Glimpse into ‘hagwon’ instructors’ lives sparks viewer interest

Actor Jung Ryeo-won plays the role of star Korean language instructor in the tvN melodrama series “The Midnight Romance in Hagwon.' Courtesy of tvN

Korea’s obsession with education is no secret. The eagerness of students and their parents for prestigious schools has triggered cutthroat competition for college admissions here. This, naturally, has led to the flourishing of private education with institutions such as “hagwon,” or private educational academies, being incredibly sought after.

JTBC’s series “Sky Castle” became a sensational hit in 2018, captivating the country with its close-up look into the lives of upper-class families striving to secure their children’s academic success.

Since then, content depicting overeager “tiger parents” and the struggles of students have often been portrayed in series such as “The Penthouse: War in Life” (2020-21), “High Class” (2021) and “Green Mothers’ Club” (2022).

However, when the tvN series “Crash Course in Romance” rolled out last year, offering another aspect of Korea’s intense educational competition, the spotlight shifted toward hagwon instructors, stirring the curiosity of viewers about the life of those who are the pillars of the private education field.

The romantic comedy series follows a single mom 합법 (Jeon Do-yeon) falling in love with a celebrity math instructor (Jung Kyung-ho). Immensely popular, it combines a feel-good romane with a look into the competitive lives of instructors responsible for students’ grades — key to their future success — and the coming-of-age stories of the students themselves.

Jung, who played a sensitive but dedicated celebrity instructor, shared that he had researched the real-life classes of hagwon instructors for two months to learn the unfamiliar world and help create his character.

Following the success of “Crash Course in Romance,” more stories of hagwon instructors have emerged, including the drama film “The Daechi Scandal,” which hit theaters in June, and the melodrama series “The Midnight Romance in Hagwon,” which started airing in May.

Another series, “War of Daechi-dong’s Number Ones” (tentative title), about top-tier, high-paid instructors’ lives and their challenges headlined by Kim Ah-joong, is under development.

Pop culture critic Kim Sung-soo noted that such a shift is a mere reflection of the country’s current society, backed by a surge in creative freedom with the rise of streaming services.

“Drama content, or popular cultural content, is like a mirror that shows us our reality. It reflects how much our society’s perception of education has changed … In the past, private education was reserved for wealthy people, and it wasn’t a time when everyone could widely have access to tutoring. But now, (it’s different), so dramas have begun to reflect these generational changes,” he told The Korea Times.

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