What I Wish I Knew Before Teaching English in South Korea

What I Wish I Knew Before Teaching English in South Korea

Deciding to spend an entire year in a foreign country can be daunting. At 24, I can’t imagine a bigger life decision than to uproot your life and move across the world to teach English in South Korea. Reflecting on Korea now, and knowing all the stresses and challenges I would face, would I do it again?

The answer is yes, absolutely yes.

While the experience was life-changing, there are several things I wish I had known that could have made life abroad instantly easier. If you are considering teaching English in South Korea, here are a few insights to help you prepare for your travels and to better adjust to life abroad.

Before Applying, Understand the Difference Between a Hagwon and a Public School

Caroline teaching her students English with the help of Thanksgiving holiday traditions.

When applying to teach in Korea, you will have to decide if a private school (Hagwon) or a public school is the choice for you. I did not fully understand the differences and took a job at a hagwon without much research. Here’s what I wish I had known:

  • Working at a Hagwon, your hours will most likely be inconsistent and longer than a traditional American work day.
  • Hagwons don’t offer as many holidays off
  • Hagwons require more interaction with parents than public school position. 
  • Hagwons often pay a higher salary than public schools. 
  • Public school schedules are much more conventional to an American work day.
  • Public schools tend to be substantially more reliable as far as planning, class sizes, and discipline.
  • Public schools have less of a business setting and more a traditional school setting.

It is so important to weigh the pros and cons of both private and public Korean schools before making your decision. Looking back, I often wish I had known about public school opportunities as it would have been a better fit for me. But each person and school is different!

Seoul is Huge

When I accepted my Hagwon job in Dongducheon, Seoul, I was told I was an easy ride from city center. I wish I had known to fully research my locations to get a better understanding of location. To assist you with this task, check out Seoul Metro. It’s a great app to help you really visualize how close you will be to everything.

Decide what areas are important for you to be near, map everything out, and determine if that school’s location will work for you. Are you interested in nightlife? More worried about being near museums and cultural exhibits? Prefer the quiet country to the bustling city?

I found myself an hour and a half north of ‘downtown’, meaning I could only spend time with my friends on the weekend who all lived there. While I wish I had done more research on the topic, the good news is that transportation is cheap. Even if you are far, as long as you have access to the Metro, you are in great shape. Despite being far away from what I consider to be true Seoul, I was surrounded by excellent food, many unique boutiques, and coffee shops.

And being further from Seoul meant everything was significantly cheaper, so I was able to afford a really nice gym membership on top of everything else. Not being near the Metro will make it slightly more difficult and expensive, but with the availability of buses and taxis everywhere, no matter where you end up, you will be fine.

Prepare for Korea’s Stress Culture

The pressure on students in Korea is insurmountable. Starting at a very young age, Korean children are thrown in ESL Kindergartens and the pressure begins there. Many of my five year old students had tutors after class and on the weekends, Tae-Kwon-Do lessons, and music lessons all crammed into one day leaving little time for rest or play.

My middle schoolers said they averaged four hours of sleep a night due to their busy schedules, the pressure of test scores, and endless classes. In Korea, school never ends at the bell. After school, they all rush off to English school followed by music classes, sports practice, tutors and hours of homework. As a teacher and foreigner, this is very hard to witness.

The effects of these high standards will be evident day to day. I wish I had known to better prepare for my inability to change this. My Kindy kids would fall asleep mid-day from lack of sleep, suffer from headaches, get nosebleeds, and cry about having to visit tutors everyday. I had to slowly learn to accept that this is Korea’s way of life – despite my feelings about it – and do what I could to make my classes engaging and stress-free.

Living in Korea, you will face many challenges. Being prepared is a way to combat that and eliminate unnecessary stresses in your life. While I wish I had known these things before jet setting, I survived and thrived during my year in Korea and strongly advise you take this opportunity to go see what South Korea has to offer you!

Want to know more about teaching in South Korea?

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9 thoughts on "What I Wish I Knew Before Teaching English in South Korea"

  1. Janae says:

    Hey, I’m wondering how you found a reputable website to find a job online? I see so many different sites and programs but am never sure which ones are actually worth while.

  2. Kim Davis says:

    Thank you so much for this “real” advice. Your blog is so helpful to those of us considering this big step. I have an adopted daughter from South Korea so I would be bringing her with me. She will be in her Senior year in HS. How likely would it be that she could be enrolled near where I would be teaching? Any advice would be so appreciated.

  3. Jess says:

    So I’m a freshman in high school and I really want to take up this job even though my parents don’t really want me to. I wanted to ask though, how much exactly do you make a year? Let’s say you got your masters in education and now you are teaching English in Korea. Also, the one year program is mandatory before you get an actual job or do you ever really have an actual inset job where you see students grow up and you get more students as they get in higher grades or do you just keep requesting for another year where ever you are placed?

    1. Sara Thacker says:

      Hey Jess! A Bachelor’s (4 year college degree) is required to apply so you’ll need to wait until after college to apply! Salary is around $2,000 a month but this does goes up each year and with more qualifications (Like a master’s degree). The one year program is mandatory, yes.

  4. Shweta says:

    Can I also apply for a english teaching job in South Korea as a german citizen?
    How would you rate the chances of getting a 1 year contract (either in a public or private school) for people that are not native english speakers?
    However, I will finish my university in the following months and get my bachelors degree in business and psychology in 2019 and I am obviously planing to either do my TEFL or TESOL before I take any further steps towards my dream of living and working abroad.

    Kind regards,

    Shweta Bajaj

  5. Angelyssia says:

    Honestly, this helped alot. I’ve wanted to move to South Korea since i started watching dramas and tv shows and somewhat learning the language in 3rd grade on my own. I’m now only a freshman in highschool but I love cooking but I can see that if I really wanted to live in South Korea I would just do a teaching job. English is also the subject I am advanced in so this career works right in. Some questions I have are;
    – Are u allowed to only teach one year abroad or can you stay longer(a lot longer) or do they choose how long you have to stay
    – Are we allowed to choose where we would like to teach, or does the program choose for us? For an example, I’d want to teach in Jeju City
    – Should i get a teaching degree in the U.S. or in South Korea?

    1. Savannah McDermott says:

      I’m glad this was helpful!

      Contracts with the public school program are for one year, with the option to extend for additional years if you like. Teachers can express a preference for one location, but the program places all over the country so it’s important to be flexible. It’s a beautiful country with lots to offer, no matter where you’re placed!

      Korean schools prefer that English teachers are educated in fully English-speaking environments, so it’s best to have a degree from the US. However, your bachelor’s degree can be in any subject – if it’s not in teaching, you’ll just have to get a TEFL certification, which you can generally do as an online course.

      Feel free to email us me at smcdermott@greenheart.org with any questions!

  6. ESLsearch.com says:

    I like your personal take on things.
    I agree that you will stress yourself out by trying to change the educational system here.
    It’s best just to work with each student to the best of your abilities.
    The ESL academies are a hit and miss but there are tons in Seoul.
    Public school /EPIC / GEPIK openings are normally further away from the center of Seoul but offer great structured teaching experience.

    Great article

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