It was an 8:30 am rendezvous at exit 10 of a major subway stop. No, I am not in New York City, I am in Seoul, South Korea. I am meeting two North American English teachers to find out what it is like teaching here. We end up at an American style diner in the Gangnam District. After traveling 7,500 miles, a hearty American breakfast sounds like just the ticket to help me shake the jet lag of the thirteen hour time difference. Ashley is from the Midwest United States and Julie is from Toronto. Although they didn't know each other before moving to Korea, they have developed a close friendship as recent college graduates and expat English teachers. For two hours over pancakes, waffles, and omelettes, they shared the good, bad, and ugly, of teaching English in Korea.
Why are American Millennials Teaching English In Korea?
1. The Money
English teachers in Korea can save at least $1,000 a month (some as much as $1,500) after living expenses. With a studio apartment and medical insurance on top of a $2,000 monthly salary, saving money (or paying down student loans) is easy to do. Although compensation arrangements vary, most also include reimbursement for airfare to get to Korea and bonuses. End of year bonuses are typically one month's pay for each year of your contract. Bonuses can be substantial, especially if you stay with the same school for several years.
2. The Adventure
Julie and Ashley make the most of their weekends, even planning short trips to neighboring Japan (a two hour flight). Not only have they taken full advantage of the unique cultural experience in Seoul, they also enjoy weekend activities with their social network of expat English teachers. After our breakfast Julie was headed to a group scavenger hunt.
3. You Don't Need To Speak Korean
Neither Julie or Ashley spoke any Korean when hired as English teachers. They explained that each classroom has an assistant that is a native Korean speaker. Because they teach using the immersion method, there is no need to speak Korean in the classroom. For example, the teacher displays a picture of an apple and then sounds out the word with the students. Another major element to immersion is conversation. As a result, just having discussions with children in English is part of the process. No English degree or teaching credential needed, the only educational requirement is a four year college degree. There are also positions available (with lower salaries) for those that don't have a degree but complete a course on teaching English (such as TEFL, TESL, or TESOL).
4. Korea Has A Low Cost Of Living
Julie's first choice for teaching abroad was Japan, but she opted for Korea after she learned how much it would cost to live there. Korea represents the best overall value in terms of compensation compared to living expenses. A similar teaching position in Japan would not provide the same substantial 'net' income after expenses. Both shared with me they had considered other locations like the middle east, but less than ideal conditions (such as living mostly within a compound) were deal-breakers. Seoul offers an urban lifestyle not all that different from New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. With the incredible public transportation system in Seoul, there is no need to own a car (another way to save money).
5. Positions For English-Speaking Teachers Are abundant
The demand for native English speakers to teach in Korea is so substantial that most schools hire recruiters that receive hefty commissions for signing on a new teacher. While teaching positions in Seoul are the most sought after, positions in smaller and more rural locations offer even higher salaries and benefits.
All Positions Are Not Created Equal
Shopping for the right teaching position is the key to finding the best opportunity. Julie shared that her job hunt included contacting multiple recruiters so she could consider an array of offers. Considerations include salary, bonuses, housing, benefits, vacation days, perks like free lunches, and work schedule. Julie teaches just two to three hours with the balance of the eight hour day designated as 'prep time' (some positions require double that amount of classroom time). Also, grade level is another consideration. From what I can glean, there are more openings and less interest in kindergarten and early elementary school positions.
Other Recommended Resources:
Teaching English in Korea is not all unicorns and rainbows. There is even a blacklist site that posts a list of schools that don't pay their teachers and have horrible working conditions. The Hagwon Blacklist is a crowd sourced manifest of schools to avoid. According to Julie, teachers that escape from bad schools plan a so called, 'midnight run.' Although she has never had to make a covert exit herself, she says that teachers with deplorable working conditions may have no other choice. The midnight run involves waiting until your monthly pay is deposited to your bank account, packing up your belongings and clandestinely disappearing into the night. She said it does not happen all that often, but often enough that the phrase is part of the nomenclature.
They both shared anecdotes and experiences that sounded reminiscent of challenges teachers face here in America. Korean kids are still children and have behavioral issues like anywhere else. One additional source of stress is what both described as strained relationships with their Korean coworkers. Westerners are not always warmly embraced by their Korean counterparts. A major source of this tension is that young expat teachers just out of college are often paid more than local Korean teachers with years of experience.
More Than Just Money
While the first part of our conversation was strictly business, both Julie and Ashley shared heart-warming stories of wonderful relationships they had developed with students. Julie is still in contact with former students from the school she taught at a year ago.
I think this is a wonderful adventure for a young college graduate to have both a cultural experience and generate money to pay off student loans. While it may not be for everyone, a two to three year teaching tour in South Korea might just be the perfect opportunity for those looking for a very unique experience. Parents don't panic! Seoul is one of the safest cities in the world. Crime is almost non-existent and it is one of the most culturally rich cities I have ever visited.
Helping you make the most of God’s money!