So you wanna teach English in South Korea? Smart.
Whenever people tell me they can’t travel abroad because of college loans, I ask them why they’re not teaching in Korea. As of 2014, it is, hands down, the best way for citizens of the USA, UK, South Africa, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to quickly earn money while also having an adventure.
I get tons of emails asking me about my experience, so I figured I’d answer the most frequently asked questions here. If you’re wondering more about the intricacies of life in Korea, rather than the teaching, check out this post about what I do and don’t miss about Korea.
Bottom line: The life is easy, and the money is good. If you’re in need of money, adventure, or both, I’d recommend teaching English in Korea. You’re going to have good days, bad days, and WTF-am-I-doing-here-days, but that’s life.
FAQs About Teaching English in Korea
Do I have to speak Korean?
No; you’re expected to teach your classes in English. The whole point of you being there is to expose the kids to a native accent and Western culture. That being said, it’ll definitely help if you learn some Korean. It’ll come in handy in classroom so you can talk to and discipline kids, and it’ll also help you get around outside of work.
Do I need teaching experience or a TEFL certification?
No again. Of course, a love of kids or previous experience teaching will be helpful — but is definitely not necessary. If you haven’t ever taught before, I’d do some reading into best practices for getting kids engaged and excited. It will help so much in the classroom; besides, you want to do a good job, don’t you?
You also don’t need a TEFL certification, but I’d recommend it anyways. I took this 100-hour TEFL course before going. It was easy, and it meant I earned an extra $100 each month I was abroad.
How do I get a visa? Where do I find a teaching job?
You’ll apply for your visa once you’ve signed a contract with your school. How you find your teaching job will depend on whether you want to teach public or private school, which I’ll explain in detail below.
Should I work at a private school (hagwon) or public school (EPIK)?
There are two main types of English teaching positions available in South Korea: private school and public school. I don’t know too much about private schools (hagwons), since I worked at a public school, as did most of my friends. I taught through the English Program in Korea (EPIK), which is run by the Korean government.
Hagwons, on the other hand, are private English-language schools. Korean children attend them before or after regular school to work on their English.
I chose to teach with EPIK, because it seemed more reliable, and I liked the hours and vacation. I’d heard rumors about hagwons closing suddenly and not paying their teachers, etc. But, if you get a good one, most people enjoy it.
Pros of teaching with EPIK
- Regular hours: 8 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday; at hagwons, you might work 2-8 pm, or a split shift
- Easy work day: You’ll only teach a few hours a day, with the rest of the time to lesson plan; at hagwons, you’ll be in the classroom the whole time you’re there, which is exhausting
- Five weeks of paid vacation: Hagwons usually only offer two weeks
- Reliable: You can know with a fair amount of confidence that your school won’t close, and that you’ll get paid; I’ve heard some horror stories about hagwons suddenly closing
Cons of teaching with EPIK
- Feeling of isolation: You’ll likely be the only foreign teacher at your school; at hagwons, you’ll be one of many
- Can’t pick location: You won’t find out your school until you get there; with a hagwon, you’d know beforehand exactly where you’ll be living and teaching
- Long commutes: Again, you won’t know this until you get there, but you might have to commute up to an hour to your school; whereas hagwons usually house you within walking distance
- Large classes & lots of students: At hagwons, you’ll have smaller classes and get to know your students better
Everybody I know says that, overall, EPIK is a better program. I don’t know anybody who switched from EPIK to hagwons, but I did know teachers who were trying to switch the other way.
I knew a girl at a hagwon in my city who taught eight hours straight, five days a week, with two weeks of vacay a year. Though this might sound pretty normal, you’ll see that my situation was a million times better.
How does EPIK placement work?
It’s first come first serve for city/province choice, but you won’t know what age group, school, or city you’ll be in until the end of orientation (which is a few days before you start).
If you want a popular location (Busan, Seoul, Jeju), you should get your application in as early as possible. I knew I wanted to live on the beautiful island of Jeju, so I made sure my application was in on the first day it opened.
What is teaching with EPIK actually like?
I worked Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. I only actually taught 22 classes per week though — and each class in elementary school is 40 minutes. So I was really only in class from 9 am to 12 or 1 pm each day.
The rest of my time was free for lesson planning and fooling around on the internet. (This spare time was when I started my blog!) Only on very rare occasions did I ever have to bring work home.
I taught second through sixth grades. I saw each class once a week, and most of my classes had about 30 students — so I had 700 students, which sucked. I didn’t get the chance to really know any of them.
This varies a lot though; for example, my friend taught at a country school on Monday and Tuesday, where he was alone and saw every grade twice, and then at a city school the other days, where he only taught fourth and sixth grades.
As for the actual material, there’s a national curriculum you must follow. What your responsibilities will be will vary greatly with your school and co-teacher. Technically, there will always be a Korean teacher in the room with you, though this doesn’t always happen.
In my situation, I had one co-teacher who’d have me plan the entire class, and another co-teacher who would take care of the first 20 minutes (from the textbook), and I’d be responsible for a fun game, song, or activity to practice the material.
How about the Korean kids?
They’re adorable. I mean, when are kids not? In elementary school, they’re highly engaged and interested, and they LOVE you. In middle school, they start to get an attitude and lose interest, but they gain it back in high school.
They have a lot of pressure on them to succeed, which is hard to understand coming from another culture. I was horrified to learn of third graders staying up until midnight to finish their homework, but it’s the way of life there.
Another thing to note is that the level of the students varies immensely. They don’t really believe in separating students, so I had mentally handicapped kids in classes with kids that spoke near-fluent English. It was challenging, but not impossible.
What is EPIK housing like?
Again, this totally depends. You will have your own furnished studio apartment with kitchen and bathroom, but the size, location, and quality can vary greatly.
While living on Jeju, I was housed in a remote apartment building used solely for teachers. My apartment was big by Korean standards (probably around 350 square feet).
One negative of EPIK is that you can sometimes have really long commutes. (With a hagwon, you’ll usually live very close to your school.) You might have to split your time between two or more schools, so you won’t necessarily be close to any of them. Commutes on Jeju ranged from 10 minutes to an hour and a half, with the standard being about an hour door-to-door.
What is the the salary for teaching English in Korea?
Ah, the money. Besides the smiles of the kids, it’s the best part of the job.
Not only do they pay for your flight, relocation, and housing, but they give you a good salary. Oh, and it’s all tax-free. (Unless you’re Canadian.) This is the BEST place to earn money and pay off loans if you’re from an English-speaking country and have a four-year university degree.
I took an online TEFL course before I came (it cost $400), so I got about $1,750/month tax-free after health insurance, school lunch, and pension. My housing was paid for, so I easily put more than $1,000/month towards debt/savings, and led a very posh life compared to at home. (I ate out a few times a week, bought things if I wanted them, etc.)
And that’s about the minimum you’ll make. If you were an English major or have a teaching certificate, you’ll earn more. Here’s a complete list of EPIK salaries.
Plus when you leave, you’ll get a bonus of about $5,000 (severance pay, flight allowance, and pension refund). You really can’t beat it if you want to make money.
Should I teach English in Korea?
That depends. Are you adventurous? Do you like kids? Are you willing to go with the flow and not get easily annoyed at cultural differences? If you answered yes to all of those questions, then you’d probably like it.
The pay is excellent for the amount of work you have to do. The kids are incredibly cute and eager to please, at least in elementary school. It is very safe. The vacation opportunities are awesome. I was able to travel to the Philippines, Mongolia, and Japan — while getting paid!
What are the cons of teaching English in Korea?
South Korea is VERY different from the United States, and it’s easy to get homesick. Different food, different language, different movies, different life!
Everything in Korea is a process. You want to find out some information? You can’t just do a Google search and go find it. You have to ask your co-teacher to call for you, then get lost on the bus, then try to explain to the actual store what you want/need. It’s important to understand that you’re going to lose some of your independence and freedom due to the language and cultural barriers.
The culture is also extremely different, and it drove me CRAZY sometimes. You have to be prepared for things to change at the last minute and a lot of stuff gets lost in translation. It can be incredibly frustrating. There were days when I really just wanted to go home, but most of the time, I was glad to have such a good job.
I’m in. How do I apply to teach English in Korea?
Let me warn you: The application process is LONG and confusing. Get started early. It’s recommended you apply six months before you want to go; so July through September for the following spring, or January through March for the following fall.
If you want to teach with EPIK, you should speak to a recruiter. They’re free to use, so why not? They will have all of the most updated information and be able to help you through the application process.
I went with Kirk at Gone2Korea, whom I’d highly recommend. He always answered emails within a day and was super helpful and nice. I’ve also heard good things about TeachAway and Footprints. You can also find hagwon jobs on Dave’s ESL Cafe. The BEST website on teaching English in Korea (and everything else about expat life in Korea) is Waygook. If you have any specific questions, ask in the forums there; you’ll get real-time info from people who are in Korea right now.
What other questions do you have about teaching English in Korea? I’m happy to help!