Teaching in South Korea
Here's What You Must Know!!

Teaching in South Korea - What a tremendously enriching experience for Carly.

My cousin's daughter, Carly, just returned from a year of teaching English in South Korea so I asked her to write about her experience. If you're considering being a teacher in South Korea (and even if you're not), you will find her insights incredibly interesting, informative and very useful.

Getting the Job

After years of reading entertaining emails of my cousin's experience living in South Korea, I (Carly) was curious to see what all the fuss was about. Coupled with my desire to travel through Asia, teaching English in Korea seemed the obvious choice to a) explore the culture b) raise the funds with which to travel.

Getting the gig was surprisingly easy. I expressed interest in teaching English in South Korea in mid-November, sent in my qualifications within two weeks and come Christmas, I was on my way.

My recruiter booked my flight, organized my visa, set up my apartment and connected me with co-workers through email, before I set off. It all happened rather quickly, but looking back, there really wasn't much more I could have done to prepare for the experience.

In fact, further preparation and research would have probably made things more difficult because nothing goes as planned in Korea!

Eating and Customs in South Korea

I was limited to restaurants with picture menus my first couple days there (fortunately, there are plenty) but eventually picked up the words for some key food items.

I immediately fell in love with Korean cuisine - it's spicy, carb-rich and you get a smorgasbord of pickled and often unidentifiable side dishes with every meal.

Korean meal etiquette can be quite complex, and it might take a while to get used to. First off, traditional families don't speak at all during the meal (I learned this after I spent an entire meal trying to break the awkward silence!).

Every item must be given and received either with two hands, or with your left hand holding your right arm to show respect. It is expected that you pour drinks for everyone else at the table, and have someone else pour yours. If your boss or an elder pours you a drink, turn away from him/her when you drink it.

If the spice gets your nose running, turn away from the table to wipe it. Never leave your chopsticks upright in your rice. It will take some getting used to, but I quite enjoyed the communal meals and little signs of respect and intimacy engrained in everyday routines.

Teaching in South Korea - Communication

Communication can be pretty difficult when you first arrive because a lot of body language gets lost in translation. Any notion of 'universal' signing (eg. nodding yes and no) crumbles within your first week.

The upside is your Charades game will improve exponentially by the time you return home with all the signing options you will be forced to try!

Most of your students will have a limited but working facility with the language and there should always be a Korean teacher on hand. It would be wise to have a Korean colleague write out your address and the school's address for you.

Comprehension within the classroom is mostly hindered by pronunciation. I would highly suggest taking a couple days to learn the Korean alphabet.

It sounds like a challenging task when you first arrive and are surrounded by strange characters, but it's actually quite simple and perfectly phonetic.

Being able to look at the English language within the confines of the Korean alphabet will help you tremendously. I'd say that it's more important to learn to pronounce English words spelled with the Korean alphabet than to develop a Korean vocabulary at first.

This will help you to understand your students' mistakes and will lower the communication barrier. (The Korean alphabet cannot accommodate the letters V,F,Z or pairings of consonant sounds, and R and L are a single letter that varies in pronunciation with its placement within a syllable.

Words like 'plaza' and 'finish' become 'peraja' and 'pinishee' and these pronunciations will be understood by many Koreans).

Teaching in South Korea - The Contract

Contracts are generally pretty straight forward and signed before you leave Canada.

You will have to discuss your medical insurance and pension options with your school. Most often you can get them to match what you put in to each.

The pay is pretty good for the amount of work that you do. Most contracts offer around $2000/month based on a 30 hour work week plus overtime at a rate of about $25/hour.

Your school should cover the cost of your flights and pay your rent. This gives you enough to save about $1000 per month as your only expenses are food, leisure and utilities (which are all quite cheap).

I was paid monthly and was able to save $16000 over the course of a year without a limiting budget (including one month bonus salary for completion of the contract).

Teaching in South Korea - The Job

The job itself, like most things, is what you put into it. It can be challenging, rewarding, breezy, entertaining or dry, and it might take a while before you figure out the right approach.

I hadn't completed a teaching degree so I started with little experience, but my co-workers were helpful in sharing games and exercises and my school provided me with a detailed curriculum to follow so it was quite easy for me to pick up.

The Korean teachers at my school taught the majority of the grammar and structural portions of the curriculum, so essentially my job was to polish off their writing style and help them practice their conversation skills.

I taught every level from grade 2 to high school, usually all on the same day. My teaching schedule changed almost weekly, so flexibility, creativity and winging lesson plans were key.

The Korean teachers are pretty tough on the children but they stress that it is the foreign teachers' jobs to make learning English fun for the kids, and, above all, to make them like you. It may sound a little superficial, but that's the way teaching in South Korea goes.

The biggest problems I encountered teaching in South Korea were not with any of the students, but with the school itself. I took issue with the lack of critical thought involved in the curriculum and its emphasis on memorization.

I also didn't like the competition promoted among the kids for high scores. What most surprised me were the creative (yet often cruel) forms of punishment exercised in the school (eg. leapfrogging around the building, pushups, chair and desk lifts and sustained strenuous positions). For the most part though, the kids were well-behaved, bright, and eager to succeed.

Time Off from Teaching in South Korea

On my weekends and days off I often traveled to different cities, islands and national parks around the country.

Transportation is comfortable, reasonably priced and quick if you take the KTX (up to 300km/h), and there's lots to explore. There are a lot of basic hiking routes surrounding the cities and spots to camp in the national parks and on the islands.

The nightlife in Korea basically revolves around the $1 bottles of alcohol known as soju. Soju mixes tastelessly in with fruit juice and can really creep up on you if you drink too much. On the bright side, it improves your karaoke skills and gives you energy to party until sunrise, which is when most of the bars close.

Shopping in Korea can be very entertaining if you enjoy quirky and creative uses of the English language. More and more Western products are becoming available in the smaller cities (deodorant, spices, bath towels, sheets), and just about anything else you'd need can be found in Seoul.

Seoul is very cosmopolitan and can satisfy most cravings for live music, art, ethnic food, daring fashion and subculture.

Overall teaching in South Korea was an enriching experience. It gave me the opportunity to work and travel at the same time, to explore the culture, to meet interesting people, and to gain some valuable teaching experience.

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