An American Expats Guide to teaching English in Korea (or abroad)
I frequently receive emails seeking advice on how to get started to teach English abroad. People also always want me to share the pros, cons, and the points in between. So, it’s taken me a while to sit down and construct this, but here goes:
How did you find your job?
I applied to TONS of jobs all over. By applying more, you will also open up to more opportunities and interviews. The more of these, as annoying and laborious as they can be, the more selective you can become. There are a lot of jobs out there that will take advantage of a clueless expat and likewise, there are plenty that are legitimate. Keep in mind, different countries have different rules and cultural norms. What works in the states, might not be normal in another country…and what is not permissible in the states (ie. hitting a student), can occur quite often in another country.
A really good site to check out for Korea, China, etc is eslcafe.com.
If you’re interested in Korea, check out: koreabridge.net. This is a great resource for those in Busan and/or those looking for jobs in the 2nd largest city in Korea.
If you are an American or Canadian, it is easier to find work in east Asia. They will also offer the best salaries with the cheapest cost of living. If you’re interested in teaching in Europe, specifically, western Europe there are plenty of programs that offer certifications coupled with job placement upon completion. However, these jobs usually don’t cover housing, stable working hours, or offer insurance, plus the cost of living is higher, and you will most likely be living from month-to-month, unless you’re super frugal. But, who really wants to be frugal when you’re flamenco dancing in Spain?
WHY KOREA? They offer the best benefits. You can easily save a lot of money, pay off loans, get out of debt. Schools usually cover airfare to your home country and add a bonus at the end of your contract.
An informative site to research prior is transitionsabroad.com. While I don’t really recommend looking here for jobs, there are a lot of good essays sharing the experiences of other expats.
Always be weary of recruiters, they are eager to make their commission and may place you in an institution or school that might not be suitable to what you’re really seeking. Steer clear of anyone or anything that seems too hasty or pushy. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
What types of questions should I ask my potential employer about my job in Korea?
- Working hours. Be specific. If there is overtime, how much overtime is involved? Will you be required to work weekends (ever??)?
- Housing. Will you have to pay? Can you have the option to select or see the house prior? What utilities will be covered?
- Pension? Many employers in Korea will sponsor a pension. So, each month they make take out a small percentage of your paycheck. Your employer can match this amount and when you leave the country, you will receive a check back for the money deducted from your time. This actually makes for an additional sweet bonus (you also usually receive a one-month bonus upon completion of your contract).
- Holidays and vacation time. In Korea, if you work for an academy, you may not get holidays off. I worked for Chungdahm Institute. While it is a reputable academy and they always treated me professionally, I worked every single holiday and the last 9 months I worked for the institute, I worked Saturdays. Initially, I was aware that I would work through holidays, but working through holidays is a lot harder than one could imagine. I lacked the time to enjoy.
- Ask to contact current foreign teachers and ask those teachers about the pro’s and con’s. Keep in mind, every job has its pluses and minuses.
- If you’re interviewing with a hagwon/private institute: be sure to ask how long the company has been in business and the number of students attending. Chances are if the business has only been around for a year, they still run the risk of flopping. A lot of new independently owned companies may have a tendency to make promises they can’t keep or pay late…if attendance is low, your job might be the first to go (I didn’t mean to rhyme that .
Did you have a TEFL or CELTA? What were the requirements to apply?
I didn’t and still don’t have a teaching certificate. I also didn’t have any teaching experience prior to teaching. To teach English in Korea, or most places in the East, one needs to be a native English speaker with a Bachelor’s Degree in any field. As it is becoming more popular, and thus competitive, English certifications or teaching experience is becoming more necessary.
Jobs in the UAE or Saudi Arabia typically require a PHD or Master’s, plus 3-5 years teaching experience.
What’s the visa process?
Your employer in Korea will pay for your E-2 working visa. There are a few things you will have to organize prior:
The visa process for Korea has become more taxing than it was my first time around. Immigration is requiring an apostilled FBI background check. The request for the FBI background check can take up to 3 months and they will offer little to no information about the status of your application. Patience is of the greatest value.
They need a copy of your college diploma apostilled as well. Both the FBI background check and college diploma must be notarized before they are apostilled. Any UPS store can notarize these documents and after you can send them to the Secretary of State office of your state for apostille.
You will also need passport photos, contract and a health statement. These final three things are a piece of cake though. The diploma, FBI background check and apostille’s are the biggest hassle. I ran into a few of my own obstacles this time around so to obtain all my documents and send them to my employer has taken 4 1/2 painstakingly, frustrating months. I recommend making copies of everything, not to mention, having two FBI background checks and diploma’s apostilled.
Once the documents are sent to immigration (via your employer), you will receive a pin number which needs to be taken to a Korean embassy/consulate. There, you will get your fancy sticker in your passport which will enable you to live and legally work in the country.
How is life in Korea?
Life in Korea is a lot like home (for me, San Diego), but then not at all. While there are many things you cannot find, with a little bit of curiosity, you’ll discover other things will improvise. The thing I love about east Asia is that there’s a million things you can get at cheaper prices. For example, you can get lasik for less than the states. You can also get acupuncture, facials, and your blemishes zapped for super cheap. Pop culture is very important part of Korean society so people always look good, even if they all look the same.
The motto of Korea seems to be, “work harder than any other country and play harder,” but it accompanies no real pleasure either way. Drinking with your boss is usual, as is being drunk in public…and seeing people tossing up their lunch or dinner on the street.
A big downside to Korea is the location. As the country is a hop away from China, the pollution often blows over to Korea, lending to some really bad air quality. However, Koreans are BIG on recycling. Everything is sorted and separated out. It’s actually really good in a lot of ways, even if it makes for a mess in the process. There is always some news from the North (Korea), but its always worse from the outside than it actually is in South (Korea). Korea experiences 4 seasons, although the year I went, winter was a bit longer and so was summer – and both were intense contrasts.
Korea does a lot of things well. For example, if you need a handyman to come fix something in your house, you can call and they will arrive the next day, on time, and be finished within minutes. There is no tipping in Korea either, so when you eat out, you know exactly how much you’re paying. Most restaurants will deliver to your door, you just have to figure out how to order in Korean over the phone.
What was one thing you wish you did sooner?
I wish I had connected within. The best way to understand a culture is through immersion, it also helps develop a life outside of work. I recommend getting involved through locating a group that is interested in your hobbies or exploring new ones. It’s a great way to make friends and create memories. From my experience, people are always eager to share their passion.
From start (the moment you’ve accepted a position) to finish, how long is the process before you actually step foot onto Korean soil?
Before the need for an FBI background check, the process used to be easily completed within 3 to 4 weeks. However, I’m guessing on average now it takes around 3-4 months for everything to be processed. Give yourself time. If you’re interested in teaching in Korea, plan ahead – it never hurts to get your criminal background check completed anyway.
The highs: Ignorance is bliss. Life abroad can be romanticized in a million ways and there’s a million reasons why. Blindly going somewhere grants a multitude of fresh experiences that offer a sort of escape from any previous life. The food is a flavorful adventure, the people intriguing, and the fashions compelling, deterring, and different. There’s always the opportunity to be forced into learning a new language, plunging into a strange culture, and building a new home. There’s something to be said for diving into a new place with blinders on. I knew practically nothing about Korea and the same can be said for India. When you’re feeling curious and bold, tackling fear head on can be liberating.
The lows: Ignorance is not bliss. It’s not easy to pick up and leave behind a place full of memories for a new one, completely alone. Being a vegetarian in a predominantly meat-eating, soju-intoxicated society has been hard. Learning about the cultural anomalies of a new place occur over a period of time and can be difficult to understand. There are things that aren’t discussed and experiences that never occur in the East that take place frequently in the West. There are also things that are valued a lot in the East that I can never or will never bring myself to accept. Bridging the gap between language is challenging as many things are lost in translation. I felt more lonely than I’d ever felt before and it felt like such a deep emptiness at times because I couldn’t hide behind all of those old habits and false comforts. The other hardship was spending the holidays alone, with friends, or at work, but those days always passed.
All in all, the most fulfilling part about living abroad has been the way it has expanded my mind. Of course, I’ve learned more about the world and how similar every culture can be with their problems, but I’ve also developed a deeper appreciation for each unique society and for the one that will always remain home. Korea exposed me to a new avenue of femininity as I’ve started to care more for my nails, skin, and have become far more daring with my wardrobe than ever before. I also learned that I am a lot stronger than I thought and can work harder than I imagined. It wasn’t easy at all as the first month was spent in a lot of tears and it took me about 12 months to feel comfortable. However, the difficulties encountered have helped me become more adaptable and willing to try things without being accompanied by so much fear. The far greatest gift from working and living abroad has been learning to believe in myself and trust that things really do always work out.
As there’s a million questions one can conjure, it’s a guarantee that I have forgotten to address some things, so please feel free to post a question!