Teaching English in South Korea

Teaching English in South Korea: A Guide to Living and Working in the Land of the Morning Calm

I remember thinking that I had found utopia. The children were polite and friendly and strangers came up to me on the unusually clean street, smiling and saying ‘handsome’. It was even charming when ageing men without a full set of teeth did this. I just smiled back and said kamsa-hamneeda (thank-you), the first word I learned in the Korean language of Hangul. South Korea is a great place to teach English and save a considerable amount of money. What’s more, any native English speaker with a university degree is qualified to teach. So where can you get started?

On Cheju Island
On Cheju Island
If you have a full university degree and are interested in teaching English in South Korea, it is a good idea to do some online research and find out for yourself if it is for you. There are a host of web-sites dedicated to teaching English in South Korea. A few hours reading some of these forums and job postings will be invaluable when deciding to take the plunge. Here are a few basics to get you started.

  • Most first time ESL teachers in South Korea work in a Hogwan, which is a private language institute. Be wary, as many of these institutions can be dubious, to say the least. Talk to the teacher you will be replacing and ask about their experiences and why they are leaving.
  • Compare the contract you are considering with other teaching contracts and find out if you are getting a good deal. A good place to find job listings is at Dave’s ESL café or Work n’ Play. For job listings on specific areas in South Korea, take a look at PusanWeb, which is a site dedicated to the large city of Pusan on the eastern coast. This site also has links to partner sites focussing on the cities of Daegu, Daejeon, or the buzzing metropolis of Seoul.
  • Although schools often take on teachers with little or no teaching experience, it is a good idea to take a short ESL course before arriving. This will increase your confidence and familiarity when you suddenly find yourself in the classroom with a bunch of eager students. This familiarity in the classroom will also help to alleviate some of the inevitable culture shock that expatriates experience. To mitigate the stress of unfamiliarity in the classroom, try a TESOL or CELTA course at your local college or university before leaving. Alternatively, if you don’t have much spare cash, try one of the online TEFL courses. One of the cheapest at the moment can be found at www.onlinetefl.com, which reliably provides tutor feedback on online assignments within 24 hours.

Types of teaching jobs in South Korea

Inside a Buddhist Temple
Inside a Buddhist Temple
Although the majority of first timers take contracts at private language institutes, there are a number of different teaching opportunities available in South Korea. There are numerous jobs in public and private schools but the salaries are similar to those of languages institutes and the teaching hours are generally earlier in the day. Korean students, who are sometimes referred to by locals as ‘study machines’, usually attend their regular school from early morning to early evening, after which they go to their various institutes for a variety of subject tutoring. For this reason, if you choose an institute, your teaching hours will probably be much later in the day; typically from mid-afternoon until late evening.

Many ESL teachers with experience often later upgrade to university teaching, where salaries are better and holidays are much more abundant. Other alternatives include teaching a multitude of ‘privates’, which many expatriates do and are paid handsomely. But be warned! Teaching privates in South Korea is illegal and expatriates can be fined and even deported if the local watchdogs discover such activities.

Living in South Korea

So apart from teaching English, what else is there to do in Korea? Well, fortunately, public transport in South Korea is reliable, cheap and comfortable. This means that, if you want to get away for the weekend, the Peninsula is your proverbial oyster. There are many places to explore in Korea, with Cheju Island, the biggest island in Korea, being the top of the list for many travellers. This island can be explored either by plane or ferry, but for those starting out on a tighter budget, worry not. There are vast numbers of mountains and temples to explore, all free apart from catching a bus and/or staying at a cheap hotel. Hotels in Korea are great for value, often priced at around 30,000 Won (about £15 or $30) per night usually including a windscreen satellite TV and DVD player, Internet, air-conditioners, whirlpools, plus the hotels are usually clean and very comfortable.

Korean food for many is an acquired taste. Much of it is laden with uniquely spicy chilli paste known as Gochu-Jang. Be warned to take this in moderation. But there is also much food that is not at all spicy, such as seaweed soup, rice-cakes, Korean style pancakes, and various meat and rice dishes. Koreans also adore side dishes, which come in all shapes and sizes and usually include the renowned Korean side dish of Kimchi, which is a spicy pickled cabbage.

Making Food the Old Way
Making Food the Old Way
With the opportunities for travel and the diverse and fresh culinary options in Korea, one can open up to new ideas and culture whilst also saving money doing a worthwhile and enjoyable job.

Reading

Before going to South Korea, some popular general information books are:

Hur, S.V. & Hur, B.S. (2003) Culture Shock! Korea: a Guide to Customs and Etiquette, Kuperard, London.
Kim, K. & Whyte, R. (2001) Living in South Korea, Pro Lingua Associates.

Web-sites

  • Dave’s ESL Café: Probably the best ESL site at the moment for expatriate teachers and those looking for jobs. The site focuses on South Korea particularly and has a wealth of information in the many categorised forums.
  • Work n’ Play: A good site with forums and Korean job postings used by many of the current Korean expatriate population. You can also post your resume here for school directors to view.
  • The Korean Bridge: A good gateway for localised web-sites in Korea. There are all kinds of information here, including job listings.

The author is currently teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, whilst also writing freelance. Contact the author at jjrgaskell@hotmail.com.