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Guide to Teaching English and Living in South Korea

Own Your ESL Adventure

Have you heard that you can go live in South Korea and get paid to do so? The main requirement is that you have to be born. That’s right. If you are from a native English-speaking country, you can get paid to live in the country for a year teaching school children how to speak better the very language of your birth. You also need to graduate from college, but that’s another topic. In this electronically intertwined world, I’m sure many of you are aware of this great way to travel and see different parts of the world for an extended period.

Living and teaching English in South Korea invokes different images to different people. It is a fantastic country with an incredible story to tell, including how it rose from the ashes of a civil war to become a global economic player in an unmatched time-frame. To be part of it all, during what might be the pinnacle of their story, is an incredible opportunity.

My 5-year experience in South Korea was a mixture that included many ups and downs but ultimately blossomed into something completely different than what you might imagine. Living as an English teacher in the country is what you make of it; part lifelong memories, part new friends, and part personal growth.

Welcome to South Korea
Welcome to South Korea!

I was an IT professional for 13 years before the financial collapse of 2008-09. I looked at the disenchantment and instability of my “career” during this period and decided to do a proverbial sky-dive with my life. Little did I know that was to be the single greatest decision I had made in many, many years.

Using English instruction as a vehicle is a great way to make living abroad a reality. It’s also a fantastic career choice for many. You have the opportunity to gain priceless teaching experience, pay off debts, or save money for travel. That said, the value of money is all about your needs, and not everyone will see teaching in South Korea as a great option. Or maybe you'll just see it as a temporary getaway. For those who think it may be something they want to do long-term, you may be wondering if Teaching English in Korea is Worth It Financially. The answer to that question comes down to the individual. I’ve made more money in my life doing other jobs, but there is no question that I am much happier now and live with a great sense of fulfillment.

You may be wondering how you might follow this path as well. Believe it or not, the easy part is finding a job. The challenge comes with learning how to assimilate to new ways of life in South Korea. It is precisely by breaking through culture shock that enjoyable moments and memories are possible. Not everyone approaches teaching in South Korea in the same way. Many have different motives which color their experiences. Here is my personal advice on some ways to enjoy South Korea that made all the difference for me and may for you as well.

Make the Most of Your Time Living and Teaching in South Korea

Discovering the “gems” that country has to offer can't be found online or in K-dramas, and are only truly revealed through other Koreans.

Try to be involved with activities where Koreans wouldn’t expect to see foreigners. Locals will let their guard down and will share the heart of Korea with you more because you’ll then be in their host environment. Trying on hanboks or making kimchi is often a service to foreigners, so locals regard it as such and accommodate accordingly. Going into their surroundings, you’re conversely obligated to accommodate to the most private aspects of their culture. Koreans will appreciate your respect, and you’ll get more from the overall experience. Try to make more Korean friends than expat and foreign friends. Sounds romantic, but it can be difficult to achieve. Here are some of the activities I engaged in during my stay that helped me more deeply appreciate the people, culture, and the way of life in Korea.

Study a Martial Art

Don’t take a martial art for any Zen reason or to learn how to end someone’s life quickly and silently. Taking a martial art is an organic, culturally-specific way to get to know Koreans and the role martial arts play in their lives. By contrast, going to a bar or a language exchange are environments where a Korean will be slightly nervous, acting in a manner that they believe is appropriate. A martial arts class is where many locals would habitually go to be part of their culture to make friends and carry on the ancient traditions in a region of the world where most styles originated.

Training in South Korea highlights the difference martial arts plays in Asia versus the West. Martial arts in South Korea is part of daily life. Routine. Structure. Curriculum-based styles. All have cultural roots and significance. The arts promote social welfare and build bridges. The Martial arts are even an extension of school in some cases. The interest in a variety of styles is also shared with Japan, a nation with whom some friction still exists. Martial arts brings the two countries together and encourages connection. The same may be true for you. It was for me.

A "Cinderella Story"

I had just arrived in Busan, Korea and was coming home from my first grocery shopping trip. In the cab, I conjured up the bravery to piece together some of the Korean words I learned and asked the cabbie where to find a judo school. While we sat at a red light he pointed up at a building and, sure enough, it was a judo school, just blocks from my apartment. The owner of the school, who was 64 years old at the time, functions with the force of a powerful machine. Even at his age, he was able to do exercises that would bring most 25-year-olds to tears. I immediately knew I was witnessing something unique, so I took a video of the man doing these exercises and posted it on YouTube. The video quickly went viral in the fitness and martial art communities. Wouldn’t you know that it also made its rounds in Korean social media and caught the eye of a national variety show in Seoul called “Cinderella Story”?!

The station somehow actually contacted me at the school where I was working and said they wanted my judo master to come and be a guest on the show. Their feature showcased individuals in Korea with inspiring stories. So they brought him into Seoul, and there he was on national TV. He accidentally grabbed the male show host’s private area when demonstrating a technique! It was a "laugh out loud" accident that captured the public's imagination.

What a great moment it was to know that one simple accidental act catapulted my instructor into the national spotlight. From sitting in the same dojo for 30+ years to becoming a judo legend to a kind of Korean hero. It stands as one of the greatest spontaneous highlights of my time in Korea.

Author with the Dojo Master in South Korea
Author with his dojo Master in South Korea.

Volunteering in South Korea

Certain types of volunteering take place in environments where the average South Korean may not expect to see a foreigner. The act of volunteering sheds an extremely positive light on you to locals, since you demonstrate a strong desire to step forward and assist where it’s needed. I volunteered at a local homeless outreach in Busan for four years. It was a great facility that provided food and shelter to those in need several times per week. Try to avoid coming across as someone gracing their presence, but rather as someone who's grateful they’re not in the same situation and wants to give back. You will make many meaningful relationships with a whole different part of South Korean society.

volunteering with the salt of the earth
Volunteering with the salt of the earth.

Eat with Koreans

Eating with Koreans is a great idea for a couple of reasons. First, you’ll discover many traditional foods that Koreans eat that you would otherwise not learn about through foreign friends. Second, eating with someone is a sure way for people to learn more about each other. It would be impossible for me to express or quantify how many insights I learned about navigating the ups and downs of local life by breaking bread with the people. I suggest that it be a regular ritual to take opportunities outside of teacher dinners to eat with the folks who make up the country. They will show you the ropes and help to make your life richer in South Korea.

Explore South Korea

Most foreigners do get out to see many parts of the country. It’s great to see the big cities like Seoul and Busan, but it’s also nice to visit the smaller towns as well. Because South Korea is in a state of change right now, you have the opportunity to observe the old juxtaposed with the new, which is a unique feature of the country. South Korea is a relatively small nation, so getting around is easy. To go from Seoul to Busan is only a 3½ hour ride on the high-speed rail, KTX. The train goes through many of the places that you should really try to visit, including Gwangju, Daejeon, and Gyeonggi-do. 

Author at the At the Jogyesa Temple in Seoul
Tom at the Jogyesa Temple in Seoul.

Learn the Language in South Korea — or at Least Try

Learning the Korean language, even to a small degree, will pay dividends. It will help you survive day to day life. Maybe it will help you meet a girlfriend or boyfriend. Most importantly, I believe, is that it shows South Koreans that you are someone willing to go out to meet them, rather than expecting the opposite. South Koreans know we are their guests, and they try to treat us accordingly as much as possible. However, the biggest hindrance is the language barrier. South Koreans tend to be more reserved or even shy in comparison to our home culture, so trying to speak English can be a stressful part of their day. If you come across as willing to bear some of that burden by learning to speak their language, you’ll build many more bridges than you might imagine. Your attempts to speak don't even require full fluency. Just enough to make the connections.

Two useful ways to learn Korean for free that I recommend:

1) Your local library

Almost all decent libraries should have a section with books and CD collections devoted to language learning. You have a good chance of finding Korean language resources in these sections as Korea continues to gain global popularity. If the library doesn’t have anything, they may be able to find a neighboring branch to get it for you. I visited my local library before my time in Korea and found that the Pimsleur programs suited me well.

2) Foreign Services Institute (FSI)

FSI is a training institution by the United States government to promote foreign affairs internationally. One part of FSI is language learning. These courses are public domain and free to download. They include extensive text and audio files. I highly recommend this free method of learning Korean. It will help develop a baseline understanding of the language upon which to build once you arrive in South Korea.


Celebrating  birthday with teachers at my all-girls middle school assignment
My favorite picture of all. Celebrating my birthday with the teachers at my all-girls middle school assignment.

Teaching English (in South Korea) as a Choice

If you’re still reading, you’re probably where I was at one stage while researching. You are hungry for more information because teaching in Korea is something that piques your interest. Where do you go after the bug has bitten you? The first thing you have to do is make the decision. Are you willing to recalibrate your entire life to take the leap to quit your job and teach, without any regrets?

Don’t over-analyze what you think teaching in Korea will entail. Your preconceptions are going to change. Take blogs, videos, and other forms of media about Korea with a grain of salt. Just know that you want to do something unique and exciting with your life, and teaching English will get you there.

Teaching English involves moving forward — are you? The credentials bar is moving higher each year. A higher level of education, academic background, and the necessity for certifications and licenses are all requested more frequently by employers.

The equation is simple: better credentials = better jobs. It’s no different than other industries. Gone are the days in South Korea where “backpackers” could show up and land a teaching job at the airport. Everything in life has a price, and to live in a prosperous, emerging nation such as South Korea will cost you; a teacher needs to be more qualified than ever before.

I remember when I first arrived in South Korea, I was at the lowest rung of the pay scale. No experience, no credentials, no nothing. However, I knew soon after arriving that I wanted the life. So I began to dig in. I now have TESOL certifications and am a licensed teacher in Florida for ESOL K-12. The new world for me is at an exclusive private elementary school in Japan. How things have changed.

Get a Job Teaching English to Live in South Korea

Due to the thriving economy, it should come as no surprise that South Korea is a successful nation, at the forefront of many industries including technology, entertainment, and maritime. As a result of the country's achievements, there is a greater push for English instruction. Additionally, with the success of the nation comes more free-floating money within the borders to support extra-curricular English instruction by way of after-school academies, study rooms, and cram schools. All these developments are good news for hopeful teachers wanting to find work in the Republic of Korea (R.O.K.). I created a video on my YouTube channel where I pondered If the Glory Days of Teaching in Korea are Over. The video features some great footage of a local shopping district at night. It also offers a perspective on what I believe the teaching market will be like in the future.

Teaching Requirements

To teach in South Korea, you need to be a native-level English speaker and hold citizenship in one of the seven major native English speaking countries, including Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

As ESL continues to increase in demand and popularity in South Korea and around the world, the requirements are naturally going to change and evolve. Employers desire or demand TESOL certifications with far greater frequency than previously and more frequently request English-related degrees such as English, English Literature, and ESOL. Likewise, having degrees in Linguistics and Education are a factor in your favor. The reason is simple; having far more applicants than ever before means a larger pool with higher qualifications. Employers have a better hand than in years past.

If you’re looking into TESOL-related certifications, below you will find a list of options I recommend:

Being a citizen of a native English-speaking country and holding a bachelor’s degree are mandatory prerequisites as more host governments abroad tighten provisions for obtaining a work visa. In South Korea, this is also very much the case. If you have more questions about this topic, Korea4Expats.com is a great source of answers for all things legal and employment related.

Job Hunting

There are two main elements in actually getting a teaching job:

  • Preparing your resume package
  • Locating the jobs for which you wish to apply

If you seek the very best chance to be noticed and hired, I would recommend that you try to create a resume package that consists of the following:

  • An accurate resume
  • An easily customizable cover letter
  • Documents related to visa requirements
  • Two clear photos (one head shot and one relaxed, smiling photo)
  • A video introduction or a video showcasing your teaching style (real or demo style)

Once you are comfortable with your resume package, start looking for jobs! You should be contacting as many recruiters and employers as possible. The more leads you capture, the greater the chance of landing a job you want.

Some great sites for finding work in South Korea are listed below:

Interviewing

Your ability to interview is going to determine what jobs you will secure. After confirming your qualifications, recruiters and employers will want the chance to speak with you to see if you are the right fit for their school or program. A video that has been very helpful for many applicants is 6 Tips for a Successful Interview. The tips are specific to interviewing for Korea teaching jobs as most interviews take place via Skype or phone.

If you are interested in applying for a position with EPIK (English Program In Korea), the public school English initiative, your interview will be more effective if you see the following video and know the EPIK Interview Questions You May Be Asked. It never hurts to anticipate and be prepared.

Remember that finding and getting a job is a full-time job. You should approach it with a sustained effort if you are serious about the endeavor. Communicate regularly with recruiters. Commit to following up. Send out as many resumes as possible, and always remain positive that that you will find the job you seek.

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Teach English and Live in South Korea
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Teach in South Korea: Demand for Teachers is High, Rewards Generous
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On Being an EPIK Ex-pat
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