Teaching English in South Korea

If you’re interested in new experiences, making some money and seeing the world, teaching English abroad could be for you.

I’ve just returned from living and travelling overseas for the last year and a half. The typical question I get asked is “How was it?” to which I can only respond, “It was phenomenal!” At some point, the discussion turns to my experience teaching English in South Korea. I’ll sum up my enthusiasm by saying: best. decision. ever.

Earlier I wrote an article for this very site on teaching English in South KoreaI believe the article influenced Mike (Editor in Chief at Art of Backpacking) since he’s off to China to teach English to university students!

I finished up my teaching contract in South Korea in February. Since then I’ve travelled through most of southeast Asia and am now back in my home town of Winnipeg, Canada, looking to shoot a movie and to start a movie business. I thought I’d write out some of my experiences of teaching English abroad in case you’re a fresh graduate, close to graduating, or just looking for a change and new experiences.

[pullquote]I would do it again in a heartbeat[/pullquote]First, did I enjoy myself? Yes, absolutely. I met a lot of great people from around the world and had a lot of fun teaching kids English. I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed my teaching experience. Even though at the end of my contract I was ready to move to another country, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Being a Canadian citizen, a native English speaker, and holding a M.A., well, throw a dart at the map and chances are there’s a job for me there. That’s the way it is right now. I don’t believe it will always be that way. As a matter of fact, perhaps Chinese will become the next in-demand language.

Some people are concerned about not knowing the local language. Well, it’s not necessary, but it really helps. In places like Taiwan and Thailand, you can get away with not knowing any of the language because English has been so widespread there. In South Korea, not so. The country’s been closed off and only (in the last couple of decades) opened its doors to foreigners teaching English. They run a government program (EPIK) which places you in a public school with a co-teacher.

Grade 3s Drawing Monsters

Grade 3s holding up their “monsters” after a class about body parts. (Photo: Jung Hun Ok)

My experience was very positive in this situation, except for the times that my co-teacher was so busy that she would leave class mid-way, and I had to pick up wherever she left off. Sometimes it was confusing, but, by month 3, I was able to do that sort of stuff.

[pullquote]You think you’re anxious about not speaking their language? Think about how they feel![/pullquote]Some people will be placed in remote locations which require you to learn some of the language simply because very few people speak English. Learning the language also helps put the other person at ease. You think you’re anxious about not speaking their language? Think about how they feel!

The next time you’re not being promptly served in a foreign country maybe it’s because the staff is doing rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to deal with you. I’m not saying learn the entire language, but a few verbs, nouns, and adjectives would get you by. And by the way, don’t expect to rattle off a great sentence that you practiced on the plane ride over and then understand ever word the other person has to say. Nope. A few verbs, nouns, and adjectives will suffice.

And how about all the different foods you’ll encounter? The best thing to do is to try it first, then ask what it is. That was the best way to try cow’s intestine. Do they eat dog in South Korea? Yes, but you have to go out of your way to find it since many Westerners are repulsed by the thought. In Cambodia (where I volunteered for a month), I made the mistake of asking what one food was and was told that it was tarantula. So I only tried a leg instead of the whole thing.

Teaching English is one of the few lucretive international jobs you can get with quite easily. Yes, in South Korea, the money is good if you don’t spend it all on partying or on stuff that you might not need. Just think, if you buy it abroad and plan to return home, you have to pay shipping costs or try to sell it. In South Korea, I had my expenses down to about $800 a month so I could bank about $1k a month, which then paid for most of my trip through southeast Asia.

Pretty good I think, and not something I’d be able to do in Canada. Some people I’ve told this to have said that’s not bad, but not very good either. Well, for a 27-year old bachelor with no expenses and no debt, it’s pretty good. I hear you can do the same in Taiwan. The Middle East is also becoming a lucretive market for teaching English. Thailand? You’ll make enough and party pretty hard but I don’t know about saving money there. Currently, I’m looking to Saudi Arabia.

[pullquote]Teachers instead of soldiers, you tell me, would it work? I think it would.[/pullquote]There’s a saying that when someone discovers something new, they have a tendency to over exaggerate its importance. Perhaps that saying is applicable to my teaching experience abroad. If so, I’ve had a lot more people asking me about teaching English than about anything else these days. I can’t help but think, what if we sent teachers to countries instead of soldiers? Maybe some of them would be slaughtered (bad idea), but maybe in the not so hostile environments they would help break down borders between the people of different countries. Teachers instead of soldiers, you tell me, would it work? I think it would.

Will taking a year off impede my career development? Some people told me that I was taking some time off “from real life” when I applied to be an English teacher. Some of my friends say that they wish they could “run away” like I did. Wow. Well, all I can say is: “this is life, exactly because I’m living.” Blantantly obvious, stupidly simply, yet even I needed to go abroad to see that just because you’re educated in one field, have experience in another, doesn’t mean that you are trapped doing the same thing for the rest of your life.

On set during the Coffee And Milk movie shoot. Steve directs the students while Jae Min and Murat prep the cameras. (Photo: Jung Hun Ok)

On set during the Coffee And Milk movie shoot. Steve directs the students while Jae Min and Murat prep the cameras. (Photo: Jung Hun Ok)

If anything, from what I can see, the world is getting a whole lot smaller. Plus, it really depends which career you want. Some international experience doesn’t hurt, and probably can help you in an interview. These days, some employers would like to have people who can travel successfully. For me, I was concerned mostly with finding a job that was far from home, paid a decent wage, had a good music scene and an independent movie industry. I found all of those in Busan, South Korea. While there, I was really far from Winnipeg, had a well paying job, joined a jazz/blues band within the first few weeks and was able to complete two short films. One short film was a class project for my advanced grade 6 English class. It’s titled Coffee and Milk and is about an English teacher and one of his students each having a bad day.

Those six points sum up my experience teaching English abroad. My time abroad was a great experience and I don’t think it’ll be the last. This summer I’ll be working to make a feature length movie, but you can be sure that I have one eye on the international job market, especially teaching English.

  • backpackingmatt

    Great perspective – thanks for sharing this. I’m considering teaching English in Korea in the next year or so, and really enjoy reading other peoples experiences. I was somewhat surprised at the amount of money you could save, from what I had heard you could stand to make / save about double that. I guess it varies dependent on placement.

  • backpackingmatt

    Great perspective – thanks for sharing this. I’m considering teaching English in Korea in the next year or so, and really enjoy reading other peoples experiences. I was somewhat surprised at the amount of money you could save, from what I had heard you could stand to make / save about double that. I guess it varies dependent on placement.

  • http://www.teachingexpat.com Eric

    I couldn’t agree with you more on everything you said. I am 9 months into my contract, and I am loving every minute of it.

  • http://www.teachingexpat.com Eric

    I couldn’t agree with you more on everything you said. I am 9 months into my contract, and I am loving every minute of it.

  • http://www.wayfaringhabit.com Stacy Moore

    Sounds great — Does anyone know, is there a similar demand for English teachers in South America?

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      The demand is there. From what I’ve been told though, the pay isn’t as great. Still just as good of an experience though.

  • http://www.wayfaringhabit.com Stacy Moore

    Sounds great — Does anyone know, is there a similar demand for English teachers in South America?

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      The demand is there. From what I’ve been told though, the pay isn’t as great. Still just as good of an experience though.

  • http://www.livingthedreamrtw.com Jeremy

    I have friends that taught English throughout Asia,.. China, South Korea, etc. It does appear that South Korea is the best on the money aspect in terms of Asian destinations. I know that my friend who lived in China and taught had to stay in a dorm on a college campus and barely saved cash, which the couple in South Korea had a 3 bedroom apartment fully loaded, free car, and saved enough to travel S.E. Asia for 4 months plus the US for a month and a half after they got home.

  • http://www.livingthedreamrtw.com Jeremy

    I have friends that taught English throughout Asia,.. China, South Korea, etc. It does appear that South Korea is the best on the money aspect in terms of Asian destinations. I know that my friend who lived in China and taught had to stay in a dorm on a college campus and barely saved cash, which the couple in South Korea had a 3 bedroom apartment fully loaded, free car, and saved enough to travel S.E. Asia for 4 months plus the US for a month and a half after they got home.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/glgoetting gene goetting

    Steve,

    Thank you for sharing your experience of teaching English and encouraging others to do the same.

    Gene

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/glgoetting gene goetting

    Steve,

    Thank you for sharing your experience of teaching English and encouraging others to do the same.

    Gene

  • http://www.theroadforks.com Akila

    Steve, We never even heard about teaching in Korea until we went there and realized how badly they want American teachers. I think it is a great way for travelers to head out and still make some money. The only negative I heard from people is that it involves a lot of work and you get very few vacation days.

  • http://www.theroadforks.com Akila

    Steve, We never even heard about teaching in Korea until we went there and realized how badly they want American teachers. I think it is a great way for travelers to head out and still make some money. The only negative I heard from people is that it involves a lot of work and you get very few vacation days.

  • Jesska

    How about Japan? I’m interested in going abroad there. Do you need a degree too?

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      You’ll need a degree for Japan as well. Most of the same rules apply with Japan as with Korea.

  • Jesska

    How about Japan? I’m interested in going abroad there. Do you need a degree too?

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      You’ll need a degree for Japan as well. Most of the same rules apply with Japan as with Korea.

  • http://notaballerina.com/ Amanda Kendle

    It’s funny, isn’t it, how so many people think going abroad to teach is “taking time off” – I had the same reaction and even after six years abroad when I returned home, the first thing my former colleagues asked me was when was I going to “get a real job”!! You definitely just have to ignore these people. Nice article.

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      Six years and still questioned? They’ll never ‘get it’.

  • http://notaballerina.com/ Amanda Kendle

    It’s funny, isn’t it, how so many people think going abroad to teach is “taking time off” – I had the same reaction and even after six years abroad when I returned home, the first thing my former colleagues asked me was when was I going to “get a real job”!! You definitely just have to ignore these people. Nice article.

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      Six years and still questioned? They’ll never ‘get it’.

  • Rae

    I’m a high school student and (forgive me for sounding stupid) wondering what those of you who have taught English in other countries studied in college. For example, I do not want teaching to be my life career but I have an interest in doing it so that I can save up money while being in another country. Getting a degree in teaching takes about four years, right? Well, I don’t really want to spend five million years in college getting a degree in teaching and then in whatever other career I might actually want to spend my life doing. So what did you guys do? Or did you all actually want to be teachers and just got a degree in teaching?
    I’d love it if someone would respond… ^.^

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      Hey Rae,

      You don’t need to major in teaching to be an English teacher abroad although I’m sure you’d know more about teaching if you did. You just need to come from an English speaking country and have a degree. That’s really all it takes. You could have a degree in business and it wouldn’t matter to the schools.  Of course, you still need to enjoy teaching though. Many of the teachers abroad are working towards something better. Perhaps to study a language, start an online business, or learn about a culture while they teach English. It’s important to have a bigger motive than to simply teach English because that position will not go very far but should be taken as a stepping stone to bigger things.

  • Rae

    I’m a high school student and (forgive me for sounding stupid) wondering what those of you who have taught English in other countries studied in college. For example, I do not want teaching to be my life career but I have an interest in doing it so that I can save up money while being in another country. Getting a degree in teaching takes about four years, right? Well, I don’t really want to spend five million years in college getting a degree in teaching and then in whatever other career I might actually want to spend my life doing. So what did you guys do? Or did you all actually want to be teachers and just got a degree in teaching?
    I’d love it if someone would respond… ^.^

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      Hey Rae,

      You don’t need to major in teaching to be an English teacher abroad although I’m sure you’d know more about teaching if you did. You just need to come from an English speaking country and have a degree. That’s really all it takes. You could have a degree in business and it wouldn’t matter to the schools.  Of course, you still need to enjoy teaching though. Many of the teachers abroad are working towards something better. Perhaps to study a language, start an online business, or learn about a culture while they teach English. It’s important to have a bigger motive than to simply teach English because that position will not go very far but should be taken as a stepping stone to bigger things.

  • Nynafrank

    Hello. Just a quick question. I have a degree in tesl but it’s from a local university and im from malaysia. Do you think i can get a job in korea? Just wondering cuz i am interested in teaching there.

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      I’m not sure quite sure. You should contact a hiring agency to find out though.

  • Nynafrank

    Hello. Just a quick question. I have a degree in tesl but it’s from a local university and im from malaysia. Do you think i can get a job in korea? Just wondering cuz i am interested in teaching there.

    • http://artofadventuring.com/ Michael

      I’m not sure quite sure. You should contact a hiring agency to find out though.

  • Odaruj

    There are a lot hiring agencies out there, for  South Korea. I am really looking forward in doing so, do you have any recommendations of which one to chose? Which one did you work with?

  • Odaruj

    There are a lot hiring agencies out there, for  South Korea. I am really looking forward in doing so, do you have any recommendations of which one to chose? Which one did you work with?

  • Pcmante

    Yes I would like some recommendations from hiring agencies too please

  • Pcmante

    Yes I would like some recommendations from hiring agencies too please