ESL Teaching 101: South Korea

There are surprisingly few paths available to those who want to travel long term. Save up at an office job for a few years. Become a digital nomad. Pick fruit. Become an au pair. Teach ESL.

Teaching is one of the most popular choices, as it pays decent money (depending on where you are) so that you can live abroad for a year (or more) and be set up to travel more when you have finished your contract. There are a lot of places to teach: Oman, Saudi Arabia, Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Georgia, and many more. Each of these places has some good and some bad. I can say, fairly definitively, that the easiest place to get a job is Korea. (Yes, South Korea. No one goes to North Korea, I promise.) You do not need your TEFL. All that you need is a Bachelors.

Now, you do have to jump through a lot of hoops. Gone are the days when your interview was one Korean asking if you spoke “Englishee” and hiring you if remembered not to say “Neh.” Also, and this sucks, it helps to be blond haired and blue eyed. But since your school will fly you here, find you an apartment, and pay for your rent, you can get to Korea without much saved up. Other great places, Taiwan and Japan especially, require you to have loads of money already in your bank account.

As a general rule, jobs in the Middle East pay a lot better. They also have much longer contracts–3 years isn’t unusual. In Korea, it would be pretty hard to get anything other than a year contract. As the economy stays horrible in our home countries, more and more people are making a career out of working for one school. I have heard that there are something like 40,000 jobs a year and about 35,000 applicants, so there are jobs year round, although keep in mind that most statistics are made up. And the best times to look for a job are in March and September.

You can use a recruiter, or just check Dave’s ESL, a place to look at that has hundreds of job announcements and also is the sort of unofficial font of wisdom in terms of forums. The only caveat is that it does seem to attract unhappy posters a lot more than positive–which you’d probably expect. People having lots of fun don’t usually take the time to post. But the job listings there (and at Workandplay) are great for finding a job. A better place for forums/discussion is waygook.org.

I personally wouldn’t use a recruiter because they really only want to sign you up with a school and make their money. They don’t care too much if they put you where you’ll be happy.

Some things to think about: What city would you want to live in? Seoul is the second largest city in the world, crazy busy, and has the most foreigners in the country. Other places are more kicked back, closer to mountains or beaches, but less convenient and less Westerners. (Normally I’d say get as far from other Westerners as possible, but there’s the language barrier to think of and Koreans have a reputation for being somewhat xenophobic). Initially I was thinking of a city other than Seoul but I quickly decided on the capital.

Then you have to decide if you’d rather teach a public school or a private (hagwon). Though hagwons usually pay a bit more money, they can be quite dodgy and it’s a crapshoot if they’ll live up to any of their promises. (There are blacklists you can check but they’re not comprehensive). Public schools have more vacation time and you know you’ll be paid on time, etc. But you have huge classes and it’s hard to work in Seoul, plus the pay is quite a bit lower.

You might not be able to choose this, but you want to think about what ages to teach. Most teach kindergartners, but you can teach all the way up to high school. The younger kids you teach, the less actual grammer you need to know. but the more energy it will take. Many who teach young children find they lose the ability to speak in complete sentences, so keep that in mind as well.

Any school you want to look at should provide at a minimum 1) free round trip airfare 2) paid accommodation in (non-shared) housing 3) a severance pay of one month at the end of your 12 month stay. Although the US dollar sucking has made it not as good a deal as it used to be, you can still (depending on your spending habits and any possible debts you might be paying off) end the year with anything from 8000 to 12000 saved up. Japan is a stone’s throw away, and China is very close too so the opportunity to travel is very real. Or you can save during the year, and then get a free one way plane ticket somewhere and travel to your heart/savings content when your contract is finished.

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