Very few people in the world have more experience in the ESL industry than Jürgen Germeys. Even fewer understand the nuances of both ESL instruction and the Hagwon business model in South Korea. Jürgen Germeys is not just an experienced ESL instructor; he is one of the very few foreigners who own a hagwon in South Korea.
For the tenth edition of Teaching ESL over 30, Jürgen shares both his experiences and thoughts of not only teaching abroad over 30, but the ESL industry in South Korea. His unique perspective should be read by anyone considering teaching ESL or currently teaching ESL abroad. Instead of an essay format, I enjoyed the opportunity to sit down and interview Jürgen Germeys over a delicious European Brunch in Seorae Village – he even picked up the tab!
Kimchibytes: You have two master’s degrees and you speak three different languages. How did you start teaching ESL and how did you eventually become one of the few foreigners to own a Hagwon in South Korea?
Jürgen: To not make it long winded and irritating, it basically dawned upon me at the end of my MBA in Korea that I had to do something, and I realized that Korean companies might not be looking for someone like me. During the MBA, I already had experience with teaching ESL on the side. I just saw it as a extension of what was coming to me naturally. One thing you do learn in an MBA is to build a business plan and how to sell it. So I did – to my wife… It was at that given time, the best way to maximize the value of my time.
Kimchibytes: The ESL over 30 series on Kimchibytes was created to encourage people over 30 that age should not limit their desire to teach abroad. Do you think age should limit teaching abroad?
Jürgen: Age limit? No. Energy and Flexibility; yes. When I was a student, it was a rarity to find a teacher younger than 30. I do believe that people who had a life/work experience before their teaching bring an added little something to the class and a smidgen more of professionalism. Teaching is a real job, but one doesn’t acquire work skills as a teacher, not really. They know how tough it can be to actually do a corporate job for instance, and since most education these days is geared at getting a job, that experience might actually positively influence kids to get ready for their jobs. “Wait until you get a job, you wished you had studied harder!”
Kimchibytes: What should be more important to a hagwon owner when hiring new teachers: credentials or personality/character? In your experience, do most hagwon owners follow that?
Jürgen: When I started out, I mostly disregarded the personal element and focused on the credentials. After five years, it has turned around. I’m not sure how I can explain it, but a well-educated lazy person is still a lazy person. It seems to me that most hagwon owners take what they can get and hope it works out well, which in most cases, when all is left to the roll of dice, will probably not. This could be the source of the negative atmosphere along with deceit and maybe general incompetence that is ruling the ESL market.
Kimchibytes: Do you think ESL instruction is worth leaving another career?
Jürgen: Yes and no. If teaching is your calling, don’t mind the haters. If not, doing it for a year or two might actually be good for you, but you need to get out before other opportunities dry up. As a teacher, you need to be an excellent communicator, and you will know whether you are or not. I am sure more business would love to see proof of people who have these sets of skills.
Kimchibytes: What advice would you give those who are over 30 and are considering teaching abroad?
Jürgen: Normally, when people get older, they calm down, are more focused on the big picture, and micromanage less. Which is my advice: focus on the big picture and don’t fret about the little things. These kids are spending their youth in your presence – make it count.
Also, be as scrutinizing as you can be and take your time. I see a lot of people just jumping on the plane (which already indicates a desperation). It’s nice to have this sense of adventure, but if people are rushing you, there might be a lack of preparation to account for it.
Have an exit plan. You might get lucky, meet your partner for life, and stick around for longer than planned, but you need an exit plan. I would suggest people to have a savings target, how much money would you like to walk home with after one or two years. If people would look at teaching in Korea as a way to gain a unique experience, they can leverage that experience at home.
Have a passion. If the only thing to occupy your mind in Korea is your work and the Internet, you will end up going crazy. I see many people taking up bad habits like drinking that could be having a very negative impact on the whole experience of being an expat.
Kimchibytes: Korea is ending the EPIK program and cutting foreign teachers in public schools. What do you think is the future role for foreigners teaching ESL in Korea?
Jürgen: The government is a fickle beast and its policies mostly depend on budgets. If you follow the taxes in Korea, you see there has been a big drop with the added silliness of increasing spending on populist welfare issues.
South Korea needed foreign teachers to copy their teaching styles to hopefully be able to integrate western education “best practices” into the Korean classrooms.
The future will depend on the economic growth of the country and the increase in available budgets for parents to spend on their kid’s education. There is a crunch in education going on, mostly because the money isn’t there anymore. Luckily, growth has a way of coming back. What is happening though is that right now, it is about survival, costs have to come down and efficacy has to go up. The weak inadequate schools will be killed off hopefully keeping the quality ones alive. This will only work if the parents make the right choices.
Kimchibytes: Despite massive amounts of money being spent on ESL education, Korea still compares poorly to other countries that spend considerably less. What problems have you encountered or what improvements do you think should be made to improve the results of English education in Korea?
Jürgen: This is a generational problem. I have simply noticed that parents, who know more than one language, have kids that learn other languages faster. Kids emulate their parents, so if they see the parents managing several languages, so will the kids. The amount of people who now know English to a certain extent will positively influence the acquisition of language in the future, making the huge expenses unnecessary. Spending on ESL will go down and efficacy will go up. Don’t forget that Korea is late in the game of economic development, but they have caught up the fastest. The hagwon system will undergo a bottom up process of change. How it will play out is any man’s guess.
Kimchibytes: A lot of people think hagwons are shady businesses. What do you think drives this perception?
Jürgen: To be honest, I really think it is just a result of incompetence on either side of the fence. Easy money (or at least the idea of easy money) often attracts those who do put money first, rather than on the value one can create.
Kimchibytes: Why do you believe that there is so much mistrust between foreigners and hagwon management?
Jürgen: It comes down to bad communication and misunderstandings, and probably a mismatch between expectations.
Kimchibytes: Do you have any other thoughts, advice, or experiences you’d like to share?
Jürgen: Oh dear. If teaching is for you, teach. Hagwons are still looking for star teachers. If teaching is not for you, but it is the best way to maximize your disposable income, teach. Ultimately, the market will properly value your efforts. If it is zero, your income will drop to zero. I do suggest though if this is you, work as hard as possible on getting something else going by the time you reach zero. People are stupid only for so long.
Kimchibytes: That’s nice, but what would you really like to say and get off of your chest? Don’t hold anything back!
Jürgen: I would really love people to stop being so anal and childish about what they are doing and up the professionalism in general. People take themselves way too serious, and often fail to see their own imperfections. See, if you take your issues into the classroom, the only people suffering are the kids in the classroom. You might make the point that you want to be treated and respected as a human, but so do the little people. It is as if the loudest people in the ESL are the least experienced in anything, have incredible irrational and unsupported opinions, and have no inclination what so ever to understand other point of views. The attitude of I know better doesn’t solve the problem. Just complaining about issues doesn’t solve the problem. It is exasperating. See the problem, solve the problem, and don’t shove your problems into other people’s lap if you can do it yourself. The excuse, “I’m not paid to do that,” is a stupid cop-out and just shows your lack of commitment to your job.
I have always held the opinion the bigger the group, the lower the average intellect, and the ESL group doesn’t seem to be an exception to this. I hate being this negative, but you asked for it.
Kimchibytes: What is your end goal? In other words, is this a business you plan to run until you retire, sell to someone else, etc.?
Jürgen: My primary goal was to fix the general dissatisfaction I had with the educational principles rampant in Korea. I want to change the ESL market in Korea – that is how naive I am. I saw a problem, saw an opportunity, and try my best to solve it. It is like I see a big pile of mess right in front of me and the only thing I can try to do is my bit in cleaning it up. It’s a big pile of mess.
To read more stories and thoughts of those who decided to teach abroad after 30, please click here.
If you have any questions for Jürgen Germeys, please feel free to leave them in the comment section and he will try to answer them. Just remember – he’s busy!!
-Photography by Brent Sheffield-