As a way of reviving the old blog, here is my guide to getting a teaching gig in South Korea.
First of all, you’ll need a Bachelors Degree and a TESL/TEFL certificate (essentially the same thing), which are offered by tons of companies and schools worldwide. The most prestigious is the CELTA, which bears the Cambridge stamp. Classes are available full-time, part-time, and online year-round; full-time takes around a month (check the link: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams-and-qualifications/celta/ways-to-take-celta/). I obtained mine through Oxford Seminars, which took three weekends and offered a job search service as well. If you have the cash, you could even take your course in an exotic locale, such as Barcelona, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires, they’re everywhere.
Next, you need to find a recruiter. I highly recommend Teach Away (http://www.teachaway.com), a Canadian outfit that places teachers on just about every continent. They didn’t charge me a dime, and were very professional. Once I was in South Korea, they were available for counseling on the inevitable difficulties involved with living and working abroad. Several recruiters will charge you for the placement and though there may be benefits involved, it’s far better to save the dough, no?
Types of Jobs
Now for South Korea, there are three types of teaching gigs available: the Public School program, EPIK, Private Schools called Hagwons, and University positions. Jobs at the universities are the best, but you need at least two years of experience teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). Not only is the pay higher and the hours lighter at universities, but you get stupid amounts of vacation time – enough to teach at a temporary job or sail around the Philippines if you want. Many of my teacher friends went this route after two years in EPIK.
Public School: EPIK, GEPIK
EPIK, which stands for English Program In Korea, is a safe route, but be aware that they significantly downsized a few years ago. Their goal is to eventually have Korean English teachers teach English IN English. If that last sentence was confusing, let me explain. Korea English teachers have traditionally taught their classes in Korean. The students learn grammar, reading, and writing, but come out with virtually no ability to speak English because they never practice it other than repeating after the teacher. This isn’t always the case, schools in Seoul of course have the funding to get the best teachers, but in rural Korea it is very much the norm. Hence, you guys.
In EPIK, you are placed in a public school, teach about 18 hours a week from 8 – 5, and the focus is SPEAKING. You’re there to get the kids to talk, and in a society where children are taught to be silent in class, this can be an exercise in pulling your hair out. Therefore, teaching effectively means making the lessons FUN and INTERESTING for the kids. For compensation, you will be set up with an apartment, round-trip airfare, a nice salary and five weeks vacation time if you go rural. Seoul offers lower pay and less vacation because that’s where most people go; the incentive is to entice people out to the countryside. A word on that later.
EPIK places teachers all over the country by province. Once you’re in a province, they put incentives on contract-renewal to keep you there. Renewing for the same province is largely hassle-free, but if you want to change provinces, go to Seoul or Busan, you’ll have to re-apply to EPIK all over again, and take a pay cut rather than a raise. Also, there is GEPIK, which deals with the province around Seoul, Gyeonggi-do. Teach Away covers the different programs on their South Korea page: http://www.teachaway.com/teach-english-korea/epik-english-program-korea-public-school-jobs-korea
GEPIK claims to offer higher salary and more vacation. I would actually recommend GEPIK as one of the best public school options. If you live far out in the sticks, as is the case in most provinces, you’ll be taking a bus to Seoul or another big city almost every weekend. Gyeongi-do offers quick access to Seoul, but pays higher than jobs in the city and is most likely highly populated which means more English-speaker friends to relieve culture shock and boredom.
At EPIK orientation, you’ll spend a week in lectures, make friends, eat kimchi for the first time, and pick the top three spots where you would like to teach. In my experience, I put Daegu, the third-largest city first, then Jeju-do, the semi-tropical island south of the Korean peninsula, and thirdly Gangwon-do because I liked the hiking and snowboarding prospects. I was placed in Gangwon-do, in a tiny mountain town with four other English speakers…for an entire year. If you don’t want to end up super rural, don’t put anything remotely rural on your choices. I had a friend from South Africa who was the only English speaker in a tiny farming town for her year. Rural is mainly for folks who are serious about learning Korean or already speak the language. If you are only semi-interested in learning the language or not at all, you really need to go urban.
Private Schools: Hagwons
The third option is the Hagwons, private schools that operate in the afternoon and evenings, because in Korea you can never spend enough time studying. From middle school onwards, Korean children spend almost all day in a classroom. High school seniors are in school from 8am to 11pm. I am not kidding at all. I left work long before the kids when I taught at a high school during my second year. Anyway, hagwons have weird hours: from 2 to 10pm usually. You’ll get to sleep in, but at work you’ll be teaching constantly with little downtime. Whereas EPIK jobs give you several free periods throughout the day, at hagwons you work straight through. In some cases, hagwons can be more lucrative than EPIK, but you need to be very careful in selecting your employer.
Hagwons are the largest source of South Korea’s ESL horror stories. This can be anything from employers refusing to pay, paying very late, firing for no reason, holding a teacher hostage by locking up their passport, the list of scams is endless. I would only take a hagwon job through a reliable recruiter like Teach Away. Even then, you ought to cross-check on Dave’s ESL Cafe (http://forums.eslcafe.com/korea/viewtopic.php?t=139678). That being said, there are plenty of legitimate and honest hagwons out there. Research extensively, and don’t fall for false advertisements, there are loads of them.
Rural vs Urban: Rural Pros
Once again, be careful about going rural. It’s not an all-out terrible experience, but it can get dull when you’ve hiked the three hills in your town a couple hundred times. There are not many young people in small towns – most of the twenty-somethings migrate to cities for university or work. It’s great if you want to plow through all the great TV series you missed, but not if you want a normal, active lifestyle. That being said, here are the pros about rural:
1. Food is straight from the farms. Fresh ingredients and unbelievably cheap prices mean you can eat out good almost every night.
2. Outdoorsy stuff. Rural means mountains, lots of em, everywhere. Hiking trails and rivers for fishing are in high abundance.
3. Skiing/Snowboarding in the winter. This is where Gangwon-do really shines because of the many ski resorts. South Korean winter is long and harsh. My little mountain town got almost two feet of snow one week. A swift cure for the winter blues is to hit the slopes. In some towns you can catch a shuttle from downtown to the resorts. If you live in Seoul, it will take several hours on a bus to get there.
4. Authentic Korea: many people in the cities said they felt the experience wasn’t exactly genuine; more of a Korea-lite. Personally, I think the language barrier can effectively null this benefit, and urban Koreans are usually far better at English, which helps you meet them in the middle for learning the language. Nevertheless, going rural is the full challenge.
5. Smaller cities can be fun too. In Gangwon-do, there are a handful of small cities. Gangneung had the beach on one side and the Olympic Ski Resort on the other (expect to hear that name in 2018). Sokcho is even more on the beach, and the other side is Seorak-san, South Korea’s most amazing mountain range will killer-long trails. Chuncheon is in a nice lake district, and Wonju is up in the mountains near a ski resort. Each of these cities has a lively community of foreign English teachers, nearby attractions, and less of the hustle, bustle and smog of Seoul. I lived in Wonju for a year, and it has a shuttle to a ski resort in winter, but I’d recommend Gangneung or Sokcho for the beaches.
Rural vs Urban: Urban Pros
1. More stuff to do. A metropolis like Seoul not only has a larger population of foreigners, but more entertainment like live sports, live music, amusement parks, clubs to join, martial arts classes that aren’t mainly kids, good gyms, you name it. Life in the city gives you plenty to do during the week and the weekends.
2. Transport. Seoul and Busan have great public transportation. In fact, Seoul has one of the best subways I’ve ever used though the frequency of the trains can be pretty slow at times. This is a big jump on the small cities, which have cabs and buses, but good luck trying to figure out the bus routes cause the info is all in Korean. Many people in the small cities end up buying cheap cars.
3. Like going to the movies? Cities have theaters, small towns in the sticks do not.
4. Nightlife. Expect little to no nightlife in small towns. Even in small cities it can be pretty limited. In Wonju, every nightclub bans foreigners because there used to be a large, US army base nearby and the soldiers got too rowdy. In fact, that is a big reason to avoid Wonju. The other cities in Gangwon-do are much better. In Seoul there are several large bar districts, usually by a university, and no bans on people who aren’t Korean.
5. Busan. The second largest city, Busan, has just about everything Seoul offers, and is right on the coast to boot. There’s a lively bar district near the beach – in one joint the bartenders perform all kinds of stunts like blowing fire.
6. Getting to the airport. Needless to say, this is far easier and quicker if you live in Seoul. Many teachers go abroad for their vacations because why wouldn’t you? Japan and China are right next door, not to mention Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and the Philippines. Warm beaches in the middle of January will cure those winter blues like nothing else.
7. More Koreans that speak English. It’s great to make Korean friends, and far easier if they speak a degree of English. Then you can teach your languages to each other over drinks and get good answers for your questions about everything from Korean grammar to kimchi. When they don’t speak a word of English, and your Korean is basic, you may grow tired of the conversation quickly. I once spent a 3-hour bus ride next to a guy who could only say, “Los Angeles…long beachy.” Don’t spend a 3-hour bus ride next to a guy who can only say, “Los Angeles…long beachy.”
8. South Korea for a foreigner is an exciting, fascinating, and very weird place. Weird in ways that are hilarious and get posted all over Facebook between you and your friends. Weird in ways that give you a completely new perspective on life, the world, and everything. The weirdness and excitement just comes out more in cities, because there’s more people to make it happen.
So get out there and have yourself an adventure.