Michael is a Canadian who is currently living in South Korea while teaching English to high school students. He is currently completing his second year of teaching.
Introduce yourself. Who are you and where are you from?
My name is Michael Thomas. I was born in Mississauga, Ontario, lived in Toronto for a few years and am now in my second year of living South Korea. I’m a general partaker of many nerdy things, like comics, and am a big fan of good TV. I’m also an avid Toronto Blue Jays fan and have been running a Canadian music blog since 2009.
Where you teaching (city, country) and what are is it like living there?
I’m currently teaching in Yeonggwang-eup (Yeonggwang city), Yeonggwang-gun (Yeonggwang county), South Korea. It’s in South Jeolla Province, which is the southernmost province on the western half of the country. Yeonggwang-gun has about 75,000 people and is mostly a pretty rural area, though Yeonggwang-eup has been slowly building up a lot of metropolitan-looking stores lately. It’s a small city, and you can walk from one end to the other in about 20 minutes.
What made you choose to teach here at this location?
When I first decided to teach abroad, I wanted to do something new and get away from the city and country for a while. I originally applied to teach in Japan, but when that didn’t work out, I found a good lead on jobs in South Korea. I ended up being placed in Yeonggwang through the job application, and I read up a lot on South Korea’s history and culture before arriving.
The Teaching Job
What type of school do you teach? What grades / levels do you teach?
I teach in the public school system at a technical high school, which has classes for engineering, electronics and cooking. I teach the Canadian equivalent of grades 10, 11 and 12.
What are your main responsibilities?
At school, I am technically an “assistant English teacher,” however I lead my classes with the help of a Korean co-teacher. Because high schools generally don’t use textbooks as much, I plan my own lessons from scratch. I also am responsible for a two-hour after school English club once a week.
What is your typical schedule?
I work a fairly typical schedule for English teachers in the province. I work Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. High school classes are 50 minutes each and I usually teach about 20 classes per week.
What is your favorite thing on the job?
My favourite part of the job is when my students get really excited while playing the games I’ve planned for the class. Their sense of competition is quite funny at times, and it’s especially nice when the students are quickly answering questions based on a concept I just taught them.
What is your least favorite thing about the job?
My least favourite part of the job is mostly beyond my control. High school students are in school for a long time every day and may have extracurriculars afterward, so a majority of the time I have at least a handful of students sleeping at their desks. I don’t take it personally and aim to teach the students who are interested in English—if they’re not interested, it’s not worth trying to get through to them.
What is your salary and benefits?
As part of the job, I am provided an apartment by my school, and was given an entrance allowance to cover my flight. I have health coverage while I’m here and will be given an exit allowance when I eventually leave the country.
How do you make friends? Is it easy to meet locals and/or other expats?
Shortly after arriving, I was added to a Facebook group specifically for people living in Yeonggwang. It’s mostly used by the foreigners living here so I’ve met pretty much every expat who lives here. Making friends with Koreans is definitely harder because of the language barrier, but I hope to make some Korean friends before I leave.
Do you speak the local language? If you do, how did you learn it? If not, how do you get by?
I can read Hangul (Korean writing) because it’s extremely easy to learn, but speaking is another issue. I’ve built up a bit of a vocabulary and can get through with some very basic Korean, but I definitely cannot hold my own in an extended back-and-forth conversation. It’s not a huge deal though; I have no problems in buying things from stores and can recognize questions like “Where are you from?” or “Can you speak Korean?” or “Do you need a bag?”
Have you ever encountered social barriers based on your appearance, race or ethnicity?
Since I don’t live in a major city, I definitely stick out as a white guy. The attention I get is almost never creepy or bad for the most part. I sometimes get Koreans staring at me but I understand it’s not with any kind of judgment. Foreigners are still pretty uncommon in Yeonggwang. Being a foreigner can be fun sometimes when I’m at a festival or something, because the organizers will usually find a way to rope me into an activity. I ended up involved in a drum performance during a festival in Jindo, for example.
How did you find this job?
I found the job and applied through a Toronto-based agency called Canadian Connection. It recruits from candidates in Canada, the U.S., the UK, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
How can someone apply for the same position? What qualifications do you need?
To apply, you fill out an online application at first. By the time the offer comes through, you should have a TEFL/TESOL/TESL certificate. In the initial interview and application, you should have a good reason when asked ‘Why do you want to teach in Korea?” Do some research on Korean culture and do not tell them you want this job because you want to save money or travel.
What qualifications do you have?
I have a journalism undergraduate degree and I also took a TEFL certificate.
What was the recruitment process like?
I had an initial Skype interview, and after that the application was mostly written only. No more interviews after that.
In a few words/ sentences, how can you describe your overall experience?
Overall, teaching here has been a pretty great experience. It’s a mostly low-stress job, and the students make it worth going to class when they’re interested and playful. I definitely feel like I’ve learned a ton about the country just from being here and talking to different kinds of people. In my second year of teaching I’m still learning a lot about good teaching techniques. As a vegetarian in Korea, eating is sometimes a challenge (most dishes have meat or fish), but I’ve adapted and seek out vegetarian options wherever I go. Korea is small enough that I’ve been able to visit about two dozen cities in the country, and transportation is also cheap enough to allow that.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who wants to move abroad and do what you are doing? Would you recommend your city?
If you’re planning to move abroad and work in a non-English-speaking country, the best thing you can do is research. Find out what customs are taboo and expected. Learn as much as you can about your city beforehand and while you’re there—where are the grocery stores? Where can you do fun things? And of course, expect culture shock. No matter how much you prepare, some things will be tough to get over. Just accept that certain things will not change for you; the country is not going to bend over backwards to serve you. Yeonggwang itself is a pretty good place to live—I’ve always seen it as a good mix of urban city and rural area. It’s also less than an hour away from a major Korean city, Gwangju.
What are your future plans?
My plan is to finish this second year of teaching in Korea and then go back to Canada. From that point, I’m looking to go back to school and train for a new profession. Should I find another opportunity abroad, I’ll keep it in mind too.
The ‘Teaching English Around the World’ is a series of interviews of real people who are teaching English in different countries. It was made to inspire you to move abroad and to show you how many countries you can go to with a teaching English career. If you are interested in participating or to learn more about the project, please view here.