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ESL in the Fast Lane: Lessons in Teaching English in South Korea

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With the summer hiring scene quickly approaching and a load of college graduates and other job seekers on the lookout for well-paying, yet stimulating, employment, thousands are flocking to ESL recruiters with opportunities in South Korea. Like most prospective teachers, before I went to Korea I had gathered the bulk of my “reliable” pre-arrival information from the Internet — a technique I now know is radically skewed by the wealth of bloggers who are spending their days in the country for all the wrong reasons (read: binge drinking) and forums like English Spectrum and Dave’s ESL Café, which grossly misrepresent the Korean population. While it goes to say that every experience is relative, I decided it was time to flesh out the behemoth that is ESL in South Korea, giving it a more human voice compiled through the murmurs of instructors from distinct backgrounds who all had different reasons for planting themselves on the peninsula and have witnessed the gamut of educational experiences there.

English Mania: The Basics

Teaching English in Asia

While the biggest draw for teaching ESL overseas is the thirst for travel and adventure, South Korea undoubtedly tempts prospective teachers for additional reasons: money, security, the guarantee of a stable job demanding nothing more than a Bachelor’s degree, and the reputation of its drinking culture. The first job interview I had for a private academy, for example, consisted of only one question (“Why do you want to work here?”) for which a sentence-long answer sufficed, and voila! – I was hired. My flight was paid for, I was picked up from the airport and driven straight to my apartment, and I received quite a handsome salary and benefits package for someone who had only graduated two weeks prior. All of which was a far better option than facing the onslaught of a recession and waiting months for a dull office job to surface in the United States.

Workers in South Korea – especially those in Seoul or other large cities – can also kiss transportation costs and high medical costs goodbye upon arrival. Taxes are comparatively low, there is no need for a car no matter where you are, and doctor’s visits cost about $3 on the national health plan. Most teachers will find that many of the headaches they would otherwise experience in their home countries end up as someone else’s problem in Korea — well, as long as they admit to not being able to speak Korean. Taxes? Your school will take care of that inglorious paperwork. Home Internet not working? Just ask your co-teacher to call up the company. I was shocked to discover that my Korean co-teachers could and should be responsible for nearly all of my needs that required a Korean speaker – which, of course, included almost everything. It’s easy to get away with being responsible for nothing in this context. Many South Korean schools even have low standards for teaching classes themselves, which is why neither teaching certification nor a specific area of expertise are required in most academies.

However, coveted public school positions – which are now rapidly decreasing due to budget cuts – now require at least some sort of ESL certification, and recruiters are hiring as early as six months in advance in an attempt to quell the anticipated stampede of teaching hopefuls. Although these jobs vary greatly among public schools themselves and don’t pay more than academies (sometimes even less, depending on your qualifications), they offer accountability. Private academies that are struggling or just don’t have it together have ended up on infamous online ESL blacklists for everything from verbally abusing their foreign teachers to failing to provide their them with health insurance (an oversight that gravely contributed to the Bill Kapoun tragedy) to flat-out not paying their teachers at all.

It goes without saying that committing a year to living overseas in any country, whether it’s developed or not, requires some degree of foresight and preparation. In South Korea, you could get lucky and end up in a pristine, respectable school, but getting peace of mind before you go will make the transition that much easier.

“Do your research!” author, magazine publisher, blogger, and veteran ESL teacher David S. Wills advises. “I didn’t spend enough time looking for information about my school before signing a contract, and got stuck in an awful job for a year. Find other teachers at that school and make sure the boss isn’t crooked.”

Although positions are becoming more competitive and visa regulations change at the drop of a hat, make sure your school offers the following benefits:

  1. Enrollment in the national health insurance program.
  2. Paid, or reimbursed, airfare.
  3. Contribution to the pension system (when you leave South Korea you can claim a generous lump sum of one month’s salary per year contracted).
  4. A severance payment of at least one month’s salary upon completion of your contract.
  5. At least one week of paid vacation.

Sure, you could live without some of them, but these run standard for all teaching jobs and you’re probably getting gypped if they aren’t included in your contract.

That being said, don’t believe every single negative comment you read in a forum or blog. The webosphere is the perfect place for English teachers to spew rants that they’ve been keeping bottled inside for months, often leading to distorted commentary and pressure-cooker opinions. While a great many happy-go-lucky blogs do exist (“kimchheerleaders,” as Wills refers to them), a high percentage of English teachers who actually enjoy their experience are doing just that – going out and enjoying it instead of writing about it. Fortunately, I was able to gather some views from a few dutiful bloggers who have.

Hagwons: The Academy Perspective

Katherine Koba, who runs the multifaceted, starkly-honest blog Adventures in the 4077th, is on her third Korean academy (hagwon), and despite being the first of anyone she knew to teach in the ROK, regrets nothing about her experience. After earning her CELTA certificate, her ultimate plan is to teach English in Sweden, but she needed to get some more teaching experience first. “The jobs I could find wanted EFL experience, if not experience and certification, and Korea just happened to float to the top of my Googling.”

One aspect in which academies and public schools diverge is the amount of foreign teachers employed in them. While a public school teacher is likely to find himself/herself on their own, academies typically employ five or more native speakers to command smaller, more diverse classes. While this certainly increases the comfort level of a first-time teacher, the strict “English-only” atmosphere among both teachers and students does not lend itself to much Korean language practice for native speakers. A weak grasp on the Korean language, as Koba explains, can leave expats a bit more aloof than they intend to be.

“If I have a problem that requires more Korean than I can muster, [my Korean friends] are willing to help me out, and vice versa. My best friend here is Korean. The only barrier is that there’s a minimum level of English necessary, unfortunately, since my Korean is so bad. I’m sure that colors, in multiple ways, the kinds of Koreans I’ve befriended.”

Nevertheless, at least making the effort to speak Korean (even if it does equate to pidgin Korean) can make a difference when it comes to making each day run more smoothly.

“Most Koreans are patient with my rudimentary Korean (and awful accent) and I never feel like they are frustrated or angry with me for not knowing more, or speaking it better,” Koba said.

Although Hagwons are advertised as bastions of successful language acquisition, it’s critical to remember that most students do not attend them by choice, but rather at the insistence of wannabe genius-rearing parents.

“I’m ashamed to say that I knew nothing about Korea before going there,” Wills confessed. “I guess, though, that I probably assumed the students would want to learn English. That’s not really true of the ones who are sent from school to school from 7am until late evening, not allowed to play or do anything but study.”

Especially in Seoul, students often attend more than one academy after regular school hours, which means they will probably be too burned-out to enjoy your energetic lessons by the afternoon no matter how interesting you try to make them. It’s important for teachers not to get discouraged by this and simply realize that, try as they might, it may not be possible to make an outstanding impact on every single student.

For the teachers who put in the effort, though, rewarding moments are bound to surface. “My students at my current school were studying “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” Koba recalled. “There’s a scene in the movie with a song by Yusuf Isam (formerly Cat Stevens) called “Don’t Be Shy.” I printed out a listening exercise to go with the song, and my students, totally unexpectedly, started singing along. When we finished, they asked to sing along one more time, and I said sure. It was one of those sappy Hallmark teaching moments.”

A Little More Motivation: University-Level English

While academy and public school jobs are easily accessible to university graduates, university-level teaching jobs are not. Naturally, Korean universities will not let candidates past the door without an advanced, specialized degree, regardless of teaching experience. Top universities like Korea University teach about 30% of their regular courses in English (how many of your economics classes were taught in a foreign language?) in order to prepare students for careers in the international forum. It is not at all unusual for university professors to assign textbooks written in English for business, psychology, arts, or other domestically-focused majors. It’s expected that these students have already had the proper English training in academics and public school to allow them to listen to and participate in a class taught in English. Therefore, teaching at the university level in South Korea poses an entirely new set of challenges.

Jeffery Hodges of the blog Gypsy Scholar, who earned his doctoral degree in history at UC Berkeley, tutored in Switzerland and taught in Germany, Australia, and several academies and universities in South Korea before settling at Ewha University’s English Program Office in 2009, where he teaches writing and also does editing and translations on the side. Altogether, Hodges has been living and teaching in South Korea for 12 years (and plans to retire there), an impressive stint considering that many who come as fresh graduates don’t last out their year-long contracts.

In general, Hodges feels that adult learners are more motivated to learn English, but that students’ pre-college education poses limits to Western-style learning: “Students here are too passive and tend to plagiarize because they haven’t been taught not to and because their education is mostly rote memorization and doesn’t encourage creativity,” Hodges said.

The austere hierarchy system – a remnant of Korea’s Confucian past – can also stifle analytical and critical thinking. “In Korea, decisions are made above and handed down without allowing for much feedback, which is a bit frustrating,” Hodges explained. “Know that contracts are not sacrosanct, that decisions are made from above, and discussion won’t take place. Also, don’t get angry at student plagiarism; just catch it, and explain that it will get students a low grade.”

When it comes to plagiarism, I can certainly understand. Entire books in South Korea have been plagiarized, and it’s a common trend among pop singers as well. I was once recruited by a fellow co-teacher to do some light editing on a textbook he was compiling, only to realize that about 80% of his book was lifted from other, completely unreferenced sources (though not to my surprise, considering
he didn’t speak a lick of English).

Ironically enough, there is a humorous Korean fable that illustrates the demerits of the “standard education” system that still exists in many Korean schools (much of which was – though you’ll never get a Korean to admit it – carried over from the Japanese occupation). In this fable, a young schoolboy named Samdol is advised by his father to “say everything the teacher says.” The young boy takes his father’s advice literally and parrots his teacher verbatim, prompting the teacher to kick him out of class. Veteran ESL teachers working in Korea often comment that, compared to other English language learners, Korean students are able to read medical textbooks but fail to hold more than 30 seconds of a conversation in English, as their education system emphasizes comprehension over production. Other teachers believe the situation is too complex to be blamed on the education system itself.

“The thing I notice most with my students is a fear of failure and unwillingness to use and experiment with the language, but is that because they’re Korean, or because it’s a foreign language class with a native speaker? Very, very difficult to tell,” Koba added.

Cultural Adaptation: The Biggest Lessons of All

By the end of my own time living in Asia, people often joked with me that I was getting pretty good at playing the “Where’s he/she from?” game as a Caucasian — as in, I could tell Chinese names from Korean names, Japanese faces from Korean ones, etc. For those foreigners who “do well in Korea,” as Koba puts it, it usually takes the ability to allow certain elements of a culture to become a part of you, rather than intentionally warding them off.

“[Expats] say things like, “Korean culture is sexist,” or “Korean culture is racist,” or “Korean culture is vain,” with the implication that us enlightened “Westerners” (I hate that phrase so I always use it in quotes) are so far beyond that,” Koba said. “This is one that really cheeses me—the internalized sense of superiority about American/’Western’ culture. As soon as I get a whiff of that from a person, I know that’s someone I’m not going to waste my time on.”

Wills, who taught in South Korea and currently teaches in China, echoes this tactic in his wittily-titled book, The Dog Farm. “A lot of people assume that my book was about Korea and how awful it is…but that’s not it at all. It’s about how we – as travelers, teachers, foreigners – don’t really make life easier for ourselves. We make mistakes and blame the places where we made them. I think it’s very important that we learn the language and culture of wherever we visit, even if only for a short time.”

Wills also explained the importance of building friendships amid cultural differences. “You don’t have to go out and befriend every person you meet, but be civil and open and don’t shut yourself off. In both Korea and China I’ve made a lot of friends – both with foreigners and natives. I think life would be very depressing if I didn’t.”

For Wills, who hails from Scotland, cultural faux-pas can be even more complex than for other foreigners. Any Asia-bred expat will relay stories of ignorance and dismay from students who seemed to have had little exposure to those from other countries. (“All Americans are blond, so you must not be American,” and “All Americans live in houses, so how come you live in an apartment?” are just a few of the winning lines drawn from the mouths of babes in my own teaching endeavors.) For Wills, an education system charmed by the ubiquitous American accent has lent itself to an array of benighted requests from employers. “People joke now that I’m American, as after four years of ESL teaching, I speak without any discernible Scots accent. But I think that’s just down to teaching phonics and trying to get my students to speak clearly. I certainly never tried to lose the accent. Of course, I resisted the change back when my directors asked me to ‘speak more American’. People don’t really seem to understand that English can be spoken properly by someone without an American passport.”

In fact, English teachers in Korea an applicant must be citizens of, and hold a degree from a university in, one of only seven countries in order to be eligible for an E-2 teaching visa, no matter how long they have been speaking English. A good American friend of mine, for example, could not teach in a public school because he had earned his Bachelor’s degree in the Philippines, despite being born in America and speaking English since he could toddle. Unfortunately, this is just one example of the sense of exclusion that expats might face.

Wills recalls his biggest memories of culture shock after landing on the peninsula: “The first thing that got me was the contempt towards foreigners that seems to be held by most people. I’d travelled a little before, but never encountered such unpleasantness. I’m not talking about little cultural differences, but abject rudeness that a Korean person would never show another one of his race. I think some people would argue that racism or xenophobia is not a part of a culture, but I disagree, and that was definitely the first and most unpleasant ‘culture shock’ that I experienced.” Wills noted that since he started teaching in China he has not felt anywhere near the same degree of “unpleasantness” he had felt as a foreigner in South Korea.

“Violence towards children was something that also got to me pretty quickly,” Wills added. “Working at a kindergarten, I got to see a lot of it. The children would show up to school with huge cuts and bruises that the Korean teachers would explain by sayings, ‘Their auntie did it,’ or something similar. Then if the kids were bad in class, the head teacher or director would take them away and beat them with a large stick.”

While this trend is quickly declining in Korean schools (mostly due to the bad rap it’s been given abroad by expats who’ve witnessed it), it is not banned entirely, and domestic violence against women is also far more underreported than in the “seven” English-speaking nations referenced above.

“Finally, the drinking culture. I’ve always enjoyed a drink, and perhaps too many drinks,” Wills admitted. “But I like to do my drinking on the weekend, and don’t aim to be unconscious by nine o’clock. In Korea, you get dragged out after work and forced to drink soju, which gives the worst hangovers and blackouts. There is nothing worse than trying to teach pre-schoolers hungover.” While foreigners often get blasted by Korean media for their (typically voluntary) drunken misadventures, Koreans are no strangers to binge drinking, and usually at the insistence of their boss. Post-work “meetings” known as hui-sik usually occur in informal settings – such as a bar or cheap restaurant – but are built upon a rather formal foundation of respect and compliance. In other words, company peons are not allowed to refuse drinks offered by their (giddily-inebriated) superiors, which usually leads to a fateful evening of alcoholic masochism.

Wills has also posted humorous anecdotes on his blog about the phenomenon of being what he refers to as a “Caucasian celebrity” in Asia. “Right now, white people are exotic. In China and South Korea, there aren’t that many of us, even though our numbers are growing fast. Get out of the big cities and we’re hard to find. So we’re something that you see on TV and in the movies, and generally not up close. We’re also from rich countries, where we all supposedly have big houses, fast cars, and lots of money. To ‘have’ or to ‘own’ a white person, then, is a big status symbol. That’s why we’re paraded around. A young white person is also more valuable for the same reason. You can stick our faces on posters, brochures, and even on TV. It genuinely impresses the parents. I’ve seen schools go out of business because their foreigner left and they couldn’t find another fast enough. No white face, no students.”

The Grand Narrative and The Metropolitician are two blogs renowned for touching on these rather, er, touchy subjects, especially the recent backlash caused by “blackface” (you can do your own research on that one). Especially to older generations, white faces are still a relatively new concept in South Korea, and the country still has a lot of kinks to work out when it comes to understanding and confronting race in a politically-correct fashion.

“I imagined that anyone who has been the victim of racial prejudice before will likely cope better with Korea’s anti-foreigner hostility than someone who – like me – grew up in a very sheltered environment,“ Wills said. “Of course, there is still a hierarchy of hate, and white people don’t receive as much abuse as people with darker skin, and so it’s hard to say…sadly, in a place like Korea, the actions of one person will have negative consequences for everyone of their race or group.”

Wills also feels that the characters of the foreigners who end up in South Korea (lured by a good salary and a lot of booze) have a significant impact on how Koreans themselves deal with expats. “Why is China not so bad…? I suppose because they don’t have as many foreigners, and the ones they do have are older, more mature, and learn the language. Korea has had to cope with U.S. soldiers and 21-year-old ESL teachers who don’t exactly give the best impression of their races. That’s not to say that I defend racism or xenophobia, but when you travel you have to behave yourself to some degree…I try to be as polite as possible, so in the future some other white person isn’t burdened with a ridiculous stereotype because of my actions.”

Even if you might be teaching ESL for personal gain, it’s crucial to keep in mind that you are, as cliché as it might sound, a representative of your country.

Hodges also touched upon one aspect of adaptation that holds a lot of weight in a neo-Confucian society: obedience and realizing the goals of the group as a whole. “My method: Do the job, don’t complain, be helpful and cheerful,” he explained. “I get along with my co-workers, who are mostly Western, so there’s little cultural misunderstanding. I also have friendly relations with Korean co-workers and staff.” First impressions are universal, and one-time events can come back to haunt you, especially in the workplace.

Saving face is important in Korean society, and regardless of how business operates in your home country, you’ll probably notice a little clause in your contract that states that you’ve agreed to abide by the rules in your school. In South Korea, this comes with one unspoken rule: it’s not wise to make your dissatisfaction known. “Sometimes I felt like lashing out, but that really accomplishes nothing. We have to control ourselves and put up a front for the benefit of our fellow expats,” Wills added.

It’s not for Everyone, But Everyone Can Adapt

If, after doing the proper research, you do find yourself irrevocably unhappy at your place of employment, simply resign without making a big stink over it and save yourself weeks of miserable relations with your coworkers and superiors. However, sticking it out and learning how to overcome such challenges rather than fleeing them will be well worth the effort – you’ll find that you can travel more comfortably to other countries and even see your home country in a whole new light.

When I finally came back to New Jersey after three years abroad, I probably felt more culture shock than I had when I first set foot in Seoul (Everyone is fat! Everything is inefficient! This Internet connection is pathetic!). This was because I rarely went to places like Itaewon (Seoul’s international district), frequently spoke Korean when I could, ate primarily Korean food, and spent most of my day with native Koreans. This type of expat lifestyle made me realize that my own country isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, thereby making it easier to appreciate all of the merits of living in Korea and overlook its occasional frustrations.

An excellent motto to live by when living abroad is: “No place is perfect.” Whether you find happiness in a students’ home-made birthday card, sloshing around in summer monsoons, or a fine galbi dinner, find one thing that you really enjoy about living in South Korea and resort back to it when you start to envision yourself clicking your heels together and chanting, “There’s no place like home.” You will never regret your decision to leave home base again.

Read Tiffany Zappula’s article on basic guidelines for teaching ESL abroad on Yahoo.com. 

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Filed under: Articles, English Teaching, South Korea

About the Author:

Tiffany Zappulla is VagabondJourney.com’s Korea correspondent and travel tech reviewer. She pinched pennies throughout college, sacrificing parties, treats, and occasionally even food so she could start traveling to foreign lands. So far she’s toured Scotland, Spain, and Japan (twice) on a budget, and spent three years living in South Korea actively engaged in the culture and lifestyle. Aside from her qualifications in ESL, Tiffany does other freelance writing and odd jobs. She is currently living the broke American life for awhile before deciding on her next adventure. Connect with her on Google+. has written 31 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.