Ins and Outs of Working for a Private Language Institute in Seoul

by David Cox

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Six o'clock on a winter morning. The temperature bottoming out at around -20 C. A tall, not altogether awake Englishman makes his way to work through the dawn streets of Seoul; just another chancer wanting to teach English and taste a bit more of what the world's got to offer.

The tall Englishman trudges on. He walks past a pile of vomit. A little further on, there's a drunken man peeing in the street. A wolf howls in the distance. Okay, forget the last part; I made that up. To be honest, teaching English in Korea isn't that bad. There will be trials, though, of patience and endurance. So be warned. And be prepared. And you might just be pleased you came.

You will chose between teaching kids or adults. I chose adults. Either way, most of the work is with private institutes called hogwans. They don't enjoy a great reputation. Check out the blacklist link at Dave's ESL café (www.eslcafe.com). Most of the hogwans offer similar deals. I chose to work for ELS who, together with Pagoda, rank as the largest and longest established institute chains in Korea. The pay and conditions aren't any better than those offered by smaller hogwans, but they do have a track record of keeping their promises.

A lot of fresh young graduates come to Seoul with no previous job experience in their own countries, let alone abroad, and certainly not much idea of how to teach. My advice is do yourself a big favour by taking a TESOL certificate course. There are so many things to get used to when you come to Korea. Having taken a teaching course, at least the classroom won't seem such an unfamiliar place.

As a rule, Korean adult students are respectful and quite responsive. Having worked with teenagers in Europe, I'm certainly not complaining. Some teachers have a problem with their students' opinions, and class dynamics (especially male / female relationships) that seem dictated by Korea's own idiosyncratic version of Confucianism - but these are merely elements of the culture you've come to explore in the first place. An open mind and the willingness to accept other viewpoints will not only help you survive, they'll enable you to get the most out of your experience.

Your salary will be about 2 million won (£1000) a month*. Some kind of help - depending on the type of contract - is usually given in finding and subsidising accommodation. Most teachers need to borrow key money (a large refundable deposit) from their employers. Flats in Korea are typically a lot smaller than most Westerners are used to.  As a single person, you should be able to find a place for about 600,000 won a month (excluding key money). You ought to be able to live reasonably well and still save money.

A meal in a cheap Korean restaurant will cost around 4000 won. There's also plenty of Western food available, but you'll pay more for it: for example, 17,000 won for a large pizza, or around 30,000 won for a two course meal in a TGI Fridays style restaurant. Working in Seoul, you'll find plenty of bars and clubs, catering to all tastes and pockets. Expect to pay upwards of 2000 won for a glass of beer. Public transport - trains and buses - are cheap and efficient. Don't bother buying a car; there's no point.

The cities themselves, by Western standards, don't have much to offer in terms of aesthetic beauty or personal space. If it's fresh air, and room to swing a cat, you're after, you'll have to get out into the countryside which, as far as Korea is concerned, means hiking up a mountain. Korea is brimful of mountains. Most areas are accessible by public transport. One problem you might encounter, even in the countryside, is heavy traffic. On certain weekends and public holidays, it seems as if the whole nation has the same collective idea of getting away from it all. 

You'll soon discover, in your role of teacher, there's little point bringing up the question: What do you do in your free time? Sleeping is the most common reply; time being the rarest of all commodities in Korea. You'll quickly learn to empathise with the locals, especially when required to work early mornings or late evenings, or both. If your employer gives you more than 10 days holiday a year, think yourself lucky. If he (bosses are invariably men) gives you more than three days in a row, you might even want to consider saying thank you. It's a good idea to choose a contract with the option of a month's unpaid leave.

If you're after an easy life, don't bother coming to Korea. You'll hate it. And it will end up hating you. What you'll discover, if you arrive with that open mind I mentioned earlier, is something more difficult to pin down. You'll live through something you've never experienced before. You'll make the kind of friends, have the kind of conversations, stumble upon the kind of ideas, eat the kind of food, drink the kind of drinks, even get pissed off for the kind of reasons. you've never come across before. Character building is how my dad would describe it.

Six o'clock on a summer evening. The temperature slipping from its afternoon peak of 35 C. The tall, weary Englishman heaves his bags onto the conveyor, picks up his boarding card, and walks away towards passport control; just another chancer heading home, having tasted a bit more of what the world's got to offer. The tall Englishman sits down in the air-conditioned departure lounge, suddenly cool, comfortable and with time on his hands. He thinks of the past year, of what he's done, of all the people he's promised to keep in touch with. Let's just say that he neither planned nor imagined beforehand most of what actually happened during his stay in Seoul. But he wouldn't change it now. Not for the world.

About the Author
David Cox worked as a teacher and Academic director for around three years for ELS and is currently employed as a teacher by the British Council in Seoul.

* Wages and some other details may have changed since this article was first published

Image courtesy Rex Pe