The following is a description of a short and costly mistake I made agreeing to accept a teaching position with SPEP/One-stop prep, based out of Gangnam in Seoul. Before accepting any job with this organization I would suggest reading the following article very carefully. I sincerely hope that by sharing this experience it will prevent other foreign teachers from making the same mistake that I did.
As a new teacher to Korea I was targeting the adult hagwons during my job search. After a month of looking I had two job offers and SPEP/One-stop prep seemed like the better choice because you teach during normal work hours, instead of having split shifts like most adult hagwons. Immediately after reading the contract I could see that it was very one sided, half of the document talked exclusively about all the different reasons you could be fired with just 24 hours-notice and the various penalties you would be forced to pay (for your reference, if YOU wish to cancel the contract you need to give 3 months-notice). I’ll admit this made me feel very uncomfortable, but during the interviews on Skype the staff seemed nice on the surface, and adult teaching positions without split shifts were hard to find, so I cautiously went ahead.
(It is very important to note: based on what I was told after I arrived, the driver would pick you up early in the morning to take you to your client offices, and from there your classes could be spread out throughout the day until the early evening. Before arriving in Korea I had been told I would just be teaching during normal work hours, along with block scheduling. So, it was a very unpleasant surprise to find out I was going to be working split shifts anyways. The only difference was going to be that I would have to spend the hours in between classes hanging around company lunch rooms, instead of being in an apartment next to my school. This is what the other position was offering, an apartment of my choice, near my branch location and with split shifts.)
At this point I naturally began to ask questions about accommodation, but only received vague answers. I had assumed since they gave a 400,000 won housing allowance, instead of providing the accommodation themselves, that I would be able to choose where I wanted to live. Well, that wasn’t the case. I requested that I be allowed to select my own apartment during the time after I arrived in Korea, but before my contract started, which was denied because of “time constraints and language barriers.” It was at that point that their HR officer explained that they select your apartment for you and minimal furnishings meant a completely empty apartment with nothing except a fridge and microwave. After I was to move into my apartment the afternoon before my contract and classes started (“extra training” was scheduled in the morning), I was told at that point I could purchase a mattress of my choice and sleep on the floor that night. This is where things started to go in the wrong direction. The culture of this organization expects its teachers to be completely obedient and compliant with every decision they make, so by making requests regarding the apartment I would be paying for and living in for an inflexible one-year commitment, I was branded as “difficult and demanding.”
Once I finally got them to agree to at least provide a bed for my apartment it was time for me to book my flight. I had been told there would be 4 days of training before my contract would begin (paid at a “special training rate” of $4 an hour), so I booked my flight 9 days in advance to give myself enough time to adjust to the 16 hour time difference between Vancouver and Korea. I then sent off the travel itinerary to the HR officer who I had been dealing with. At this point I began to relax a bit and feel a little more optimistic, that was until I received my “revised” training and arrival schedule.
After my 11 hour flight from Vancouver I finally arrived at Incheon Airport at 2pm, I was then to use some instructions I had been given to buy a SIM card, travel card and find an air-bnb hidden on a small side street at the opposite end of the city using a map written in Korean (again, I had never been to Korea before, don’t speak Korean, google maps doesn’t work properly in Korea and Seoul has around 25 million people). Then, after unsuccessfully getting my SIM card registered after repeated attempts, I took my travel card and headed off with my suitcase on a 3 hour public transit journey to the small, run down building where I would be staying. I did eventually find the apartment, however once I arrived I found out that the address the HR officer gave me didn’t have the room number. So, now I obviously had a problem since my SIM card didn’t work. Luckily, there was a man who saw me wondering around with my suitcase looking for a pay phone and asked if I needed help.
So, at around 7pm and 20 hours of international travel with no sleep (it was a day flight) I finally arrived at my apartment! At this point I wasn’t sure what to do first. I needed to unpack my clothes, take a shower and try to find something to eat. After all of that, I could finally go to sleep at about 10pm. The problem was the cheap construction of the building let swarms of mosquitoes in, so most of the night was spent swatting and scratching in a desperate attempt to catch up on some sleep. Fast forward to 8am, I had to wake up and use another Korean map to find an obscure clinic on the second floor of a building in another part of the city. 4 hours later I was back at my apartment for a quick lunch before my “mandatory” meeting at 1pm.
I arrived at the SPEP/One-stop prep office a few minutes before my meeting and was promptly met by a new staff member from the HR department. She asked me briefly where I was from and then started talking about Canada for a few minutes before going abruptly into job formalities. She spent the next 30 minutes talking about company rules and regulations, and I also had to sign a stack of documents which I had never seen before or been informed about in advance.
The “revised” training schedule I had received in Canada had 7 full days of training and formalities, with only Sunday off during the 8 full days after I arrived in Korea and before my classes started. I had mentioned during the meeting that I was feeling a bit let-lagged and tired, but the HR girl just smiled and said she understood. The meeting finished 30 min early, then I was told to immediately report to the 2nd floor to begin my training. I then had to sit in a small room for 5 straight hours without a break, during which a new girl mostly talked about more company rules, procedures etc. Towards the end, I was forced to watch an hour long video of 2 very boring sample classes. Once they were finished, the girl came back in the room and asked me to take 15 min to prepare a demo class based on a chapter in the textbook. Once the 15 min was up, she asked me to begin the demo and took out her I-pad to record me for company records. Admitted, at this point I was starting to feel a little annoyed that I was being forced to do this after just arriving in Korea the day before (it was about 2am Vancouver time).
Upon finishing the training session at about 6:30pm the trainer asked me to give her my phone number so we could contact each other in case we needed too. I then handed her my phone (the SIM card was now registered) and she entered her number into my phone. At this point I finally got to go back to my hotel room and I found something to eat, something which I had done only once in nearly 24 hours because of the medical check that morning. As much as I was f*tigued and hungry, I think I was more disoriented than anything. The staff at SPEP/One-stop prep were very mechanical and ridged in my dealings with them throughout the process of getting hired, and they didn’t take into account any factors other than dates and times when organizing my 9 day schedule before my contract started. From their point of view I had arrived 4 days earlier than necessary, so they may as well use that time to add some “extra training,” rather than allowing me the opportunity to adjust myself after just arriving to a new country from the other side of the world. Their actions clearly demonstrated that as a new teacher you are just viewed as another company asset, and things such as courtesy, politeness, and basic human considerations, which should normally be extended to any new employee who has just arrived from another country, didn’t even enter into their thought process.
Fast forward now to my second morning in Korea, after I had spent another night battling mosquitoes and an internal sleep schedule that was completely turned upside down. My alarm went off an hour before I was supposed to report to the office for a full day of training, and I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a freight train. I was completely f*tigued, both mentally and physically, and looking ahead at the rest of the week there wasn’t going to be any opportunity to get any rest and catch my breath. So, I then sent a simple text message to the HR girl who had given me her number, explained that I was feeling extremely jet-lagged and tired, apologized for the inconvenience, and told her that I need just 1 day to rest before going back into the office to resume my training. Then, after killing a few more mosquitoes, I put my phone on silent mode and fell back asleep.
Here is where the story gets really good, prospective teachers considering this company should pay special attention to this part! About an hour after the scheduled start of training the head HR girl, the one who I had the meeting with the day before, showed up at my hotel room and apparently knocked on the door. Because I had fallen back asleep I obviously didn’t answer. She then called the landlord, had him open the door to the room, and then preceded to let herself into my room, wake me up, and then began shouting at me for not reporting to the office for training. During 11 years teaching in Thailand and China I had never dealt with an employer like this, so I was naturally unsure how to react. She was literally in the middle of my room shouting at me while I was lying in bed wearing nothing but my boxer shorts! I decided to just repeat what I had said in the text message, told the girl I would report to the office tomorrow, and politely asked her to please leave the room because her actions were bizarre and totally inappropriate. She then said she would see me tomorrow and slammed the door shut.
The next day I arrived at the office 30 min early, was met by the same HR girl, and then was promptly fired for failing to report for training. The only explanation I was given was that I apparently didn’t follow the correct procedure, didn’t answer the door when she knocked, and that they couldn’t accept me being absent on the second day of training (also my 2nd full day in the country). She also said that she regularly visits teachers at their homes and when she does she expects them to answer the door and let her in. I’m nearly 40 years old and I’ve never had a job (anywhere in the world) where your employer reserves the right to visit your home residence at their discretion. She then handed me an envelope with 20,000 won for 4 of the 5 hours of training I had done, gave me 24 hours to check out of the air-bnb, told me that my visa would be cancelled and gave me a week or less to exit the country. No refund was offered for any of my $2,000 cad in expenses.
As ridiculous as it sounds, and as hard as it is to believe, that was my brief experience working for SPEP/One-stop prep, based out of Gangnam in Seoul. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try working for this company, perhaps I just had a bad experience, however based on what happened to me and the behaviour of the SPEP/One-stop prep staff, I would highly recommend looking into other options first before you sign up for what would undoubtedly be a year of misery, assuming of course you are able to make it to the end of the contract.
I hope that this article has been informative and useful to all the teachers considering Korea as an option, and if you still decide to sign a contract with this company then I wish you the best of luck!
*An honourable mention also goes to Engkorea, the recruiter who recommended this job to me but provided no help or assistance whatsoever.*
Gangnam, Seoul, South Korea.