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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2003
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Teaching English in Korea with ELS

Bring an Open Mind and Be Prepared for Surprises

Six o’clock on a winter’s morning. The temperature bottoming out at around -20° C. A tall, not altogether awake Englishman makes his way to work through the streets of Seoul, another chancer wanting to teach English and taste a bit more of what the world’s got to offer. A wolf howls in the distance. Okay, forget the last part; I made that up. To be honest, teaching English in Korea isn’t that bad. There will be trials, though, of patience and endurance. So be prepared. And you might just be very pleased you came.

You will choose between teaching kids or adults. I chose adults. Either way, most of the work is with private institutes called hogwans, most of which offer similar deals. I chose to work for ELS which, together with Pagoda, ranks as the largest and oldest of institute chains in Korea. The pay and conditions are no better than those offered by smaller hogwans, but they do have a track record of keeping their promises.

A lot of fresh young graduates come to Seoul with no previous job experience in their own countries, let alone abroad, and certainly not much idea of how to teach. My advice is do yourself a big favor by taking a TESOL certificate course. There are so many things to get used to when you come to Korea. If you have taken a teaching course, at least the classroom won’t seem such an unfamiliar place.

As a rule, Korean adult students are respectful and quite responsive. Class dynamics—especially male/female relationships—seem dictated by Korea’s own idiosyncratic version of Confucianism, one of the elements of the culture you’ve come to explore.

Your salary will be about two million won ($1,500) a month. At this salary you can live reasonably well and still save money. But bring enough money to get through the first month ($500 to be safe).

By Western standards the cities themselves don’t have much to offer. If it’s fresh air and room to swing a cat you’re after, you’ll have to get out into the countryside which, as far as Korea is concerned, means hiking up a mountain. Korea is brimful of mountains accessible by public transport. On certain weekends and public holidays it seems as if the whole nation has the same urge to get away from it all.

You’ll soon discover in your role of teacher that there’s little point bringing up the question: What do you do in your free time? Sleep is the most common reply, time being the rarest of all commodities in Korea. You’ll quickly learn to empathize with the locals, especially when required to work early mornings or late evenings or both. If your employer gives you more than 10 days holiday a year, think yourself lucky; if he gives you more than three days in a row you might even consider saying thank you. It’s a good idea to choose a contract with the option of a month’s unpaid leave.

If you’re after an easy life, don’t bother coming to Korea. You’ll hate it. And it will end up hating you. What you’ll discover, if you arrive with that open mind I mentioned earlier, is something more difficult to pin down. You’ll live through something you’ve never experienced before. You’ll make the kind of friends, have the kind of conversations, stumble upon the kind of ideas, eat the kind of food, drink the kind of drinks, and even get pissed off for the kind of reasons you’ve never come across before.

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