Land of the Morning Calm: Teaching English in Korea

by Jonathan Adams

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Teaching in Korea

 

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In recent years Korea has seen an exponential increase in the demand for native English speakers to work as conversation instructors in universities and private language schools. Accordingly thousands of new teachers are flocking to Korea and the ex-pat community is swelling considerably. Want to get a piece of the action? Even pay off your credit cards? Here's what you need to know...

Eligibility
The stipulation is simple; No Degree? No Chance. The Korean immigration authorities will only offer the relevant working visa to natives of the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa who possess full degrees in any discipline from an accredited university and speak English as their first (native) language. This generally means that a 4-year or Honors degree certificate with proof of units taken and passed (known as transcripts) and proof of nationality must be submitted to the Korean authorities before an application to teach can be accepted. Applicants from non-English speaking backgrounds can qualify if they hold a certificate of English fluency but most schools are only interested in teachers from the countries listed above. A certificate in English language teaching (e.g. TEFL) is definitely helpful but not always essential.

While equal opportunities may be mandatory in the western world, Korean employers reserve to right to pick and choose their employees on whatever criteria they see fit. Therefore while people from ethnic backgrounds and disabled applicants theoretically have the same chance of employment as anyone else, schools generally require a photograph and information on special needs before offering a contract. Sadly enough, I'm aware of several African-Americans and British Asians who have even made it all the way to Korea only to be told "Thanks... but no thanks". Yes, it stinks, but until a contract is signed in person here in Korea (even if you've signed and sent one back by mail and got your visa in your home country) there seems to be very little comeback against a school. Don't be put off, I know teachers over here of all colors, shapes, sizes and nationalities but make sure you won't have any problems with your particular school before applying for your visa.

What to bring
If you take up a contract, remember this: YOU ARE NOT GOING ON HOLIDAY. YOU ARE MOVING ABROAD FOR AT LEAST ONE YEAR. THINK ABOUT IT! Too many people arrive with a toothbrush and the clothes on their back as if they're about to check into a hotel and hit the beach, only to discover that bringing the kitchen sink might not have been such a bad idea. Of course, it is also very possible to bring too much but some top tips are books, laptop computers, bedding, clothes for every season, utensils, music, sportswear and dietary necessities. Consider shipping personal effects over as well as what you can carry on the aircraft with you as weight allowances tend to be woefully inadequate. The passenger in front of me at the check-in desk was also coming to teach and openly wept as she was charged £300 for her 40 kg suitcase, the limit on the airline being a measly 20kg. Most essentials are readily available in Korea but bear in mind that most schools pay monthly and have a 2 week lieu so it might be 6 weeks before you get your hands on any hard currency other than half the cost of your flight.

In the Classroom
The most popular choice for first-timers and younger teachers are the private "Hagwons", many of which run kindergarten in the morning and offer classes for elementary school students in the afternoon Others have no kindergarten and stay open later to cater for middle school pupils but the length of the working day in either type of school tends to be around 6 hours. Pre-school teaching revolves around activities, stories and games while older kids are given conversation classes and textbook-centered learning. Qualified and experienced teachers can find employment at universities which offer shorter teaching hours and long holidays but require far more in the way of marking and planning in your own time. Either way you won't be hired to a position which is out of your depth and the vast majority of teachers find their work fun, rewarding and great experience for future jobs in a variety of fields.

Show Me the Money!
Financially speaking, you could do a lot worse than teaching in Korea. It is EASY to save £5000 and still have a very good time over here, cut out the big nights in Seoul or pick up some (slightly illegal) private lessons and you could be looking at a lot more. Most schools pay 1.8 - 2 million won per month (about £900*) which might not sound too impressive but take into account the free accommodation, free flights, 4% tax rate and low cost of living and you have the spending power of most 30-something executives. I tried, how I tried, to spend my entire paycheck in one month but without purchasing any costly electronic items or buying a car it just wasn't possible. Upon completion of your contract you receive a whole extra month's "severance pay" plus the other half of your flight cost AND the first 2 weeks wages, making the final pay packet somewhere around £2500 on top of what you've already earned.

Some schools withhold a deposit, usually about £300, and while most give you half of your return flight cost (all of it if you buy a one-way) when you arrive some are now only coughing up a quarter at the start and another quarter after 3 months. These measures are designed to deter you from "doing a runner", an option which is sadly necessary as some miscreants are buying one-way flights, claiming the cost back instantly and then hopping off to Thailand at considerably less expense than if they'd flown from their home country. Don't go getting any ideas, these people are threatening to ruin it for the rest of us. If you do come on a one-way flight, your school should be happy to buy your ticket out of Korea to anywhere you want, within reason. The trouble with this is that one-way tickets to Korea rarely cost significantly less than returns and most schools will generally put a limit of £600 on flight costs.

Nightlife & Eating Out
Want to paint the town red? You've come to the right place. Seoul has an excellent nightlife scene, as do most other cities in Korea. There isn't enough space to do them justice here, suffice to say that you won't be disappointed whatever your taste in music or people. Some bars are increasingly going for an over-priced, faux swanky cocktail approach but if you're happy with some brews and can stay off the tequila you'll be hard pushed to overspend on a night in the pub. Eating out also tends to be cost effective with Italian, Thai and Chinese restaurants complementing the local cuisine and ubiquitous burger outlets.

Korean food is famously spicy and not always appealing to the western palate but highlights of the indigenous edibles include Kalbi (marinated strips of beef cooked at your table and served with a plethora of side dishes), Ramyun (Chinese style noodles) and Bibimbap (rice, vegetables and a dollop of hot sauce). Despite the campfire rumors (and Christmas jokes) dog is not a staple of the Korean diet and while it is out there, you won't be served it unwittingly. This is unless you miss the warning signs which are generally big pictures of happy looking pooches painted on the outside of the restaurant. Korean eateries tend to have pictures of whatever animal is being served inside displayed outside looking content, well fed and very much alive.

Around Korea
Teaching in Korea is becoming very much a sellers' market, meaning that you'll generally be able to pick and choose where you go, the size of your school and the age of your students. Seoul has a population of around 12 million and is a thriving industrial metropolis. Many teachers come to Seoul and HATE it, so be very sure that you can survive in the big smoke before signing up. Suwon, Anyang and Incheon are among the larger places near Seoul which offer easy access to the shopping and nightlife without the daily agony of commuting and choking on the smog. Busan in the south of Korea weighs in at about 4 million people and enjoys warmer weather and less humidity than Seoul, while other major cities include Daegu (fashion capital of Korea), Daejeon (the birthplace of modern Korean cuisine), Gwangju (famed for it's student uprising) and Ulsan (dirty industrial city dominated by Hyundai). Again, do your homework before you sign up.

Anything else?
English is not as commonly spoken in Korea as you might think, although most public transport and general groceries have English labeling so you won't be stranded or starve. Hard to obtain items include spray deodorant and tampons while imported books, magazines and newspapers are only available in big cities. Gay and lesbian travellers tend to have few problems although while prostitution is very much tolerated homosexuality is still a taboo for most Koreans. There is a large US Military presence in Korea (about 37,500 troops) and there have been an increasing number of anti-US demonstrations and protests in recent months. This should not deter Americans or other foreigners from coming to teach in Korea, however various governments have posted relevant travel advisories for their citizens. Korea is a safe country with very little crime, assault and vandalism but like anywhere in the world travellers are advised to exercise caution and be alert for warnings and security notices. The Dept. of State (http://travel.state.gov/skorea.html) carries up-to-date travel advice for anyone going to Korea. At the present time there is little or no threat of military action against Korea from North Korea or any other source.

Applying and Signing Up
If this sounds like your cup of tea then the next step is to start job hunting. If you take a TEFL / TESL (Teaching English as a Foreign / Second Language) course you will be approached by recruiters who can generally offer you a choice of a couple of schools. Recruiters also help you settle in and take care of any problems you may have, although in most cases they'll pick you up at the airport, drop you off at the school and you'll never see them again unless everything goes wrong. Recruiters are expensive for Korean schools to use so more and more are advertising directly for teachers and often won't demand the TEFL qualification. However, TEFL is still the traditional route for most new teachers and the course offers a practical introduction to teaching and a great chance to meet new friends and get in touch with the people who can get you to Korea. Courses cost anything between £150 and £1200 depending on the level of qualification you require. A basic TEFL suitable for most first-time teachers involves 20 hours of tuition and classes are available at universities, colleges and many other TEFL locations throughout the world. Everything the prospective teacher could wish to know is on the TEFL website at www.tefl.com. More advanced courses which are generally required for university or business level English teaching take up to 120 hours and are only necessary for those wishing to pursue a full career in international teaching. Some courses even begin the immersion process right away by hosting the course in Korea itself.

For an introduction to the country, Lonely Planet has a well-researched guidebook for Korea and a smaller one exclusively for Seoul. Some great teaching based resources for Korea include "Dave's ESL Cafe" (www.eslcafe.com) which has a wealth of advice, personal experiences and extensive job listings and English Spectrum (www.englishspectrum.com), a site written for teachers, by teachers.

If you contact a school or recruiter then ask about the accommodation, contract, local area, students ages & abilities, size of school, number of foreign teachers, holidays & weekend work (most schools are closed Saturdays but make sure of this first if you love your weekends) and flight options. Ideally you should get the email address of an existing or previous teacher and bombard them with questions. If you like what you hear, go for it! Korea is a wonderful, welcoming country with a rich heritage and both eyes firmly on the future. Becoming a teacher here offers you creative and financial freedom and the experience of a lifetime. It's also great training for parenthood!

About the Author
Jonathan Adams is a travel & culture freelance journalist from Edinburgh who has lived and worked in Korea, Canada and Israel.  

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

Image courtesy Yishun JC Photos