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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Korean vs. Thai public school system

With the school semester in Thailand coming to a close I’ve gained a decent understanding of what the public school system here is like compared to the public system in South Korea.  I admit I have not taught in the public school school system in Korea but I do have a good understanding of it through my own research, talking to EPIK (English Program in Korea) teachers, and having taught in the private system which does have some similarities to the public sector.  So let me break down some of the things I’ve observed when comparing them.  This post will examine what it takes to teach in their system, salaries and benefits, what you teach, the students, expectations, and other criteria.

Teacher qualifications

THAILAND: It used to be that just about anyone could get a job teaching in a public school here in Thailand but those days are rapidly fading and now due to a crackdown by the military junta on unqualified English teachers.  Nowadays a degree and a positive attitude are the bare minimum requirements to get a job teaching at a public school though a preference and more money is given to teachers who have some kind of TEFL certificate.

KOREA:  Qualifications required here are similar for the public system, until 2012 only a degree was required though candidates with a degree and a 100+hr TEFL certificate were preferred.  Nowadays those are the bare minimum and I believe the TEFL certificate must include an in-class section to be considered.  I should also add that the budget for the EPIK program has been repeatedly cut in recent years meaning fewer and fewer jobs so competition is fierce.

Teacher salary and benefits

THAILAND: 30,000 baht is pretty standard thought it fluctuates depending on the location and your qualifications and experience.  In terms of benefits, as I mention in my guide to teaching in Thailand, it really depends.  Quite a lot of teachers are placed in public schools by companies and these companies pay your salary and benefits could include accommodation allowance, health insurance, some paid vacation time, etc.  If you are working directly for the school they may pay you a little more but offer no benefits.

KOREA: Salaries start at the low end of 1.8m KRW and max out at 2.5-2.7m KRW, good money.  Then of course you have your flight to and from Korea paid for.  An apartment is paid for.  Severance pay and pension.  About 4 weeks of paid vacation plus national holidays.  A settlement stipend to help cover the cost of buying things for your apartment.  Hands down the Korean public system has the best salary and benefits.

Vacation time

THAILAND: The school year is divided into two semesters. The school year starts in May and the first semester finishes at the end of August or mid September depending on the school.  So what it equates to is that the bulk of your vacation time is in April and October.  Depending on whether you work with a teacher placement company or directly for a school, you may or may not be paid for the time in between semesters which could mean anywhere from at least a month to almost 3 months without pay.  This lengthy period of potentially unpaid vacation is what prevents a lot of teachers from staying in the public school for very long. Teachers do get national holidays off though….

KOREA:  English teachers in the EPIK program get about 2 weeks off in the summer and 2 weeks off in the winter with quite a few paid public holidays.

School facilities

THAILAND: You can expect the range; brand new in Bangkok to crumbling in some of the more rural areas.  On average I’d say it is somewhere in between having been to a few different schools for English camps.  The buildings are typically a bit worn down though it is not uncommon to see schools spend their money on new buildings rather than spruce up existing ones.  The classrooms will be more like seminar sized rooms you were in during university and filled with old, graffiti covered desks and chairs with a number of fans dotted around the room.  Don’t expect AC in the classroom or even in the teacher’s office.  Assemblies will usually take place out on the sports field or under a big sheltered area used for school ceremonies and other events.  The canteen will be open air but under a building.

KOREA:  Schools facilities are much better in Korea but that is what you’d expect from a developed country.  Most schools are fairly modern, classrooms will probably have AC, some have smart boards, there will be a sports field and an indoor hall used for sports and school events, etc.  In short, public school facilities in Korea are typically not so different from back home.

Curriculum and lesson planning

THAILAND: If you work for a teacher placement company, they primarily deal with new and inexperienced teachers and typically will give the teacher a curriculum to teach but often it is just a guideline and teachers can teach what they like, for the most part, as long as the focus is on speaking and listening because foreign English teachers are responsible for conversational English for the most part in public schools in Thailand. When it comes to lesson planning, teachers submit their lesson plans to the company and the company may opt to accept it or suggest changes.  If you work directly for the school they may have a curriculum they want their teachers to follow as it may supplement the work done by the Thai English teachers.  In the case of working for a school directly your lesson plans may be submitted to the head of the English department or simply given free license to teach what you like within reason.  You will also be responsible for making your own teaching materials as it is likely the students will not have textbooks to learn from.

KOREA: The curriculum and teaching materials will be given to you by the school and when you plan your lessons you will do it jointly with your Korean co-teacher.  You may have more or less freedom to plan your lessons, it just depends on your co-teacher and school.  Any additional teaching materials needed for lessons will be the teacher’s responsibility to make.  It should also be noted that the curriculum is very test driven in order to give students the best chance to get into better universities.

 The students

THAILAND: There are three levels of public schools in Thailand; anuban, prathom, and mathayom (I teach mathayom which are the middle and high school grades).  Class sizes range from about 30 up to 40….but can even be as big as 50+!  With class sizes that big you can imagine how hard it can be to impose some level of order and discipline but you can get used to it pretty quickly like I did, but that is another blog post 😉 Not to worry though, depending on what level the students are half of them may not even show up to class.  There is a big problem with students skipping classes in Thailand.  For the most part students are very polite and respectful to teachers and wai them when you see them at school, greet you with smiles and ‘good morning teacher’ (regardless as to whether it is actually the afternoon!), will rush to make space for you if you are trying to get somewhere at school, and often they will kind of stoop/duck past you as another sign of respect.  Don’t let big classes deter you!

KOREA:  In Korea you have elementary, middle, and high schools.  Class sizes are around 20-30 on average.  But you will share the class with a Korean co-teacher who assists you in maintaining discipline.  Behaviorally I have to say that Korean students are so very polite and respectful, at least that is my experience from teaching kindie and elementary students, it might change a little for middle and high school students.  I’d also say that the standard of English is much higher in Korean classrooms and it is not hard to converse with most of your students.

Conclusion

THAILAND: A great place for people who want to earn some money for their travels and try their hand at teaching with a view to teaching for a longer period of time.  You have a lot of freedom in the classroom to teach what you want and how you want.  Contracts can be for just a semester so you are not required to make a long-term commitment.  There is always a huge demand for teachers year round so it is not hard to find a job. The range of locations from the tropical south, big bad Bangkok, and vast beauty of the north means you are spoiled for choice.

KOREA: A good place to start an ESL career because it is a serious ESL teaching destination and you can save some serious money.  The quality of living you can have in Korea is very high and you can live comfortably.  Most students are a joy to teach. You will have less choice on where you want to teach because the EPIK program is so competitive but that is the price you pay to get a sweet job.

What do you think? Are there other categories you think I should add, what have I not considered?  Leave a comment!

 

 

 

A Change of Scenery: Thailand

Having been frustrated with the pickiness and unreliability of the schools I was interviewing for jobs in Korea I decided to post a resume on ajarn.com .  A day later I got an email from a teacher placement agency for schools in Thailand asking for an interview.  What the hell, I’ll take the interview, I thought.

A day later, the interview was very straightforward and I felt it was more or less to check my character and comfort level of moving to Thailand. Having backpacked and volunteered there, not to mention having been in Thailand as recently as October, I feel no stranger to the country. I confirmed the next day that I would take the job. That was December 24th. It is now December 28th and I am now in Bangkok preparing to teach high school kids in a small town out in the Thai countryside.

I decided to take the job in Thailand because although it may not compare to South Korea financially, it does offer me a chance to gain experience teaching older children in an age group that is hard to get into in Korea without being in the EPIK program. Not only does the job give me the chance to teach high school children, it also gives me the chance to teach big classes.  Why does the chance to teach big classes interest me? Because it gives me the opportunity to build the necessary confidence, skills, and experience I need to manage classes of similar sizes at the university level. It is my ambition to teach English at universities once I obtain my masters. Thai public high school classes can be up to 50 students!! Pretty daunting. So it is only natural that I’m spending the days before I start teaching (January 4th) reading up on how to manage classrooms of that size and generally preparing mentally for the challenges ahead.

The other positives of the job is that it will give me new opportunities to build this blog as well as to hopefully get back into muay Thai training. I look forward to sharing updates on the teaching and living situation once I start work. Until then, keep an eye out for the improvements I will be making to the blog, namely working on the backpacking guides as well as adding a guide to teaching in Thailand! Thanks for stopping by!

 

Landing an English teaching position in South Korea

Part One: Getting your visa

First off, you need a degree in any field, some recruiters (Gone2Korea) may tell you that you won’t get hired if you’re a guy and/or you don’t have a degree in education but this is BS and just pure laziness on their part and are likely financially motivated to make you apply through the public EPIK program.  Also the Korean government typically only issues E2 visas to English, Canadian, American, Australian, New Zealand, and South African citizens.

There are two major hiring windows in S. Korea: Feb/March and Aug/September.  So when you know which window you want to start work in then you should start getting these documents ready no more than 6 months away from your intended start date.  This is critically true for having your degree and criminal record check (CRC), these must be no more than 6 months old when you start applying for the visa.

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You should get a national level CRC (RCMP/FBI) and get your fingerprints taken electronically to expedite the time taken to process them.  This could take anywhere from a week or so to get the results mailed back to months or even depending on the competency of your police service – never.  When I went to Vietnam to volunteer teaching English the RCMP simply never sent my results back and never bothered to pick up their phones or send me anything other than an automated email….the second time I got the results back in under 10 days, go figure.

While applying for the CRC, ask your uni to send you two sealed copies of your transcripts.  In this early phase you can go get 5-6 passport pictures as there will not be much more you can do until you get your CRC, most recruiters will be looking for candidates who have their CRC taken care of because this takes the longest to acquire typically.

Once you have your CRC and degree in hand, take copies of them to a notary service (private or public) and have them notarized.  After these two documents are notarized you can then take them (the copies and the originals) to the Korean consulate, along with a sealed transcript and passport.  There should be no waiting time to get these documents affix the consulate seal, i.e. you should be able to go there and get the consulate staff to afix the consulate stamp there and then.

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With this out of the way, you can feel free to contact recruiters about finding a job.  This is not to say you can not start talking to recruiters before you’ve got the aforementioned documents take care of, but many will give priority to candidates with these items already in hand.  Dave’s ESL Cafe is a great place to find job listings posted by many of the recruiters and they typically repost the same jobs on a nearly daily basis.  Gone2Korea has alot of great information on their website but if you are looking for a hagwon job as a guy without an education degree, they will tell you it is not worth their time trying.  As I said before this BS.  Personally, I recommend Appletree Global Recruiting http://www.appletreeedu.com/ They were fast to respond to my application (basic personal information, resume, professional picture (this is standard for all recruiting firms)) and actually listened to my preferences.  Many recruiters will ignore your preferences (e.g. Daegu, kindergarten/elementary) and repeatedly send you job listings they need to fill.  What impressed me most about Appletree was that instead of sending me school jobs and asking if I wanted to apply, they already sent my resume and information to schools and only sent me their information when the school wanted an interview, if I liked what I saw I would agree to arrange an interview.  Interviews are typically via phone or skype and last no more than 30mins.  I landed my job after only two interviews. For the best results, take a shotgun approach and apply to as many recruiters as possible as you will get so many more interviews and job offers than just sticking with one recruiter.

Once a school wants to give you a job, and you agree (more info on what to look for in the contract in the second part of the post), then you must send a package of documents to the Korean Immigration department, this includes your 4 passport photos, notarized copies of degree and CRC (also sending your original CRC I believe), your resume, job contract, copy of your passport info page, and self-medical form….there may be one or two other things but your recruiter will confirm what you need to send at this time in the visa process.

Next, once you receive your visa number, you will complete a visa application and take this as well as another passport photo, your passport, $72, and your other transcript to the Korean consulate closest to you.  The time to process this varies between 5-10 business days they will tell you.  Be assured that you are supposed to leave your visa there and you come back for it after the processing time is up.  You can leave an express envelope with them to send it to you rather than having to go in personally.  In my case I think they saw how little time I had left before I was to come here and they expedited my application and sent it via the Expresspost envelope I had left with the consulate staff.  After your passport is in your hands you will see it has been stamped with the E-2 visa and you are now golden! You can look forward to working in Korea.

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Part two: Public vs. private

Public Pros:

  • Reliable employers and workplace
  • 4 weeks vacation
  • Contracts respected
  • Co-teacher (could be argued a con depending on your co-teacher)
  • More prestige
  • Just generally a better option to working at a hagwon
  • Orientation period before starting work

Public Cons:

  • Extremely competitive due to the S. Korean government slashing the EPIK program in recent years
  • No guarantee you will work at the location you desire
  • You will probably be the only native-speaker at your school
  • More certifications needed e.g. in class TEFL/TESOL/CELTA, B.Ed, MA, etc

Private Pros:

  • More job opportunities year round
  • Potential to make more money
  • Freedom to choose where you want to work
  • Your school will probably have other foreign ESL teachers
  • More selection in what age group you want to teach i.e. kindie, elementary, middle, high school, adults
  • More variation in work times

Private Cons:

  • Slowly growing more competitive as teachers from EPIK are pushed out and look for hagwon jobs
  • More work (depends on the job)
  • Less reliable working conditions e.g. management, contracts, housing, workload, etc
  • Only 10 vacation days, typically 5 in summer and 5 in winter but some schools spread the days out across the year into glorified long weekends…thus limiting the prospect of backpacking expeditions!!
  • Potentially longer work days

Interview and contract advice:

1) the school should pay for the flight; it used to be a return trip and now due to the poor economic conditions this has changed more to a one-way ticket

2) in an interview dress professionally

3) have questions

4) if they don’t ask for a teaching demo, to really impress them ask to do one

5) have questions to ask the director/teacher who will be interviewing you

6) If they offer the job, ask for the email of a current/former teachers (former teachers are better as they will not be under any duress), ask the teacher what conditions are like, are contracts respected, how long they’ve been at school, how many foreign teachers are there, it is a good sign if teachers have stayed there beyond the first year

7) ask to see pictures of the apartment or similar living quarters

8) have the number of hours a week and month specified in the contract

9) make sure there is a clause including pension; it is illegal for schools to not offer a pension

10) the contract could mention working a few Saturdays/Sundays, do what I have done before and ask that you get an addendum guaranteeing you will only work no more than 5 Saturdays/Sundays in the year

11) make sure severance pay is included in the contract, this is standard to all contracts and should be equal to one month of pay

12) standard starting salary without formal teaching experience is 2.1m KRW.

This is all that comes to mind at the moment but I think even if you did some more research online you should find that I’ve touched on the most pressing concerns when considering signing a contract for a year in a completely foreign land. I should also note there is no guarantee they will keep their word on the contract…but if the former/current teacher doesn’t ring any alarm bells then you can be fairly sure that you will be treated well and given what is stipulated in the contract.

If there are any questions please feel free to leave a comment!