FAQ - Living and Teaching in Korea

I can't claim to be too all-knowing, but I definitely know more now than I did when I embarked upon this lengthy journey.

Have a question that isn't listed? Leave me a comment!

Why Korea?
What are the requirements?
Where do you teach?
What was the process to get a job?
Questions to Ask
Who did you go through?
What is the job like?
How did you pack your life into two suitcases?
What do you wish you had brought to Korea?
Do you speak Korean?
What about the food?
What is your apartment like?

Why Korea?

There are many practical reasons that made Korea alluring, but I honestly feel like Korea chose me. From the word "go," I was mainly attracted to jobs in Korea for no logical reason. I was following my gut on this one and I must say that my gut was completely, 100% right--so far, at least.

As for those practical reasons:
  • Of all countries to teach English in right out of college without a TEFL certification, jobs in Korea were the most plentiful and the highest paying.
  • As a single, white female, I was courted for nearly every job I interviewed for. I was the belle of the ball!
  • There are many standard perks of being employed in Korea: your employer takes care of your housing (with the exception of utilities--about $30/month), they pay 50% of your healthcare, you are usually within 5-15 minute walking distance of your school, the cost of living is low, once you complete your contract you receive a full month's salary as severance pay, and you can find lucrative (and illegal) private employment in your free time.
  • Close proximity to a half of the world I've never experienced before. Vietnam is a five-hour flight away. I can take a boat to Japan. A boat!
  • The opportunity to learn about a completely foreign culture and to figure things out for myself. Sure, I'm here all by my lonesome, but it's not like I'm drowning. I'm figuring things out, one day, one week, at a time.
Now, I know recently that the job climate has shifted with the demand for jobs in Korea sky-rocketing. Many people are interested in teaching abroad these days and more teachers than ever are renewing their contracts with their schools. I was lucky to apply when I did. However, I think that working in Korea is still a wonderful experience, even if you have to do a little more work marketing yourself to potential employers than I did. top

What are the requirements? To be a teacher in Korea, the government will not issue you the appropriate visa to live and work legally in the country unless you meet a few requirements.
  • Were born in a country where English is a native language. There is also a clause for people who have spent the last 10 years living in one of these countries or graduated from a university in one of these countries.
  • Graduated from an accredited four-year university.
  • Usuaully, you must have a Bachelors degree in English or education, a TEFL certification, or experience in education. When I was applying, almost any Bachelors was acceptable. Now many more teachers have their degree and a TEFL certification.
  • You must be able to pass a criminal background check.
  • Have more than a year left on your visa.
  • Being a single, white female will also increase your chances of landing a job.

Where do you teach? I teach at a hagwon, or private after-school, supplemental tutoring/education center. Korean students are required to attend public Korean schools. However, since there is such competition to be the best and brightest, all Korean students attend supplemental private schools for a variety of subjects. My students usually attend one or more hagwons a day and different hagwons depending on the day. Of course, I see them at an English hagwon--although mine is not always the only English hagwon they will attend that week, or even that same day. My older students are usually enrolled in a Math Institute, as well, because they generally begin calculus before they even get to high school! A handful of my older students are enrolled in art or music institutes and almost all of my younger students are going to music institutes. I've read accounts by other English teachers waxing poetic about the long and tremendously difficult days of their students, so I'll let you read them elsewhere. I find most of them to be exaggerated and used as a demonstration against the "lazy American" students. The Korean textbooks I teach from also perpetuate this stereotype, comparing the days of a Korean student with an American student like this:
The Korean Student

  • 5:00 am - Wakes up, gets ready for the day
  • 5:30-7:30 am - Finishes homework, studies
  • 8:00 am-3:30 pm - School
  • 4:00-6:00 pm - English hagwon
  • 6:00-8:00 pm - Math institute
  • 8:00 pm - Dinner
  • 9:00-11:00 pm - Homework, studies
  • 11:00 pm - Bed
The American Student

  • 7:30 am - Wakes up, gets ready for the day
  • 8:30 am-2:30 pm - School
  • 2:30-4:30 pm - Goes to a friend's house to play
  • 4:30-5:30 pm - Homework, studies
  • 5:30-6:30 pm - Dinner
  • 6:30-10:00 pm - Plays computer games, watches TV
  • 10:00 pm - Bed
I think it's needless to say that I resent the implication that we are all lazy. Also, the textbook didn't mention the American student's general affinity toward extra-curricular involvement. So. top

What was the process to get a job? Ah, the process. Now there is a period of my life fraught with turmoil I'd rather forget. The first thing I did was send in my resume to several different recruiters who told me what to do, step by step. They also informed me that there is no real need to send in applications to them until my paperwork was ready or at least nearly ready. From that point, I followed these steps:

  1. Get your fingerprints taken.
  2. Get six passport photos. In fact, the more the better.
  3. Copy your diploma and get the copies notarized.
  4. Send your diploma to be apostilled.
  5. Send your fingerprints for a background check.
  6. When background check comes back, send that to be apostilled.

Once all this is completed, you can start looking for a job and interviewing with prospective employers. It's important during this time to ask as many questions as possible, because once the phone interview is over, they either want you to sign a contract--ASAP, usually--or they don't. Either way, there won't be much time for question-asking once you're locked into a contract. So, what kinds of questions should you ask your prospective hagwon employer? That depends on what is important to you, personally. For me, I always read this advice online, but didn't really know the right questions to ask or why certain questions were important to ask. I've dissected it below.

What are the hours of operation of the hagwon?
What would my specific working hours be?
The differentiation in these questions is important. A hagwon that is open longer than your working hours likely employs other foreign teachers on different shifts. If so, you may want to find out how the workload is divvied up, if you'll be expected to work split shifts, or if there are changes to your schedule, how far in advance will you be notified. These things could be a problem later.
How close is my apartment to my school, WALKING-DISTANCE.
How close is my apartment to mass transit? Again, walking-distance specification IS necessary.
How many foreigners will be working at the school?
The more foreigners there are working at the school, the more automatic your social circle upon arrival. In addition, the more foreign workers there are, the larger your school probably is. This could be both good and bad: your job may be relatively secure, but your workload might be a bit crazy.
How long have the current teachers been working at the school?
This is extremely important. If it's a relatively large foreign staff (three or more), I would be wary if there were no veterans--people who had worked with the school for more than a year. If there are people who have renewed, it doesn't necessarily mean you've got a gem, but you are on the right track.
What is the expected out-of-classroom workload of the foreign staff?
Most contracts state that teachers will not teach more than 30 hours in the classroom, but if you've got a 40-hour contract, you need to know what else is expected of you. For some schools, this means some light lesson planning. For others, it means lesson planning, writing the materials for the course, proofreading documents for Korean staff, writing student evaluations, and calling students at home. Be aware that this could take up all of your down time at the school and that completing the activities or the additional grading for each class might fall outside of normal working hours. For teachers in the States earning a minimum of $35,000 a year, this is all fine and well, but when you are earning well below that, you will have to decide where you draw the line.
How are duties shared between foreign staff and Korean staff?
In schools that use the foreign staff as the main workhorses of the hagwon, you might find yourself washing dishes at the end of the day, too.
Will the five vacation days be blocked together or spread out over several months?
Five blocked days may not sound all that important, but when you're considering a $600 flight to Thailand, a full nine days (weekends included) is a bigger bang for your buck than a measly five (three weekdays/two weekend days).

After the interview with a hagwon, if you're a good candidate, they will likely send offers very quickly (unless you interviewed right before a holiday or there are other extenuating circumstances you're not aware of)--most of my offers came in a couple minutes to a couple hours after my interview.

But once these offers come in, they aren't likely to wait long. Despite the time difference, I had recruiters railing me at 2 or 3 a.m. for not responding to a job offer that arrived in my email inbox at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday. And "responding" doesn't mean accepting or denying the offer--it means sending in a scan of your signed contract. Therefore, if you don't have easy access to a printer and scanner, you could potentially miss out on a job offer, like I did.

Despite how easy it is to miss out on a job opportunity in Korea, it's also incredibly easy to get job offers if you fit the mold. But don't think all the work is over after you landed a gig! You've still got to:

  1. Send all your paperwork to Korea.
  2. Receive it back from your new employer.
  3. Send it and your passport to the Korean consulate.
  4. Receive it back in time to leave the country.
All of this will likely happen at the last minute, as it has for every person I've talked to in Korea. Good luck sweating the stress! top
Who did you go through? I used Teach ESL Korea. I loved the recruiters. Although Dan and Aggie Henrickson, the husband and wife duo that runs the business no longer live in Korea, they are still a constant resource to teachers here. They have a network of teachers who are always available for advice. When one of my coworkers decided to go back home early, the day after she told our school director, she received an email from Dan asking if everything was okay and if there was anything he could do. They are just total pros and I would definitely recommend them to anyone trying to get a job in Korea. top
What is the job like? It's different for everyone. Personally, I really enjoy my students, but I don't truly enjoy my employers. My students are sweet, loving and funny, even if they do occasionally become disciplinary problems. My employers, on the other hand . . . I can't shake the feeling that they are constantly trying to take advantage of me. I feel as though I'm being nickled and dimed sometimes on my paychecks, sometimes taking bigger bites out of my utilities than my utilities bills dictate, even over matters of a hundred dollars. top
How did you pack your life into two suitcases? I've been asked this question a lot and honestly, the task was more daunting in my head than it was in real life. And once I arrived in Korea, I realized there was so much I brought that I didn't need. In the end, I'm glad I brought my entire underwear drawer, but I probably didn't need to bring much else in the way of clothes, except for maybe the first week. I was glad for my huge overcoat at first, but later it became cumbersome and I upgraded to a more Korea-friendly version. Now, of course, I've got more in the way of clothes than I'll ever need! top
What do you wish you had brought to Korea? Shoes! Shoes, shoes and more shoes. Shoes for every weather. Shoes all the time, every day. Can you tell I miss shoes? When I came, I packed only black high-heeled boots, bear slippers, two pairs of ballet flats, water/tennis shoes, hiking boots and flip flops. It sounds like a lot more than it actually is. I wish I had brought rain boots, snow boots, adorable walking around town boots, another pair of tennis shoes, and more flat/sandals. Korea has a lot of cute, cheap shoes, but not if you're a bigfoot. And by bigfoot, I mean bigger than a size 8. I know, I know, I read this same thing before I came to Korea. It's not like I was uninformed. But I did not know that when they said there is nothing in a size bigger than 8, they really meant it. There are no size 9 shoes. I am dying. Pretty much everything else I can find here. I could do with more pants because being tall means I'm high-watering it most days. Tops--now I wish I had brought half as many tops as I did. There are too many cute, cheap tops. Only bring what you need to get you through the first two weeks! Cream of mushroom soup, Kraft mac and cheese, salsa, and some cheese would have been nice additions as well. I've found three of the four of these here through luck and friends who happened to have what I needed, but they are actually few and far between and pretty much impossible to find in the stores. A few English board games would have been nice, as they are good for foreigner gatherings and classes. I would say this rounds out my list very well! top
Do you speak Korean? Ha! No. No, I do not. Sure, I speak a bit more than when I arrived, but Korean is not a language that is absorbed through osmosis. It's not something that you can just "figure out." Maybe you already knew that. But my vocabulary is like that of a one-year old. I can read, usually, if its not in hangeul-cursive, but it doesn't help to be able to sound out a language you still can't understand. Words I know: friend, finished, give me, one, two, five, ten, dollars, rice noodle, meat, no, chopsticks, tuna, stew, thank you, goodbye (politely), hello, and the name of the guy who sells me the most delicious chicken on the planet. Hahaha that list is laughable. Laughable, I say! Okay, now re-committing myself to not being an idiot. Starting now. top
What about the food? Some of the food can look pretty creepy at first. A lot of it has tentacles or eyeballs or coherent skeletal structures. I won't say you'll starve if you don't have an open mind, but it really limits your options and can make you look like a real jerk in social situations (like the time my coworker refused to try sugared tomatoes). I'll be honest, I have avoided a lot of different foods because I didn't think I'd like them. But the foods I tried in spite of this will always remain firmly--and fondly--in my memories. top
What is your apartment like? When I first got here, my apartment was kind of a dud. It was a square room with nothing but a bed in the center of the room. You entered the front door and you saw basically everything it had to offer. Now that I've made friends here and that some of those friends have left Korea, I have got quite the rockin' pad made up of their leftovers. I have a couch! I have a rug! I have a stereo system! I made some art that is now hanging on my walls. In fact, this apartment may just be the nicest place I've ever lived outside of my parents house, come to think of it. top

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