Many people dream about teaching English abroad, but Samantha actually took the leap and did it! She’s been teaching English in Korea while saving mad money and jetting off to Asian destinations on her weekends and holidays. In this “travel jobs” interview she will tell you EXACTLY what to do to start teaching English abroad too.
How to Teach English in Korea
Introduce yourself, who are you & what do you do?
Hi! I’m Sam, and I currently teach ESL to both elementary and middle school students in the Jeollabuk province in Korea. I graduated in 2014 with a BA in English and Hispanic Studies, and a strong desire to return to this country as soon as possible, hence getting a teaching job. By the time I got my diploma, I was practically halfway out the door and ready for a new adventure.
How did you get started teaching? What appealed to you?
I first heard of teaching in Korea sometime during my first and second year in college, and it seemed like the next best option given my lack of Korean language skills. I was initially hesitant only because I was afraid of derailing whatever career I wanted to pursue after graduation, but at one point during my final year, I realized I wasn’t even sure what that career was.
I always enjoyed teaching, whether it was swim lessons or English, and I like kids, and being here for a year sort of cemented that. I mean I just planned a Harry Potter themed camp including chopstick wands and animal face masks and ending with chocolate dipped bananas, How is that not fun?
Anyhow, the chance to just breathe and do something both fun and rewarding is what led me to teaching abroad. I didn’t know if I’d stay on longer when I first came, and now I’m planning for another few years as I save up for grad school and allow myself more time for exploring Korea and Asia.
What is your favorite part of the job? Are there any downsides?
Being around kids! Even middle school students. I teach countryside middle school students, so they’re known for being more innocent than city school students (not my words, but from every Korean teacher I’ve worked with!).They’re just really funny and so energetic, so you’re kind of entertained even on your worst day. I’ve had my fourth graders just bust out singing “Sugar” by Maroon 5 while working on a word search.
I also have really solid coworkers (both other expat teachers and my Korean co-teachers) and an education office that looks out for us. My apartment situation is the best I’ve seen of all my friends (three rooms all to me); all my co-teachers are supportive of my teaching and the different things I want to try, and I know I’m appreciated and not just taken for granted.
Downsides would definitely be the language barrier. I’m studying Korean now, and I can speak it with relative success, but I can’t really join in at lunch when the teachers around me are chatting or understand my kids all the time when they’re asking me a question. It also makes disciplining harder since there’s not much you can say that your kids will understand. I will say I’m extremely lucky with how my situation has turned out, and I’ve met a lot of teachers who aren’t as lucky. I often feel like I’ve lucked out and gotten some of the best of the best in terms of apartment, city, coworkers, etc.
What are important skills you should have if you want to do this successfully?
You have to care first and foremost. It’s not exactly difficult to get into public school teaching in Korea if you have the right credentials (ESL certificate, enthusiasm, etc), but you’ve got to keep that energy up if you hope to get any sort of career satisfaction. It’s also very easy to slide by doing the bare minimum. But I’d say if you care, if you try to do things outside of the box, then you’ll see different results and you’ll start to connect with your kids when you’re not just repeating the textbook or hitting play on the clips.
You should also definitely have an understanding of what it means to learn a second language. If you’ve never experienced learning a second language in school or you were one of those students who didn’t care and sat in the back, then you’re going to have a hard time figuring out how to motivate your own students or even relate to what works and doesn’t work.
What are the travel opportunities in your job?
The school year is March-December with a short summer break between late July and late August, and winter break from Christmas to about March (with a random two weeks of school).
In my province, a public school ESL teacher gets 10 days off in the winter and 8 days off in the summer, but they also get all national holidays off as well. Since Korea is pretty small, and I’m in a pretty good location, I can easily make day or weekend trips out of most places in the country, and I use my extended weekends for longer trips in Korea or to nearby countries. For example, last May we had a random five day weekend with how our holidays worked, so my friend and I hopped on a plane from Busan to Osaka and spent a few days exploring Kyoto.
It’s also nice if you can fit a few vacation days into your main summer and winter vacations as well. This year I planned my winter vacation to Vietnam around one of Korea’s big holidays, so it added an extra three days, which means an extra three days to explore!
How much do you earn per month with this? (yep: dish the deetz!)
As a second-year English teacher, I earn 2,300,000 won/month (which is around $1,900-2,000 depending on the currency exchange rates). It doesn’t sound like a lot. However, there are so many benefits to being an ESL teacher in Korea, it adds up pretty quickly:
- I don’t pay rent.
- My utility bills are never more than 100,000 won a month (and it gets close to that when I’m generous with my floor heating).
- I get a multi-school bonus of 150,000/ month
- Coming to Korea I got a settlement allowance and an entrance allowance which covered buying any new furniture I wanted and my plane ticket
- Renewal bonuses are 2,000,000 won per year.
- Each month I pay into a pension which my schools match and I get back at the end of my contract (it’s about 9% overall with me paying 4.5% into it), so at the end of 3 years I get back 9% of my salary over the last three years, which adds up quite a bit!
- I don’t own a car and so don’t pay any money towards that, my work travel expenses are about 40,000 a month
- I pay Korean taxes, which is 3.3%, and I’m exempt from US taxes
- My health insurance is also only 1.5% of my salary.
- When I leave, I get all of my pension, severance (which is one month’s worth of salary x every year you’ve worked), and an exit allowance of 1,300,000 won.
- Cost of living here is overall less than the US with a few exceptions (like fruit, foreign food, etc). A good Korean meal out has never cost me more than 8,000 won and splurges are around 12-14,000 won.
What would be your advice for people wanting to start working as an ESL teacher in Korea?
Do it! I honestly don’t think people think of Korea as this major travel destination. I’ve read so many blogs where they blogger lists out all the countries they’ve been to in Asia. Unless they were an ESL teacher here, Korea is ALWAYS left out. It’s a beautiful country filled with hiking trails, nature, and something different on each coast you go to!
In terms of finances, you can keep your head well above water while paying off loans, mortgages, etc at home. AND you can still have a little extra for vacations or even major surgeries (my friend just got major dental surgery, and I’m planning on getting LASEK later this year). From what I’ve seen compared to other countries, you get paid twice as much per month here and you get all the benefits.
Also, since Korea is one of the big countries for expat teaching there are tons and tons of blogs to help you transition. There are forums, Facebook pages, meet-ups, groups for all kinds of creatives, personal blogs, and more all with inside and recent advice to transition and where to find x, y, z easily.
And learn Hangul, the Korean alphabet. It will make your life exponentially easier.
Could you give a little step-to-step guide on how people would get started as an English teacher in Korea?
Here are the simple steps so I don’t make this post three times as long. For a more extensive guide, check out this post.
- Find a recruiting company and apply (I recommend Adventure Teaching as I’ve used them, and they’re smaller)
- Begin applying to your company to different province openings or, if you choose, hagwons.
- Get a TEFL or ESL certificate since you will get paid a little more or you’ll need it if you don’t have an English or Education undergraduate degree.
- Make sure you have money saved up or someone that can loan you money while you’re getting read. All the paperwork adds up, and shipping it all over can cost close to $100. You won’t get any of your allowances until you’ve set up a bank account in Korea, so you need to still have money or credit for your plane ride and getting from Incheon to your apartment.
- Gather alllll your paperwork including necessary apostilles, notaries, etc. Your recruiting company should give you a handy-dandy checklist to make it a little less frustrating.
- You may have a phone interview and you might have to make an introduction video. And you might have to send in copies of your paperwork all over again. Fun fact: If your diploma isn’t in English, you’re going to need an official translation, which means it has to be a physical copy with a seal.
- Prepare to move to Korea quickly because you might be given as little as two week’s notice or a few months!
- Do not get stressed out and roll with whatever happens to you in your first few days. It’s exhausting, sweaty, overwhelming, and you won’t really know where you’re living until someone’s helping you move your suitcases into your apartment. Your recruiting agency will give you explicit instructions on how to get from Point A to Point B, so rely on them and make sure they give you said instructions.
- Within your first day, your co-teacher should take you to get your medical check-up. After you get these results, s/he should take you to set-up your Alien Registration Card (ARC). With your ARC, you can set-up your bank account, set-up a more permanent phone and internet plan, and more. The sooner you get a bank account, the more likely it is that you’ll get your allowances. If your co-teacher isn’t proactive about this, make sure you are.
There you have it: the guide to becoming an English teacher in Korea. Want to have these tips on a handy little sheet? Click the banner below and download the tips!
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