Thursday, January 13, 2011

Guest Post - What it's like to teach in Korea

After yesterday's post about the bad part of teaching English (TEFL) in Korea, I thought it was only fair to (finally) have this guest post from Andrew Leonard about his first-hand experiences in teaching English in Korea. He has a great blog about his experiences and it turns out that he's also a talented photographer. He's now trying to leverage his teaching English in South Korea into a teaching position in France. I wish him luck!

I'll shut up now and let Andrew speak for himself (this post is lifted, with his permission, almost verbatim from this blog entry):

Guard in the winter [EXPLORE]
Guard in the Winter
Photo by Andrew Leonard - Used with Permission

Let me just start by saying that I love living in Korea. Just about everything adds up to make for an awesome experience. Examples:
  • There are a ton of things to do even if you live an hour or two away from Seoul. If you're an outdoorsy person, you're lucky since Korea is 80% mountainous and there is a lot of hiking to be done.
  • The pay is good. Eating out every single day and taking cabs several days a week, and drinking one night out of the week, you can still save around $1000 per month. You can save $800/mo if you're more liberal about your spending. I keep telling people that your overall salary is not a good indicator; sure, in Japan you make more money, but Japan is insanely more expensive than Korea.
  • Things are cheap. A dinner out by yourself should cost you no more than $5, or about $8 for a huge sushi dinner. A BBQ dinner with a beer or two out with friends averages about $8-10. A Western-style lunch or dinner at what's considered a "fancy" restaurant will set you back $15-20. If you're working at a public school you get lunches and the cost of about $2.50 per lunch is deducted from your salary.
  • Food is healthy and fresh. You don't see many prepared foods here, and everything is a lot healthier than American foods. I know some vegetarians and they have a hard time here, but that's because Korea will serve you a salad with bacon and call it vegetarian. Vegetarianism is a very foreign concept here. Even a lot of Kimchi is made with seafood products and most soup broths are meat-based.
  • Public transit is amazing. a 2km cab ride is about $2.25 and I've spent as little as $18 for an hour in a cab in Seoul traffic. The train is insanely cheap (about $1.40 for a trip as long as 2 hours in many cases), and city buses go everywhere. "Limousine" buses are cheap and will get you across the country and back for around $30 round-trip. So, travel within Korea is amazingly affordable and consistently so.
Things I don't like about living in Korea:
  • You get made fun of for trying to speak the language. English is butchered a lot more by non-native speakers than Korean is by non-native speakers. So, it's hard to get taken seriously when you try to speak Korean even if the people you're talking to don't speak any English. It's not always like this, but it's an annoyance at times. Tolerances for understanding bad pronunciation are also very low because Korean pronunciation is A) hard and B) rarely attempted by non-Koreans.
  • There's xenophobia and racism. Most people are nice, but I've been turned away from restaurants or charged more because I'm a foreigner. It doesn't happen a lot but I remember each time it has happened. It's not because you're American, or because you're white, it's because you're not Korean. This is a very old and complicated issue.
And then there's the teaching....

As an inexperienced teacher you don't get a lot of support. Most GETs here are more or less ornamental fixtures in the school, and you really have to develop a rapport with your school (which means staying more than a year) to really get your kids and your staff to take you seriously.

You get paid to sit on your ass a lot, and then you get paid to deal with horrible kids as well. Your mileage varies a LOT depending on where you are and the English ability of your students and co-workers. I have friends who've had far worse experiences and I have friends who've had much better experiences than I. My experience I think is pretty much middle-of-the-road as far as teaching goes. I also teach middle school, which is just about the hardest possible age group you could ever hope to teach.

Maybe they're not too different after all?
Photo by Andrew Leonard - Used with permission

There's a layer of bureaucracy and distrust that serves the employer to control the GET and basically annoy the hell out of the GET at the same time. Communication issues are unavoidable at times and you are often left with a lot of WTF days.

That said, the good days outnumber the bad days. I'm not staying a second year at this public school, because I know that I could get a better gig in Seoul (I'm in Incheon) teaching at a private school. My location away from Seoul and my teaching situation leave me with some angst that prevents me from wanting to stay another year. However, I have a feeling I may be back in a year or two because the expat community here and the standard of living are both very excellent. It's a comfortable life if you can put up with the job.


  1. I have just completed CELTA, and will soon be off to Korea, teaching. Thanks for all this info. Have also been learning Korean, so that I can atleast find my way. The written form is much easier than Chinese/Japanese, but yes, the pronunciation is a pain.

  2. Gluga: that's fantastic! Drop us a line every now and then and let us know how you're getting on.

  3. Hi Gluga, I'm the author of this post. Thanks for the response.

    Learning Hangul before coming may be the most useful tool you'll arrive with. I know people who, in one year, still haven't learned it, and I wonder how they get by. You don't even have to be able to write it (though it's pretty easy), but just being able to read and pronounce what's written is a huge benefit.

    Good luck in Korea! I'm leaving in 4 weeks.