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Teaching ESL in South Korea

The Republic of Korea, also known as the ROK or South Korea, can be a difficult place to tech English. South Korea can also be one of the most financially rewarding places to teach English as a second language (experienced teachers will call it teaching English as a foreign language or TEFL). I've met 20 somethings in Korea to make money to pay off student loans and 50 somethings saving up for retirement.

Jobs, qualifications, & salaries

The requirements for getting a teaching job in Korea are not very tough if you're willing to take most any job. Entry level jobs are at private schools called hagwons. In Korea, these small private schools are everywhere. The typical English hagwon might have 200 students who come a few times a week after school. There might be 5-6 teachers, half Koreans and half native speakers of English. The owner or director might be kind and helpful or could be a paranoid psychotic control freak. All you need is a white face, the younger and prettier the better. And a bachelor's degree, preferably in English but most hagwons will settle for any degree. A TESOL certificate or an education degree will really set a job seeker apart.

A step up from hagwons, but sill a possible entry-level job is EPIK. You end up teaching in a Korean public school with a Korean co-teacher. If you can get this job, it's usually better than working in a hagwon. Some teachers have trouble with their co-teachers, but that's generally better than having one of the bad hagwon jobs.

The next best job would be teaching English in a university run language center. This is not one of Korea's coveted "university jobs" because you won't be teaching credit courses. It's kind of a university-run hagwon for university students and adults. For these jobs you'll need some teaching experience, preferably in Korea. Many schools won't do phone interviews so it's much easier to find these jobs after teaching in a hagwon for a year or three. Most teachers here will have some sort of teaching certificate and some will have graduate degrees.

Then there are jobs in foreign language high schools and big corporations. These typically pay well but offer less vacation time than university jobs. Experience is required and a master's degree is helpful.

Finally, there's the coveted "university job." Working for a university in Korea could mean 2 million Korean won per month with housing and 4 months paid vacation. These jobs typically require a master's degree and teaching experience. Working for a good university might be 3 million won per month with housing and 5 months paid vacation. These jobs always require a master's degree and experience. To set yourself apart from other applicants, publish a few papers. Competition for jobs at the best universities is fierce. Some positions are never advertised so networking is important.

And privates. This is where some teachers make big money. All you have to do is persuade a parent that you can help their kid with English. Hourly rates range from 25,000 to 100,000 an hour. Once you get a university job, you might be able to work privates for government employees, business men, and so on.

A note on salaries and cost of living in Korea

Over the past 10-12 years, the exchange has mostly fluctuated between 1,000 - 1,300 Korean won (KRW) per US dollar. So if you make 2 million per month, that may be 2,000 US dollars a month or less. It may not sound great, but you'll often have housing provided and tax will be cheaper than wherever you come from. The cost of living is so low that even on 2 million per month you should be able to save up some money. Although food in the supermarket is pricey, you can still go out to eat for 5,000 or less (for Korean food, western food is more of a luxury). Healthcare is reasonably priced. Raising kids in Korea is reasonable until they reach school age - the cost of education in Korea is a real burden.

Documentation

Once you have a signed contract, you'll start the E-2 visa process. You'll need all this and more: a notarized or apostilled photocopy of your degree, resume, copy of your passport picture page, 2 passport-sized photos, clean criminal record check.

Job Outlook

Korean hagwons, while often terrible places to work, are notorious for hiring just about any white person with a pulse. Most native speakers of English can get a job in a hagwon. You'll need a college degree to satisfy the nation's visa requirements. It will help if you are white. In fact there's quite a bit of prejudice against black teachers. Most hagwon owners will tell you that they would hire black teachers but the parents (the paying customers who send their kids to this private school) wouldn't like it. EPIK is a program that brings native speakers to Korean public schools and is probably better than most hagwons. To get a university job, it helps to be in Korea but some will do phone interviews. There are so many jobs that Dave's ESL Cafe has a job board dedicated to Korean teaching jobs. You'll notice many recruiters advertising there. You should have no trouble finding a job on your own though.

Advantages

Many expats love Korea. Living there is inexpensive and the food is great. The culture is very different from what you'd find in America, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa. Some foreigners immerse themselves in Korean culture and have all kinds of interesting experiences that would never have been available to them back home. Korea is pretty safe in that there's little crime.

Disadvantages (or things to remember)

Many expats hate Korea. It's hard to make friends, the food is too spicy, and it's difficult to be a vegetarian in Korea. The culture is very different from what you'd find in America, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa. Numerous cultural bumps can lead to people being constantly annoyed. In crowds, even at wedding buffets or in Buddhists temples on Buddha's birthday you can expect people to bump into you. Sometimes you can be standing all alone and someone will walk right into you even though it would have been incredibly easy to walk around you. That's just one example; there's a long list of things that foreigners often can't acculturate to in Korea. Because so many foreigners can't acculturate, there tends to be a high turnover. If you spend 10 years in Korea you'll say goodbye to many friends over those years.

Romance

For women, dating Korean men is often a chore and western men tend to find Korean girlfriends. For white guys, it's usually easy to find much better looking dates in Korea than they could in their own country. It's difficult to be openly gay in Korea.

Conclusion

Teaching in Korea pays better than most places. The better jobs are even comparable to teaching in the Middle East. You might start off with a hagwon job teaching kids who chuck erasers at you and working for a boss who wants you to dump your girlfriend in order to spend more skinny dipping with him. But 10 years later you might end up making good money teaching 12 hours a week for 32 weeks a year.

April 2013 - James Trotta

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