on…Teaching English in Korea

Posted: 19/05/2012 in Korea, Language, Travel, Work
Tags: , , , ,

*disclaimer* This is from the perspective of a UK citizen who arrived in 2009. Some of the information may be out of date, I recommend checking visa requirements with a school, recruiter, or embassy before applying for a post in Korea.

Why?

Choosing a tefl job is one of the most difficult ‘professions’ in which to make a choice. I remember being overwhelmed by the potential of of working in virtually any place on the globe. I chose Korea after a lenghty process of elimination, but also because I have always been a huge fan of Korean cinema. This was a starting point which meant I already had a kind of familiarity with all things Korean. My personal elimination process is just a series of questions in no particular order.

Is there a competetive tefl market with jobs available?

Korea is a developed nation with a strong emphasis on education. In an increasingly international environment, and with an export economy English education is a vital part of Korea’s future. The legacy of a confucian system means that Koreans have a highly competetive education and employment sector. Many children attend academies after school. Most students are test orientated and motivated to finish textbooks and proceed to the next perceived level. This can be a disadvantage if you are accustomed to the communicative approach to teaching. Many parents and students see actual conversation and fluency as superfluous to the basic reading, writing and vocabulary memorization. You may meet Koreans who can read a textbook on microbiology with no trouble but they won’t be able to describe where they live or their parent’s profession. This is the Korean culture and if you cannot go with this black and white approach then life may be difficult. Your job is to teach people in their way not to change the educational methods of an entire nation.

Is it possible to communicate with the local population?

I compared the language (Hangeul) to both Japanese and Chinese. This was a major selling point for me. The alphabet is probably the best and most logical in the world. You can be reading signs and menus and less than a week if you make the effort. You can also be writing it confidently in a month or so depending on motivation. It can be difficult to speak because of the sentence structure, but Koreans are hugely enthusiastic about people speaking their language. In major cities and transport hubs many of the staff will be able to speak English. ALL street signs and place names are written in Roman script. After taking a few lessons and teaching myself I can order food, buy tickets, go shopping and have some banter with taxi drivers confidently. Finding Koreans to speak to in Korean has been something of a problem. Many are too shy to speak with foreigners or simply too good at English to bother blundering through hit and miss Korean.

Are there amenities you may expect from a developed nation?

In a larger city you can expect good quality healthcare and excellent tourist and transport facilities. In smaller places the level of organization and sanitation may be lower than Western countries. Timetables and tickets may not be in English in small bus stations. Some restaurants and eateries would not pass environmental health inspectors but there are always reliable chain stores to eat in. International banking facilities are quite difficult outside Seoul. However, most ATMs have English Language options.

Is it possible to live comfortably from the salary?

Yes! If you eat and shop locally you can usually save in excess of 3000 pounds sterling per year. I manage to live comfortably whilst still saving over 40% of my monthly salary. Transport and food is extremely cheap in comparison with the UK. It often works out cheaper to eat with friends in a restaurant rather than shop and cook yourself. If you find good places you may rarely eat at home. If you can work out the bus system and walk a bit then it will save money. I have heard that people can save over 8000 pounds a year. I personally prefer to stay in the country longer and spend a bit on travelling around and going to the cinema and museums etc. Most teaching salaries will vary between 1.9 to 2.5 million won per month. this is usually over 1000 pounds. I would look at the package rather than the salary. Many schools will offer return flights, accommodation and an end of contract bonus. Vacation time can be difficult in the private sector but if you plan on staying longer than a year you should receive a week in between contracts. In highly organized schools with textbooks and a syllabus your preperation time will be far less than in public schools or universities. Living within walking distance of your work is the best perk to save money.

Can you enjoy some elements of a ‘Western’ lifestyle?

In a larger place you can live in a Western bubble if you choose. This has the disadvantages of being more expensive and less rewarding. The presence of the U.S military has had a noticeable effect on the number of fast food chains and retail outlets. In bigger cities you are likely to find McDonalds, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, Outback Steakhouse and numerous Tesco Homeplus branches. Imported goods are more expensive but you can enjoy the occassional treats like cheese, wine and familiar brands. Cinemas have subtitles rather than dubbing, this is great as it means you can enjoy version original films.

Who?

The most important qualification is obviously being a native speaker. Many parents express a preference for North American English and for females. Several high profile news stories about rape and paedophilia have meant that some places are more likely to hire females. I have found that most schools overlook the country in favour of having a good teacher. The World is also changing. Many home stay programmes for Koreans take place in Australia and New Zealand as they are nearer. I have also met many Koreans who have studied in the UK. In my city there are also many South Africans. You are far more likely to get a job if you have experience with young learners and if you have lived in a foreign country for an extended period. For the EPIK programme (which I passed but then turned down) the main focus is on adapting to a foreign environment and people. If you are reasonably adventurous and have spent some time abroad I recommend Korea as a great destination. If you ae fresh out of university with little travelling experience then the food and intensity of the lifestyle may be very difficult to adapt to

When?

The academic year starts in late February early March. There is aalso a summer break so August can be a good time to start. In the private sector many ‘Hagwons’ hire at any time of the year. This was a huge advantage for me in terms of flexibility.

What?

To secure a job and a visa you will need:

A degree.

Sealed University Transcript. Contact your University and tell them what it’s for. It must be sealed with the University stamp to prove the authenticity of the qualification. Some places ask for two sealed transcripts.

Apostilled Criminal Record Check. This can be costly and time-consuming. After trying in vain at my local police station I ended up using an online service from Scotland. Once you have the document you must have it verified by a Notary Public. This is usually a solicitor who has the qualification to stamp the documents. I only found one person in North Lancashire who was qualified to do this. It can be an expensive process as you need to visit or send your document to the office in Milton Keynes to finish the process.

Where?

I think this is the most important question when considering working in Korea. There is a vast difference between Seoul – the second biggest urban agglomeration in the world, and some small town with literally no foreign residents. After passing the EPIK application process to teach in public schools I turned it down based on location. If you apply really early you may get your first choice but I wanted to be in control of exactly where I was going to spend so much time. Seoul is huge and although it’s a fascinating place with so much to do, your school is likely to be in a satellite town or suburb outside the city. This can lead to higher transport costs and if you only visit the centre every weekend then why not just live in another city? The KTX train makes getting to Seoul very fast and easy from almost anywhere in Korea. If you want a good balanced lifestyle with the option of being able to speak to other foreigners then bigger cities are the way to go. A good   of size is the presence of a subway system. Cities over a million population have their own subway systems: Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Daecheon, Gwangju and obviously Seoul. Look for Shinsegae or Lotte department stores. If a city has these it shows the presence of a reasonably large affluent population. I chose Jeonju as there is a historical centre, a good K-League football team, World Cup stadium, and good transport links to most places in Korea.

On a personal note, I intended on coming for a year to save a bit of money then go travelling in Asia and return home. Since being here I have felt really at home with the food, people, places, and the often insane pace of life. I can still find new national parks, new beaches and interesting palaces and museums after my year long stay. I hope to improve my Korean and stay even longer. On the whole I would say that it’s the best location to work for a teacher of English. There is a great balance between earning enough money to live comfortably and still have enough to travel round and enjoy the beautiful mountains and the spicy foods.

Comments
  1. Used to teach in Korea myself. Like you said, the main cities (Seoul and Busan) are the way to go. Outside of those, you’re really isolated. Best of luck!

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