respect his brevity, it’s difficult to keep the rest convinced that they can still find quality education outside of franchised schools.
“Some (parents) do understand my teaching philosophy and do understand how it positively impacts their children ― not only language-wise, but in a sense of true education, that their minds are being opened to see a bigger world,” he said. “The only problem is, most Koreans don’t understand that part of education, which makes it difficult to sell my product. I don’t only teach English, I teach them how to think in English.”
His blog and business are both works in progress: He neither claims that they have reached their full potential, nor that he knows all the answers. He says it took him two years to break even, and he is still working toward achieving new goals.
“I understand why so many people start a school. ... I understand their desperation in trying to provide for their family. I understand the cutthroat attitudes of school owners,” he said. “I understand the insecurities Koreans face every single day. I did not understand those things five years ago.
“In these five years I have been chiseling on my concepts of education and adapting them to the ‘Korean situation.’ It is still a hard sell.”
While he attempts in his school to bring a fresh perspective to education, he repeatedly stresses the importance of not imposing Western perspectives on a non-Western environment.
“I see the desperation and frustrations of many Koreans trying to fit their culture into a global world, and with it the global frustrations with Korea to try and make sense of it all,” he said. “We have to let Koreans decide how they want to take part in this global world. We cannot impose Western standards, because all I see is that the worst of Western standards get emulated first.”
See Wangjangnim’s perspective at wangjangnim.com.
By Elaine Ramirez (firstname.lastname@example.org