Korea

South Korea continues to be one of the most popular destinations in the world for English teachers for several reasons: it offers some of the highest salaries for ESL teachers; it is quickly becoming a hub for international travel and business; and teachers often enjoy the social life and classroom life alike.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the country has made strides towards rebuilding and modernization; they now boast densely populated urban centers, developed parks and recreation centers, high-tech infrastructure, and state-of-the-art public transportation.

With the high standards of living and benefits offered for English teachers, it is no wonder why so many ESL job seekers are drawn to South Korea.

FINDING A JOB

Because of the number of private institutions that offer classes, there will be postings year round for teaching jobs in Korea. (Check out our latest ESL jobs in Korea.) There are a variety of jobs available in both the public and private sectors, so it is best to research the wages and benefits of each job to see which will be the best fit. Some will offer to cover the costs of the visa application, airfare, medical insurance, and even provide housing.

There are also online schools and agencies which offer both language certifications and immediate job placement.

There are a variety of teaching positions in both rural areas and large urban centers such as Seoul and Busan (or “Pusan” as it’s sometimes spelled). There are more job offers in the dense urban areas; however, there will always be a need for native English speakers in more rural areas as well.

Public Schools

Public school terms in Korea run from the beginning of March to mid-July. The second term runs from late August to mid-February, with a long winter break from late December to late January. And so if you hope to teach in the school system, you might plan around these dates and get your application in early enough to get everything processed.

Language Schools – Hagwons

There are a number of for-profit private schools (hagwons, as they’re known in Korean) throughout the country. And, in fact, if you’re a first time teacher, there’s a good chance you may end up in one of these English language hagwons.

The average expected wage is between 1.8 and 2.2 million won ($1,600 – 2,000 USD) per month, although different positions and personal qualifications offer higher wages. The application process can take up to approximately four months.

Many of these language schools are franchises of large chains. YBM/ECC is one such chain. POLY (as it’s known) is another.

One thing to know about these franchises is that many are just that – franchises. In other words, the owners rent out the name and the system, and there is supposed to be a certain level of adherence to the rules laid down by the franchiser.

That said, you may find very different quality between two different schools under the same chain name. It’s a little like walking into one McDonalds bathroom and finding it spotless, and then going five miles down the road and finding another McDonalds bathroom … well, not so spotless.

Recruiters

Many ads that you will see online will actually be from recruiters. Recruiters are paid by the schools to find qualified teachers and shepherd them through the visa process. You should never have to give any money to a recruiter. You may still have to pay for things like visa applications, etc., but that money will be given to the appropriate government agencies.

Although some may not, of course, the truth is that some of these recruiters may end up treating you like a number (or more appropriately, a dollar sign). Some people are put off by that, but you really shouldn’t take it personally. The bigger ones deal with lots and lots of teachers. Take that as a positive – they know how the system works and how to get you sliding through it.

What you should really be more focused on is the school that they want to put you into. Try to find out about the different options they have open. Go to English teacher forums (like the one at ESL Cafe – Korea) and see if anyone can help you out. Or see if there are current teachers at the prospective school you can talk to. These teachers were just like you at one point, and most will probably be happy to talk to you.

One other thing to know about recruiters is that they have lots of jobs come across their desks. And so it might happen that they offer you one job, but as you’re trying to decide whether or not to take it, they come back to you and say that the original job is gone, but they now have another job for you. While that may seem shady, it’s probably the truth.

Prospective teachers are constantly coming and going, one cancelling out and another showing up. If you’re not actually cemented into a position, and they have another teacher who’s willing to commit to it, then they may feel they need to go ahead and go with that other teacher.

TYPES OF POSITIONS

There are so many different sectors of the economy seeking to hire English teachers in Korea that it’s best to do your research to find the best fit for your lifestyle. Most will have a minimum requirement of six months to one year (a year is most typical). When deciding where to teach, it is important to consider the following factors:

  • Do I want to teach in a large city or a smaller community?
  • How much does salary affect my placement?
  • What level, age range, and type of student do I want to teach?
  • What types of benefits does the offer include?
  • What will my hours be?
  • How much vacation time will I get?

Private Language Schools

As mentioned, the easiest locations to find placement in will be in the hagwons; they will vary in class sizes, courses offered, and the number of staff members.

There are many online testimonies of both positive and negative experiences, so be sure to check for any job offers from institutions that have been “black listed.” Again, keep in mind that many of the chain schools are often franchises, and so one school in the “XYZ Chain” may be different from another school in the “XYZ Chain.” You’ll also want to consider the source and take criticisms with a grain of salt. While people certainly have had bad experiences teaching in Korea, some criticisms may simply be coming from a squeaky wheel. Due diligence is necessary.

It’s also important to remember that these language schools are businesses, and some are more interested in generating a profit than educating their students. Take that for what it is. Inside the classroom, however, you will be boss, and you can still have excellent classes and a very good experience even in a school that “doesn’t care about its students.”

Hagwons tend often offer higher wages than the public school system. This can be a great starting point for beginning teachers since you often work with many other ESL teachers that can offer advice and support.

There are also corporations that hire English teachers to incorporate lessons into their employees’ workday. Or you may even find a combination gig – a school that caters to both businesses and the general population.

One thing to note is that split schedules – both morning and evenings classes with time off in the middle of the day – are normal, and so you should probably be prepared for that.

South Korea School System

These types of positions offer greater job stability, often more benefits, and usually fewer teaching hours than language schools. As mentioned, however, the pay may be less. There are also fewer English teachers per school, so it is possible that you will be the only foreigner working in the school. You’ll also generally have closer contact with the school administration to assist in lesson planning and classroom management.

Teaching in Korean Colleges

Universities and technical colleges typically hire more experienced ESL teachers, and these positions are extremely sought after. Applicants for these positions require a minimum of three years of experience and master’s degrees are preferred (sometimes even required).

Government Programs

There are also a number of government programs that recruit English teachers for schools across the country. EPIK (English Program in Korea) was established to improve the language skills of students and teachers throughout the country. To obtain one of these positions, it is best to contact a local Embassy or an approved recruiting agency.

GEPIK (Gyeonggi English Program in Korea) is a very similar program developed to recruit teachers specifically for this province and the suburbs around Seoul.

Private Lessons

For those considering private lessons, it is important to know a few things. The first is that teaching private English lessons is actually illegal in Korea (at least at the time of this writing).

That may sound a little crazy, but it’s true.

Something else to know is that some contracts forbid you from working anywhere other than in the school where you were hired.

Now, both of those things said, you’ll also find many teachers teaching private lessons. That doesn’t mean that you can absolutely get away with it 100% of the time, and if you’re caught, you may be deported from the country. And so if you decide to go in this direction, just be aware of the consequences.

QUALIFICATIONS

The minimum requirement to teach English in South Korea is that the applicant is a citizen of Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa and holds a bachelor’s degree. The degree must be awarded from an English-speaking university, and the school may ask to see your diploma for verification.

The teacher must also be a native English speaker or have resided in an English speaking country for at least 10 years. In addition, your citizenship must be in a country whose primary language is English.

TEFL/CELTA certifications are not required for all positions; however, they will place you at the fore-front of ESL applicants and could result in higher wages. For some positions, of course, a TEFL certificate will be a requirement.

WORKING LEGALLY IN SOUTH KOREA

The most common type of visa for ESL teachers is the E2, or Long Term Visa to Teach a Foreign Language. Once you have secured a contract with a legitimate school, your future employer will initiate the visa process. They will apply to the Korean Immigration Office on your behalf. Once approved, they will receive a Visa Issuance Confirmation Number (VICN). Once you receive this number, you will need to contact the closest embassy or consulate with the necessary documentation. A list of locations is available here.

It is important to contact the Korean embassy or consulate to determine if there are any variations in the requirements for you specific position. Generally, you will need the following documents when you present your VICN number:

  • Valid passport with at least 6 months remaining beyond travel dates
  • Completed application
  • Passport photos
  • Original Degree
  • Sealed Transcripts
  • Employment Contract
  • Personal Reference Letter
  • All official documents must be notarized.
  • An Applicant Health Statement, which is a form provided by the Korean embassy or consulate. Upon arrival, you will have 90 days to complete a medical assessment at a designated hospital to maintain a valid visa.
  • For Canadian citizens, the notarization must be confirmed at the embassy or consulate. You will also need to provide a Federal Certified Criminal Record Check from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

COST OF LIVING

The wages and benefits for ESL teachers in South Korea allow for a good standard of living and often the ability to save money. The local currency is the Korean won, and as of June 2013, the exchange rate is approximately 1 USD = 1131 won.

Most schools will pay for or reimburse your transportation costs. Typically, the cost of a one-way ticket is reimbursed within a month of arrival, and a return ticket is provided upon the termination of the contract. Some contracts also provide accommodations, but if you need to budget for housing, a one-bedroom apartment will range between 500,000–700,000 won per month, depending on the location. Basic utilities cost about 150,000 won.

Of course your personal habits and needs will dictate how much you spend per month; larger cities will have a higher cost of living when compared to rural areas. But they will also provide more outlets for travel, shopping, and entertainment.

Transportation is easily accessible and inexpensive; a monthly metro pass will cost about 41,250 won per month. See this link for more info about subways.

For a list of median market prices, entertainment costs, and real estate options, you can visit Numbeo – South Korea.

SAFETY

The Republic of Korea (i.e. South Korea) is considered extremely safe. It is a developed nation with a stable, democratic government. It is a modern economy with many tourist facilities nationwide and a growing presence of international business. It is a country with active political participation, meaning that public demonstrations are a common occurrence. While there has been a decrease in violence associated with such events, it is possible that these demonstrations can turn confrontational.

The crime rate in South Korea is low, but there will always be incidents of theft and assault, especially in larger cities. The greatest concern for security comes from the proximity and tensions with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea. The area along the border serves as a buffer zone known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ); it is approximately 250 km long and 4 km wide, with large numbers of military personnel stationed along both sides. You can actually visit the area on a guided tour, and many people do.

The armistice agreement is closely monitored by the United Nations, but recent events have gained international attention. Ballistic missiles tests, nuclear tests, and armed excursions into South Korea have strained international relations and put the world on high alert.

EXPAT COMMUNITY

The population of South Korea is considered to be among the world’s most ethnically homogenous, with a very small foreign population. Since the majority of the population is concentrated near Seoul and Inchon, there are larger expat communities in these areas. There are also a larger number of teaching positions offered in these cities, meaning that you are more likely to work with other ESL teachers if you accept a job in these locales.

There are also a number of foreigners living in South Korea who are attracted by the business opportunities. The economy of Korea is extremely strong, and it is expanding within the global market.

The U.S. military also has 28,500 personnel stationed in the country.

Those who accept jobs in rural areas will be more isolated from expat communities, but modern transportation allows easy access to the major population centers.

TRAVEL OPPORTUNITIES

As mentioned previously, most contracts will provide airfare or compensation for transportation. Most airlines provide the cheapest flights to Inchon (about 20 miles from Seoul), but there are eight international airports and several regional airports located throughout the country.

The buses, subways, and trains facilitate easy access throughout the country and are relatively inexpensive.

For local transportation maps and schedules, you can visit the following links at the Korea Tourism Organization’s website:

With the number of modern transportations options, one can quickly travel cross country to experience different attractions and destinations. Travel becomes more difficult and less frequent in the remote mountainous regions. Since South Korea lies on a peninsula, transportation to other countries must be arranged by air or sea due to the tensions with North Korea. There is an extensive network of ferries that connects hundreds of islands and service other nearby countries.

ENTERTAINMENT/CULTURE

South Korea has a vibrant culture and history that can be experienced at a variety of tourist attractions. With the ultra-modern transportation system, it makes it even easier and cheaper to visit more remote destinations.

There are a number of museums in Seoul where one can experience and appreciate the culture and history of Korea, such as the palaces of Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung, the War Memorial and Museum, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art. There are also many Buddhist temples such as Gyeongju open to the public.

For those looking to enjoy the beach, a trip to Jeju Island (known as Korea’s Hawaii) or Haeundae Beach in Busan may fit the bill. Those more interested in the mountainous areas of South Korea may want to explore Seoraksan, Korea’s most popular national park, which is home to breathtaking scenery and many famous temples.

Pop music has taken South Korea by storm, and is the predominant genre if you visit one of the many dance clubs. If you are not ashamed and know the moves, feel free to show them off; your Korean friends will love it.

Norebang or “singing rooms” are another popular venue where groups can rent private rooms and sing popular pop songs, much like karaoke. This is a very popular pastime, and if you spend any decent length of time in Korea, you will likely end up in one of these karaoke bars at least once during your stay, and probably more than once.

For more details on specific attractions or venues, you can visit sites such as TripAdvisor – South Korea or Lonely Planet – South Korea.

LOCAL LANGUAGE

Korean is the official language of the country and is spoken by 78 million people worldwide. The language has evolved over the millennia from Chinese characters called Hanja. The Korean alphabet was established about 600 years ago but was considered by academics to be associated with those who were uneducated and of the lower classes. Since the 20th century, the Korean alphabet known as Hangul has become the prominent alphabet across South Korea. And, in fact, South Koreans seem to be very proud of it. It is extremely systematic, and therefore much easier to learn than something like Chinese characters.

There are many distinct regional dialects of Korean within the country, but most speakers understand the standardized dialect based upon the language within the capital of Seoul. Most dialects are similar enough that speakers from different regions will be able to communicate.

The language is extremely phonetic, and a basic understanding of the alphabet can be established within a week or so with some determined practice.

Some schools offer language classes to ESL teachers, and of course private language lessons are available for those seeking to master the language. As many in Korea are very motivated to learn English, a language exchange partner can also easily be found.

CULTURAL HABITS

For many ESL teachers, positions in South Korea literally mean you will be relocating to the other side of the globe. It is important that you arrange for your financial accounts and have a trusted contact person in the country. You will need to prepare yourself for a complete dietary change, since you are about to be introduced to an entirely new assortment of spices and produces. It is also best to ensure you have a complete wardrobe prior to your arrival since clothing and shoes are only available in a limited range of sizes.

Once you arrive, it is important to remember that Korean culture is generally very conservative and heavily influenced by familial relationships and personal integrity. Although you will get a lot of leeway as a foreigner, it’s best to try to go with the flow as best you can. For example, when you go out, remember it is not customary to tip, so save your money for other expenses. Trying to follow customs from back home because they make you feel better may end up making your Korean compatriots feel awkward.

You will likely find that many Koreans you come to know will be very hospitable toward you. They will be eager to eat and drink with you, and speak in English too, of course. While you may never truly get on the inside of the culture, living on the edges of it can be a good time all the same.

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