Friday, January 07, 2011

Should I go to Korea?

This is a question I have been asked a lot in the last year or so. So I have decided to write up a document which I can send to multiple people to answer some of the usual questions about going to teach English in Korea.

So when people think of going to teach in Korea I think it’s generally for two reasons: money and adventure. And you’ll get plenty of both!

Let me address the money matter first. When we were there we earned around R14 000 a month (tax free for the first two years). It all depends on the exchange rate, but that gives you a rough idea. For example, at the moment an entry-level salary at a provincial public school in Korea is 2 100 000 Won which is around R12 800. If you work for the public school system in Korea (as opposed to private education academies called ‘Hagwon’ in Korea) you are guaranteed a return plane ticket home and accommodation costs will all be fully covered. I will discuss the pros and cons of public vs. private a bit later.

If you want to save money you can easily ‘send home’ around half your salary per month. Over the two years I was there I paid off most of my student loan – approximately R120 000 (that works out at around R5000 per month). This was pretty easy, I didn’t have to live an all too frugal life and I had enough money to travel internationally in all my long vacations: I went on budget backpacker trips to the Philippines, Cambodia, China, Mongolia and Russia. In addition we travelled around Korea a lot – we were out of our small town almost every weekend. So you can save a lot of money in Korea. You could save more than I did if you were more careful with spending i.e. eating only local food, not travelling as much etc.

Compared to pay in Taiwan and Japan (this is word of mouth), Korea pays best. The cost of living is slightly higher than in SA, but the salary is more than sufficient to cover that. Japan has much higher living expenses and salaries in Taiwan are slightly lower - from what I have heard.

As for adventure, well there’s plenty of it to be had as a teacher in Korea: at times too much. Teaching English in Korea is a huge challenge: you will be frustrated by the way Korean people and Korean beaurocracy do things almost on a daily basis. The Asian approach is incredibly different to the western approach: in almost every aspect of life. You will learn how to cope with this eventually but it is something which all westerners working in Korea struggle with a lot. Be prepared to be very frustrated. The best advice is to ‘go with the flow’ and just accept that things are done differently but that is something that just comes with time. And remember you’re earning good money.

Working in Korea is an opportunity to explore and get to know an entirely different culture. It is clichéd, but clichés are usually true: you WILL get to know Korean culture very well: the good and the bad. Koreans are incredibly kind, generous and hospitable people. They are proud of their country and their culture, and many go out of their way to ensure that we have a good time there. You will have an amazing culinary experience too: most Korean food is excellent – some is strange and seems unpalatable but your senses will have a feast! Koreans drink a lot too, so be prepared to be coerced into a lot of soju and beer consumption :)

Korean students are generally well-behaved. It takes a while to get used to teaching them – they are intimidated and often scared of foreigners so it takes time to win them over and get them to warm to you. But you will soon find out what makes them laugh and how to get their attention. They are a pleasure to teach – mostly. As in any classroom there are a few ‘rotten eggs’ but the good eggs more than make up for them.

I really miss my students so much: they are the sunshine in a sometimes frustrating and exhausting job. It’s for them that I did it and giving to them makes them give back tenfold. If you make an effort to prepare fun, relevant and stimulating materials and activities they will reward you with their special smiles, enthusiasm and love. They are really affectionate and it always amazed me how much warmth and love they had for me despite how very worn-out they were from working so hard. Most Korean students over the age of 12 have a 12-14 hour school day. It is intense, but despite that, after the first 6 months of hit and misses, my classes were almost always fun and the students did their best to participate.

Private or public school? This is an important question. I worked for a public school i.e. I was a government employee. Foreign teachers in the public school system are administrated by an organisation called EPIK: English Program in Korea ( If you are employed by EPIK you will not have any major hitches. You may have small problems with your school like discrepancies about vacation dates, housing etc. BUT in the greater scheme of things you will not be messed around. You will be paid regularly and correctly, you will be on national health insurance and pay a pension, you will be provided with housing and you will be guaranteed a return air ticket. It’s a sure thing.

This is not the same when working for a Hagwon (private education academy run as a business). The horror stories one hears of teachers not being paid, having no health insurance, being fired for no reason etc. etc. are all from the Hagwons (this applied to Korea as well as Japan, Taiwan etc.) Not all Hagwons are bad, in fact the majority of people I knew in Korea working for Hagwons had no problems at all, but there is always the chance that something could go wrong, so I always recommend people to apply for public school jobs with EPIK.

Placing – whether you choose to live in a city or in a rural area is also an important question to consider when applying to teach in Korea. The pay in the provincial i.e. rural areas is slightly higher. I suppose this is an incentive to entice foreigners into rural areas as life in cities is a lot easier for expats. The other advantage of working provincially is that life is generally cheaper – most people I know working in provincial areas can walk/bike to school and that saves on costs. There is a lot less ‘on offer’ provincially for foreigners and so one does end up spending less money. For example if you lived in a city and you craved decent pizza you could easily head off to Pizza Hut or whatever. There are obviously a lot more amenities in the city and that always increases living costs.

However, if you really want to have a lot of parties, have access to western food, English bookstores etc, then the city is better. There are always a lot more foreigners in the cities and it is a lot easier to meet people, to get around etc. Life in the provincial areas is harder: no-one speaks English (sometimes it’s even difficult to communicate with English teachers) and there are a lot less foreigners to connect with (although this is changing fast as Korea spends more and more on employing foreign teachers). Rural people are still not accustomed to foreigners and you will be stared at and watched s lot. That is a fact of rural life everywhere though. Conversely, you will learn so much more about Korean culture and people living in the provincial areas. You will meet warmer, friendlier people and feel more part of a community. It’s up to you where your priorities lie.

When applying for EPIK you will be asked whether you want to have a city or provincial job so bear this in mind.

I have done my best to address some of the most common questions I am asked by people interested in teaching in Korea. In conclusion I always say: go for it!

It is an incredibly challenging experience but you will grow so much as a person. You will learn so much about yourself, your priorities and what you want in life. Living in Korea will open your mind to a whole new way of seeing things – will make you realise how huge and diverse the world is. It’s an incredible opportunity and we as English-speaking, well-educated South Africans are truly fortunate to have such an opportunity.

So… once you’ve decided you want to go, how should you apply?

Here are some ideas:

We went over with an agency called Teach Korea. They are based in Cape Town and are pretty good. I have heard though that lately they have been pretty bad about not communicating with clients and keeping people waiting. I think it's because they just take on too many clients. Anyway, the one main advantage with them is that they are South African and can help with visas, education dept. docs etc. and they know the system here very well - I'd say that 99% of the time they get people there but you'll probably tear your hair out waiting and hoping it all works out.
So try - we dealt with the owner Cliff.

Alternative 2 is that you contact Footprints Recruiting. They are a Canadian company but I have heard of quite a few South Africans who have successfully gone through them. The problem is that you’ll have to make a few international calls and that they may not be much help with local government departments with respect to documents etc. But give them a try:

The third option is to go through the Korean government English teaching programme directly. It's called EPIK and if you apply for public school jobs through Teach Korea or Footprints you will end up working through EPIK anyway. The hard part of doing it direct through them is that you have to deal with visas, education dept etc on your own which takes a bit more guts and perseverance. But it is possible.


Luke said...

I'm considering it...I'm finishing up my degree at the moment and don't really know what to do next. Perhaps, after reading your post, I shall seriously consider it as an option :)

Cari Nelson said...

I've read a LOT of articles/blogs on this and yours seems one of the most concise I've read so far... particularly when comparing living in the city to a "rural" area (from what I've heard most rural areas in SoKo are still fairly big? At the very least like a suburb?).

When my fiance and I go we probably won't have much choice in location since he will have to go through the TALK program with his associate's degree. So i'm glad that the "rural" areas will probably be more of what I want anyway... we don't really party and i'd rather be around nicer folks ;)

Cari Nelson said...

OH and Korean food... looking forward to lots of cheap Korean food :D It's so expensive where I live...

Cari Nelson said...

Luke, while I am hoping to still teach in Korea at some point, you should keep in mind the current situation South Korea is in right now. With North Korea's leader passing away no one really knows what will happen between North and South Korea. It would be wise to keep an eye on the situation ;)

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