Being an English Teacher in South Korea was one of the most challenging, educational, and incredible experiences that I have ever had.
I lived and worked in the country as an English teacher for just over a year, and since I've come home, I have gotten countless questions from family, friends, and friends of friends about the experience and how they can do it too.
Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions. Feel free to send me a message if there is something that you want to know that I haven't answered here, and I will do my best to help you out!
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.
How much does it cost to get to South Korea and what is the cost of living there?
Teaching English is such a great opportunity because there are so few costs involved. Written into your one-year contract will be that your flight to and from South Korea will be paid for by your employer (this is a pretty consistent part of contracts for any ESL position in any country), contingent on you working until the end of your contract. NOTE: Before you sign, ensure that the flight will be paid for from where you live. Some schools try to save money by only paying for the flight from a large hub like San Francisco or New York. Contracts for less than a year, unless you have worked something out with your employer, will usually not cover your flight.
Your employer should provide your accommodation either in the form of an actual apartment or in a stipend. Not all schools will have apartments for only one person, so if you are going alone, you may have to share with another foreigner. Make sure you are clear before you sign if that will be a problem. The specs of the apartment including the furniture, appliances and amenities should all be listed in your contract. Make sure that it is stated that you will have a bed. The traditional way to sleep is on a yo mattress, similar to a bedroll, and is not very comfortable. A lot of South Koreans still sleep this way, especially in smaller spaces.
Accommodation is usually located in an apartment building, the size being dependent on where your school is, and whether you are staying alone or with a roommate. As with most urban environments, apartments tend to be smaller the closer to the center of Seoul you get.
You will be responsible to pay the utilities, telephone, cable, and Internet bills yourself, but the cost is minimal. Food and transportation are readily available and cost a fraction of what you would pay in North America or Europe.
How much will I get paid? Are health benefits provided?
Most first time teachers will be paid a salary of around $2000-$3000 a month. Your contract will state the amount of classes that you are expected to teach per week and any class over that amount will result in overtime. My contract stated that my salary was for the minimum teaching requirement of 132 classes a month, which equated to only 88 hours. This didn’t factor in preparation time however. Each class on top of the 132 was considered overtime and I received $20 for every extra 40-minute block that I taught. On average, I made between $400 and $1000 in overtime every month.
It is pretty standard to have what they call severance and completion bonuses written into your contract. At the completion of your twelve-month contract, you should be given an extra month’s pay and, as long as you are not absent from your job for any significant length of time, you will be given a small bonus.
If you are arriving early for orientation or training, ensure that it is clear in your contract what you will be paid during that time. My contract clearly stated that I would make half my regular salary for my week of training, but I have heard from other teachers that they made nothing until their official first teaching day.
If you choose to risk tutoring, you could make anywhere from $20-$70 an hour depending on who you are spending time with. I had a friend who got a job at a local business and she would go to the office once a week for an hour and a half. Each man who attended her class gave her $20, so some days she would walk away with over $200.
I can't speak to other countries, but in South Korea all employers should supply you with medical benefits under the Korean Medical Insurance Union, which is a Government Health Organization. The cost of the coverage will usually be split in half between you and your employer. I had 1.5% deducted from each paycheck for the plan that covered the majority of the cost of hospital visits, prescriptions and the dentist. The only time you will need additional insurance is if you leave the country. As soon as you are no longer on South Korean soil, your insurance no longer applies.
Do I get vacation time?
Contracts can be a bit misleading when it comes to vacation days. In mine it was stated that I would be entitled to observe public holidays and receive 10 vacation days during my year. What I didn’t realize was that I wouldn't get to choose when I used those days. They were set national holidays that everyone in the country received. Throughout my year, quite a few of these days fell sporadically in the middle of the week, so they didn’t help with any long weekend getaways. Also, unlike most of the western world, public schools in South Korea do not give their students the summer months off. They give the month of January and the month of August off, but as a teacher in a private school you will usually work more during these vacation periods and not less, as parents will send their children to extra classes called intensives.
If there are specific days that you know you will need off during the year, it is possible to negotiate them into your contract ahead of time. Two fellow Canadian teachers knew that they would need to go home for a few weddings, so they negotiated a month off in the middle of their contract ensuring that they could leave without penalty and their jobs would still be waiting for them when they returned.
How do I get a contract?
Recruiters, essentially middlemen, are commonly used to obtain English teaching positions. Once you have gotten in contact with one, you let them know the kind of position you are looking for and they will find the school that fits your needs. They will help you contact potential employers and with any negotiations. There are downsides to using recruiters, one being that there is a possibility of making less money because the school has to pay the recruiter for finding you, but for the most part, they know what they are doing and make the process a whole lot easier. If you know someone who has taught before and can recommend a hagwon to you directly, go for it. You do not need a recruiter to get a position or to do negotiations for you if you are comfortable doing it yourself.
Once you have decided on a school, be prepared to have a phone interview and to carefully read through your contract. Know that the first draft of your contract is not set in stone and changes can be negotiated before you sign.
What documents will I need?
While it may change from school to school, there will be a few official documents required before your employer will officially hire you and acquire a visa for you. The most important are your degree and proof that you passed a criminal record check.
Once you have been hired and your documents have been received and filed, you will have to send your passport to the nearest consulate so that your visa can be put into it. You will need this visa in order to enter the country and remain there for the time that you have committed to in your contract. The process of getting the visa also incurs a cost, and you will have to arrange with your employer who will cover this cost.
Is there a specific time of year when companies are hiring?
The best part about getting a job teaching English is that you can start your contract pretty much whenever you want. There is no real beginning or end to the school year because most private ESL schools have classes year round. As a new teacher coming in, you will usually start your contract at the beginning of a month, or semester, and work for a year from that start date. As a result, there are always spots opening up at different times of the year.