TEACHING ENGLISH IN KOREA
Teaching English in Korea is a fantastic way to save money and really get under the skin of this fascinating culture. It also offers plenty of opportunity to travel extensively around East and Southeast Asia. Moving to Korea to teach English was one of the best life decisions we ever made. Could it be the same for you too?
We came to Korea expecting to stay two years. But three years on, here we are, only now half-reluctantly preparing to leave. If teaching English in Korea is something you’re considering, or you’re interested in finding out more, read on to learn all about the benefits, lifestyle and realities of the job itself.
WHY SOUTH KOREA?
To put it quite bluntly, money.
The salary you can earn teaching English in Korea is one of the highest in the TEFL world. The cost of living is also very affordable, meaning you can save a huge chunk of that generous paycheck every month. If you have little (or indeed zero) teaching experience – no worries! Compared to other high paying English teaching opportunities (in the Middle East for example) it’s relatively easy to secure a job in Korea regardless of your experience.
The generous pay isn’t the only financial draw, either. Standard benefits for foreign English teachers in Korea include a free furnished apartment, return flights from your home country to Korea, and a bonus of one month’s salary upon completion of your 12 month contract. On top of that, 50% of your medical insurance costs will be covered by your employer. For North American and Australian teachers, you can claim back compulsory pension contributions when leaving Korea (not the case for Brits, Irish or New Zealanders though). Finally, income tax is a mere 3.3%.
As complete newbies to teaching, keen to save as much money as possible, Korea was an easy choice for us.
WHAT’S IT LIKE LIVING IN KOREA?
Life in Korea has a perfect mix of convenient familiarity and alien exoticism. Modern infrastructure, housing and amenities make day to day life comfortable and easy, while the vast differences in culture and tradition keep it exciting and intriguing.
If you’ve travelled outside of your own culture before, especially in other East Asian countries such as China or Japan, then you’re unlikely to experience much in the way of culture shock. If you’re new to travelling and/or living abroad, then you’ll no doubt be affected by culture shock to a higher degree. However, once you get your head around some key customs, traditions and the hierarchical order that is integral to Korean society, it’s an easy country to live in.
Before moving to Korea all sorts of thoughts went through my mind. Will they have good coffee? Is all the bread sweet? Will I ever eat brie again?
We brought 103.5kg of luggage with us, and I swear at least 40kg of that was toothpaste, shampoo, contact lens solution, deodorant, face cream, Lindt chocolate, coffee, chewing gum, oatcakes, and all manner of other crap. While I still have to get regular supplies of my trusted Mitchum deodorant imported, and an annual Christmas parcel of Wrigley’s gum and oatcakes delivered, I very quickly realised that Korea has all the daily essentials I need.
We had nothing to fear – look at all that red wine!
There are coffee shops on every corner, bakeries abound, and the skincare industry here is out of this world. Memories of Boots and Superdrug are long forgotten. Even Del is partial to a little dab of night cream around the eyes these days. He claims it’s taken six years off him! Oh, and after getting laser eye surgery for a fraction of the cost back home, I no longer need those contact lenses and bottles of solution.
Everyone has their own thing they ‘can’t live without’. I can’t guarantee you’ll find it in Korea, but my point is you’ll adapt, you’ll find something even better, or you’ll just move on and wonder what the big deal was in the first place.
Korean supermarkets are more or less like home, just with more free samples and staff that bow!
Who Teaches in Korea?
People choose to teach English in Korea for all sorts of reasons and at different stages in their lives. There’s a HUGE expat community of teachers living in the country and you really can make the experience anything you want it to be.
For some, teaching in Korea is practically an extension of university; a well-paid year fuelled by cheap booze, noraebangs (Korean karaoke rooms) and fleeting friendships. Others work their way up the career ladder into a coveted university teaching position, while some move onto teaching in different countries after gaining experience for a year or two.
For us, a couple in our thirties whose hangovers increasingly last for days, Korea has been all about enjoying a more relaxed and settled lifestyle. We’ve taken full advantage of weekends to explore the country, and saved as much as possible for our future adventures.
Loads of people come to Korea by themselves, while others apply for couple positions. With such an extensive expat community, making friends is pretty easy. This is true whether you’re living in a big city like Busan, Seoul or Daegu, or a smaller regional town/city like ours, Tongyeong.
There are plenty of Facebook groups out there making it easy to find friends with similar interests, or other teachers in your area. There are also a few different companies who organise regular weekend and holiday trips. You can easily book onto these and it’s a great way to meet new friends – a few include Adventure Korea, Wink Travels, Waegook Travel and Seoul Hiking & Nature.
WHAT’S THE JOB LIKE?
In all honesty, no two jobs are the same in Korea and everyone has a different experience or story to tell. Do your research before signing a contract, sure, but a little leap of faith is also required.
The first decision to make is whether you want to teach at a government-run public school, or privately owned ‘after-school academy’ (hagwon). There are pros and cons to both. It’s not a simple case of one type being better or worse than the other. Teachers have very varied experiences working in both the public school system and in hagwon positions. We’ll discuss both further in a future post, but for now we’ll focus on our own experience teaching at a hagwon.
Education is taken very seriously in Korea and it’s common for students of all ages to attend after-school academies that focus on specific subjects like English, maths, Chinese, etc.
Competition is fierce, and having a teacher who is a native English speaker is good for business. Hence why there are so many job opportunities out there for wannabe ESL teachers. There are also English kindergartens, and some hagwons run adult classes on top of their elementary, middle and high school student classes.
We have taught at a hagwon for the past three years and have had an overall great experience. Our hagwon has an English kindergarten attached to it and we teach kids from 3/4 ~ 14/15 years old. We also taught adult conversation classes for our first month or so, before our hagwon changed ownership and the classes ceased.
How do I look as a blonde? Halloween at Kindergarten
Our hagwon is a franchise with a set curriculum, textbooks, teacher’s editions that outline lesson plans and resource books for photocopying flashcards and worksheets etc. We are also free to introduce our own games, extra worksheets or what not into our lessons if we want to.
Our class sizes range from just a couple of students to a maximum of 12. They are generally arranged by ability, not age, and we have a chance to really get to know our students. Our working hours have varied over the years as schedules change, but we never start work before 10am or finish later than 9pm, and generally work an 8 hour day. We teach anywhere between about 5 and 9 classes a day, of approx 40-50 minutes each.
Prior to moving to Korea we both worked in management positions – Del in the hospitality industry and me at a travel agency. We worked shift style rotas with no fixed days off. Weekends were pretty much always spent working, and unpaid overtime just came part and parcel of the job. Work was often stressful, exhausting and the work/life balance was never in our favour.
In comparison, Teaching English in Korea has been a breath of fresh air. We work Monday – Fridays for the first time in our lives, and even three years on, we still appreciate each and every weekend we have off together. Our jobs are largely stress free. We never take our work home with us, and rarely have to work beyond our contracted hours. We have very little responsibility, which is just the way we like it. Our work/life balance is a world apart from our previous jobs. Whenever we’re moaning about this class or that schedule change, we just remind ourselves of how much less stressful life is compared to before, and appreciate what we have.
That’s not to say everyone will feel this way about teaching English in Korea. If you haven’t had a ‘proper’ job before, and this is your first experience of being in a role where you need organisation, communication and classroom management skills, then you may find it more challenging. Preparing yourself by doing a TEFL course will be a huge help – more on this below.
Last, but certainly not least, there’s the kids. It goes without saying that you need to have a desire to work with children to enjoy this job. Experience isn’t necessary, but you’ll know yourself if teaching kids all day is something you want to do. If you’re not sure, you’ll find out pretty quickly! We are by no means experts on hanging out with kids, having missed the birth of most of our friends’ and family’s children because we’ve been away travelling or living abroad. This is the first time in our lives we’ve been surrounded by kids on a daily basis. While it took a bit of getting used to, (especially when dealing with kindergarten aged nippers), we’ve enjoyed teaching and found it easier and easier as time goes on.
Korean kids are like kids the world over
They’ll make you laugh out loud til there’s tears running down your cheeks. Or behave so badly you’ll want to unleash a torrent of swear words on them, but instead have to convey it all in a cold hard stare and a grit of your teeth. They’ll hug you, tell you they love you on a daily basis, bring you presents on special holidays, and try to rub out your freckles with an eraser. If you’re lucky, they’ll even draw you a nice portrait, complete with wildly inaccurate body parts.
We’ve taught some of our students for the last three years straight, watching them mature from wee 5 or 6 year olds, into smart little primary kids who can hold full conversations in English with us. We’ll miss them a lot when we leave, and still be laughing about some of their classic one-liners for years to come.
HOW EASY IS IT TO TRAVEL WHILE TEACHING ENGLISH IN KOREA?
Very! Whether exploring Korea itself or going further afield, it’s very affordable and easy to travel while teaching English in Korea.
The public transport network is modern, affordable and super convenient in Korea. This makes it easy to explore all over the country on weekends. The inter-city bus network zigs and zags all over the country. Longer bus journeys are served by very comfortable buses, with massive reclining seats. There’s a high-speed rail network (KTX) linking various cities, ferries connecting coastal towns and cities to outlying islands, and Korea is also home to the busiest flight route in the world; Seoul to Jeju Island. There are also hiking and cycling trails all over the country if you want to explore the great outdoors.
Hiring/buying a car/scooter is also straight forward enough, and a great option if you are living in a smaller town or city. We bought a scooter off a fellow teacher soon after arriving and it’s proved invaluable. Some of our best adventures in Korea have just been riding the coastal roads, or taking the car ferry to neighbouring islands to camp, hike and explore.
A weekend spent exploring Yokjido by scooter, an island near our Korean hometown
Direct flights connect Korea to many neighbouring Asian countries from both Seoul Incheon Airport and Busan Gimhae Airport. Budget airlines like Air Asia, Cebu Pacific and Tiger Air operate alongside worldwide carriers like Korean Air, Turkish Airlines, Emirates, Asiana Airlines etc. There are also ferry/catamaran routes from Busan to Japan.
Popular destinations to explore from Korea include China, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and all over Southeast Asia. We’ve travelled to Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan while living in Korea, flying out of nearby Busan Gimhae Airport.
Diving in the Philippines over our Christmas holidays
The main factor in determining how much travel you can do while teaching English in Korea is the amount of holiday time you have! This is one area where there is a notable difference between public school and hagwon jobs.
Everyone should get weekends and public holidays off. There are around 15 – 17 public holidays a year, give or take. Hagwon teachers will likely get 10 days paid annual leave on top of this, while public school teachers get a few weeks off.
Many hagwons will close for 5 days for summer vacation, and 5 days for winter vacation – this is when you’ll be forced to take your holidays. If you’re lucky (like us) you may be able to pick and choose when you take your holidays to a certain extent.
Our hagwon only closes for 2 or 3 days in summer/winter, so we’ve been able to choose when to take those extra days. This has been great when friends/family have come to visit as we’ve been able to take some time off to spend with them.
We’ve also maximised our holiday time by tagging extra days onto public holidays, weekends, etc. This has allowed us to take short breaks of 3-5 days, and up to a full 10 or 11 days when tagging them onto the Seollal (Lunar New Year Holiday) and Chuseok (Autumn Harvest/Thanksgiving Holiday) holidays. Get that calendar out early and plan out your dates smartly!
Walking Jeju Island’s Olle Trail over the Chuseok holiday
TEACHING ENGLISH IN KOREA SOUNDS GREAT! WHAT’S NEXT?
To be eligible for an E-2 visa to teach English in Korea, you need to have a Bachelor’s Degree (in any field) and be a native English speaker from the USA, Canada, the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand. If this applies to you, then you’re already on track!
Competition for jobs is as fierce as ever, so these qualities alone may not be enough to land you a job. Being TEFL certified benefits you greatly as a new teacher, plus it increases your chances of getting hired in the first place. A TEFL Certification on your CV will make you stand out from the competition, and in some cases, also makes you eligible for a higher salary from the get go.
With zero teaching experience and (less preferable) Scottish accents on our side, gaining a TEFL Certification was top of our priorities before applying for jobs in Korea.
Our TEFL Course Experiences
The teaching English in Korea seed was actually planted firmly in our minds many years ago, after some university friends spent a year teaching in Busan and loved it. Knowing we wanted to do it too, but not sure when exactly, we completed our first TEFL course way back in 2009.
Weekend Classroom Course
Our first taste of TEFL came in the form of the i-to-i 20 Hour Weekend Classroom Course. We spent two full days in Glasgow learning about being an EFL teacher, in a hands-on classroom environment, with our tutor, Esme, and a bunch of other wannabe EFL teachers. It was a fantastic experience. Out of all the other training we’ve done since, the things we learned on this course have stuck with us the most (despite it being 9 years ago!).
My most memorable part of the course was being on the receiving end of an Italian lesson, demonstrated by our tutor. None of us spoke a word of Italian, so taking part in the lesson put us firmly in the shoes of our future students and it really hit home. Getting practical experience standing up in front of the class and teaching a lesson was also hugely beneficial. It gave us the opportunity to put into practice all the techniques we’d read about.
Basic Online Course
To complement the practical weekend course, I also completed a 40 Hour Online Course with i-to-i (these days the minimum is 60 hours). I was working full time, so I worked on it during my lunch break and days off, and built further on the knowledge I’d already gained.
Comprehensive Online Course
Fast forward to 2014 and we knew we wanted to make our TEFL plans a reality. We wanted to make a success of it, so for our own sake (and to give us more qualifications on our CV) we enrolled in the 120 Hour Online Course with LoveTEFL.
Again, we were both working full-time in busy jobs, so over the course of a few months, we chipped away at it in our free time. It went into much more detail than the basic 40 Hour Course, and we had our own tutor for the duration who reviewed and assessed our coursework, and gave us genuine feedback and support.
Emailing off our final coursework and getting our certification felt like a huge achievement. When the time came for interviews with prospective employers, we were armed and ready with answers to their questions on how we’d manage this classroom situation, or that teaching environment. Every one of them (we had 4 interviews in total) told us the fact that we had TEFL Certifications had attracted them to our CVs.
Within 12 hours of arriving in Korea, we were thrown in a classroom with zero training and nothing but a Teacher’s Edition of the textbook to go by. Needless to say, we were extremely glad to have the knowledge and experience of the weekend and online TEFL courses behind us!
We can’t recommend doing a TEFL course highly enough
Our experience with i-to-i and LoveTEFL (who are now part of the same company) was excellent. They are also the world’s biggest and longest established TEFL course provider, and we reckon they are the best out there.
They offer a variety of courses, from the 20 Hour Weekend Classroom Course, right up to a whopping 320 Hour Combination Course that covers the full shebang. If you’re serious about improving your own skills and confidence, and want to shout about it on your CV, then a TEFL course is the way to go. The 140 Hour Combined Course is essentially what we did, and we found it invaluable.
Click the link below and explore what’s best for you!
TEACHING ENGLISH IN KOREA
Teaching English in Korea is a different experience for everyone, but the benefits of being able to work, travel and save at the same time are true for all. The three years we’ve spent living in Korea have afforded us a lifestyle we never would have had at home. And on top of it all, we’ve saved a huge amount of money, setting us up for a future doing what we love most: travel.
Could it be time for you to make a change too?
He leapt on me outta nowhere! Kindergarten field trip
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