Why do people teach English?
Some people teach as a way to make money, some to travel, some to escape, and some just because they love it. Some go to a foreign country to experience being a minority for the first time in their lives and others go to blend in. Some are there to feed an addiction to adventure, while others are stepping out of their comfort zone for the first time.
My advice? Teach because you want to — because you really think that you have something worthwhile to share with someone else. Do it to form lasting human connections and to show even one person on the other side of the world that you are not the stereotype of your own side.
It’s ok to be afraid and unsure of yourself, just go with it, let yourself learn, evolve and before you know it, you will look around your class one day and it will hit you that you aren’t just a hack for hire — you are a Teacher.
Who can teach English?
The short answer? Anyone!
The long answer? If you have a degree, any degree, and can pass a criminal record check, then you can be an English teacher in South Korea. Though other countries may require different levels of certification (some require Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Language (TESOL) certification or some other form of specific English as a Second Language training), in South Korea, foreign English speakers are used for applied, conversational teaching and for the most part, can learn any other technical skills once they arrive. If you are planning to get a job at a university, a master’s degree, experience, or a connection with that university will usually be required. The same goes for teaching at a public school rather than a hagwon (private school).
Why does South Korea even want foreign English teachers?
English language education was introduced to Korea by the Joseon government in 1883 when they opened an English language school in order to train interpreters, and since then has been the most popular foreign language learned in the country.
English is currently one of the most widely spoken and written languages in the world — over 380 million people speak it as a native language and a staggering 700 million speak it as a foreign language. It is the language of international business and more than half of the world’s scientific and technological periodicals are in English. It is also the language of navigation, aviation, the main language on the Internet, and five of the largest broadcasting companies in the world (CBS, NBC, ABC, BBC, CBC) transmit in English, reaching millions. Because a working knowledge of English is required in many fields and occupations, educational ministries around the world mandate the teaching of this language to at least a basic level.
In other words, we are the experts. We are fluent in the language they are desperate to learn. They look to us to teach them the intricacies of not only our language, but also our mannerisms and our culture.
Still rather closed off from the rest of the world, but striving to make a mark on it as a unified, powerful and proud nation, in South Korea they need English. In order to succeed at the level and speed that they deem necessary, learning English is essential. In order to get their children the education that will help them to work in the unbelievably competitive job market, learning English is a requirement.
Teaching English has become a fast paced, competitive multi-million dollar business. Schools open, expand, and fold, new teachers are being moved in and out and the more bums in the seats, the fancier suits the principal can wear. Before anything else, it is a business — a profitable one — and we are the commodities that everyone is after. There are currently approximately 25,000 foreign English teachers in South Korea, and the government has introduced plans to bring in more teachers, making it one of the world’s largest employers of Western English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors.
Why choose South Korea over all of the other countries that hire foreign English teachers?
I am biased, but the fact is that of all of the Asian countries that are hiring English teachers, South Korea is where you can make the most money relative to the lowest cost of living. This means that you will not only get to have the experience of living in a foreign country, you will also get to make and save some decent money while doing it. (To put it in perspective, my salary as an English teacher was around the same amount that an engineer would make in the country.)
It has a stable, republic government (in contrast to the communist or unstable governments in many of the countries that hire ESL teachers) and, though next door to North Korea, I can honestly say that there was never a time when I felt unsafe. I never even managed to find any sketchy back alleys — except in Itaewon (an area in Seoul), but they were only sketchy because they were filled with drunk English teachers.
What does being an ESL teacher entail?
As I mentioned above, you are expected to be an expert in your own language, meaning that you will be able to explain all aspects of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and sentence structure without fail. It is also assumed that you will be able to teach proper pronunciation, reading and writing to your students. You are not expected to know everything there is to know about being a teacher, but you should be able to show that you are a quick learner and that you and your students are progressing.
At most schools in South Korea, you will be given textbooks and lesson plans, and will have Korean colleagues who speak English fluently and can give you advice on teaching techniques. When in doubt the Internet is your best friend and was a great help to me in preparing some of my more complex lessons. There are also some great sites online geared specifically to English teachers with great tips and teaching strategies.
Don’t expect a cushy job. Teaching in any country is hard work and teaching ESL comes with its own unique challenges, the major one being (of course) the language barrier. South Koreans are extremely hard working and very competitive. Learning is respected and taken very seriously, and foreign teachers are expected to uphold this level of respect and work just as hard, if not harder, than their students.
Who will my students be?
In a hagwon (private school), students will be at different levels aged anywhere from four to eighteen. There are also opportunities, all over the country, for foreign teachers to tutor. University students, businesses and adults are constantly looking for someone to teach them under the table. There is a lot of money to be made, but it is illegal for foreigners to tutor and could result in your contract being torn up and you getting booted out of the country. The terms of your visa and contract state that you are to receive pay from your hagwon ONLY. A lot of foreigners do find ways to tutor (I did) and make a lot of money doing it, but do so at your own risk. If you get caught, your teaching adventure abroad could come to a quick halt.