Life Abroad: Teaching English In South Korea

Teaching English In South Korea: Interview

Today I'd like to introduce you to a very special someone! My sister has never yet been on the blog, but yes she exists. Why is it she has never been on the blog before? She has the travel bug just as intensely as I do, so we're often on other sides of the world from each other, and meet up only for a short few days a couple times a year. Otherwise, we keep up by Skype or phone calls.

I asked her if she would be so kind to talk about one of her recent travels, her two years spent in South Korea, teaching English. She has an abundance of knowledge on the topic, and is always encouraging others to go teach abroad too because she had such a fabulous time!

Meet Rebecca!

Interview with an English teacher in South Korea

How did you get into teaching English in South Korea?

I pretty much knew I wanted to teach English abroad since I was in high school. I'm not sure how I originally learned that it was a thing, but once I found out the possibility existed, I was so excited! The thought of living abroad and getting paid to do it sounded like an amazing deal to me. I searched around for jobs right after high school, but found that most schools wanted their teachers to have a Bachelor’s degree, which I did not have.

After taking a gap year, I headed off to university, and after four long years, I was finally qualified to teach English abroad! I have to admit, it does seem a bit ridiculous to go to school for four years just to get qualified to be an ESL teacher. But there were moments in my undergrad where the only thing that kept me motivated was knowing that if I finished my degree, I would have my ticket to a life abroad!

I was originally interested in teaching in a Spanish speaking country, but once I learned how lucrative the pay was in Asia, I opted to go there instead.

I literally knew next to nothing about Korea before I went (except that it is divided and North Korea is a bit scary), but I'm now Korea-obsessed. Most jobs in South Korea can be found by getting a recruiter. These are people whose job it is to review candidates resumes, arrange interviews between the teacher and the Director of the school, and help the teacher with the Visa process once he or she has landed a job. I found my recruiter at my university job fair (it was fate), although I would say 99% of people find their recruiter by searching online. There are tons of resources out there! 

What qualifications were required?

In order to teach in South Korea specifically, you must have a Bachelors degree (in any subject). You also must be a native English speaker, or have had your schooling done in English from about grade seven.

All of the teachers I met in SK were either from Canada, the U.S., the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.

I'm sure there are a few people teaching there who do not meet these requirements, but they are the exception.

You also must be eligible to get a Visa for one year, so a criminal record check is required. And of course, experience with kids or teaching are also very helpful. 

Teaching English In South Korea: Interview

How hard are these types of jobs to come by?

Honestly, pretty darn easy!

The demand for native English teachers in South Korea is like an unquenchable thirst. Literally every single Korean parent wants their child to learn English, and they are willing to pay lots of money to ensure that happens.

The government has implemented a policy to have one native English teacher in every elementary and middle school in the country, and there are thousands of private English academies that hire foreign teachers as well.

Because the jobs are fairly easy to come by, you do tend to meet your fair share of weirdos while over there. But it's quite fun nonetheless.

How much do you earn as an English teacher in South Korea?

The typical starting salary is 2.1-2.2 million won per month. This is just under $2000 Canadian per month (although it's probably a little more now considering the state of the Canadian dollar at this time…boooo).

Anyways this doesn't seem like a ton, but it really does go far since you live rent-free and have the minimalist of bills.

Also, the general cost of things like food, public transit and entertainment over there are quite cheap, so you're able to save a fair bit every month.

Also, although most contracts forbid it, a lot of teachers get private students outside of school. (I did… Shhhh)  People will pay 40,000 won (a little less than $40 CAD) per hour for private English lessons, so that can add up quickly if you're really ambitious. 

Cost of living is quite low in that area of the world. Can you let us know what some common things would cost in Korea in Canadian dollars? Eg. rent, eating out, a dentist appointment, a doctors visit, cost of transportation. 

Yeah, Korea is definitely cheaper than Canada! The cheapness of Korea is relative to the costs in your own country though.

I know a lot of the Americans who were from smaller cities didn't remark on the cheapness as much as teachers from some other countries did. But for the Canadians, coming from the land of $8 beers, everything felt like a great deal.

In Canada if you go out for Korean BBQ you're going to pay around $30 per person without even drinking anything. In Korea you can get a much tastier Korean BBQ that includes beer and soju for around $15 per person. This obviously depends on the restaurant, and the city that you're eating in as well.

Everything in Seoul is more expensive, but the smaller the city or town that you go to, the cheaper things will be. I also enjoyed a lot of street food while I was there too. I didn't do a ton of cooking because lunch was provided at school, and I could buy $5 street food for dinner (that was still decently healthy!)

All that being said, you can still find expensive food as well if that's something you're into. There are Western style steakhouses and Italian restaurants and all sort of other more expensive “foreign restaurants” available too.

You're experience can be as cheap or as expensive as you'd like it. In terms of the doctor or dentist, those are much less than in Canada. A few teachers I met got dental work done over there and I recall one person getting their wisdom teeth removed for around $20 per tooth! Most schools provide medical insurance in your contract as well, so if something goes wrong, you won't need to pay anything out of pocket.

I only went to a Korean hospital to get my initial health check done before I started working, but it was a very nice, stress-free experience.

Lastly, public transportation throughout the whole country is great! The public bus drivers are a little crazy, but it adds a bit of excitement to the trip :) The bus in my city cost the equivalent of $1 per trip. The subway is around $1-2 depending how far you travel and inter-city buses and trains range from about $5-20.

Most teachers are provided accommodations by their schools, so rent is not something you have to worry about, which is so nice. 

Teaching English In South Korea: Interview

What was the highlight of working in South Korea?

The actual teaching was not the highlight for me, but I loved everything about my free time outside of school. There are too many things to pick just one highlight, but some noteworthy things are the food (everything tastes so much better there!), learning how to read, write and speak Korean, and just exploring the country.

They basically have all the same things that we have in Canada, like parks, museums, beaches, department stores, movie theaters and mountains, just to name examples, but all these things have a little bit of Korean flare to them which makes them way more interesting than if you were to do those exact same things at home.

They also have some totally Korean-only things, like public bath houses, a karaoke boat, and something called a disco pang-pang (which is basically a neon lit-up indoor ride that you sit on and it spins around to very loud music while a Korean guy somehow manages to dance in the middle of this spinning contraption. It's also packed with middle school girls who giggle loudly at the funny foreigners who themselves are laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of the situation.) 

What was one of the least glamorous things about working and living in South Korea?

I would say the least glamorous thing is the job itself and the students. Most Korean students are so burnt out and sick of school, which makes trying to teach them very challenging. Many of them have no personal interest in learning English, and are only in your class because their parents force them to be there.

I found teaching kindergarten and elementary to be a little easier than middle school because the younger kids didn’t hate their lives quite just yet.

The least glamorous thing about my job the first year, working in a private English academy, was the number of teaching hours we were required to work. I basically had no prep time, and just taught the whole workday. At my public school the second year, my hours were much better, but one thing that was slightly traumatizing was watching the teachers inflict corporal punishment on the students. It was quite shocking to see a teacher hit one of his students. 

What would a typical day as a teacher look like?

It depends on the school you work at, but usually a teacher would start at 8 or 9 in the morning. When you get to school you start by prepping for the day's classes. You plan what lesson you're giving to each class and get any materials you might need together. If you work at a private academy, generally the curriculum is laid out for you so you don't have to do much preparation. The downside though is that you teach more classes.

If you work at a public school however, you do your own lesson planning, basing lessons loosely on the school textbook. Public schools are typically nicer to work at because you teach less classes. On a busy day at my public school I taught five 45-minute classes, but on some days I only taught two. The rest of the time you can spend planning and even reading. The foreigners referred to this as “desk warming”. I loved all the desk warming I could get compared to the 8 classes I taught per day at my private academy the previous year.

At most schools you work an eight hour day, with about an hour off for lunch. Lunch is provided by the school and it's usually very Korean which is sometimes fun and sometimes scary.

You eat on these cool trays with chopsticks and the food could range from perfectly ordinary fish sticks or chicken with some kind of vegetable, to a bit off putting like a fish head in your soups it's the eyes bulging out at you. The fish head days were few and far between thankfully!

You usually finish around 4 or 5 and have the rest of the night free. This is when you join up with the other foreigners in your city and go out for Korean BBQ and discover new things! 

Teaching English In South Korea: Interview

What are some cultural differences between South Korea and home?

There are so many! It seemed like every way that we do things in Canada, Koreans would do it the opposite way.

This could be something as simple as the way we gesture “come here”. In the west, we make this gesture with our palm up. In Korea it's rude to do it that way, and they gesture with their palm down.

There are tons of other differences too like beauty standards. In Canada having a tan typically symbolizes that a person has money because they were able to afford to go somewhere warm to get the tan. Koreans as a people have a phobia of the sun. Pale skin is seen as a sign of beauty and Koreans will cover every speck of skin when they go out so as not to get any freckles or colour. It was strange to see some people at the beach covered head to toe while playing in the water, next to a half naked foreign girl soaking up the rays in her bikini.

Another thing I found very strange while at work was the strict hierarchy that people create based on their age relative to another person. If a person is older than you, even by one day, you are expected to address them using formal Korean language and sort of humble yourself to show respect. If the person is older and in a position of authority this is taken even further.

It was so weird to me to see the teachers at my school talk to the principal and vice- principal. They would literally be shaking and squirming while talking to these higher up authorities either on purpose to show respect, or because it was ingrained into them from a young age to fear authority… I wasn't entirely sure which. It may have been a combination of the two though.

There were loads more difference, but I don't have time to write them all here. You'll just have to go there to find out for yourself!

What is teaching English in Asia like?

What advice would you give to others thinking of possibly moving to South Korea to teach?

I would say go do it! Go with an open mind and just accept that they do things differently there. Plenty of it seems pretty strange, but just take it for what it is.

Meet Koreans and get involved with the foreigner community. Also try to learn how to read and write Korean characters. It's actually super easy (there are only 24 characters that each have a sound like the English alphabet. They combine to form words which you can read once you know each characters sound.) it will make your entire time there so much easier and enjoyable if you can read menus and signs. 


How would you suggest someone to get started?

Just do a Google search for recruiters! Another good thing to look up is EPIK (English Program in Korea) which is the program that hires for all the public schools in the country. Those jobs are harder to get but typically better.

Taking a TEFL or CELTA course before you go is also really beneficial, especially if you have no previous teaching experience or experience with kids. It will give you an edge over other applicants.

Good luck! 


If you have questions for Rebecca about teaching abroad or would like to share your experience, leave it in the comments below!