Teaching in South Korea

So you’ve made the decision to teach abroad, but you’re not too sure where to go next. Do you go to Bali, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Korea? The list goes on and on. Speaking from a completely biased point of view, I would recommend Korea as the first stop on your globe-hopping journey.

But, why Korea? What is so special about teaching in Korea? Let me lay it down for you:

1You will get an insane amount of vacation time (think Buddha’s birthday, Lunar New Year, school holidays, spring break, etc) Yes, you will have to work and work hard if you want to be a good teacher, but the random days off here and there will give you a breather from school life.

2 – Flights are cheap. You are basically a hop, skip and a jump away from some incredible vacation destinations. When holidays roll around, the question is never “am I going?”, but always “where am I going this time?” Since I’ve been here, I’ve spent time in Japan, Vietnam and Bali, and have traveled around Korea to my heart’s content.

3 – The kids are worth it. Yes, you will have some bad apples (especially if you’re teaching at a Middle School), but in the long run you won’t want to trade even your worst kids for anybody else…and the kids love you too. If you’re an elementary school teacher, be prepared for chocolate sticks on peppero day, cards on teacher appreciation day and oodles of love when you eventually leave. If you’re a middle school teacher, you’ll get giggles, marriage proposals, a lot of joking around and a lot of requests for your number because the kids just want to know your awesome self.

4 – Good pay. Ok, let’s be honest here, you’re not raking in the dough, but when you think about it, you’re also not paying for rent and your utilities are pretty dirt cheap every month. The only expense that might drive you insane is the price of fruit, but if you hit up your local market instead of the grocers, you’ll save a pretty penny. The bottom line is that you’re most likely making more than your Korean co-teachers, will be paid $20/hour for any overtime classes you do (and you will do them), and since you shouldn’t have too many “necessity” expenses, you’ll be able to save a fair chunk of cash. And let’s not forget the severance and pension pay you get at the end of your contract, the resigning bonus if you renew your contract, and the fact that they reimburse you for your flights to and from Korea. Not too shabby.

5 – The People. Yes, the first few weeks in Korea will be a bit of an eye-opener, and you might feel out of your depth with the new culture, spitting on the streets and throwing used toilet paper into the garbage, but once you get past those hurdles you’ll also see that Korean people are some of the most welcoming and helpful people you will ever find. If you make some friends here, you’ll never want for anything. Seriously, I called into school sick one time and had a dozen missed calls on my cellphone from friends and co-teachers asking if I was ok, if I needed anything or if they could drive me to the doctor.

While all of this might sound fine and dandy, I would be lying if I said everything was always peaches and kittens. It wouldn’t be fair to tell you only the good stuff, and not warn you about some of the frustrations. After all, making the decision to move to a new country should be a well-informed one. So, in the interest of full disclosure and you making a decision based on all the information, here are some of the headaches that you might also encounter:

1 – The textbooks. You’re going to love teaching your afterschool classes, because that is all on you. BY this, I mean that you don’t have to follow a badly written textbook like you do in regular class. That being said, your lessons with the textbook can be as boring or as fun as you want them to be. If you’re an elementary teacher, you’ll be doing some real co-teaching so you’ll have a little less say in how the lessons are structured, but you’ll still have the chance to bring your own ideas and games to the classroom. If you’re a middle school teacher, you’ll be doing less co-teaching, and the lessons will be what you make them, so make them fun. The kids don’t want to do listen and repeat, you don’t want to do listen and repeat, and you’ll all just end up falling asleep if that’s all you ever do. So, add games, songs, contests, etc. to your lesson plans to give the kids a little variety. Plus, the more effort you put in, the better your kids will be.

2 – The co-teachers. I love my co-teachers, but sometimes you may not be so lucky and you’ll end up with a co-teacher who is a)unhelpful, b)rude or c)useless. If that does happen, know that you have other teachers in the school and outside of it that you can turn to for support or ideas. If you’re ever truly stuck, you can check out waygook.org for some lesson plan ideas that will put you on the right path if your co-teacher is especially vague. If you do end up with a co-teacher that is less than stellar (and the chances of this are pretty low), make an effort to get to know them (bring in some cookies or coffee for the office, talk to them, invite them to dinner), and they’ll do the same in return.

3- The kids. Wait, what? Didn’t I just say that they were one of the benefits of teaching in Korea? Yes, but they can also drive you crazy with their sleeping, their nail painting in class and their bullying. The best way to avoid having problems in your class is to be firm, but fair from day one. Don’t try to be too firm though, because if you’re always the teacher who’s angry or stern and never smiles, they’ll eventually stop listening to you. You want to be the teacher who, when the smile disappears, so do the kids’.

4 – The culture. Again, pardon? Yes, the culture can be welcoming and fun to discover, but you’ll also learn that in Korea, it’s perfectly ok for people to comment on your appearance, your life, your food choices, etc, etc. whenever they want. Here, this is not considered rude. If you get called fat (it’s happened to me), know that they are not trying to be mean and try not to let it bother you too much. Just remember, you are in a different country with different cultural norms, and you need to attempt a “go with the flow” attitude to get by. If it does get to be too much, never forget that you have other expat friends who will likely be feeling the same way and a good venting session over wine always helps.

All of this is NOT to deter  you from coming to Korea. In fact, I’ll reiterate my opening statement by saying that, from a biased point of view, you should definitely begin the global teaching journey here. Korea is a wonderful blend of old and new, and is a great gateway to discovering East Asia. The expat population here is large and supportive, so you’ll never be or feel alone. If you’re looking to start a new adventure, Korea is an adventurous, but still safe, place to start.

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