Considering teaching ESL in Korea
March 17, 2010 9:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering going to Korea to teach English, but am having some doubts. Should I still do this?

Due to a combination of factors I discussed in part here and here, I'm considering going abroad to South Korea to teach English for a short time (1-2 years max). Sounds well and good, but lately I've been having doubts and am looking for an objective opinion.

I have talked to one recruiter in particular who was very helpful - she praised my solid work history (I've spent five years since college climbing the corporate ladder, but basically burned out last year for reasons I won't go into here), but was still a bit hesitant, basically pointing out that my overly technical degree and work background was working against me. In her words, I sound too "boring" and would possibly drive away students.

I'll admit that this is basically meant to be a stopgap - it gets me out of the U.S. for a while, allows me to save up money I really need, and buys me time so I can figure out what I want to do next in life. Given that I've been unemployed and living with my parents for a while, it seems like a good opportunity to get out of my current rut and move forward with my life.

So I'm curious to hear from anyone who's done this: would I have a hard time in Korea? Do I need to be more entertaining somehow? Is there anything else I can do to make myself a better teacher, considering I don't know squat about teaching? I'm not really worried about handling Korea itself, but I am a bit worried about being able to entertain a classroom full of kids when I've never even created a lesson plan before.

Sorry this isn't a concise question, more of an inquiry of advice from those that know more than I about ESL. Thanks
posted by photo guy to Travel & Transportation around South Korea (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to Korea, but I have about 4 years experience doing the same thing in Japan, and I think there's a lot of crossover between the teaching thing in both countries. Honestly, teaching English in Japan, and probably Korea, is a job almost anyone can do. That doesn't mean that anyone can do it well, but almost anyone can do it well enough to be considered a passable teacher by most of the schools over here. Most people who do this don't have prior teaching experience. Usually people get training from the company that hires them when they start, often just enough to make sure that they won't be complete disasters when they enter their first class. Although, there are definitely people who are terrible teachers here who still manage to keep their job. I think the most important thing is being personable and flexible.

You mentioned teaching kids. Do you have prior experience with children? I didn't when I started, and that was a bit of an adjustment. As long as you are flexible though, and don't get too hung up on getting the kids to do exactly what you tell them to do all of the time, you'll be fine.

The English teaching experience can be a lot of fun. It's a great way to spend a few years. You'll make some good friends, see some new places, eat a lot of really delicious food, and there's a good chance you'll even enjoy teaching, so I'd recommend doing it.

For what it's worth, I did pretty much the exact opposite of you, worked a job I didn't like my first year after college and then came to Japan, expecting to be here for 1 year and have now been here for 4. I've had a fantastic time, and have a lifetime of stories to tell. The biggest downside I see to the whole teaching English thing is, now that I'm trying to move into a more professional career, I have to be a little bit creative when I market myself. 4 years of teaching experience doesn't get you much without a good explanation of some of the skills you developed along the way. So my other piece of advice would be, even though you've got some good professional experience behind you, try to make sure you're developing some sort of skill set while you are over there... the language would be a good place to start. That'll give you more options further on down the road if/when you decide to move on from teaching English.

Oh, yeah, and if it doesn't work when you get there, you can always quit and come back.
posted by farce majeure at 9:41 PM on March 17, 2010

YMMV, but my cousin quit an overseas teaching gig (can't remember if it was Korea or Japan) because he was expected to mete out corporal punishment, and he wasn't comfortable with that. Just something to check into. I have no idea if that is typical, but he was certainly not warned ahead of time.
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 9:52 PM on March 17, 2010

Best answer: I went to Japan to teach English for a year after university (I didn't know what to do with my life either... hell, *still* don't but I'm working it out), and my brother is currently an EFL teacher in South Korea, and has been there for four years now, with plans to stay for the long haul (he's been talking about marriage with his delightful Korean girlfriend and opening his own school). The things I think are most important for an ESL teacher are the ability to think on your feet, the ability to make a complete fool of yourself for a cheap laugh (i.e. my first name in Japanese is phonetically the same as the word for 'yarn,' so I used to write that on the blackboard when I was teaching, just to get a giggle out of them), and a great amount of flexibility. I'd also bone up on your pantomime skills, and learn how to speak slowly and over-enunciate.

But, to be sure, my brother knew less than squat about teaching when he showed up, and went from teaching in an English school, to teaching at a public school, and he's deciding between moving from Daegu to Seoul, or pursuing certification to teach at university. Memail me if you'd like to get in touch with him, as he's a really good resource for teaching materials, lesson plans, as well as other, more general teaching stuff.
posted by mornie_alantie at 9:55 PM on March 17, 2010

My first teaching experience was an TEFL internship abroad. I spent a lot of my time just figuring out what the heck to teach the kids. Teaching is hard enough when everyone can understand what you're saying. It was tough, though you'll get the hang of it. However, it isn't for everyone.

Is there any way you can volunteer in a classroom before going? Maybe even just helping out at after school program? (What's your timeframe on this decision?) It would just be a shame to get there and realize you hate it.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:00 PM on March 17, 2010

Best answer: Just returned six months ago from teaching English in Korea. I taught at a public school.

To answer your questions directly:
You could hardly be too boring. In fact, just the opposite, being a foreigner you'll be both celebrated (ie a celebrity) and loathed (ie discriminated against) in varying degrees.

I had meals paid for by complete strangers. I also got cussed out by complete strangers for playing non-gambling card games. My girlfriend and the foreigner she was with had bricks thrown at them before being shouted down for being foreign. Once had a bus driver turn out of his way to take me and some friends to the best fishing spot on an island.

But the good and bad are nothing that couldn't happen anyplace in the UK or US or Thailand or Poland or wherever (and similar things have happened in each of those places I've been).

The point is you'll be judged first and foremost on your scarcity as a foreigner, second on your physical appearance (which actor or actress do you look like), third on your personality (are you funny, friendly, rich, married or kind?), and finally, fourth, on who you are, in a Western sense.

If you're teaching in a public school, especially at the elementary level, you need to know nothing about teaching. Chances are you'll act more as a baby sitter and court jester than a bona fide teacher. Lesson plans are all created at the national level. In a Hagwon (private academy) your mileage will vary considerably. You could end up tutoring one on one, or you could end up teaching conversational classes with adults (in which case you'll need to create your own curriculum -- my friends printed articles off the internet and read and discussed them in class), or you could end up with a class full of kids who haven't had a chance to play all day, teaching from a professional curriculum.

To be honest, and without knowing you, I'd admonish you to be more worried about the culture shock elements of the transition than the teaching. Kids will love you almost automatically -- they're great, really (except 3rd graders, who are monsters!), so your biggest challenge with them will be to keep your cool and maintain proper professional distance when they continually lavish you with appreciation.

The culture, if you're from the west, and especially if you haven't traveled, may be the more difficult aspect to adjust to. I suggest checking out Korean movies, Korean music, Korean food, Korean history, and as many exposes on modern Korean culture as you can, to prepare your expectations correctly. Also, feel free to MeFiMail me and I'll point you to some blogs that could help prepare you.

In the end, teaching in Korea is a fine alternative to doing nothing. I'm in the same place you are at the moment, and I'm thinking about doing the same thing. In fact, I just advised my friend to move over there and he's settling in at Ulsan as we speak.
posted by Galen at 10:33 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm leaving Korea in a couple of weeks after two and a half years of being here. I know very little about "teaching" kids because that's not what I've been doing, but I do know about Korean language and culture. On that, I'd say that if you're respectful and open-minded (which is not synonymous with liberal), you'll do fine. If you're not, you'll get bitter quickly. You'll grow to hate the country and the people in it, and you'll think it's Korea's fault. But the truth is, there are many people who think they're respectful and open-minded when they aren't, really.
posted by smorange at 11:00 PM on March 17, 2010

Culture shock is what I'd imagine to be the biggest hurdle. It's also the biggest reward because you'll learn to see the world in a completely new way.

Granted, I was 17 when I lived abroad. I was a foreign exchange student, spending a year in South America. If I said my life was richer for the experience, it would be the understatement of the decade. Seriously.
posted by 2oh1 at 11:56 PM on March 17, 2010

I've been teaching in Korea for eight years and am here indefinitely. Memail me if you'd like info or specific advice.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:56 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Disclaimer: I do not work in Korea, and am very much a novice teacher.

I don't think you need to worry about your technical background making you unsuitable to teach English. It matters far more what you do in the class than what you did before. Perhaps when you're writing job applications you can mention extra-curricular interests which are more creative (music, drama, etc). I work teaching ESL at the moment, and I'm not particularly outgoing, but the past year teaching has been great.

The reasons you give for wanting to teach abroad sound pretty typical for someone launching themself into this kind of job! I'd encourage you not to be put off, but to understand that you may not end up doing the work you expect.

For me too ESL was a stop-gap, rather than the first step of a teaching career. I'd say this is the case for the majority of people I know doing this particular job (skews towards early 20s college student), though it's certainly not the case for all ESL teachers. That doesn't mean I don't take my job seriously, though.

A few questions: what would your potential job description be? Do you have to teach grammar and writing skills or would you be doing spoken activities?

Anyway, a couple of things about teaching.

Things which work well with my mostly teenage students: activities which are simple, fun and a break from the routine. Anything that has a competitive element is great (think taboo, pictionary, cranium, jeopardy...). Divide your class into teams and go for it. If you have prizes (sweets from your home country?), all the better. A little bribery never went amiss!

Things which do not (at least with my students) work well: reading comprehension, "write five sentences in the 2nd conditional"-type exercises, discussion of Serious Subjects. If an activity is not working -- if students are bored and mutinous and not speaking English -- I change activity. The flipside of this is that I sometimes feel like I'm just playing games.

The two most difficult things about teaching are the planning (OH GOD) and the fact that it's so repetitive. I may do the same activity/lesson half a dozen times in a week, and there are times when I can feel myself going into auto-pilot. I think students pick up on this.

There are a ton of websites for ESL teachers with activity ideas and games. Here are a few:

-- Dave's ESL café. Particularly the Games section

-- the British Council/BBC's Teaching English website. Not too UK-centric, actually, has a section on speaking games and lesson plans.

-- the Internet TESOL Journal's section with discussion questions is really helpful if you're teaching an older/adult class.

-- Boggles World ESL

The things I think are most important for an ESL teacher are the ability to think on your feet, the ability to make a complete fool of yourself for a cheap laugh... and a great amount of flexibility.

This is very good advice from mornie_alantie and definitely rings true to me.

I have made so many mistakes since beginning this job, but mostly it has been a great experience. My impression overall is that it's not difficult to be just okay at this job, but it is a whole 'nother ball park to be a very good at it.
posted by the cat's pyjamas at 2:52 AM on March 18, 2010

I'm teaching at a university in Daegu and I love it. I've been in Korea for about 1 1/2 years.

Here's the deal -- whatever your recruiter tells you about hours per week and vacation time will be a lie. This is my number one bone to pick but it's one I've learned to live with. Korean employers think of contracts as, quite literally, a list of suggestions. In addition, they emphasize "classroom hours" or "teaching hours" and won't say anything about prep hours. In my experience, especially starting out, you preparation time will be in a about a 1:1 ratio with your teaching time. Further, be prepared to make your own curriculum out of nothing. (Is your recruiter telling you they already have a curriculum in place? Nine times out of ten it's a lie.) If you're in a public school situation you'll have some guidelines, but you'll spend every evening of your first few weeks making your own posters, name-tags, and other teaching utensils. (At this level and this age, kids really need the visual stimulus.)

Good things? Well, it's really freakin' cheap to live here. You can eat out every night of the week and have some of the best food you've ever tasted (you do like really spicy food, yes?) and it will be cheaper than cooking for yourself. (Although that's cheap as well.) Korea is also pretty modern though, so it's never hard to find "Western" options (bakeries, coffee shops, and Italian restaurants are everywhere, even outside of Seoul). I've never had any problems with confrontations or anything like that, but I also don't act like a jagoff like many foreigners here do. (From reading your post, you don't sound like you'd have any problems on this end.)

I'd worry less about the "Korea-ness" than I would about the teaching. Teaching is really hard work. Teaching well is even harder. But there are decent resources on-line, and hopefully you'll develop good professional relationships with your co-teachers. You might get some help from your boss, but remember that hagwon owners are business people first and educators second (if at all).

FWIW, my plan all along was to do the hagwon thing for a bit then transition to a college job (same pay, but much better i.e. fewer hours). Once you're in-country you'll find opportunities at better places if you're thinking of a longer-term stay. Otherwise, you'll most likely end up in a hagwon, and you'll most likely be working 9-10 hour days with only two weeks vacation time for the whole year. Parents will expect to be able to contact you with their concerns big and small at any time. (These are very much for-profit institutions, as much as they try to hide that fact.) Things like your physical appearance will matter more to them (and your boss) then will your actual teaching skill. Questions of "Are the kids happy?" will be of great significance to your boss and parents then will "Are they learning English?" Be prepared to be flexible and take things in stride or else you will go crazy.

That's about it. Bring a good camera!
posted by bardic at 2:53 AM on March 18, 2010

would I have a hard time in Korea?

Depends entirely on you and how you get on with (a) teaching and (b) living in Korea. I know plenty of people who love both those things, plenty who despise them and plenty who love one and hate the other. It's hard to predict how an individual will react, so I'd suggest you read as much as possible about Korea and, if possible, do some teaching where you are now (there may be immigrant centres who would welcome a volunteer teacher).

Do I need to be more entertaining somehow?

Again, only experience can really tell you. It appears you'll be teaching children, so you will most likely be expected to be more of an entertainer than a pure teacher. Do you enjoy playing with children? Have you ever babysat a young child?

Is there anything else I can do to make myself a better teacher, considering I don't know squat about teaching?

Yes, plenty. There's some advice in this thread, assuming that's the sort of teaching you'll be doing.

I'm not really worried about handling Korea itself,

This might be because you've spent some extended time in Korea already, but if not, it's a bit worrying that you're not worried! Korea is not an easy place for everyone. It has a culture that most westerners find quite alien and many teachers end up seeing some of the 'worst' parts of it (the education system, the small town mentality and amoral business owners) face to face.

There have been some discussions (1,2) on metafilter that might help you to tell whether this will be a problem for you.

Feel free to ask more questions in-thread.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:22 AM on March 18, 2010

Best answer: I probably know a few of you MeFites - or bumped into you along the way - want to MeFi me? Go right ahead :)

Hi, I'm Chris in South Korea. I've been an English teacher in Korea since March 2008, and blogging about it all the way - feel free to Google it and you'll find my blog easily :)

Korea is a wonderful place to live, work, and enjoy life. There are pros and cons to living in Korea, as to anywhere in the world. With that said, the teaching profession is sort of a joke. Most hagwon (private schools or academies, some specializing in English) focus on Keeping The Parents Happy - they're the ones paying for the kids to attend, so the management will care more about keeping them happy. The emphasis isn't necessarily on TEACHING - but making sure the kids are happy and trying to teach them something along the way. It may be implied that your continuing in your job relies on what the parents think of you. It's totally irrelevant to being a teacher - but then again, foreigners are sometimes hired because they're foreigners - not necessarily the best teachers in the field.

If you want to teach English, you can do that anywhere someone is willing to learn. If you want to get out of the US while finding gainful employment, Korea is an excellent place to do that. It's a job, yes, but one that will get you out of a cubicle or a dead-end job.

A note on recruiters: they work for the employer, not you. When you sign a contract with a given school, the recruiter gets paid. Not before. Their prime motivation is to get you here - and it's not unlike a realtor's search for commissions. You wouldn't ask a realtor for a straight answer on 'is it the right time to buy / sell?'; likewise, you wouldn't ask a recruiter if you're looking for a job. When it comes to Korea, they only get paid if they place you.

A SECOND note on recruiters: many are known to fudge on location. If they say 'around Seoul' it can mean an hour-plus away from central Seoul. 'Near Seoul' means nothing. If it's in a big city (Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, Daegu, or Gwangju), ask for the nearest subway station, then look it up on your own. While the location isn't the end-all, be-all of life in Korea, there's something to be said about being close to the things you'll enjoy. Being stuck two hours away from everything cool is no fun.

There's plenty more advice on my blog - if you have any specific questions, feel free to MeFi me. If you're another MeFi reader - chrisinsouthkorea AT gmail DOT com - or google Chris in South Korea for my blog :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 5:38 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm currently a teacher in Korea. It's an easy job, for the most part. You'll most likely be given a curriculum and a book, and you won't have to worry too much about being creative. I am very creative in my classes, and I know my kids like it, but they pretty much expect school to be boring. Korean kids are worked hard. If being boring is your biggest worry (instead of, say, the language or the culture or anything), I think you'll have no problem over here. Just keep an open mind!
posted by canadia at 6:16 AM on March 18, 2010

I lived in China for 6 years and taught English there for a good portion of that time.

If teaching in China is anything like teaching in Korea (and I have reasons to believe it is); you may be expected to be somewhat "clown-like" as a foreign teacher. Yes, you are an attraction simply for being foreign/white, but (at least in China) students expect their "foreign teacher" to be entertaining and extroverted. Personally, because I am not extroverted, I ran into some issues with students thinking I was a bit boring. You might want to think about music and games you can incorporate into the class. Don't worry about it too much, though. Being white/foreign should be enough to secure your job. (this is all true for China, and I think it should be similar for Korea.)
posted by bearette at 7:14 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice! Definitely going to hold onto all your answers for future reference.

I actually have a lot of travel experience and have been to far rougher places than Korea, so the culture shock and "Korea-ness" doesn't worry me as much as being able to handle a full classroom.

Due to my time frame, I am looking mostly into hagwons - I'm hoping to be in Korea by sometime in May and I think most public schools only hire at semester breaks (February and August). The lack of vacation time and heavy teaching load in the standard hagwon contract does sound like crap, but it's only for a year...hopefully I can either find a better job or leave when the contract's up.

I guess my only concern is that like bearette, I'm a bit of an introvert who isn't used to leading classes. Glad to hear I'm not the first person to face that issue though...
posted by photo guy at 9:01 AM on March 18, 2010

One thing it took me a while to learn -- physical contact (hugs, letting the kids treat you like a human jungle gym, playing the "jump high" game, etc.) is perfectly fine in Korea. It's encouraged, actually. In some American school districts this would get you fired, but Korea has a much more sane view of positive, encouraging contact between children and teachers. Give high-fives and hugs as often as possible. The kids love it, and so do the parents. Get over that reticence as soon as possible. Honestly, it was one of the more entertaining aspects of hagwon. Heck, as a male teacher you might even be asked to be the "Physical Education" teacher like I was.
posted by bardic at 7:34 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I actually have a lot of travel experience and have been to far rougher places than Korea, so the culture shock and "Korea-ness" doesn't worry me as much as being able to handle a full classroom.

Travelling != living. (and rougher != harder)

I've also travelled a lot in 'rough' places (an old and overloaded 3rd world sea ferry which genuinely almost sank, slept rough, hitch-hiked through the night, the usual backpacker tales) and all of that was a cinch compared to living and working in a different culture (which is what I've done for over a decade). You won't be able to easily move on, you will find the irritations far more irritating, you will have a long-term relationship with a boss and a landlord and colleagues, you will have a job that you have to do etc.

Maybe you'll be fine, but having lived, worked, recruited and managed in Korea for five years (and that in a relatively non-Korean working environment), I get a red light when someone is blasé about coming to work here. The fact that Korea isn't 'rough' and in many ways looks like a Western country actually makes the very different culture more shocking when you encounter it. Your boss may wear a suit, drive a big car and live in an ultra-modern apartment block, but you may still be expected to agree with him, even when he's obviously in the wrong, because of his position in society.

Anyway, regarding the 'introvert in class' issue, I'd repeat that you need to spend as much time as you can with children (babysitting?), if you're not already used to dealing with them. Read some of the books suggested in the thread I linked to and think about which of the suggested activities you can carry off, given your personality.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 9:58 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Busy Old Fool is right. Travelling isn't at all like living in a foreign country and culture.
posted by smorange at 2:42 AM on March 19, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks again everyone! I'm feeling a lot more confident about this.

@Busy Old Fool - I understand your concern entirely, and you bring up some valid points that anyone preparing for a move abroad should consider. Rest assured that I have been considering this for months and have talked to a number of people who live or have lived in Korea. Despite my attempts to prepare, I'm still expecting a culture shock on many levels. I didn't mean to sound blase earlier, I'm just saying that I feel I'm as prepared as I can be to weather the transition.

@chrisinseoul - Thanks, I bookmarked your blog. I'll e-mail you if I have some more specific questions, so watch your inbox :)
posted by photo guy at 8:28 AM on March 19, 2010

@photo guy - you're welcome :)

Regarding hagwons, there have been enough stories about the public schools being screwy with their native English teaching staff. SMOE (Seoul Metro. Office of Education) decided last year to fire 100 teachers they had ALREADY HIRED before they had arrived in Korea. The situation gave the system a bit of a black eye amongst the more experienced expats - the newer ones probably wouldn't have had a clue until / unless someone told them. Hagwons almost seem like the safer choice. The best gigs are the universities, though - if you have the Master's degree and something special to add to their school, it's definitely worth applying.
posted by chrisinseoul at 10:12 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Regarding hiring timelines: Public schools are also always hiring. You may have to be more creative to find the positions, but my district had a number of teachers enter mid-semester. If they have a vacancy, they want to fill it, as they get more money from the national office of education when they have Native English teachers.

You don't have to settle for a Hagwon. Also, if you do go the hagwon route, check it on Dave's ESL cafe (as suggested above) and google it for blacklistings.

Do you know whereabouts you want to live? Perhaps we can help guide you to a great location, so you can at least have a pleasant view.
posted by Galen at 1:12 PM on March 20, 2010

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