Teaching English in South Korea – Interview with Sean
This was written by my buddy Sean who has travelled and taught English around the world with me. We both started a teaching career in Quebec, Canada, then to France and now finally landed in Asia. He writes about his experience and what made him continue this journey. I think many millennials can relate to this!
We’re all, to some extent, a product of our environment. Geography is a significant factor in a person’s development influencing their beliefs, class, and personal identity. It’s likely that if I had grown up a different part of the country or another country all together my path would have been conspicuously different.
I grew up near Edmonton, Alberta. It’s a city more than 700 km from the American border and more than 3400 Km from the national capital. Edmonton is a working-class city populated by earnest and hardworking people with hockey as the local religion. It’s a nice place to live, but I always felt out-of-place. It was a feeling exasperated by the fact that to get to anywhere else in the country is a long and expensive ordeal.
Like many people my age, I was heavily in debt after university with few prospects for success in my field. My achievement was bittersweet as my degree had come at a very high personal cost to add insult to injury. By the time I finished, the road ahead looked bleak as I had to find a way to pay off my loans and find a practical career path. With such a bleak road ahead, I looked for a way out of my current situation. I discovered a program that allowed recent graduates to experience life in rural Quebec called Odyssey. I signed up, never knowing how transformational that would be.
A New Start
I never thought that I would ever end up in teaching, having come from a family of teachers and seeing first hand the kind of stress and difficulty that many teachers have to endure. I must admit that my first job was more a chance to escape with almost no thought of what I was about to do or how important it was. I was basically thrown to the lions with almost no training or sense of how to teach a class. I somehow managed to fake my way through 50 minutes fearful that at any moment someone, anyone would out me for the fraud I was. By the time the period finished, I truly felt that I had made a difference in the lives of my students. I’ve been in love with teaching ever since.
Moving to South Korea
Three years after I started this career path, I ended up in South Korea. Part of the reason I chose to teach in Korea was the opportunity to save money and pay off my debt. Korea has one of the largest demands for ESL teachers in the world with most jobs being in the private sector. The requirements to teach in Korea typically include a bachelor’s degree (in any field), a 100 hour ESL course in either TOEFL, CELTA, or an equal, and a clean criminal record. Salaries range from 1.8 million won to 3 or 4 million won a month. The jobs typically offer a severance equal to one month’s salary upon completion a yearly contract as well as a national pension equal to 9% of your monthly salary and accumulate depending upon the length of your stay. Accommodation is almost universally free, though in some cases an allowance is offered. Indeed, Korea offers some of the most competitive compensation in the ESL field.
Currently, I am working in Suwon, South Korea as a public school teacher. I typically work standard 8-hour shifts with up to 22 hours of teaching time. My classes are usually less than 30 students at a time with a Korean co-teacher in the classroom to aid me should the students have trouble understanding the material or instruction. Though I am not a fan of the standardized curriculum, I do have some freedom about how I choose to carry it out. I try to use as many visual elements as possible in presenting new vocabulary and ideas and to get them speaking as much as possible. As I am away from major cities such as Seoul, my students have a lower comprehension of English which can make engaging them somewhat challenging, even for someone who has taught ESL for over 5 years. Still, it is extremely rewarding observing their progress, however slow, throughout the semester.
Students in Korea
As one can expect, Korean culture is markedly different from western culture, particularly the work culture. Koreans work longer hours than any OECD country (excluding Mexico). They prepare themselves for arduous working days at a young age with students typically going to at least one supplemental school after they have finished public school. By the time they are in high school, it’s fairly common for students to spend more than 16 hours at school per day…even on weekends. This, of course, is a double-edged sword: while it provides plenty of opportunities for native English teachers, one can’t help but wonder if it’s entirely beneficial for the students.
Working in Hagwons
Most teachers find employment in these supplemental or cram schools called, “hagwons.” “Hagwons” is a ubiquitous source for ESL employment in Korea and is somewhat controversial. While many offer a unique and possibly beneficial source for instruction, the business model can be a difficult adjustment for prospective teachers accustomed to less intensive forms of instruction. Some hagwons approach education as if it were a commodity and not an enrichment and don’t exactly run their operations with the kind of oversight and attention to the needs of its pupils the way an educational institution should.
Warning and Caution
There are many stories of hagwons practicing shady and unethical business practices in an already saturated market driven by “helicopter moms” and an insatiable desire for scholastic achievement. To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that hagwons are bad, but that the industry is a product of a culture that demands success above other factors. There are many reputable hagwons that offer a rewarding experience and valuable skills that cannot be matched.
Outside of work, Korea offers a vibrant social scene. If you are a social drinker and enjoy a good time…it’s paradise. This is one reason that allowed me to adapt to life in Korea where public intoxication at seemingly all hours is a common sight. I’m exaggerating of course, but what is true is that Koreans love to indulge in a drink. I was shocked to find that there is almost no regulation to the consumption of alcohol and that it is common in workplaces to bond with coworkers on a fairly regular basis. I imagine that in a country where it is not uncommon to spend almost every waking hour at work that it is almost a necessary evil to keep yourself centered. Still, it does feel strange when you first arrive and find inexpensive alcohol at every corner store and restaurant and in the hands of anyone at any time of the day. Nowadays, as I step over passed out men and women on the street in dirty business attire on my way to work, I hardly notice it at all
I’ve been teaching for over 5 years on three different continents. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful people and experiencing things I never dreamed of. Had you asked me that I would end up thousands of kilometers from home in a classroom a few years ago, I would never have believed it. I’ve been privileged to have lived and worked in Quebec, France, and South Korea. All things considered, I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. Working abroad is a lifestyle like no other adventure, frustration, weirdness, and exhilaration can compare. As I enter my last year in this country, my only concern is settling back into a regular life in my home country. No matter what the future holds, I am grateful for the opportunity to travel, work, and grow.