Justin Tadlock

So you wanna teach in South Korea?

What is it like out there? How much should I get paid? Am I getting screwed over by my recruitment agency?

These are all good questions to ask when applying for a job overseas. There are plenty more you should ask too, and you are right to ask them.

I get 10 or so emails every week on the application process and life in Korea, which is odd because I’ve only blogged on South Korea a few times. Instead of replying to each individual person with an email that takes me an hour to write, I’ll try to give an overview of everything here.

Before continuing, I want to say that I’m in no way an expert on life in Korea. There are plenty of others out there that can tell you more. I’ve only been here a little over three months. I urge you to talk on message boards, to other bloggers, and just ask questions to anyone and everyone about the experience because everyone will likely give you different answers.

This post is about teaching at a hagwon (English after-school academy), but some things may apply to teaching at a regular school or camp.

Things you need to know:

Before you set foot on that plane, you need to eat all the hamburgers, drink all the milk, and stock up on all the deodorant that you can. I’m saying this in all seriousness. A good hamburger will cost about $15. You won’t find good milk. Bringing a few sticks of deodorant is a good idea. Girls, if you have a lot of specific needs when it comes to hair and body care products, you might want to pack them.

You’ll have to readjust your lifestyle a little. You won’t be able to get all the things you’re used to getting. I don’t tell you this to scare you away, but to inform you. This can be a big shock to some, but an opportunity to experience a different way of life for others. Learn to embrace some of the differences.

Important money info:

Of course, you want to know how much money you’ll make and costs included. Do not sign a contract for less than 2.1 million won a month (this applies to working 35 hours/week). Anything less is just thievery. This seems to be a standard rate for new teachers, at least from what I’ve been told by others. The school should also pay for your apartment rent because prices can be, well, pricey. If they don’t pay for it, make sure you’re compensated with extra money on your monthly paycheck.

Do not pay for your plane ticket to Korea or back home. This is also the school’s responsibility.

The only things you should pay for before coming is your passport and possibly your visa. Some schools take care of your visa payment too. You’ll probably have to pay your utilities and cable for your apartment. This isn’t much either. It will probably be less than $200 per month.

Work hours:

The standard workweek is 35 hours. That’s seven hours a day for five days a week. Your work hours probably won’t be during the day either because it’s an “after-school” academy. I work from 3 to 10 p.m. every day.

We have what are called “intensives” during the winter and summer holidays. This is a time when kids take even more English classes and you might have to put in a few more hours every day depending on your school.

Depending on your school’s system, you’ll teach three to four classes a day for 75 minutes a class. The number of classes can vary depending on what level you teach (the higher the level, the more break time you get for preparation).

Recruitment agencies:

I found a job through G’Day Korea, but I’m not necessarily recommending them. I don’t think my recruiter was the best, but he definitely got me a decent job. So, I can’t complain too much. They’re a legit company, but others have recommended better agencies since I’ve been here.

I’ve heard some real horror stories with recruitment agencies and schools. The most important thing you need to remember is that recruiters are “paid” to get get you out here. Their job depends on putting people in schools. That means that some might do anything to get you out here, even if it means bending the rules a little. I definitely suggest asking questions about recruitment agencies on various message boards around the Net. Facebook’s South Korea network might be a good place to start.

I don’t want to make recruitment agencies sound bad, but some of them are a little “shady.” Make sure you ask them everything. If you want to know if Korea has a certain brand of toothpaste, make your recruiter give you an answer. They should make you feel comfortable with the idea of teaching here. No detail is too small. Ask them anything and everything. They are your number one source of information, even if you can’t completely trust them.

Another thing your recruiter should be able to do is get you in contact with a foreigner from the school you’ll teach at. Ask to talk to someone already working where you’ll work. They can give you information on the atmosphere at the school. Give you a feel for how things work.

I’ve even met a few recruiters from other agencies that were hanging out or partying with their recruits on the weekends. If you can find that level of trust and companionship through a recruitment agency, I think that’s the way to go.

Your coworkers:

I’ve been lucky enough to get placed in a great school with a lot of helpful and friendly people. My coworkers, at least us foreigners, are like a big family. We do a lot of things together. We explore new places. Almost every Friday, we have a poker night where we just relax away from work. The family-like atmosphere has made my stay enjoyable.

Make sure to ask how many foreigners work at the school you’re going to. You might want to see if they’re in your age group too. They will be the first friends you make in Korea, so you might want to make sure you’ll fit in. If everyone’s 22 years old that works at the school, and you’re 40, you might not want to do the same things and so on.

The students:

I’ve quickly learned that students can be a blessing or a curse, sometimes both. I teach each one of my classes differently because each set of students is different. If you’re wondering what age group I teach, it’s from 10 - 13 years old.

Most hagwons will want you to treat your job like a business because it is a business. I pretty much ignore them though. I believe it’s my responsibility to teach kids. Nothing more. Let the Koreans worry about the business aspect of it.

Many kids at hagwons come from wealthier families, so you’ll have to watch out for those kids that are used to getting everything they want. It’s best to establish a firm set of rules early on in your class (give out a few detentions on the first day or something). The kids have to understand that you’re an authority figure. Otherwise, they may “walk all over” you for the rest of the term.

I don’t want you to think all Korean kids are bad because that’s not the case. Most people coming out here to teach have no prior teaching or education experience. It’s important to know that you’ll have to be strict sometimes.

I have some classes that I absolutely love and others that I hate. I suppose that’s just part of teaching. I recommend being a little more strict than you’re comfortable with (especially if you’re a nice person already), but lighten it up after the first week or so. You do want your kids to like you.

One of the things about Korean culture that’s different from Western culture is their ability to think about the group. Where we might value individualism, they value helping their fellow Koreans. This is a good and bad thing. It can be really bad in a classroom. Cheating on tests is very common because it’s not seen as cheating. They see it as helping, and helping is always a good thing, right? If there are enough bad students or quiet students in your class, this can change the entire class atmosphere. The rest of the class might be bad even if they’re good students, or might not participate if they normally participate a lot.

Koreans tend to value correctness over creativeness too, although this isn’t totally different from all Western schools. This can also be a problem. Teach your students what plagiarism is from the start. To them, copying from the book is more correct than coming up with their own answer.

I don’t want to generalize an entire culture. These are simply observations that I’ve made thus far. So, take every stereotypical thing I say with a “grain of salt.”

Life in general:

The way of life out here is different depending on the area you live in. I live in the Bundang area, which is on the outskirts of Seoul. It’s a well-populated city, but it isn’t too crowded.

There are plenty of things to see and do. Plus, you have easier access to places like Japan, China, and Thailand. I’ve taken a trip to Fukuoka, Japan that you can read about.

You can get culture shock when arriving in Korea. Their way of life is much more Western than many countries, but things are different. You’ll find that some things are actually better, and other times, you’ll appreciate how good you have it back home. I still haven’t quite figured out their crazy garbage system.

I suggest mentally preparing yourself for change.

Korea is an English-friendly country, and you can probably live here without ever learning a word of Korean, but your experience would be much better if you learned the number system and a few common phrases.

Final thoughts:

This is in no way a comprehensive guide to living and working here. For every topic I write, I come up with something new. So, I think I may continue this if I come up with enough content for another post.

Feel free to ask questions. I’ll try my best to give you answers. Subscribe to the feed for future updates.

And please, if you email me questions about living here, use some form of proper English. Why would I want you to teach English if you can’t write a sentence with a capital letter or punctuation? That goes against everything I believe in when it comes to education. It doesn’t have to be an academically-approved body of work, just something that I can read without straining my eyes.

One final note: Ask every question from multiple sources. Get every detail. Make sure this is what you want to do because you’ll be out here for a long time. I’m loving my experience and am glad that I made the choice to embark upon this journey in my life.