Why am I writing this?
Following my the close of my Peace Corps service, I initially intended to extend my service and transfer to Peace Corps in China. During the last week or two of my time in the Philippines I developed kidney stones and was unable to get medical clearance to go to China. When I arrived home I had no plans for my return, I hadn’t prepared for a job search or for school. After speaking with several friends, I came to the conclusion that getting a teaching job in Korea for a year or two would be my best option and allow me to prepare for graduate school.
A few months after returning to the US, I was back on an airplane heading west to go east. I found a job teaching at a public middle school in Daejeon, South Korea and a secondary position as an occasional teacher trainer. In my free time I volunteered at a local animal shelter and discovered there’s swing dancing in Korea. In total, I lived and worked in Korea from September 2008 until January 2010.
Both while I was in Korea and since I’ve returned home, friends have reached out to ask questions about my experience living and working as an EFL teacher in Korea. I’ve pieced together a short guide, based on my personal experiences, as shared in emails with my friends.
So you want to go teach English in Korea…
Finding a job in Korea is not terribly difficult, especially if you have any experience in education and/or EFL. The job finding process is not very lengthy, but you the better a job you want to find the more time you want to devote to the job search process.
How to find a job
There are several ways you can go about finding a position: recruiter, directly through the school/university or via job posting boards.
- Recruiters: I worked with a recruiter. Not all recruiters are equal, some will get better/different job postings. Shop around, you can send info to and work with more than one recruiter, but once you start deciding to apply to a specific job it’s best to narrow down to just that recruiter. They charge the schools a finder’s fee, so they work pretty hard to find you a place and won’t charge you anything (if they mention any fees you need to pay them, run the other way).
- School districts: There are several groups SMOE, GEPIK, EPIK that hire teachers directly for public school districts, these programs are similar to JET in Japan and they may offer some training/orientation. It seems that many university jobs are also found by applying directly to the university. You may also be able to find this type of job via recruiters.
- Job board postings: I don’t know too much about job board postings, but they are out there. Dave’s ESL Cafe has quite a few. I would probably avoid this route, unless you find a school that currently employs someone you know and who’s judgement you trust.
Strategy for job searching
I’d check the job boards at DavesESLCafe.com, contact a recruiter or two and check out the EPIK/GEPIK/SMOE websites. The nice thing about working with recruiters is that you can tell them what type of job you want, what your qualifications are and they will contact you when they have that job to fill. Also, they’re very familiar with the specifics of getting your visa and can be very helpful at making that process smooth and easy. The bad thing about recruiters, they can only help you find jobs that they’re asked to fill- so the pool can be limited. That said, there’s no rule that you have to work with only one recruiter nor that you’re required to accept the first job that they steer your way. I worked with Footprints recruiting and they were great.
Where to work
There are several different types of jobs and a relatively reliable hierarchy of job-type quality. I’ll list them in ascending order of their generally agreed-upon quality level.
- Crappy hogwan job: this is a private extra-curricular school teaching job. You may work split shifts, work at multiple branches, have large class sizes, teach from curriculum workbooks to indifferent students and employers who try to find ways to exploit their employees’ general ignorance of what working conditions should be like- ie. you may or may not get paid on time and/or in full.
- Decent hogwan job: private extra-curricular schools where students may be more serious and/or interested in learning. Teachers have more flexibility to design lesson plans that are interesting. Students/parents may be more considerate and give you gifts/treats at holidays. Employers don’t try to rip off their employees and shifts are generally consistent, at one location and have smaller class sizes. The pay/apartment is also likely to be better.
- Public school job: School hours are consistent, more vacation pay, pension money you can get refunded to you at the end of your time in Korea, you don’t pay Korean income tax for two years due to tax exclusion agreement with the US. The work load tends to be a bit lighter, fewer classes but larger class size. You will generally work with a co-teacher. You may or may not get extra time off during school holidays, you can earn extra money teaching camps and extra curricular school clubs. The school experience depends a lot on the teachers you work with and your supervisor, you may be the only foreigner at your school. A friend of mine got a job through the public schools working as a teacher trainer, so this may be another option if you go that route.
- International school jobs: You will generally be required to have a degree in education and a teaching certificate plus several years of teaching experience (which PC experience should fulfill). These jobs are frequently the children of expats or families that want their kids to be in a truly English-only environment. The schools may be in a city or way out in the countryside. The pay seems to be far better than other jobs, and you may actually get to teach a subject matter other than English- depending on your background. There may or may not be restrictive extras, like living on campus and curfews.
- University jobs: You don’t teach children, you get crazy long vacations during which you aren’t expected to work. You get the same tax/pension options that public schools offer. Teaching schedules are lighter, but you do have office hours and are expected to grade schoolwork and projects, perhaps design your class curriculum. Universities usually want you to have a masters degree, but not all do. These jobs are less plentiful and are in higher demand, so they can be more selective in their hiring process.
I had a job with a public school system, I had friends working in public schools in different districts, universities and all types of hogwans.
The school I worked at is a middle school, but it’s one of the more prestigious (or so I was told) schools in the city. There were 18 sections of about 40 students, and three grades- so, 54 sections and approx. 2200 students and more than 100 teachers. The first few months I taught a “conversation” class that the students have once a week, but I saw them every other week. The second year (full school year), I taught only first year students and saw them once a week. The students had a weekly assignment and received a grade for my class (very important lesson learned from the first semester I taught).
I worked with first and second grade middle school students. They were about the same age as my high school students in the Philippines but their overall comprehension level is much, much lower. In public schools, the students start studying English in third grade. In my 36 sections, I’d say that I had about a dozen students who have lived in the States for a while. I had probably another dozen who have traveled abroad to learn English, a couple have studied or lived in the Philippines as well. Many of the students study privately after school, but very few are confident and/or want to practice using the language in class with me. There is definitely much less exposure to English in daily life here, as compared to the Philippines.
When to find a job
When I applied for a job, the process took maybe 2 months total from searching to arriving in Korea. Timing can be key when looking for a job. If you’re looking for a job at an international/public school or university, the schools hire only at two times during the year: February and July. The school year starts in early March, there’s a month-long break in July and the school year typically ends in late December or early January. Those jobs are more desirable, so the earlier you can start looking for them the better.
Where to live
Where you choose to live depends on what your preference is, where the jobs you’re offered are located and how long you’re willing to wait to find a job where you want to live. There are plenty of jobs in rural settings where the pay may be higher (but you may be the lone foreigner- hello PC) and the food/entertainment options limited; there are also plenty of jobs in the larger cities of Korea where you can find international neighborhoods, efficient mass transit, western stores such Costco & Tesco, and there are large universities and many highly-educated young people. I lived in Daejeon and I really liked it, it was a large city but not too large and it was about halfway between Seoul and Busan on the high-speed rail line. Close enough to visit Seoul easily, but in a much quieter and more relaxed environment.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly of living and working in Korea
- The pay is decent & the cost of living is pretty low. It’s very easy to save money, you can easily bank half of what you earn if you don’t live extravagantly.
- Korean employers are required to pay you an extra month’s pay for every 12 months worked, so 13 months pay for 12 months of work.
- Because I had a background in education, I was able to get a gig teaching several sections of after-school teacher trainings through my school district, we were paid per page for materials and about an extra month’s salary on top of my normal salary for 3 2-week sessions of after school classes 2-3 days/ week.
- For up to two years living abroad, you don’t pay US income taxes and if you work in a public school/university you don’t pay Korean taxes for up to two years.
- Mandatory, affordable employer pays half health care. Quality health care at reasonable prices. I never paid more than $30 for any doctor’s visit beside my initial job-required health exam. Right before I came home I had to get two root canals and two crowns (one gold) and that ended up being about $900 total- here the root canal alone would be that much.
- Employers will pay for your airfare round-trip
- Employers either provide your apartment or give you a stipend to pay for your apartment.
- Convenience. I have never lived in a more convenient place than Korea, there’s always a 7-11 or department store nearby.
- Public transit is amazing. Taxis are cheap and the drivers don’t try to haggle or drive you around to run up the meter. The high-speed rail is FAST and the inter-city busses are cheap.
- Public baths are fantastic. It takes some getting used to being around a bunch of naked Korean ladies, but it’s work the initial awkwardness. Jjimjjilbangs are fantastic, my gym had this setup. You can go and soak in tubs and sit in saunas to warm up on cold winter days, there are generally napping facilities and some are open 24 hours if you need an inexpensive place to crash for the night.
- Koreans are workaholics and they may expect you to put in extra hours outside of your contracted time. They also frequently come to work when ill, because they’re worried about missing work and losing their jobs.
- Many teachers will assume (similar to PC/P co-teachers) that you will teach the class and they will disappear. The best way to combat that is to set expectations at the outset.
- In terms of extra work, the way it usually goes: they can ask you to work extra, they will pay you overtime and you are obligated to accept this.
- The language barrier is frequently a challenge. Learning how to read Hangul helps, even if you don’t know what it means you can sound out stuff and use the translator on your cellphone to figure out signs and labels.
- Bank hours stink, they open after school starts and close before school ends- you frequently have to make bank runs during lunch time.
- Many people teach private lessons for decent cash outside of school, this is illegal and is rarely enforced but can cause you get deported and be barred from working in Korea again.
- Xenophobia can be an issue. Many students would say things that are offensive and ignorant, usually they are repeating something that they’ve heard from their parents but it’s still frustrating. I’ve witnessed a strange thing where some Koreans will go out of their way to bump into foreigners they encounter in public and when I was in Korea, there were a story about an Koran woman with a South-Asian friend who were berated by a man on a bus and the city pressed charges against the guy- it was first-time, big deal affair.
- Extreme homophobia is not uncommon. Many Koreans believe that Koreans aren’t gay, only foreigners are- despite that there are quite a few gay bath-houses & drag clubs that I know of in Seoul. Again, I heard a lot of ignorant and offensive comments from students.
- Foreign women may receive extra and/or overly assertive advances from Korean men. There have been a few isolated instances of sexual assault against foreign women by Korean men- though, generally, Korea is an extremely safe place to live.
- Some employers take advantage of teachers who don’t know their rights and exploit that. They take money out of their check for pension contributions and health care, but don’t contribute the money to those government offices and pocket the differences.
The finer details of life in Korea
Getting a cellphone
I did bring my old one but it doesn’t work in Korea. Korean and Japanese cellphones use some different system that nobody else uses. You can get a cheap pre-pay phone or get a cell plan, which is what I did. I got a 3G tri-band phone when I signed my contract, which would work anywhere if I could ever have gotten it unlocked. Korean cell companies are weird about locking phones and sometimes locking a SIM to a specific phone. Ryann had a pre-pay phone and liked it, I had a plan and it worked fine for me- the one really nice thing about it is that you can get a free phone when you sign a year contract. Getting a plan phone as a foreigner can be a hassle, but SK Telecom will do it if you put down a 200,000 KRW deposit. None of the plan phone companies will give you a contract until you have an alien registration card and a bank account, which will take at least a week or two to get. If you want to bring a phone from home, a few will work (including iphones) if you can get them unlocked- it’s worth looking into.
Korea is close to a lot of places and you get paid vacation time, so it’s a nice excuse to travel around Korea and in the nearby area. I used my vacation to visit the Philippines and Malaysia, and took my mom to Hong Kong & Macau. The flights aren’t too expensive and it’s only a few hours to get to most places in Asia.
If you end up applying for a public school job, be sure to apply for your residency form ASAP so that you get exempted for Korean income tax. I don’t remember the form you need to file, but you want to get an IRS Form 6166. It takes a month or two to process and the schools want it straight away for your first paycheck (mine took 9 weeks and they sent it to my house in MI, not to Korea like I asked).
Schools will generally find you a place to live and pay the bill directly. You are responsible for paying utilities and phone/internet. It’s easy to setup when you get your bank account established.
You can pay your bills from bank ATMs or online if you can manage to login to your bank’s website. I had two bank accounts, KEB seems to be the most foreigner-friendly, you can get an English passbook and they have an English website.
Preparing to apply
Getting official copies of transcripts took the longest for me. I was able to use my DOS instead of a letter verifying my experience with Peace Corps- but with other jobs you need to have some way to prove that you actually held the job which could take a while.
You can find most things. Decent underwear and shoes larger than size 7 are hard to find, also clothes in real-people sizes that don’t follow every passing trend. Bring what you think you’ll need because shopping can be frustrating.
Korean food can take some adjustment to get used to, I wasn’t a big fan- squid in everything and very meat heavy. I had the option to eat lunch at school, and did for a while. A wide variety of groceries can be found at the various department stores: E-mart, Lotte, Costplus (Tesco), Costco. Also, in Seoul you can find a lot of shops that sell western and foreign grocery items, particularly in Itaweon. I cooked at home a lot. Pizza and other western fast food is readily available, Papa John’s delivers and usually has English-speaking operators. Indian & Thai food can generally be found in most major cities.
It can be challenging to make friends, depending on where you work and who you work with. I started volunteering at an animal shelter and met a lot of people that way. I had a hard time making Korean friends at school, people had families and other things to do with their time- one teacher at school did invite me along to a few things. I did make friends with a nice girl who went to the same gym. Mostly, I met people who lived in my building and the people that they worked with.