To Teach English in Korea?

by Sharon -- March 11, 2010

Back in 2006 I had considered moving to South Korea to teach English after graduating from college.  My cousin Holly and I had discussed this option together but never really went anywhere with it.  She had a job lined up right after college and I didn’t think I was ready to live in a foreign country by myself yet.

One of the main purposes of this trip was for Jason to establish a money-making business online, thereby confirming our ability to create a location independent life for ourselves.  While Jason had this plan all along, it was somewhat a possibility of mine to teach English in South Korea.  What I quickly learned, however, was that finding a teaching job for a period of 6 months was nearly impossible, especially if you were looking for them outside of Korea.  All of the teaching jobs that are advertised through recruiting firms, job boards, and discussion forums require signing a one-year contract.  I was faced with making a decision about teaching around the time that we were in Saigon, Vietnam.  There were many pieces of my decision making process.

Here are the main points that I argued about in my head for a few months before I made my ultimate decision:

  • Nowadays, teaching English abroad has become so popular that the competition has become quite steep.  The TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), at least by what I was told, is practically mandatory in finding an employer in Korea.  Whereas five years ago there might have been three applicants for any teaching job, nowadays there will be as many as fifteen.  In order to even be considered for some of them, purchasing the TEFL certification program is necessary.  Sounds fair, right?  The downside- The program would have cost me $400.  And they even said that was half price!
  • Before coming to Korea, we had met some travelers who taught English in Korea for 3 years.  The second they found out that I was a Korean-American who didn’t speak Korean, they gave me the sad eyes and told us that Koreans would not treat me nicely.  To be honest, this freaked me out for a while.  I had such high expectations for Korea, and I was afraid that I would be completely disappointed for this reason.  I was afraid of signing a year contract because if I was unhappy in Korea, I would be forced to stay for an entire year, and I was scared that ultimately I would end up hating the country that I (sort of) came from.
  • During our stay in Korea, we knew that we were going to have visitors- my two parents and my sister.  My parents were planning on visiting for over a month, and my sister would be here for a little over two weeks.  This is a LOT of time for them to be taking vacation from work!  I would hate to have to leave them every day while I had to go work.
  • Let’s face it: a year is a long time to commit to anything that you’re uncertain of.  By the time we would have arrived in Korea and I would have started my job, we would have been traveling for 4-5 months.  As you might have known already, I had some homesickness streaks, especially in the beginning of the trip.  At some points I was so excited to go back home (mostly due to the stinky toilets, constantly hopping around, and never settling anywhere). I realized that if I felt this way maybe I wasn’t cut out to live in Korea for a whole year after already being on the road for months.
  • I had heard horror stories about recruiting firms that took advantage of teachers looking for jobs abroad.  Many of them charge you extra for certifications, or even take part of your money from the school as commission.  There are also many stories that involve teachers being promised certain things, such as an apartment close to the school or certain bonuses, but come to find out that they were lying.  Everyone said that the best way to find a job was to communicate directly with the school, but when you’re in another country and your only communication is through the internet, the only jobs you find are through recruiting firms.  I was afraid that I would be taken advantage of in this way.

Although we are currently loving Korea so far and have no reasons for complaint, I continue to be thankful that I decided not to find a year-long teaching job, at least for now.  Teaching abroad as a full-time job could definitely be in my future someday, but as of this trip, I think I’m over it.  I also found out once I arrived that there are many part-time teaching positions that are more like tutoring; they are usually for one person or a small group of people whose level of English are similar.  I have applied to a couple of these jobs, but have also heard that there are some MAJOR racial politics that are involved in choosing candidates for these jobs as well.  That’s a whole post in itself that maybe I will write someday…

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9 Responses to “To Teach English in Korea?”

  1. holy cramoly! I would be discouraged too! btw,that picture is sooo cute! :)

  2. Hi Sharon, interesting post, as always. I’d definitely like to hear more about the racial politics you mention. A friend of ours experienced similar situations teaching English in Japan.
    Good luck with the job hunt! :)

  3. Hello Folks!
    I’ve been following your trip ever since I read about it. I wish I could do that someday. My first thought was you 2 being kidnapped, especially in the Philippines, I”m glad that it didn’t happen.
    My question is to Sharon…are you planning to see the town (house ) weere your parents grew up at ?
    Meet your unknown cousins ?

    Take care and be careful. Did people warned you about the water..” don’t drink the water “..lie the do when you go to Mexico..just wondering.

    Adios amgos,

    Rafael M.

  4. Holly: I wish I could say that I took that picture, but I just found it online! Those adorable kids are everywhere here.

    Carmen: There is very blatant racial discrimination here when it comes to hiring for teaching jobs. Some teachers are very open about wanting “pretty blonde hair, blue eyed Canadian girls” or “blonde, attractive men” and they sometimes also discriminate against Korean-Americans who don’t speak Korean (especially for teaching jobs because they want someone “foreign looking”). In the end, you’re pretty much guaranteed a job teaching if you are attractive and white from Canada or the US.

    Rafael: My parents are visiting us in about a month or so and they are planning on taking us to Daegu, where they were both born. I am excited to see their hometowns! They have a little bit of family here, and it’ll be the first time that I’ve met them. It’s pretty intimidating when I won’t understand what they’re saying when they talk about us. :)

  5. […] shouting with excitement, while my twinkie American part of me was preparing myself for possible adversity.  To our pleasant findings, we have encountered nothing but extremely nice people willing to […]

  6. […] Thought of the Day:  Being a Korean-American in Korea is nothing like what I expected.  In an earlier post, I had mentioned that we were told that I would not be treated nicely due to the fact that I was […]

  7. Hi Sharon,
    Do you think it would be difficult to get a job teaching English in Asia if I’m 55? I have the TEFL but I have heard there might be discrimination because of age. My school is telling me “No problem, they respect mature adults” but I’m not so sure….What is your observation?

  8. Sue:

    I’m actually not positive about the age issue in English teaching here. We have quite a few English teacher friends and although they’re almost all in their 20’s and 30’s, we have also met a couple English teachers in their 40’s. They are definitely more rare here, though, so I would assume the kids aren’t used to seeing them as foreign teachers.

    That being said, however, there are many local Korean teachers in their 50’s that I have seen on field trips, etc. They are used to seeing those teachers, so I can only imagine that they would have the same respect for a 50+ year old foreign teacher as well.

    I would assume that schools would be eager to have a more experienced teacher, since Korea has had many problems recently regarding young foreign teachers being unexperienced and unreliable. It has actually become a huge issue here.

    My only advice would be to remember that you are their teacher, and kids will be bratty to all teachers, regardless of their age. :)


  9. Thanks for your answer, Sharon. This is very helpful and dependable information for me.

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