Interested in teaching English? Thinking of Korea as your next destination? Read on!
On a sunny Saturday morning in July 2014 I found myself atop this 600m peak with my best friend from kindergarten, my best friend from Korea, my best Korean friend, and a man who was neither Korean nor friend.
Korea can be like that; everything is at once familiar, yet remarkably outlandish. For instance, there is Pizza Hut on every corner but surprise! your pie is covered shrimp, blueberries and spam. Oh, and the crust is stuffed with sweet potatoes. Don’t worry–all of the flavors are balanced by the mandatory side of pickles…
If adventurous eats, casually scaling enormous mountains, cultural exploration and an appreciation for fermented cabbage and rice-based alcohol appeal to your inner adventurer, consider Korea as the next place to hang your hat.
I taught English in Korea on a gap year between my undergraduate and graduate programs. It was challenging, crazy, fun, and (of course) an intense learning experience. All travel clichés and hyperbole aside, here are some things to consider should you decide to follow the path of many an English teacher in the Land of the Morning Calm:
To teach in Korea, you will need an E-2 visa. Korea4Expats has a lot of detailed information on specific requirements. Most people with a clean criminal record and a bachelor’s degree in any subject can teach English in Korea, however some jobs have a preference for those with degrees in Education, Linguistics, Teaching English as a Second Language etc. My employer required all teachers to have a TESL certificate at minimum which can be procured through online classes. Click here for more on ESL certification options. Visit acronym city if you lost me at “ESL.”
If you are coming from the U.S., leave at least 2-4 months between when you start your background check and when you expect to leave (seriously, bureaucracy is alive, well, and still using snail mail). The visa process can be tedious and expensive (~$300). It takes money to make money.
After starting your background check, it’s time to job hunt! You need a signed contract in order to apply for an E-2 visa. I have heard of people who go on tourist visas, get a job while in Korea and then have to go on a vaguely illegal(?) “visa run” to Japan. This sounds unnecessarily stressful and expensive. Get your job before you go and then you can arrive with free accommodation and airport pick-up already in place.
The Great Debate: Public vs. Private School
There are two main types of teaching jobs in Korea: Public and Hagwon (private academies).
Public school jobs are administered through EPIK and GEPIK. My friends who worked at public school had an orientation upon arrival, standardized contracts with the government, worked regular banking hours, had a lot more vacation than I did, and spent a lot of time deskwarming. Some made slightly less money (~$1800-2000 per month). They also work at summer and winter camps. EPIK and GEPIK typically have start dates in August and February, so if your heart is set on this, be sure to make sure you’re speaking with a recruiter 3-4 months prior to departure dates.
One perk of the EPIK program is that all of the teachers start at the same time and have orientation together which means that you start your contracted year with a lot of (potential) friends.
The private school girls on the other hand…
go hagwon or go home! Hagwon are private academies that teach anything from math to taekwondoe to piano. The average Korean child fills any smidge of free time by attending hagwon to hone the skills necessary for world domination. These jobs typically advertise higher pay ($~2,100-2,300 per month), but you might end up working longer hours later in the day. But then again maybe not…
Variability is the hagwon hallmark; they are all privately owned or managed businesses/franchises. Some hagwon bosses are good, some are bad, some are awful, and most are somewhere in between. My hagwon was new (Brand New, in fact). I sometimes felt that my image and time were exploited (see below), yet I was also spoiled with free food, frequent bubble tea breaks, Starbucks, business cards, lip gloss, compliments, and kindness. A lot of complaints by English teachers are due to massive cultural differences. Koreans work longer hours than we do and have a different way of thinking about work. These differences can be incredibly frustrating, but if you take them in stride, you’ll soon learn that you can, in fact, teach a 90-minute lesson with 2 minutes of prep time.
There are pros and cons to both situations. Here are some things to consider: Do you want ample vacation, a regulated contract, free lunch, a network of people sharing your experience? Public school is probably for you. Do you want more freedom with your curriculum, hours later in the day, and some more money? Consider hagwon.
Each job is unique. Make sure to ask your recruiter if airway to AND FROM Korea is included, for pictures and location of the accommodation provided, what the curriculum they use, how many hours you’ll be expected to be at work, and if you’ll be required to work at camps, attend social activities.
Should you decide to take the plunge into the great unknown, check out Dave’s ESL Café for frequently updated job posts (also a great materials resource for your first few weeks on the job).
Enter: Recruiters. Recruiters are paid by the school to provide English teachers. They are the people advertising jobs (most advertise both public and private school jobs) and it is their responsibility to walk you through the visa process. Friends have had success using Star Recruitment, and Footprints Recruiting. I used a company called EICO and ended up having some contractual issues right before I left Korea. Once they are paid, it is not realistic to expect much help from them if something goes sour. In all reality, they have probably never been to the city your job is in, let alone the school itself.
This is why online expat forums and Facebook groups are your best bet for vetting any potential employer. For English teachers in Korea, it is standard practice to send out feelers on social media for a potential employer or school prior to accepting a new job. Make sure you do your homework so you don’t end up with a hagwon that doesn’t pay on time, overworks you, provides unsuitable accommodation, or otherwise mistreats its employees.
Living in Korea
Once you arrive in Korea, check out those same forums and pages to get involved in ultimate frisbee and other sports teams, MeetUp groups, language exchanges, and social events. Ask your Korean and Foreigner colleagues to show you how to do Korean barbecue (and then head to your local expat watering hole).
You’ll learn how to grill your own meat and swig soju with the best of ’em in no time. Just make sure to mind your manners!
Did I miss something?
Want more about useful Korean, cultural quirks, and hagwon life?
Put it in a comment below or email me at email@example.com