The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Teaching English in S. Korea

The Good

  • The students: Most Korean students you will meet are fun, well-behaved, smart, and constructive members of the classroom!  While every teacher in Korea will remember a certain naughty student, they will remember countless more students that made their day with their smile and overall good attitude to learning.  I can count on one hand the number of real trouble students I’ve had on one hand and just some many more that I truly miss and wish I could see how they are doing now with their new teachers.  If you can make your classes engaging, the students will enjoy themselves and be more willing to take part in your lessons.  And even if the material you must teach may be dry, the students will for the most part be very well behaved with a few great students who help the others get on track.
  • The food: I had never had Korean food before I came to South Korea, nor had I really done much research on what to expect, besides knowing kimchi is the national dish.  But once I got there I fell in love with the beef and pork BBQ dinners with drinks and close friends before heading out on the town for a Friday night.  Then there is bibimbap, dak galbi, jjim dak, and so much more!  If you haven’t tried Korean food yet but are thinking of going to teach in Korea, go to your local Korean BBQ restaurant and thank me in the comments.  Korean food can be a little spicy, so be warned.  Another thing I love about food in Korea is how affordable it is!  You can quite easily eat out a few nights a week for less than $10 for a decent meal.  It should also be added that I believe Korea has one of the highest rates of restaurants per capita worldwide meaning you will never be far from a place to eat, whether it is a local mom and pop joint, or Michelin star quality restaurants in Gangnam.  I may be spoiled for food here in Thailand, but I definitely get cravings for Korean food.
  • The financial side: Korea is still one of the top places in Asia to make bank.  Wages may have stagnated but are still right up there with the best.  Throw in the relatively low cost of living and it is easy to see how teachers in can quite comfortably save half their salary a month.  Not to mention that all teachers receive a pension and if you complete the contract you will get severance pay which equates to a month’s salary.
  • The quality of life: While still saving as much as half your salary, you can eat out once or twice a week, go out for drinks a couple times, and go on a weekend trip somewhere in Korea each month.  A trip might entail a mountain trek to one of the many peaks in Korea, a weekend sojourn to the bright lights of Seoul or Busan, a tranquil getaway to a Buddhist temple, or shredding it on the slopes in the winter time.  It may take some balancing but it is possible if you’re smart with your money and plan it out.  Korea also has a vibrant and active expat scene so you will never be far from making new friends.  I personally recommend joining a Korean language exchange club, like The Box in Daegu, or a recreational sports league.  I played in the ROK Ultimate Frisbee league for 2 seasons and I loved every moment of it, not just playing but the super people I met, the journeys to the games, the parties, the camaraderie among members of the wider ultimate frisbee community…so much fun, and when I return to Korea eventually I definitely will be getting back on the field again.
  • The location: Korea is an ideal location for vacations across Asia, Japan is a stone throw away and can even be reached by ferry, tons of cheap flights to China and Hong Kong, the Philippines is very close, and Southeast Asia is a very affordable place to spend your vacation time.  If you love to travel, Korea is a real gateway to the rest of Asia and has two three great international airports; two in Seoul and one in Busan making it easy to get out and explore beyond Korea.

The Bad

  • North Korea:  I should get this one out of the way first because I think it scares off some teachers from coming to South Korea.  Yes, the North is a rogue nuclear armed nation ruled by the Kim family dynasty that likes to make big, bombastic threats against Korea, the US, and their allies.  And that although the Korean War ended with a armistice, not a peace treaty, this technically means these two countries are still at war…But the fact is the North has been making these threats for years and while it may be stressful for people considering to come teach in Korea, if you ask S. Koreans and foreign teachers they will tell you they pay little heed to what the North says and carry on with their daily lives.  So while the threat of North Korea remains, it is held in check by the guarantee that any kind of attack would be met in kind by overwhelming power from the combined ROK-US forces. Nevertheless, having a noisy neighbor is never a good thing.
  • Visa paperwork:  Of course it is understandable that the Korean government wants to be careful about who is coming to teach their children but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a time consuming process that may take months.  You need a nation wide criminal record check (clean), transcripts, your degree, and all of these need to be notarized/apostilled attached and sent to the Korean consulate for their stamps of approval.  Then you must gather more documents, along with a sealed copy of your school contract, passport pics, visa confirmation number, and processing fee, and submit this to the consulate and hope they approve it.  If this process was streamlined I think it would be a big help to potential and current teacher in Korea.
  • How and what things are taught:  This one is controversial I think.  I think alot of the English taught to Korean students is purely rote repetition and often in hagwons teachers must follow strict lesson plans following pages from the books that are often outdated and boring.  Depending on your school, teachers have little say on how they’d like to teach the class and thus it often means the classes are dry, boring, and repetitive.  Alot of what is taught in class is designed purely to help them do well on the TOEIC tests and university entrance exams.
  • Increasingly competitive job market, poor economic climate, declining working conditions: with the government seemingly winding down the EPIK program, teachers who worked in public schools are now entering the private hagwon sector.  EPIK teachers are higly regarded by hagwon owners because of the competitive process to teach in a public school so this adds to the pressure on teachers who have only worked for hagwons.  Wages have stagnated and even started to lower in some classes.  Return flight packages in contracts are becoming rare.  Teachers are seemingly being asked to work longer hours with more classes and fewer breaks for less money.  The ‘golden era’ of teaching English in Korea has truly finished.

The Ugly

  • Management:  A big reason hagwons get a bad rap is because of the management and owners who run these schools.  Their primary concern is maximizing profits and keeping parents happy; business first, education second.  Then of course you have the types of directors who are massively unqualified to do their jobs and just do so, so, much wrong.  I had a terrible experience with a director at my last school was a contributing factor to me deciding to take a break from Korea for awhile.  The horror stories usually relate to the breaking of contractual agreements, physical, emotional, and sexual harassment, firing teachers before the last month to avoid paying severance, making teachers do additional unpaid work, treating the children appallingly, etc.  You have to be careful when picking a school, and EXTRA careful to find a decent boss.  The director will make or break your experience at a school.
  • Xenophobia, racism, and other prejudices:  Although it is not as much of an issue as it once was, it still rears its ugly  head.  It is harder for African-American or black South African teachers to find jobs here, and the ones that do can be made uncomfortable by their treatment from the more elderly Koreans.  If you’re a member of the LGBT community, although progress is being made, it is not advisable to make this known to a potential employer or make public displays of affection (this goes for straight people as well).  ‘Attractive’ teachers are preferred also.  This may merely mean they prefer their teachers to not be overweight, to not grow beards, no piercings, no visible tattoos, dress well, and not keep your hair respectable.  I even had a friend turned away from a job, after coming to Korea and going to the school, because they thought he was too short…..he then landed a job teaching adults so it ended well for him, but still, that was ridiculous.

Don’t let the Bad and the Ugly deter you from teaching in Korea, I still think the good far outweighs the negatives, it is just better to hear a balanced view of what it is like to teach in Korea.  Teaching in any country has its good, bad, and ugly sides and Korea is no different.  These are just some things that came to mind from my own experiences and talking friends from my time teaching there.  Let me know what you think! What other good, bad, and ugly sides do you think are worth mention?  I will also be writing the good, the bad, and the ugly about teaching in Thailand once I have been here long enough to make a more informed opinion of things.  I do not have anything against Korea and again stress that I fully intend to return there.

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