Thursday, June 24, 2010

On teaching English in South Korea

NOTE: It's recently come to my attention that I get traffic from all over (29 countries and counting). Many stumble here off Google searches for information about Korea. An example that sticks out is a fellow that now teaches here in Daegu that randomly found this blog and recognized me by chance at a bar downtown.

I decided to put together an overview of what it's like to teach English in Korea. It's a lot of things I wondered before I came and would like to share with others that are considering. I should say that it's intended to prompt questions rather than be an exhaustive source of information.

Personally, I arrived here without a clear understanding of what I was in for. I knew it at the time, and there wasn't that much I could do because I think that one's experience is shaped largely by the particulars of one's school (students, co-workers, schedule) and the city/area you live in.

In general, the English teaching scene here can be divided into two camps: public school positions and private academy (hagwon) positions. My experience and knowledge is in a hagwon, so I have more to say about that. There are important differences between the two.

From my understanding, public school jobs can be competitive, as opportunities only come up twice a year in September and February. The working hours are usually less and salaries slightly lower (I think around $100-$200 a month less). You spend less time in the classroom, but you also spend more time preparing lesson plans. Another difference is the schedule time. You head in at 8:30 and leave at 4:30, whereas hagwons are early afternoons to evenings/nights ( my schedule is 1-9 and I don't really start teaching until 3:30).

I began looking for positions in September, of course well after the deadlines from public school positions beginning that month. I had no interest in waiting around until practically March.


At that time, I was in contact with a number of recruiting agencies that I found through contacts and sites like Dave's ESL cafe. I highly recommend browsing Dave's, I learned a lot and I'm repeating some general information that you can find there in more detail. I would advise you to read the negative posts on the message boards with reason and some skepticism. They seem to be jammed disproportionately with posts from very bitter and resentful people that had bad experiences.

I've met many teachers here in Daegu and others from cities like Seoul, Busan, Daejon, and Ulsan and I've not heard many stories of lost diplomas, hagwons going out of business, withholding of pay, and denial of airfare. I had a recruiter whose company specialized in public school positions give me a 15-minute lecture over the phone that I think was designed to scare me out of ever wanting to work at a hagwon. If I hadn't been so put off by his condescending tone, it might have worked.

To be sure, these things do happen and there are bad schools out there, but if you're patient and smart in the job search process, you shouldn't have a problem. If something doesn't feel right, it's advisable to move on, because even in these economic times, there are a lot of opportunities. There are so many recruiters out there that can round up jobs particular to your requests, you shouldn't feel obligated to take any particular offers.


About a month ago, a new teacher from a small, rural part of the U.S. arrived at the hagwon next door to mine. On his first day, I heard he was rude to students and other teachers, and the next day, he didn't show up. He was fired then and there. I have sympathy for how things turned out. It obviously wasn't a good decision for him to come. Undoubtedly, he has nothing good to say about the school or Korea, and I wouldn't be surprised if he posted on Dave's about it.

Open mindedness and flexibility are the most important things to come to Korea with or to work in any foreign country. Even with a terrific attitude, the beginning is really tough. It's wise to ask yourself if you can mentally get through the stress of adjusting. I had some bad days during my first month, but everyone deals with it differently.


My only request to my recruiters was to end up in a major city, not necessarily Seoul. I wanted that urban environment with lots of people and places to see, but with more individual character than you tend to find in enormously sprawling international cities. I ended up in Daegu, and I'm thrilled with my luck (I say luck because I knew very little about Daegu before I got here). The expat community has been great in helping the adjustment process and not feeling like a lonely Westerner stranded on an island in an Eastern sea.

I didn't expect to find so many foreigners in Daegu and after being here awhile, I've learned that there are also many expats in places like Busan, Ulsan, and Daejon. For anyone coming to Korea for the first time, especially if you've never lived independently outside your home country for an extended period of time, I recommend looking to be in one of the larger cities. Even here in Daegu, because of my schedule, and where I live, I rarely see friends Monday-Friday and can feel isolated, albeit for short periods of time.

Having other English speakers around to share stories and thoughts is therapeutic. Even the most adaptable people meet frustrations and anxieties and it's healthy to vent these and hear other people are experiencing the same things.


I think Korea has to be the best country in the world for first-time teachers. With little qualification (essentially a bachelor's degree in anything), you can land a position for 2.1-2.4m KRW a month ($1750-$2000). It's a great salary against the very reasonable cost of living, and even more remarkable when you consider the two largest expenses for anyone teaching English abroad - housing and airfare - are paid for by your school.

I completed a 120-hour TEFL course in Prague, hoping to teach somewhere in Europe. I tried to stay in Prague, but didn't find a job and ran out of options financially. In retrospect, had I stayed I could have taken home about 16,000-20,000CKZ a month ($800-$1000), and about 8,000CKZ would have gone toward my apartment. I would have made just enough to live on and been limited in my ability to travel which was the reason I sought to teach abroad in the first place.

In Korea, I've been able to travel all around the peninsula, and I have trip to Japan planned. I've gone snowboarding, rafting, biking, hiking, and camping among other things. I still manage to save a significant amount of my monthly salary.


After my TEFL course, I had a certain set of expectations about what the role of an English teacher is in a foreign classroom. In many ways, Korea has a different approach from the prevailing international trends in English education. In Prague, I was instructed on the merits and benefits of the immersion-only classroom. No translation, no instruction in native language, and lots of English. Studies and research have demonstrated again and again that this is far and away the best way to learn a language.

Most schools in Korea use team-teaching: one Korean teacher assisted by a native English speaker. Entirely in Korean, the Korean teacher teaches, grammar, vocabulary and the nitty gritty, while the native teacher's role is more based in speaking and conversation practice. I've sat in on Korean teachers, and aside from what's written on the board, you'd be surprised to know that it was an English class. I am one of the many native teachers here that are awed by how much time and money is spent on an English educational system that's produced mixed results at best.

One frustration I have is communication and consistency. I'm given a lot of leeway in the classroom, but I sometimes wish I could tailor lessons to get better with the curriculum the Korean teacher follows and instruction they receive in English class at their elementary and middle school. I don't usually have that background, and while I know my students now, and understand their levels and abilities, I wonder how congruent their instruction in English is from their perspective.


This brings up another point. Our school has a weekly meeting conducted in Korean. I used to sit through these, but stopped because I'm never told anything, so I'm left to think: "okay, just keep doing what you're doing." I think many foreigners experience this. Sometimes kids disappear, the class I walk into has changed completely and I'm unprepared, or some unexpected change. You have to roll with it really. Not everything will be explained or narrated for you, so you just have to accept it and go with the flow. I've found it's made me a little more introspective, in a positive way because I'm always trying to be aware of my place in Korea and reflecting on what I'm learning about this culture and myself. I've stopped worrying about the unexpected, because it's tolerable and sometimes just funny.


In a recent conversation with my friend Brian (see blog here) who teaches in Japan, we agreed that teaching English abroad shouldn't be overly romanticized. It is NOT another study abroad experience. That involved going out drinking (if you so chose) four or more nights a week with other Americans in your program and interacting with the culture in a superficial sense. At least you could decide to immerse yourself, but there was always the support net of your peers and program advisers if you wanted to take a step back. I mentioned there are other foreigners here that help (Brian is more isolated up in Nowhere, Hakodate) but the routine of working makes everything more serious and consequential. As the only foreign teacher, I don't have any way to retreat because I have to be at work every day at the same time regardless Monday-Friday. When you're feeling a bit down, the rigid routine of working makes things worse. I would identify that as the single most difficult thing. You don't feel like working, you need some space, but you don't have a choice. Having just finished university, I've been in school my whole life. I've never done the same thing for an entire calendar year. It can be boring and depressing, but sometimes that's just life. To come to this adult realization (in Korea of all places) feels strange. It certainly is.


Before my arrival here, I had an image of the Korean hagwon director as a cold, distant figure that treated foreigners as not much more than necessary components of a business. For me, it has been nothing at all like that. My director has taken care of me from day one. If there's anything I need that might be difficult to find or obtain because I don't speak Korean and I don't know the city well, he'll look online, make phone calls and even drive me me where I need to go without hesitation. We often have dinner together and we sometimes golf and fish. I've gotten to know his family from meals out and invitations to his home. His generosity is deep and it's made things more comfortable.

This is not a typical relationship, but it does happen. We had a Skype interview before I was hired and I would recommend trying to arrange one for prospective positions. I sensed his kindness and we hit it off a bit right away.


I am very happy to be teaching in Korea. The experience has exceeded all my expectations. Though the day-to-day can be monotonous, the kids keep things funny and interesting for me. I don't understand everything that goes on around me, but I'm enjoying it.


If you took the time to read, thank you and I hope this is helpful to anyone thinking about teaching in Korea or anywhere. I've tried to be as even handed and honest as possible about my experience and impressions. If you have any questions (or complaints!) please email me at