Friday, March 13, 2009

Teaching in Korea FAQ

In my ongoing efforts to help people decide if teaching English in Korea is right for them, I thought I would post my responses to some questions I got from a friend of a friend who is thinking about making the move to Korea. I hope this helps. If there are any questions you think should be added to the list, let me know.

1. How did you apply for the position?

Through a recruiter. It is possible to apply to public school jobs directly, but there isn't any advantage to doing it that way, and it's more difficult and you have one less person in your corner should any issues come up. You could also come here to look for work... I think that makes the most sense for those with experience who are trying to land a highly competitive position, such as a university gig. One of the greatest benefits to starting in Korea is that everything is taken care of for you.... the recruiter will find you positions (for free, they're paid by the school), help you get everything in order for your visa and such, and then you'll be set up with a ticket (or airfare) and when you get here you'll have an apartment waiting for you. I can't imagine landing in Taiwan or Vietnam and trying to find a place to live at the same time as all the other new-arrival stuff.

2. Are you TESL/TEFLO certified?

No, and there's no need to be in Korea. For those who think Korea is a good fit, I would suggest starting here without it, and if after a year or two hear, you decide you want to stick with TEFL and possibly move somewhere where the certification is more important (particularly in the Middle East and a few particular Asian countries), then look into that.

3. How long did it take you from the begginning of your application process till ending up in Korea?

I started in May-ish, knowing that I wanted to come at the begining of the semester Sept. 1. One guy in my town did the whole thing in a couple weeks, but that's definitely on the fast end. The new school year just started last week.... there are always positions available, in public and private schools, but the big hiring pushes are for 3/1 and 9/1... I'd suggest starting several months before you want to come.

4. Is it easy to transfer teachig positions throughout Korea/Asia/World

I'm not sure what you mean by transfer. Korea runs almost 100% on 1-year contracts. One downside to Korea is that visas are non-transferable, so if you don't finish your contract, you have to get a release from your employer and go through the whole visa process again with your new employer. My understanding is that in Japan, for example, the visa is transferable. If you mean at the end of the contract, it's certainly easy to transfer within Korea... a year of experience here is a big plus because employers know you know what you're in for and that you can handle it. I imagine that's true with employers in other countries too. Two years experience and/or TEFL seems to be a commonly listed necessary experience for some of the more desireable jobs I've seen.

5. How hard is it to adapt socially (i.e. nightlife, dating,)

This is a huge question, and there are a lot of variables, most importantly you. I would suggest reading blogs of English teachers here... that's a nice window. Mine is at I'll probably refer you to a couple specific posts at some point.

In sum, Korea is not an easy place to adapt to. It is probably one of the lesser foreigner-friendly places on the planet. I have friends that have married into Korean families and are happy and plan to spend the rest of their lives here. But I know a lot more people that have come, foudn it very difficult, and are anxious to get out at the end of their contract. I think much of that is culture shock... the experience of living and working in a foreign culture after the novelty has worn off, and I do hear similar complaints from teachers in Japan and Thailand, but I'm not sure they are as ubiquitous or as strong as they are here.

If nightlife and dating are real concerns for you, I would suggest Seoul, or possibly Busan. Seoul is one of the biggest cities in the world, and you can find just about anything there, though I have never heard it refered to as cosmopolitan. Busan is a city of something like 3 million... I lived there for a year and quite liked it... it's on the beach and has a more moderate climate and a less hectic feel than Seoul, but also many many less foreigners and services for foreigners. Now I'm in a tiny town on the east coast, far from everything and very isolated. I took the job largely for the 5 week vacation, but it makes the other 47 weeks pretty tough, and I'm someone who likes a lot of time to himself for reading, guitar, exercise, etc.. Again, search for blogs of folks teaching in Seoul, Busan and other random places... the differences will be obvious.

6. What happens if i get sick/injured?

Korea has wonderful socialized medicine. About 50,000 won (~$30) of your monthly paycheck gets you medical care at prices you won't believe ($2 for a dentist visit, $.85 for a perscription fill, $300 for a crown treatment). Many doctors are trained at US medical schools. The bigger the city, the better in terms of quality of care and availability of ENglish speakers.

7. Have you been able to save money fairly easy?

Yes. This is the other advantage to living in the sticks... there's nothing to spend money on! Unfortunately, over the last six months, the exchange rate has moved massively against those of us saving won to convert to dollars (~40%). It hasn't affected prices here much, but it sucks when you transfer money home. Still, I will bank 5-figures this year, and that's with a 3-week trip to Thailand, buying the nicest food I can find and taking regular trips around the country. I don't, however, drink or smoke or eat meat, so I save money on all of those. The maxim is that you should be able to save half of your salary without trying. I save around 70%. When thinking about savings, don't forget that at the end of your contract you effectively get 2 months extra pay - one called severence and one from a pension.

8. How much stuff did you bring to Korea?

I brought the two largest suitcases I could get my hands on, and packed things like Clif bars, books, and a tennis racket. My parents send me a package every few months with my favorite foods and toiletries, which helps a lot.

9. have you picked up much of the language since your inception?

No, and most people don't, but that's stupid. Korean is one of the hardest languages for an English speaker to learn, but it can be done. Especially in Seoul, if you really wanted to commit to it, there are hagwons (a hagwon is like a tutoring center, they offer after school classes to students, especially in English, and employ most of the foreigners here) that teach Korean to foreigners.... If there were one here, I would do it. I have enough of the language to get around, but embarrassingly little for having lived 18 months here. I bought some books before coming and while here, but just haven't dug into it. I've heard people talk about acquiring languages like Hindi and Italian in less than a year because they loved the culture and always wanted to be immersed in it. I think the converse explains why most of us don't make much of an effort at Korean.

So there are some thoughts. Here are a few blog entries that might be valuable to consider:

several videos, if you want to get an idea of what life looks like in Korea.

differences between hagwon and public school teaching

general thoughts about being and teaching here. be sure to check out the comments section, as there are lots of valuable insights from readers there.

I hope all that helps. If it brings up any more questions, feel free to ask. If you decide you want to come, my recruiter was great before we got here, and in helping us when we needed to move. I'd be happy to set you up with them (I get a little kick-back if you end up signing on.)


tami said...

Hi there,
I love reading your blog, very informative! Thanks. I'm coming to teach in Ansan Korea very soon but i've been reading news about North Korea wanting to launch their missile in early April. What are your views on this? Is it safe to be in korea now? Hope to hear from you soon. Thanks

Michael Levy said...

Honestly Tami, I don't even read about it. The rulers of the north are constantly saber rattling, but they know that if they were to cross the line, the U.S. would be forced to attack and they would go from being very wealthy and powerful to being convicted of crimes against humanity. So I'm not worried. Also, if there was a major flair-up, I would get the first flight home.

Good luck in Ansan! Let us know how you like life there.

tami said...

Hi Michael,

Thank you for your comment.


mel said...

While I can see this post (and others) effectively discusses your experience in a pragmatic way, I'm curious if you would be willing to provide an email interview regarding your experiences living and teaching in Korea.
I am writing a creative journalism style paper on this topic and would appreciate a personal, dare I say, intimate description of your choices and situation. I value your insight. Thanks either way, though.
I can best be reached at:

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

My name is Fiona I'm from Australia, I have decided to come and teach in Korea. I am doing EPIK Gangwon-do in Jeongseon. Do you know anything about the place eg. how good is transport, facilities, how many other westerners etc, Or do you know people in Jeongseon that have blogs like yours? Any light you can shed would be much appreciated. Feel free to contact me at


Teaching in Korea said...

Great information about teaching English in Korea. Thank you! I'm looking at coming to Korea this summer or early fall.