There are two parts to this post. ‘Part 1’ looks at how and why I took the impossibly unlikely step to becoming a teacher. (If I can do it, anyone can) And ‘Part 2’ gives an insight into the world of ESL in Korea, with some advice and tips to anyone thinking of taking the plunge. There are some excellent comments and anecdotes from good friends and experienced teachers in Korea, and I hope this post give you a sense of what to expect from the experience and help you to choose what kind of teaching position is right for you.
If you’re only interested in the advice section, skip through to ‘Part 2.’ If you’d like to learn how I went from being a kid that hated school with a passion to a fairly experienced teacher of English on the other side of the world, take a look at ‘Part 1.’
Part I: You’re Going To Do What?
We all get that feeling from time to time; you know, the one where nothing seems to be making sense & life is dull and unfulfilling. You know then, that if it’s in your power, it’s time to make a drastic life change. That’s how I felt in the autumn of 2008. I’d recently graduated from The University of East Anglia, a bachelor’s degree with honors in Anthropology, Archaeology and Art History tucked proudly under my arm. Not being especially academic, it remains the greatest achievement of my life to get that degree, and I was ready to take on the world with my new qualifications and confidence. And what was your first post grad job, with all those new skills and confidence, you ask? Why, a postman, of course!
Okay, so being a postie is a worthy job…everyone loves getting bills, right…and it was fabulous to be outdoors so early during the summer months and be finished work and in the pub by lunchtime. But it’s not at all what I temporarily gave up my nomadic lifestyle and study four grinding years through academia to become. The problem was that until recently I’d never known what I wanted to be when I grew up. Since my first back-packing trip in 1994, in between adventures I tried my hand at too many different jobs, and mostly crap ones. And what I learned was that I was a ‘Jack of no trades’ and master of even fewer. I had to stop the rot, and traipsed nervous but excited back to school.
It could rightly be said my degree was a strange vocational choice. While I totally loved and devoured with relish all three disciplines I studied, inspired by amazing professors every day, (Thank you, Emperor Onians) at no point did I aspire to follow it through and become anything with an ‘ologist tagged on the end. I only wanted to study the ‘ologies, get smarter and well read, and in a way, culturalize myself.
So after graduating I didn’t know what to do. I fell into a slump and for a few months tiptoed around the edge of depression, gin being my go to comfort; the void after such an intense few years was massive, and I was lost. I had an itch that couldn’t be scratched, and didn’t believe I even had the fingers to do it. But eventually I registered with a bunch of generic online job agencies and waited, and nursing daily hangovers, continued to ruin people’s days with overdue utility bills. After a few weeks I received an e-mail with the mocking title, Want to Teach English in Korea? I didn’t even open it. I never liked regular school, and liked the teachers even less; the thought of becoming one to me seemed as alien as, you know, seeing an alien. But for one reason or another I didn’t delete that mail, and on one particularly chilly and depressing autumn day in November 2008, I read it. Guess what! A month later, and just days before Christmas, I’d accepted a job as an English teacher and was on a flight to Seoul.
Why the change of heart I hear you ask? It’s simple…I had nothing better to do! As a fair weather player, Autumn in England is dismal, and I had itchy feet from being ‘home’ too long. The road to me doesn’t call…it positively screams, and besides, I knew nothing about Korea, and felt sure a new challenge might provide a ladder up and out of my gloomy hole.
Five years on, and I now have 3 years experience of living and teaching in South Korea. On top of that, my future is mapped out clearly for the first time, and with my light and guru by my side, it looks bright.
Thanks Korea (and teaching), you’ve steered me on a path that I may never have found.
Want To Teach English in Korea? Why Not, It’s a Blast!
Back then I went blindly to Korea excited only about the adventure. Days after I arrived I regretted not doing any research; in at the deep end doesn’t even cut it. My first Monday morning, with zero experience, my boss handed me a pile of books, a list of students and pointed to a door: “There’s your room,” she said, and “Good luck.” I nearly crapped my boxers. In truth, I don’t think there was a lot of information available about Korea as an ESL destination, and it could certainly help to have some idea about what to expect, not only about the job, but about the expat life and culture within this fairly obscure nation. So I figure it’s about time I shared my knowledge and experiences. I’m not claiming to be an expert, and I would recommend you do your own research too; use this information only as a guide.
I’ve set out a few obvious questions that you might ask before deciding to go, and answered them myself with honesty. There are some practical tips and quotes from teachers more experienced than me.
I truly hope this helps. And if not?
GO ANYWAY ALREADY, IT’S AMAZING!!!
Who can teach ESL in Korea?
Any native English speaker who has a sense of adventure, and a degree in any subject from university or college.
Do I need a TEFL or CELTA qualification?
No, absolutely not, although it can’t hurt. For my first two contracts I didn’t have any teaching qualifications. However, I decided to take a CELTA course to boost my skills and confidence in the classroom, and with a growing competition for positions it could help. I still haven’t used mine though, and doubt I will. Should you want to take a course, I recommend International House as a starting point. Amazing teachers, and a tough but rewarding course. And Prague was a perfect place to take it.
Why should I choose Korea, over say, Japan or China?
Good question, but for me an easy answer. At the end of the day, apart from being a great experience, it’s a job, which means most of us want to get the best contracts. China, Japan and Korea all offer similar amounts in terms of salary, but in Korea you do a lot less work for the same, if not more, money, and with much better perks.
And how about those salaries? Right now $1 = W1,071 OR 62p
Korean currency is Won, and a first timer in Korea can expect to earn between W2,000,000 and W2,300,000, depending on each individual school. My first contract in 2008, for example, gave me W2,000,000, and when I left Korea this May I was making W2,600,000. Bare in mind taxes are minimal and standard of living costs are low. You might spend W100,000 on utilities per month if you’ve got either your air-con or heating blasting out 24/7.
How about the language barrier?
This is a natural concern, but not one to worry you. A lot of people already speak pretty good English thanks to your predecessors, and a decent level of English is spoken in most shops and restaurants. Or, you could just learn Korean. The written form of Korean, Hangul, is simple and easy to learn…I did it, so you can too…and within just a few weeks you’ll be reading the road signs and menus as if you’ve known them forever. To be fair, it was a jibe by my good friend George that prompted me to learn. I only planned to stay a year, so I thought, ‘what’s the point of learning a language I can’t use outside of Korea?’ George kindly pointed out that I hadn’t learned it simply because I couldn’t! Hmm! So with my dictionary I studied, and soon wished I’d have done it when I arrived. And I advise you to do the same, as it enhanced my experience ten-fold.
And how’s the food?
Of course, this is a very subjective area. I for one think that on the whole, Korean food is average, compared to say Indian or Thai. But it has its moments, and many people adore it. Koreans are proud of their national dish Kimchi (fermented cabbage) while ignoring the high rates of stomach cancer it causes. On the other hand, BBQ galbi is genius; Imagine sitting round a table grilling your own tender cuts of pork of beef on a sizzling hot plate with and swilling it down with copious amounts of cheap beer. That’s my style, and it’s truly delicious. Korean cuisine is certainly worth trying, but you’ll have to make your own mind up on this one. Yep, that’s dog.
What problems might I face?
Arriving in Korea comes as a (cliché time) culture shock to many people, especially if you’re an inexperienced traveler.
Okay, so what are the main issues?
The climate in Korea is harsh, with roasting humid summers, and freeze-you-to-the-core winters, from highs of 38’c, to lows of -15. It’s extreme alright, and not to be dismissed.
Koreans are nosy, and want to know everything about you; age, marital status, even blood type. It can be a little disconcerting at first, but status and respect are everything in Korea, and the questions serve as a cultural tool so an individual knows how to address you. It’s not rude, but may seem that way at first.
To me, it’s a fault, but Koreans rarely say ‘no.’ It’s their way of not letting someone down, and even if they can’t make it to the coffee shop, and even if they have plans on Saturday night already, chances are they’ll say yes, not turn up to the football match, and let you down anyway. It’s a cultural fault, and not to be taken personally.
What should I expect from my school?
This is going to be your job, so you should expect the same things you would in any job; respect, to get paid on time, good working conditions etc. However, it doesn’t always turn out this way. Many people talk about delayed wages, lack of communication from the boss or co-workers, insufferably hot or icy cold classrooms, psychotic unruly kids. But these problems are notorious in hagwons mainly, and other than late pay, I’ve suffered them all. In my last job, even my school closed down mid-contract with little notice (Nevermind, I moved to Thailand and spent 4 months in a hammock).
What about the expat lifestyle?
This is the fun part. My guess is that 90% of first time teachers in Korea are in their first ever job straight out of uni or college. This means the expat community is young. But one of the requirements of teaching in Korea is that you have earned a degree, so in theory it’s a pretty educated and interesting group of people that will become your friends and coworkers. Of course, a few idiots slip through the net, but they always will. The party scene is huge in Korea, and bars and restaurants abound on every corner, and rarely shut before dawn. The beer is crap but cheap, and local poison Soju is strong and cheaper than water. Go easy on it…soju bites hard.
Live music is big among the expat scene, and there are always bands looking for new members. Bring your instrument if you want to play, as there will always be an opportunity. Check out The Taco Handshake, my friend’s awesome band. Korea must be one of the hiking capitals of the world. There are thousands of mountains within minutes of everywhere, and though not high, are beautiful nonetheless, and afford easy access, safe trails, and clean air away from the cities. There are plenty of expat sports teams about too; everything from soccer to baseball to ultimate Frisbee, and it’s easy to get involved.
Infrastructure in Korea is unbelievably good, and a bus or train, including the KTX bullet train, will get you anywhere and quickly for a decent price. There are plenty of nice beaches around, especially in the south, and a few islands to really get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, most notably Jeju and Goeje Islands.
What City Should I Choose?
Finally, and perhaps most important- What kind of school should I choose?
Ah-a, now this is where it gets tricky. There are 3 main kinds of teaching jobs in Korea-
Hagwon– A hagwon is a private academy (sometimes a franchise) that teaches kids between 8 and 17 years old, and sometimes kindergarten. Class sizes usually range from 6 to a maximum of 14. The hours vary a little, but a standard hagwon operates between 2p.m and 10p.m. If you’re lucky there’ll be a couple of breaks throughout the shift. I’ve had mixed luck with hagwons. My first, a national chain named E.C.C, was crap money but easy hours. My second contract, with a private company named Moonkkang, gave amazing salaries, great hours but no breaks. My third contract, also with Moonkkang but in a different city, was the best. Brilliant hours, loads of breaks…too many breaks as it turned out; the school ultimately closed down as it was losing students and money.
Public School– With a work day from 8a.m until 5p.m, plus alternate Saturdays in many cases, you’ll really earn your money at a public school. Classes are large, up to 30 students, and the schedule is rigid. You’ll get plenty of public holidays, but not much free time during the working weeks.
University- By far the easiest schedule is at a university. Hours vary, but an average week is 18 hours spread over 4 days, including a few hours of office work. I haven’t yet worked in a uni myself, but many friends do, and they swear by the lifestyle. The biggest draw? Four months paid vacation. The application process is difficult, and sadly it’s often not a case of what you know but who. But, the guys that I know in the uni system have all stayed many years in Korea, so once you’re in, it’s such a good gig that it’s difficult to leave.
Summary, kind of…
Pros- Good pay, decent hours. Free time in daylight hours. Good salary. Flights, insurance and apartment almost always included. Teach a variety of age groups. Relaxed, fun atmosphere. One month’s bonus pay on completion.
Cons- Occasionally unreliable pay day (never happened to me, but I’ve heard of late pay) Lack of communication between foreign staff and managers and Korean co-workers; they are paid less and can be resentful, though it’s rare. Finishing late in the evening is a con to most, as it means getting to the bar late. It worked for me though. It can sometimes feel that you are more of a babysitter than a teacher, and the least fulfilling of the choces if it’s teaching you want.
Who should choose a hagwon? First time teachers who are in it primarily for the experience, those who like to party, and those who like to see the daylight hours.
Pros- Decent pay. Good vacations. Higher level of teaching and discipline, in general. Flights, apartment and insurance are standard. More of a grown up job (at least in theory). More reliable bosses (Govt). Few surprises in terms of requirements and hours. Looks very good on a resume.
Cons: Long hours. Bigger class size, and limited age groups, usually middle schoolers. Lack of creativity in your teaching. Lazy and difficult Korean co-workers. (So I’ve heard)
Pros- Great schedule with lots of free time. Amazing vacations. Decent pay that increases the longer you stay. Much more respect in the classroom. A 4 day week is common. Huge bonus, increasing exponentially, if you extend your contract…most do.
Cons- No apartment included, so that comes from your salary, but it gives you a choice. Insurance.
Who should choose a uni gig? Like I said, it’s great once you’re in, but if you’re reading this, it’s probably your first time; chances are you don’t know anyone in the system, so it may be difficult. Those with genuine credentials and years of experience on their resume. A uni gig is the natural progression from either of the two previous options, which to me makes it the best choice.
If When I go back, I’ll pull out all the stops to land a plum university job.
Here are a few personal insights by my good friends on their experiences;
John Hopton on public schools. That’s John, of Taco Handshake stardom.
“The big advantages of public schools are the holidays, around two weeks in winter and one in summer, or an extra couple of weeks if you re-sign for another year. Plus there is the support system of EPIK which you won’t necessarily get from a random grumpy, drunken hagwon owner. The two weeks’ orientation/training are useful and good fun. There are some good days out here and there during the year, too. You’re supposed to have a Korean teacher in your classroom, so if you like that support it’s good, but they don’t always show up! Disadvantages are a lot of desk warming, all day office hours, and making a dick of yourself by missing the squatty shitter and losing your slippers on the first day, but that’s just me.”
Aleesha on Hagwons.
“Pros- (based solely on the one I worked at) working shorter hours, usually around 5 hours a day. Also working in the afternoons and evenings, starting after public school finishes (3 or 4pm) so you don’t need to wake up early and can stay up late at night– ideal if you, like me, are not a “morning person.” Usually you are one of a few, but sometimes the only foreigner, so it allows you to get close to your boss or Korean co workers. You can gain some cultural experiences and actually become friends with some Korean people. Thinking about it, my only close Korean friends were my co workers and boss, so I guess this could also be a con if your co workers were lame.
cons- working afternoons and nights if you were a morning person. – it’s a business more so than an actual education institution. My students got “grades,” but everyone had to get an A. this was super frustrating as I actually wanted my students to learn. My classes were organized by age and not level, so using appropriate materials was challenging. – Discipline issues with students. I had a 9 year old who would occasionally rip out pages of his book, chew them up and spit them on the floor; my boss’s advice was to smack him on the head. Lack of resources; my school didn’t have books or materials; I had to find or create everything I used.”
…and Aleesha on university life.
“University pros- working 4 days per week, 15 hours per week, 4 months paid vacation, working with a large staff of other foreigners, so tons of support.
cons- only one. It’s an evil trap and you will end up staying in a country that you might not love, forgetting your plans for the future, not living in other countries that you dreamed of, losing your work ethic, for years on end because a job this sweet is too hard to give up!”
Gorgeous George on Hagwons
“Pros- Looking back on working for hagwons, it is quite difficult to think of many pros. Having now worked outside Korea for two and a half years, it seems incredible that I didn´t walk out of the first job in ECC never to return.
You are not really teaching. I came to Korea with so many ideas in my head about what a teacher was supposed to be, drummed in to my head from the CELTA, which got me in quite a lot of trouble in my first job in Gyeongju. They don´t want creativity, they want you to finish workbooks and create exams that the students will pass.
The pace at which student are meant to progress is also untenable. This has created a culture in hagwons, of teaching only what will help them in the exam that you have written, rather than teaching them functional English and improving their communicative skills.
I think Aleesha talked about this one as well, but the business element also made for a very strange atmosphere at hagwons. Whether it was a student´s grades, their exam results, or even their behavior, they all had to be to the parent´s liking, or the teacher was at fault. Our job was to keep children and parents happy, not to teach them a language.”
Jay Park, Taco Handshake legend, on Public Schools
“Pros: The contract is (theoretically) more secure. The breaks are longer. It looks better on a resume and you’re around a lot more Korean people who can’t speak English, including the so-called English teachers, so you get a better cultural experience and will have a better opportunity to learn the language.
Cons: Absolutely zero curriculum; when I arrived the premise was, well, you speak English, go into the room, say a few words and boom, the kids will pick it up. The Korean teachers are supposed to go in the room with you but this ends up being more of a hindrance than a benefit, as they generally do nothing, or worse, do things like sleep or gossip to the kids. It becomes obvious that the Korean co-teacher thinks of this as a free period, so that attitude is soon picked up by the students- Which is why I promptly kicked them all out of the class. The contract really only gives you two weeks of holidays so if the school doesn’t want you to go (in the land that common sense forgot) they can make you come in and desk warm for most of the time that the kids aren’t there. They might also try to screw you over on the contract and or the completion bonus. For example I was drug tested as soon as I get back from the Philippines in the hopes that they could catch me with drugs in my system (every foreigner is a drug addict right?) and fire me on my eleventh month and therefore avoid paying the bonus.”
Back to me again. There are some mixed opinions here, and not all of them paint a rosy picture of life as a teacher in Korea. But, and I cannot stress this highly enough; if you’re considering taking the leap, then take it! I believe all of the friends who shared their experiences above will agree that you should take the plunge. Never try, never know, right? Korea is a safe and perfect choice for your first steps as a teacher abroad, and if you’ve never travelled before, then what better place to start. Korea is largely westernized, and almost anything that you might miss from home you can find, and at a decent price. And if it’s friends and family you’ll miss, then there’s always Skype.
It was a random path that led me to find myself in Korea. But it was probably the second best decision I’ve ever made, after deciding to go back to school. I personally don’t want to teach for the rest of my life. I’ve completed three contracts, and will probably need to go out there again. I’ve said this on numerous occasions; Korea to me is like a gas station for money- when it runs out, I’ll just skip off to Korea again and refill. Some people stay only a year for the experience, and when they leave with they’ve plenty of tales to tell, and most good. More people stay on for a second year, after partying so much during the first that they still need their teaching experience. Then, 2 years is usually enough. But like Aleesha said, Korea is a place that can keep a person for a long time. The lifestyle is good, and the standard of living high. You might find that you love the different culture and its eccentricities, and you might also find that it’s a better prospect than struggling on in your home country, where a lack of opportunity maybe drove you to Korea in the first place. And you’ll definitely like how much money you could save in a year, especially your second; $5-10,000 is not out of the question. But if I need to go back to Korea to refill, then I’ll go happily. It’s a country that I loved, and that both Leslie and I have missed it a lot since we left. Like in any job there are good days and bad, but without doubt the bad are few and far between. You can find yourself in a cosy apartment close to bars and restaurants and mountains, and usually within a 15 minute walk of the school. The community spirit among the foreigners is great, and Korean friends will be loyal and helpful, if a little unreliable. Culturally it can be tough, but the rewards are generous and often.
My final piece of advice is short and simple; If in doubt as to whether or not to take the plunge, and head off to Korea to teach, ‘Just do it!’
And remember; if it doesn’t work out, you can always leave and become a postie!!
Annyong-ee Kasseyo. Goodbye.
To see more of my posts and published clips on Korea, click below.
The Dogs Of Chilseong (Not for the squeamish)
Badminton With a Difference (Too Funny)