Hagwon Horror Stories: My Midnight Run in Korea

A “midnight run” is a term for when English teachers in South Korea get the f*ck out (aka quit their job and leave without telling a soul). Believe it or not, it’s a popular term and some teachers choose to leave their high paying jobs and free apartments. Here’s my story.

Disclaimer: this post is not to deter anyone from teaching abroad or teaching in South Korea (there are loads of great schools and opportunities). This post is for current teachers who are in a terrible situation and want to leave. If you are contemplating leaving, I understand. I’ve been there. You are not alone.

My Hagwon Horror Story

There were 101 red flags my first day in South Korea.

First off, I had to go to work on my very first day in South Korea. After a 22-hour journey across the world, I was picked up and escorted to my school immediately thrown into the fire. I knew Korean culture would be different and I researched beforehand and read stories about hagwons (private academies). I knew it would be intense, so while I was alarmed, I wasn’t surprised. I went with the flow and tried to adapt accordingly.

I realized almost immediately that things were…off. You know the movie Get Out where the characters are in a sunken place and the other characters are warning newcomers to GET OUT…? Well, those were my new coworkers. Everyone looked…unhappy and greeted me with a concerned smile that said “I’m sorry you’re here.”

I then met my new boss. A beautiful Korean woman with a forced smile that said “hi, I’m going to be your worst nightmare, welcome!” She brought me into a little meeting room and told me I needed to sign a new contract. Apparently, the school was bought out by a new company within the last couple of months. Jet-legged and fatigued, I tried to remain positive and read through a brand new 10-page employment contract. I signed the new contract, because what other choice did I have? I had $500 to my name, an apartment under the school’s name, and it took months of preparation to get to this point. I bit my lip and avoided conflict.

After signing the new contract, I shadowed a night elementary class. The teacher/my new coworker had his master’s in education and I could tell he knew what he was doing. I couldn’t help but notice his dislike for his job. He just didn’t seem happy.

Note: I studied human resource management in college, but it doesn’t take a $50,000 degree to recognize that if the majority of employees are unhappy, there’s usually a reason. Toxic work environments and managers will often blame the employee. A good leader will take necessary steps to ensure employees are happy. With four years of education on leadership and business, I still ignored red flags. When employees are put in a vulnerable situation, common sense often goes out the window.

Looking back, I wish I would have asked to review the contract at home and remained confident and assertive from the start. In Korea, it’s just you. If you don’t stand up for yourself, your employer will see that and unfortunately can take advantage of your vulnerability.

Here are excerpts from my monthly newsletter where I would give *honest* life updates (lol):

living in Busan, South Korea
my first day in my studio apartment in Busan, South Korea

One Month in South Korea

One mental breakdown and 2 typhoons later, I started questioning my decision to teach in South Korea.

I realized that “teaching in Korea” also meant phone teaching, writing detailed syllabi, monthly report cards, passive aggressive comments, never-being-good-enough, being-watched-on-a-camera-24/7, and more! *scared smiles*

What did I sign up for…?

Related Article: Tips for Hagwon Interviews (what Qs to ask in your interview!!!! Learn from my mistakes!)

Three Months in South Korea

I’m not quite sure where to begin. First off, there is a kindergarten graduation play. Each graduating class must preform a play. And by play, I mean, a 15-minute musical with elaborate sequence costumes, multiple dress rehearsals, hours of classroom preparation, and stressed out teachers. 

My class is preforming Beldon and The Beast, a remake of Beauty and The Beast where the gender roles switch and the beast is a girl. The play was performed last year by my co-teacher. She gave me the play script and I tweaked it a bit to include all my students. Some teachers wrote their own plays. I took the easier route out.

Note: I’m learning things are never “easier” at my hagwon.

When I first gave my play to my supervisor, she gave me feedback and I made my first revision. FIVE REVISIONS and one week later, she finally approved the script. Four days later, we were expected to have our first rehearsal. I scrambled to block out the play, coach the children on their lines, and learn the lines myself. Teaching 6-year-olds a 15-minute play in 4 days is like training a cat to fly. It’s just not possible. 

Feedback after the first rehearsal: “The 3-year-old class is better. It was terrible. Why don’t they know their lines….?” 

I’m learning to become a professional at the “nod and smile.” My first three months, I probably would have stress-cried. Now, I’m learning to laugh, because, well, the expectations of my boss are hilarious and quite frankly, absolutely f*cking ridiculous.

hike near Busan, South Korea
Me hiking on the weekends to keep my sanity (spoiler: my sanity was not kept)

Six Months in South Korea

After all that, COVID hit Korea (Seoul area) and the graduation play was canceled. Lord, help me.

This month I was given 2 extra classes on top of my full schedule. I was already stressed with my current class load, but had no choice but to take the additional 2 classes.

Imagine walking into a class of Korean toddlers who don’t speak a lick of English. A room filled with NINE four-year-olds sitting in small desks for the first time in their lives, Korean mothers staring at you, your supervisor with her arms crossed waiting for you to mess up, your vice supervisor smiling awkwardly, and two Korean helper teachers.

I planned an array of songs and activities. I sang, I danced, I jumped up and down, and I mimed the ABCs.

My supervisor’s feedback: “you chose terrible songs.”

It was a lot: the pressure of my new toddler class, working almost 30 teaching hours a week, phone teaching after school, working overtime prepping for classes, bringing work home and putting every ounce of my soul into this job. (I don’t know how teachers do it. Ya’ll are amazing.)

Here’s where I lost it: Days later during my lunch break, my head teacher takes me aside and says the parents are complaining. The supervisor has been watching your classes on CCTV for 3 days, she has a list of everything you’ve been doing wrong (with time stamps). The head teacher explained that my supervisor thinks I’m a “lazy teacher” and that I need to give more worksheets to my kindergarteners and have less conversation and games. Luckily, my head teacher was awesome and had my back.

[insert breakdown #3]

I felt defeated.

The best part of working in Korea is seeing your students excited about learning and coming to school, you see all the daily progress and their huge breakthroughs (not shown on CCTV). Six months ago, one of my students, Johnny, refused to talk in class or do any work. He would just cry and have temper tantrums all class. Honestly, he was one of my least favorite students. I just didn’t know how to handle his behavior. Six months later, he’s able to finish his work and do his homework by himself (it’s obviously not perfect, but he tries now). When I met his mother for the first time, she was excited to share how much he loves school now and loves my class. It melted my frickin’ heart. 

Truth is: I was the kid who didn’t like school. I was the college student who didn’t understand the point but went anyways. I was then the teacher who believed in alternative learning.

Korean standards of education are different (generally speaking). My kindergarteners are given pages and pages of book work and exams. If there isn’t enough homework, parents complain. If you’re doing everything perfect, some parents will find something, anything, to complain about. The kids don’t have recess, only gym time once a week. The cultural differences are hard to shallow some days.

[Note: not every hagwon is like this. There are Montessori and alternative schools in Korea.]

Shortly after my cute breakdown at work, the first COVID case hit Busan and school has been canceled ever since.

Last week, we had to come in for 8 hours a day and work on “future classroom preparation” while my supervisor walked around looking at our computer screens making sure we were working.

Next week, the school is closed without pay. Most schools in Korea are closed, some schools are paying their employees, some are choosing not to.

Seven Months in South Korea (Never Before Told)

I booked a flight to Bali. I pictured myself swimming in the ocean, erasing my hagwon trauma away while frolicking in green rice fields.

With COVID and not knowing when I’d be able to teach again, I decided to cut my losses. Leave behind everything in my apartment and my severance pay. My partner at the time and I packed up the apartment and shipped a box of things back to the US. We plotted our midnight run and didn’t tell a soul.

The night before our planned escape, our flight was canceled.

We quickly realized how serious COVID was and had no other choice but to stay. South Korea was handling the outbreak well and after watching the US on the news, I was grateful to be in Korea.

I even wrote a post about why I stayed in Korea during the outbreak.

Culture Village - Busan, South Korea
a couple weeks prior to my attempted escape – Busan, South Korea

Eight Months in South Korea (For real this time)

I got a call that my mom was in the hospital. She got into a car accident then a few days later fell and had a seizure. Long story short: she was fine, but couldn’t work or drive for 6 months. I went back and forth whether to fly back to the US.

[soon after]

Dear Supervisor xxxx,

I’m writing to let you know I had to make a last minute decision and fly home to the United States. Regretfully, I will not be coming back. I’m sorry for the short notice but due to family emergency I have no other choice. This message is my official notice of resignation from xxxxx.

Kind Regards,

Courtney Vondran

[sent on my flight from Seoul, South Korea to Los Angeles, USA]

flight from Busan, South Korea to Chicago, IL
on my flight home (note: Asiana airlines is amazing and made me feel like an absolute QUEEN)

Toxic Work Environments and Emotional Abusive Bosses

Leaving your job can be hard especially when there is emotional abuse involved. Like I said earlier, remain confident and stand your ground when needed. Try to communicate when you are unsatisfied and be open with your employer. Unfortunately, if you are in a toxic work environment where there is emotional abuse present, sometimes the only option is to leave and cut your losses.

Here are some signs of emotional abuse in the workplace:

  • Micromanaging (breathing over your shoulder)
  • Your boss makes you question yourself (extreme highs and lows)
  • Gaslighting (your terrible experience is downplayed or denied)
  • Giving the silent treatment
  • Verbal aggression
  • Dominant Behaviors (being made afraid to leave, like there’s nothing else out there)
  • When you’re shamed into giving everything to your job at the expense of your mental, physical, financial, and/or spiritual health
  • When majority of employees are exhausted, run-down, and/or stressed to the point of breaking, yet the work culture is normalized or even glorified

Here are some things I heard while expressing concern to other teachers:

  • “It could be worse. At least we get paid on time.”
  • “It’s only a year. Don’t leave early, you don’t want to miss out on your severance pay.”
  • “The boss is just under stress and overworked.”
  • “Other hagwons are way worse.”
  • “It’s selfish to quit. You’ll leave all your co-teachers with your work.”
  • “If you quit, you won’t be able to work in Korea ever again.”
  • “I don’t know… she’s never done anything to me…”

Read This

Luckily (and unluckily) I had the excuse of my mother’s accident and the pandemic to get out of the situation. It was a blessing in disguise and I’m happy I left.

I have moved on from the situation and feel no hard feelings toward my former employer or boss. Like I always say, everything happens for a reason. The universe put this situation in my life to get me to my next level.

I went back and forth about whether to share my story. I’m not looking for pity and again, have digested and healed from my experience.

If you are in a similar situation (or worse), it is not okay. It’s only a job. You do not have to stay. If you don’t feel safe and want to leave, (unpopular opinion) you do not have to give a notice. I do not care what your contract says, you are not a slave to your employer and can leave at any time.

If you want to stay in South Korea and teach at a different school, you may ask for a letter of release. If that’s not possible, you could leave Korea and teach in another country or leave and come back (and go through the E2 visa process again). For more legal advice, check out LOFT Facebook group. There are many teachers who have been in your shoes.

Again, if you are thinking about teaching in South Korea: this is not a reflection of South Korea as a country, Korean people, or other schools. I still recommend teaching abroad in Korea and other countries, it can be a great experience and opportunity for some people. I loved parts of living in Korea and I loved parts of my job.

But, at the end of the day, you have to listen to your gut. You have to do what’s best for you.



the iconic Korean peace signs will never stop. <3

Looking for more South Korea resources, check out:

Went through something similar? Looking to connect and focus on your wellness and personal growth?

Check out, 10 Days to Higher Self. A workbook to dive deeper, daily challenges to get you to your next level. <3


  • Sarah
    December 13, 2020 at 11:44 am

    Courtney, thank you so much for sharing your story. I hate that you went through this, but I know there are people in a similar situation right now that need the reassurance from someone who’s been there. I, too, have been in toxic work environments and sacrificed so much of myself to make other people happy with my work. Honestly, it’s probably the main reason I’m an entrepreneur now! I just couldn’t take any more gaslighting. No job or career is worth our sanity. I’m so glad you’ve emerged stronger than ever before, and I look forward to seeing where travel takes you next!

    Sending virtual hugs,

  • Dave_Berlin
    June 17, 2021 at 6:52 am

    I posted this website and your YouTube video over at my Hagwon Blacklist subreddit, I hope you can post something and answer subscriber’s questions. Hit me up and let’s talk.


Leave a Reply