For many adventurous souls, living and working in South Korea seems like an enticing prospect. The best ratio of income to cost of living this side of Europe and an abundance of jobs draws thousands of people from across the world every year, only for them to be disappointed or deceived once they arrive. Horror stories flood the Internet of terrible working conditions, deceptive job descriptions and manipulative bosses that cause many to reconsider their life-changing adventure. The reality is that the vast majority of foreign workers find their time here extremely rewarding (both personally and financially) and many if not most renew their contracts in order to stay for at least two years. The key is to do your research, be prepared and not walk into this country blind.
In order to get a job teaching English in South Korea you must meet some basic criteria. You must have a full and valid passport from an English speaking country i.e. The UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland or South Africa. You must also have a bachelor’s degree in any subject – though a degree in education may help you negotiate a higher wage. You should also have a clean police record. Aside from these things the only requirements are an interest in teaching, a willingness to accept and even embrace the idiosyncrasies of a culture vastly different to your own, and a lot of patience.
Public or private?
Teaching jobs in Korea are located in either public elementary, middle and high schools, or private after-school academies called hagwon. Both have their advantages (hagwons pay more and often have shorter working hours whereas public schools have long holidays and better job security) and disadvantages (hagwons can be run by money-hungry directors who care very little for your welfare, and public school class sizes are often in excess of 40, making class control an issue). Both usually provide you with return air fare, either in advance or refunded upon arrival, and single or shared furnished accommodation.
Positions in hagwons are relatively easy to get with the help of any of the major online recruitment companies. Just googling “teach in Korea” will highlight hundreds of options, though you should be careful to, in turn, research the recruitment company to ensure their legitimacy. Once you have selected a position you seem suited for, it is essential that you question the set-up. What are the hours? What time of the night will you be expected to work until (most hagwons operate between midday and 9 or 10pm)? What holiday entitlements will you have? How much will they pay you? (The average for a first-year hagwon teacher is 2.1 million won a month outside of Seoul, a little more in the city and out in the sticks.) Have they had English teachers before? Did they finish their contracts? If not, why not? All of these questions are essential to ensure you are not walking into a bad situation.
Unfortunately recruitment companies will often do anything to secure a viable candidate and receive their commission so make use of the ESL blacklists online such as esllist.com. If your hagwon appears on one, then stay away. If this all sounds worrying then please remember that thousands of teachers, including myself, work very happily in good hagwons run by caring directors. The horror stories are out there because they are just that: horror stories. If you are prepared you should be fine.
Public school recruitment is entirely different from the private school routine. There are several government-affiliated organisations which place thousands of teachers in schools throughout the country every year. The most well-known of these is EPIK but GEPIK and SMOE are also worth a look. Once again, you can apply through many of the major recruitment websites or directly through the organisation’s website.
Public schools tend to recruit twice a year in order to meet demand for the new school terms in February and August and dedicated organisations support their teachers throughout the process with training programs, social events and general advice. The selection process is a little tougher and a TEFL certificate is generally required, though it is by no means an absolute necessity. As opposed to hagwons the working hours are commonly 9-5 and, though the wages are typically lower, the completion and resigning bonuses are higher and the vacation allowances are far more generous than those in private education.
Korea is a stunningly beautiful country. Mountain ranges criss-cross the peninsula and the rough, craggy coastline is littered with scores of beaches and stunning islands. Wherever you are, transport is cheap, easy and extremely convenient allowing you to wear out your your guide book and make the most of your time here. Despite this ease of movement your city will be where you spend the vast majority of your time in Korea and it is important that you consider your personal needs before committing to a position.
Seoul is loud, boisterous and has a huge foreigner community which can be both a blessing and a curse. The opportunities for social interaction, taking part in creative projects and networking are huge but this comes hand in hand with the sense that you may lose some of the “Korean” experience. Smaller cities such as Gwangju and Daejeon have a less thriving social scene and a smaller expat crowd which can equate to a wonderful community spirit. However, while having everyone know your name after two weeks can be comforting for a newcomer, some people may find it suffocating and prefer a larger more vibrant environment. Busan is a beach city with a party vibe and an established gay scene which is rare outside Seoul. Its popularity can make it tough to find a position there as a first-time teacher but those with experience, or just a bit of luck, may make it through.
As with any travelling experience, the more you put in the more you get out. If your city doesn’t have a drama society then start one. If you deplore the live music scene then form a band or arrange a live music night with one of the bars. If there is little or no information for foreigners then begin a blog and ask your friends and colleagues to submit their experience and advice about living in your area. Be proactive and you will make life better for those who will come after you as well as for yourself.
So you’ve found a job and picked the right city for you. Now for that pesky visa. Almost all foreign teachers working in Korea do so with an E2 visa which is valid for a year as long as you remain in the employment of those who sponsored you. Getting the visa can be a complicated and drawn-out process, especially as you are required to provide police checks, apostilled proof of your education history and a myriad other bits and pieces. Though this might sound daunting, don’t let it put you off a fantastic experience. Thousands of people every year survive the mountains of paperwork and go on to successful teaching roles in Korea. Any recruitment company worth their salt should provide detailed step-by-step advice on how to obtain your E2 visa, and if they don’t, they probably don’t deserve you.
A final word
Moving to another country to work is an entirely different experience from just travelling through, seeing the sites, and heading home. Korea is at times challenging, difficult, stressful and can stretch your patience further than you thought it could reach. But if you come with an open mind and a willingness to adapt then you will find it to be a warm, open country filled with beautiful landscapes and charming people. Thousands come every year and find so much more than a good pay cheque; why not be one of them?