Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Teaching in Korea: Pros and Cons

Teaching in Korea can be a wonderful experience – it certainly was for me and my husband.  Of course a lot depends on where you’re teaching – your school and your neighborhood.  English education is very much in demand in Korea and that means small private schools (Korean term is hogwans) are constantly popping up.  Some are reputable and others are not.  If you’re considering a move, do your research first and speak with other teachers at the school for references.  A bad school could mean late salary payments, no severance pay, poor health insurance and poor accommodations along with a bad working environment.  So, there you have it – you’ve been warned!

Now, let’s assume you’ve ended up at a good, professionally run school like I did.  It could be a hagwon, international school or university.  Any way you slice it, there are pros and cons.


The Students:  I taught younger students (ages 6-11) and I loved them.  They are affectionate, boisterous, smart, hardworking and full of personality.  Some are frustrating and misbehave – after all, they’re children!  However, the importance of English education is ingrained in the culture here.  Parents are strict.  So, I would say children generally do their assignments and homework.  It’s not just gratifying to teach these children, but it’s wonderful to have relationships with them and be a source of encouragement in their lives.

Teaching Experience:  The demand here is for native English speakers.  While a college education is required, a degree in education is not.  However, for those wanting to try out teaching as a profession or gain more experience, this is a great opportunity.  You don’t just learn how to teach English, you learn student management and teaching techniques.  I felt very comfortable in the classroom and learned the joys and stresses of teaching in a real environment.

The Schedule:  The typical teaching schedule is less grueling compared to a typical American workweek of 40+ hours.  Of course, each school is different.  At a private school, I had two weeks of set vacation plus some holidays off.  At a university, you’re looking at close to four months paid vacation.  Either way, your work days are about 7 hours or less.  Hours differ depending on the schools.  I worked afternoons and evenings and that was just fine, because my husband and I were on the same schedule.

The Experience:  This is the opportunity that teaching in Korea affords you.  It’s the opportunity to experience living and working in another country.  You get to tour Korea!  You can meet interesting people.  You’re on the other side of the world – so go and visit China; it’s only an hour flight!  Little things like eating out and applying for your driver’s license become an adventure.

Money:  I don’t think any of the teachers here are going to brag about their salaries.  It’s not a lot of money.  However, with free housing provided and low expenses in Korea, you just may end up with a nice savings.  Some come here to pay off debt and others use their savings to travel. 


Cultural Differences:  I wanted to experience the Korean culture – there’s so much to appreciate.  However, cultural differences in the workplace can be frustrating.  Last minute decisions are a big sticking point with Westerners.  This will affect your schedule, working hours, vacation time, and work responsibilities.  Planning ahead is not a priority.  Here’s one more example:  It’s important for Koreans to “save face.”  That means criticism or workplace problems are not always dealt with head on.  It can lead to confusion on the part of Westerners – the feeling is that issues are not dealt with honestly.  Even when you understand the culture, it can be frustrating at times.  However, you must remember that you are in Korea working with Koreans – it is up to you to adjust and not the other way around. 

Changes, Even With a Contract:  Your expectations and your school’s expectations may not be the same.  You have a contract and you think you understand that contract, but there are likely exceptions and misunderstandings that go against your expectations.  For example, when examining your required hours, realize there’s a difference between “working hours” and “teaching hours.”  You may be paid for only teaching hours, although your working hours are longer.

Now Some Advice...

A word of advice to prospective teachers:  This is not a free ride.  If you decide to teach in Korea, you should behave as a professional.  Too many teachers act immaturely and irresponsibly.  Not only are you impacting your school, you’re a poor ambassador for other Westerners and teachers.

I can wholeheartedly recommend teaching in Korea.  I enjoyed my job, the country and the people.  I enjoyed the travel around Asia.  My stay was short term – just a year, but there are many others who make a life for themselves in Korea.  They’re romanced by good jobs and a good lifestyle.  You may be too!

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