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Teaching English in South Korea

Demand for Teachers is High, Rewards Generous

By Jonathan Adams

Despite its family-centered, traditional way of life, Korea increasingly looks to the West as its paradigm for prosperity. Multinational giants have been welcomed with open arms, and in the cities you can’t walk 50 yards in either direction without being confronted by garish Americana in all its glory. One effect of this rampant globalization has been the surge in demand for English language schooling, not just for students but also for everyone from toddlers to taxi drivers.

The most popular choice for first-timers and younger teachers are the private "Hagwons," many of which run kindergarten classes in the morning and classes for elementary school students in the afternoon. Pre-school teaching revolves around stories and games; older kids take conversation classes. Qualified and experienced teachers can find employment at universities, which offer shorter teaching hours and long holidays but require far more in the way of marking and preparation. Either way, you won’t be hired to a position that is out of your depth, and the vast majority of teachers find their work fun, rewarding, and great preparation for future jobs in a variety of fields.

Who is Eligible?

The Korean immigration authorities only offer the relevant working visas to natives of the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa who hold full degrees in any discipline from an accredited university and speak English as their first (native) language. A 4-year degree certificate with transcripts and proof of nationality must be submitted to the authorities before an application to teach can be accepted. A certificate in English language teaching (TEFL) is helpful but not always essential.

Korean employers reserve the right to pick and choose their employees on whatever criteria they see fit. Sadly, I'm aware of several African-Americans and British Asians who have made it all the way to Korea only to be told, "Thanks but no thanks." Make sure you won't have any problems with your particular school before applying for your visa.

Salaries and Benefits

Financially speaking you could do a lot worse than teaching in Korea. It is easy to save $8,000 in a year and still have a very good time. If you cut out the big nights in Seoul or pick up some (slightly illegal) private lessons, you could be looking at a lot more. Most schools pay around 2 million won per month (about $1,500-$1,700). Take into account the free accommodations, free flights, low tax rate, and low cost of living and you have the spending power of most Western 30-something executives. (I tried hard to spend my entire paycheck in one month, but it just wasn't possible.)

Upon completion of your contract you receive an extra month's "severance pay" plus the other half of your flight cost and the first two weeks’ wages—making the final pay packet somewhere around $4,000 on top of what you've already earned.

Nightlife and Eating Out

Seoul has an active nightlife scene, as do most other cities in Korea. You won’t be disappointed whatever your taste in music or people. If you’re happy with some brew and stay off the tequila, you'll be hard pressed to spend more than $15 on a night in the pub. Eating out also tends to be inexpensive. Italian, Thai, and Chinese restaurants complement the local cuisine, as well as ubiquitous burger outlets.

Highlights of the indigenous edibles include Kalbi (marinated strips of beef cooked at your table and served with a plethora of side dishes), Ramyun (Chinese style noodles), and Bibimbap (rice, vegetables, and a dollop of hot sauce). Korean eateries tend to have pictures of whatever animal is being served inside displayed outside looking content, well-fed, and very much alive.

Pick and Choose Location

Teaching in Korea is becoming a sellers’ market: you'll generally be able to pick and choose where you go, the size of your school, and the age of your students. Seoul has a population of around 12 million and is a thriving industrial metropolis. Many teachers come to Seoul and hate it, so be very sure that you can survive in the big smoke before signing up. Suwon, Anyang, and Incheon are among the larger places near Seoul that offer easy access to the shopping and nightlife without the daily agony of commuting and choking on the smog. Busan in the south of Korea enjoys warmer weather and less humidity. Other major cities include Daegu (fashion capital of Korea), Daejeon (the birthplace of modern Korean cuisine), Gwangju (famed for it's student uprising), and Ulsan (dirty industrial city dominated by Hyundai). Again, do your homework before you sign up.

English is not as commonly spoken in Korea as you might think, although most public transport and food stores have English labeling, so you won't be stranded or starve. Hard-to-obtain items include spray deodorant and tampons; imported books, magazines, and newspapers are only available in big cities. There is a large U.S. military presence in Korea (about 37,500 troops), and there have been an increasing number of anti-U.S. demonstrations and protests in recent months. This should not deter Americans or other foreigners from coming to teach in Korea. Korea is a safe country with very little petty theft, assault, or vandalism. The Dept. of State at travel.state.gov carries up-to-date travel advice for U.S. citizens.

Signing Up

If this sounds like your cup of tea, then the next step is to start job hunting. If you take a TEFL/TESL (Teaching English as a Foreign/Second Language) course you will be approached by recruiters who can generally offer you a choice of schools. Recruiters also help you settle in and take care of any problems you may have. Recruiters are expensive for Korean schools to use, so more and more advertise directly for teachers and often won't demand the TEFL qualification.

However, a TEFL course offers a practical introduction to teaching, a chance to meet new friends, a way to get in touch with the people who can get you to Korea. Courses cost anything between $200 and $1,500, depending on the level of qualification you require. A basic TEFL suitable for most first-time teachers involves 20 hours of tuition. Classes are available at universities, colleges, and many other TEFL locations throughout the world. Everything the prospective teacher could wish to know is on the TEFL web site at www.tefl.com. More advanced courses take up to 120 hours and are only necessary for those wishing to pursue a career in international teaching. For a list of courses go to www.teacheslabroad.com or www.onlinetefl.com.

For an introduction to the country, Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) has a well-researched guidebook for Korea and a smaller one exclusively for Seoul. Some great teaching-based resources for Korea include Dave’s ESL Café (www.eslcafe.com), which has a wealth of advice, personal experiences, and extensive job listings.

If you contact a school or recruiter, ask them about the accommodations, contract, local area, students ages and abilities, size of school, number of foreign teachers, holidays and weekend work (most schools are closed Saturdays but make sure of this first if you love your weekends), and flight options. Ideally, you should get the email address of an existing or previous teacher and bombard them with questions. If you like what you hear, go for it!

Korea is a wonderful, welcoming country with a rich heritage and both eyes firmly on the future. Becoming a teacher here offers you creative and financial freedom and the experience of a lifetime. It’s also great training for parenthood.