Mapping the Madness: Another teaching guide to South Korea...

Updated 2010-11-15 13:36

One of the regular questions that you will be asked once you come to Korea is, ‘why did you come to Korea’? For many, the answer is simple, to teach English. When you first get off the plane, it won’t take long for you to realise how fascinated Koreans are with learning English. There are private English schools on practically every corner, and an increasing majority of public schools there are now ‘English Only’ zones. Both are populated by eager students and the native English speakers who teach them.

The numbers of foreign English teachers in Korea has been steadily increasing since I first arrived in South Korea in 2005, and while it is difficult to get accurate numbers, estimates have placed the number anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000. These teachers are spread out across this small country in big cities and small towns and are primarily employed to help with pronunciation and building conversation skills.

The places where they work also differ, and although the variety of school varies from city to city, I'm going to stick to where I know best, and that's the capital Seoul. I'm going to narrow the teaching opportunities to four categories to make it easy to break the confusion into swallowable lumps and I hope that I can give enough information in this brief article to adequately cover everything.

Private language schools ' Hagwons
The vast majority of people teaching in Korea teach in a hagwon, these are privately owned 'English language institutes'. They are mostly privately owned, franchised, after-school schools. Hagwons, as a whole, have a bad reputation for screwing English teachers over, both foreigners (get used to that word because once you go to Korea that's what your are - its not derogatory) and Koreans. The majority of the bad stories you will hear about working in Korea will come from hogwans. That being said, I've worked in two different hagwons for over three years and had a rewarding and professional experience.

You can expect to teach up to 30 hours a week and the money can be good and bad, it all depends on the contract you sign. Class sizes are small and, depending on the students, manageable. Many have an excellent collection of resources and facilities, but you may have to teach the schools specific curriculum. The kinds of hagwon job vary; kindergarten (5-7 y/olds), elementary/middle (7-15 y/olds) or adults (20 - ?) which includes university students and business professionals. Sometimes you might start work at 9am and other times 3pm, and some adult hagwons require you to teach a split shift in the morning and evening.

Public Schools
These tend to be better run, and because you're paid by the government, more reliable especially in terms of having a fixed schedule and a fixed number of students in your class. Although, the attitudes of the staff in the school can differ, I know that many people have generally had a good time teaching in public schools. Recruitment can be more organised, and if you can get selected for EPIK or a regional government program, you will have orientation and all sorts of goodies thrown in (you might also get placed in a country village up in the middle of the mountains).

High, middle and elementary public schools hire twice a year for the start of the two teaching semesters in March and October. The hours aren't as long as private 'Hagwon' teaching, but class sizes can be much bigger and less regular. The pay, and in some cases, up to two months holidays are a big plus. Depending on where you teach, you may also be responsible for the choice of material. You can apply through EPIK ( or through a private recruiter. Recruiters can help get you placed where you want; you just need to be careful that the recruiter keeps all the promises that are made to you. This applies to hagwon positions also.

Universities and colleges
There are what seems to me, an uncountable amount of universities and colleges in Korea. Recently, after a lot of hard work and perseverance, I got a job in one, but I think I must have applied to every one and still got confused as to whether or not I had applied to one or the other, or not at all.

The big attraction of university teaching is generally shorter hours, longer vacation time, a higher salary, and 'better' students. Unfortunately, these categories are gradually changing and a lot of university jobs do carry the same benefits that they used to teach. You need to shop around, be patient and be prepared to not get replies to many of your applications. The higher quality university jobs are much harder to come by and have a higher level of applications with stronger stipulations in terms of experience and qualifications. Most universities require at least a masters degree, two years experience, and in increasingly, you must be in Korea to carry out a face-to-face interview and teaching demonstration.

To get a job in Korea you need to get an E2 visa. The basic requirement for the E2 visa is a bachelors degree in any subject from a recognised university, and you must be a native English speaker from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and of course Ireland. There are also other requirements that are a little unfortunate and I'm not sure about the full details anymore. As far as I know you still need them. These are a clean criminal background check and you have to pass a drugs and HIV test. You can have a look here for more details of what's needed. There has been a lot of discussion over the validity of these checks and the requirements may or may not change in the future. The best option is to contact your local Korean embassy.

Of course the better the job you want, the more experience and qualifications you need, which can also make a big difference to your salary. Expect to earn a minimum of 2,000,000 won a month (anything less and you might as well not bother), with housing and return flights thrown in. The housing is usually quite small but you'll get a relatively comfortable furnished apartment that's close to your place of work.

Generally speaking there are more jobs than teachers available, which is great, right? However the good jobs are harder to get and there are a lot of less appealing places to work which can be more desperate and more ruthless in the recruitment process. Normally, the ball should be in your hands and things like experience, an ELT qualification, or a postgraduate qualification should all make you more attractive to the better employers. But, in all honestly, you actually don't need any of them to get a job, they are just extra bargaining chips in your favour.

Life in Korea
Living in Korea, you must remember that Korea is very, very different from any western nation. You probably think, well obviously, but you really don't know this until you experience it. Attitudes that we take for granted are often strictly taboo, and I've found myself laughing at over-zealous Koreans who seem to take something fickle very seriously. It is kind of trial and error, but once you get the hang of it and know the ins and outs, you shouldn't have any problems.

As a place to live, Korea is wonderful. The food is diverse, tasty, and affordable, and the Korean people are obsessed with it! Western food is quite popular, although the majority can only be found in pricey chain restaurants, unless you are in Seoul and Itaewon, the 'foreigner's neighborhood', is within commuting distance. Alcohol plays a major part in living in Korea too, in fact it can dominate. But, if it's not your thing, then there are plenty of clubs and groups to get involved with. All in all, the community in Korea has made life very comfortable with music, hiking, reading, sports, fashion, shopping, travel, and martial arts all easily available, there is something to interest everyone! Koreans are always friendly and love to take you out and show you around (especially if they can practice their English). The opportunities to occupy yourself if you come to try to find a new life, even if it is for only a year (mine year is now in its fourth), are unlimited!

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