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So you can’t really have a website about working overseas without addressing that big beautiful elephant in the room of making money teaching English overseas. Can’t do it. But since I have not undertaken noble task of spreading Western imperialism through language myself, I thought it might be interesting for those of you out there who would like to get your feet wet working overseas by discussing how you can make money teaching English in Korea by someone who has actually done so. So I asked Naomi from the travel lifestyle blog Anywhere But Home to shed some light on the topic to see what the hubbub was all about.
What is it like working as English Teacher in Korea?
I’m Naomi, and I spent two years living the dream (hell yeah!) as an English teacher in Seoul, South Korea. After college, I knew wanted to move abroad again, and started looking into solid career opportunities in Asia. I love languages, so teaching English stood out instantly, and after doing research about the different packages for teachers, decided to apply for jobs in Korea. Teaching jobs in Korea have the most attractive benefits (free apartments, flights there and back, good vacation days, health care, and the ability to save a lot), but I was also attracted to Korea because it was such a big mystery – everyone can recognise elements of Japanese and Chinese culture in the West, but we really don’t know much about Korea. It’s strange. After getting there, I kept encountering elements of Korean culture that I’d never seen before – the food, the old architecture, the hidden folk religion – and just fell in love with the country. It felt like I was learning something new every day.
What does teaching English in Korea entail?
Teaching jobs in Korea can entail having as much as a Masters and 3+ years working experience, to having nothing more than a passport of an English-speaking country and a foreign face. What I tell everyone that asks me about teaching English in Korea, however, is this one thing: go for the public schools.
Teaching in Private Schools – Hagwons
Jobs with private language academies, also called hagwons, are notorious for the bullshit their owners will pull with employees: not paying you on time, denying you health care, overworking you, firing you in the 11th month of your contract so they don’t have to pay exit bonuses, and on and on. 99% of the horror stories you might hear about teaching in Korea come from ex-hagwon employees.
Teaching in Public Schools
Public schools, on the other hand, are where it’s at. They’re government-run and will stick to the contract you sign. For these jobs, you will need a Bachelors in any subject and a TEFL / TESOL / TESL certificate. There’s no difference between the three, simply the acronym 😉 You can get this certification either in a straight-forward 100 hour online course or in a classroom – there are plenty of places to do this in English speaking countries. I did an online course and it was informative, affordable, and very worth it. It should be said that you can find hagwon jobs that don’t need certification, but those are going to be the shitty, shady employers. Approach with caution.
What does the teaching English in Korea actually look like?
In the public school system, you work normal hours (typically 8:30-4:30) Monday to Friday, with weekends off. Contractually, you have to work 22 teaching hours (or classes) a week, so if you don’t have 22 classes normally, you might be asked to teach after-school classes. I typically taught two after-school classes per semester, but never got out later than 5:15. Though my after-school classes had a free curriculum and I could design all of the material, my main classes were based around a textbook, from which I’d create lessons and activities. I also wrote exam questions and conducted speaking tests, but never had to assign homework or grade assignments.
As for professionalism, teachers are highly respected in Korea, and expected to act the part. This means dressing presentably at school, covering visible tattoos, and maybe removing any visible piercings other than ear piercings. I have a nose piercing, but my principal was pretty chill and never asked me to take it out.
How much money can you really make teaching English in Korea and what are the best teaching jobs?
It’s not so much what you make, but what you save – what I tell people is that, typically, you can save 1000 USD a month. Some will save more, some less, of course, but this is a good average estimate. The schools will pay for your rent, utilities and transport are a bit cheaper than in the West, and even though my friends and I were out almost every Friday and Saturday night having fun and getting ridiculous, I was still putting away about a grand each month. Additionally, you get entrance and exit bonuses to pay for your flights and resettlement costs, as well as bonuses for re-signing your contract and working extra after-school. Hagwon jobs used to pay more than public school jobs, but that wasn’t the case when I was there (and, besides…they SUCK!). The absolute pinnacle of teaching English in Korea in terms of salary are university jobs. They also give you 5 months of vacation! Competition is fierce, though, so if you’re just trying to pick up a bit of cash it’s theoretically possible to get private tutoring jobs to supplement your income. However, this can be a bit tricky, as the visa regulations for English teachers specify that we can’t get a second job. Tutoring happens all under-the-table.
What kind of Salary do you make teaching?
Public school jobs have two intake periods: August and March. For an August start date, I started talking with my recruiter and compiling the documents in March, to be submitted at the beginning of April. Similarly, for March start dates, you submit your application in November or late October. Your salary depends on your qualifications and experience, with the base pay (a Bachelors plus TEFL) starting at 1.8 million Won/month in Seoul, 2.0-2.2 million Won/month elsewhere. The most recent pay scale is here.
Keep in mind that, for the public schools, you have to sign a year-long contract, so this is more a job for people who have time to really live in a foreign country, instead of stay for a few months and then travel on. It’s so worth it, though – and most of my friends and I wound up renewing for a second year.
How can one actually get a teaching English job in Korea?
For public school jobs, it’s easiest to go through a recruiter. They’re a third party agent who helps you get your application together. You don’t pay a recruiter anything, as they get commission from the school system, so beware any recruiter who tries to ask for 150$ for ‘postage.’ I went with Korvia.com and had no problems. Note that the public school program goes by three names: SMOE for teaching in Seoul, GEPIK for teaching in Gyeonggi Province (around Seoul), and EPIK for all other provinces in Korea. Don’t worry too much about the difference; your recruiter will forward the application accordingly.
The public school jobs are a bit more work to get, as you’ll need apostilled and notarized copies of your degree & criminal background check, as well as to apply about 4 months in advance, but they are so, so worth it. You could theoretically just drop into the country and look for jobs, but again, you’d probably only find hagwon jobs, and would just have to do a visa run later. Far easier to apply outside of the country. As for hustling for private tutoring opportunities, again, as it’s technically illegal for teachers to take a second job, you can’t go through any official channels to find them, so if you want these gigs, you just have to hope that someone knows someone whose kid needs tutoring.
What is the lifestyle like living in Korea?
Lifestyle in Seoul
I can only really speak about the lifestyle in Seoul, as I lived there for the entire two years I was in Korea – but it was SICK. Seoul is one of the most fun cities on the planet, there’s always something to do, there’s always people to meet, and there’s always something going on. If you are ever bored in this city, there’s something wrong with you. Entertainment costs about the same as in the West, in terms of going out to eat, getting a coffee, buying drinks, or going to events, so the prices won’t shock you. There are really cheap ways to have fun, though, like hitting up the 7-11s for booze and sipping soju cocktails on the patio chairs outside. Dinner can also be cheap if you stick to the local places – I know my friends were really into Korean BBQ (even vegetarians like me can find dinner there, too) – and there are quite a few clubs with no cover. Again, even going out on the weekends and doing a bit of cafe hopping still had me saving a grand each month.
Korean Art Scene
There’s also a really, really fantastic art scene, and all sorts of gallery events happening. As for meeting Koreans, Korea tends to be an insular society, and Koreans can be very shy about speaking English to foreigners, but if you learn a bit of Korean and make the first move, it’s quite easy. My biggest mistake was not learning more Korean than I did, which I do regret. I only really had enough for random things like dating, finding vegetarian food, and basic daily survival, but if I’d learned more I could have made more Korean friends who didn’t speak English. Not that I don’t love my Korean friends who speak English, of course!! 😉
What did your free time look like living in Korea?
Life in Seoul was never boring. A typical weekend for me could involve anything from cafe-hopping and graffiti-spotting in the districts of Hongdae or Samcheong-dong, exploring Seoul’s beautiful remaining traditional architecture in Bukchon Hanok Village, witnessing a shamanist ceremony after hiking Mt. Inwangsan, going to gallery openings or art events in Hannam-dong and Haebangcheon, spending an afternoon for free at the truly outstanding National Museum of Korea, joining the crush of humanity shopping for clothing and cosmetics under neon-signs and towering malls in Myeong-dong (which really gives Tokyo a run for its money), having a picnic under the trees with friends at the green spaces along the Han River, scoping out the beautiful people in the rich neighborhood of Apgujeong, or partying late in Sinchon, Hongdae, or Gangnam (yes, THAT Gangnam).
Traveling Around Korea on Time Off
Another great thing about Korea how easy it is to travel around – to go from one end of the country to the other takes, at most, 6 hours with a bus. That’s it! This made for many weekend trips around Korea (when we could find a weekend to get away – which was actually quite difficult with all the fun stuff happening in Seoul). During these weekend trips, we lived like monks in the Temple Stay program (eng.templestay.com/), hung on the beach in Busan, saw fields of vibrant soft coral and rainbow-coloured tropical fish SCUBA diving off Jeju Island, and explored Korea’s archaeological history in Gyeongju. My favourite weekend getaways, though, were all the weekends my friends and I rented a pension somewhere an hour or two outside of Seoul, spent a night and two days out there, had adventures during the day, grilled up a storm at night on the ubiquitous Hibachi, woke up riotously hungover and made our way back to Seoul on Sunday afternoon. This is easiest to do with a Korean speaking friend, as all of the pensions we booked had websites, but no English translations. I’ll never forget these weekends (…I mean, of what I can remember anyways…) because they were so simple, so fun, and such a perfect way to spend time with the crazy friends you make in Korea.
What is the dating and lifestyle like in Korea?
The dating scene is pretty good. Though, again, Koreans can be quite shy about their English with foreigners, nearly every foreigner I met in Korea dated a Seoul native at some point. Typically the Korean partner would be an English-speaker, though it can go the other way. Despite the stereotype, I’d say that there’s an equal distribution of foreign man – Korean woman and foreign woman – Korean man couples. Appearance is very important in Korean culture, which means that people take serious care in looking good – and makes Seoul look like a never-ending stream of models. I have met Korean men with more cosmetic products in their bathrooms than I’ve ever had in my life. One Korean friend of mine was completely shocked when I laughed at the idea of a Western guy using facial exfoliant! Or maybe that’s just the Western guys I know…
It’s funny, though, for as much as foreigners and Koreans date, there are some pretty intense cultural differences that can come up. For instance, one Korean friend of mine told me that she considered a man her boyfriend after they’d had one kiss. Another said he couldn’t date someone he wouldn’t seriously consider marrying. And as for sex, a third Korean friend of mine compared Western and Korean sexual partners in the following way: ‘Less active, more conservative.’ I’ll leave you to guess which is which. This is a gross stereotype, however, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to judge another person on it before testing the waters themselves 😉
Conclusion on Teaching English in Korea
So I haven’t taught in Korea yet, mainly because I have serious commitment issues (run girls), but it sounds like if you want to actually make money (ie, you have a big ass student loan to pay back for that super impressive liberal arts degree that you now have), then this could be a way to get the experience of living abroad, getting paid and having something on your resume that reads better than booze cruise coordinator. [I would still totes hire you though]