Teaching in Korea: Why or Why Not?

For many  new or subscribed readers to my blog I would like to take the time to let you know about my previous work experience as an ESL teacher in Korea.

Many Westerners or English speakers who reside in Korea are more likely than not to have either taught English, become p/t private tutors, or know someone else who has worked within the English education field.  I am no exception. When I first arrived in Korea I met many grad school classmates who privately completed tutor lessons in-between their studies. Their reasoning pretty much was because it was ‘easy money.’

Well the ‘easy money’ tag line stuck to me throughout my one year attending grad school in Korea. During that time I saw many classmates utilizing English teaching opportunities more for their own gain than the reverse. I didn’t see any forward emphasis towards the students. This made me start to wonder whether or not the English teacher industry really kept in mind the students and not the money. Being such a lucrative industry the focus behind it seemed blurred. Due to this observation I chose not to teach at all in-between my classes. Instead,  I decided to  do some p/t work at a local daycare/nursery that wanted to promote cultural exchange activities rather than English lessons.

However, during my second semester I was chased down one morning by a school recruiter on my way to language class. She seemed really interested in getting me to attend an information session about her organization’s video-teaching program and its usage in a few Korean public schools. Upon meeting &interviewing with them, I decided to take the position after learning more about the video-teaching program and the collaborative work completed by both Korean and foreign-teachers at their ESL office. Even after my graduation from school I stayed with this ESL office, but started to limit my hours. First off, I did not want to get stuck in the teaching area as some of my other American friends in Korea. Eventually, I submitted my resignation letter and started to look for full-time work in different sectors in Korea. This was summer 2014.

My job search that summer in Korea was dismal. I landed a few interviews, but nothing panned out for me with these organizations. Feeling like I might have to return home I did what most people should do, I networked.  I started asking my friends and classmates for help or for leads if any new jobs popped up that they might know of. Just my luck a position was available. However, it was an ESL teaching opportunity outside of Seoul in neighboring Yongin.  My friend who posted information on the position highly recommended the school due to knowing the school manager personally.

After receiving a formal referral and meeting with the manager I accepted a starting p/t position at their school. During my time there I got to meet with their Korean and English-speaking staff. My conversations about the students academics goals and the school’s overall focus with the other ESL teachers led to my decision to work at the school. Unlike my former grad school classmates these ESL teachers showed more commitment in reaching out to the students and helping them every step of the way. I got to see these strong relations between the students and teachers throughout my training sessions.

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(Picture above: Elementary school mural by my local bus stop – on route to work)

After two-months I was hired as a f/t ESL teacher. By this time my visa status had also changed. I was no longer on a student-visa. Instead I was on a job-seeker visa. But, while working at the school I did not receive my paperwork for my E-2 teaching visa. This was when I started to once again question the English teacher industry. I did not complain to my manager because I was compensated for my time, however, I did not want to work illegally under them. During my third-fourth month at the school I sat down with my manager and discussed whether or not I would officially receive visa sponsorship from them to continue working for them. I was promised that paperwork would begin in the new year.

Working under the books at the school was not what I signed up for when I  changed from a p/t ESL teacher to a f/t ESL teacher.  I expected that the manager would be open, honest, and decent like most of their staff were. However, I was blindsided because it was the only position available to me in Korea. I hate to admit that, but it was true. Having no other offers by the end of the summer and needing to renew my visa I felt pressured to enter into a position I knew I would be able to get. Additionally, I wanted to stay in Korea longer for other personal reasons.  But, I never imagined that I would be pigeonholed and stuck between a rock and a hard place.

By the end of the year and super stressed,  I worked out a deal with my manager. Agreeing to move out to Yongin she informed me that I would be fully supported by the school – visa, health insurance, and housing. Little did I know that she was yet again lying to me. After leaving my 2-year apt. residence in the Korea University (고려대학교) area I moved out of Seoul and into 3-bedroom apartment leased by my manager’s family. Upon move-in I learned that the manager’s sister and a Venezuelan ESL teacher (*also at the school) would become my roommates.  I had also learned that housing was not free and I would have to pay for all household needs on top of completing weekly chores. This did not irk me as much as finding out that my pay grade was reduced almost 1 million won for moving there. According to my manager there was no need to pay me so much because I lived only five minutes away from the school compared to an hour when I lived back in Seoul. Without even informing me that such a pay deduction would be made I was baffled by my manager’s continued deceitfulness.

By late-winter/ early spring I was suffering from immense stress due to work. At this time I was renewing my visa once again, and also trying to have my USA paperwork shipped over to Korea to get my teaching visa finally. However, one more issue arose. An old ESL staff member had returned. The return of this staff member was not mentioned to me or to any of the Korean teachers. We were all surprised, but more puzzled by our old colleagues return. It seems though that their return was imminent. According to them they were invited back with a favorable pay grade. Unbeknownst to me was that their pay grade was my former pay grade. Additionally, due to abruptly returning mid-way in the semester they received half of all my classes.

With lower pay, fewer hours, fewer students, fewer classes, and less respect I halted my visa status change. Instead I kept my renewed my job-seeker visa and decided to spend my off-hours back in Seoul looking for work. I knew that after 8-months at the school I was not happy. Nor were any contract agreements made between me and my manager upheld. Feeling cheated I knew that my situation could get worse and not better.  Being too good of a teacher I did not complain and continued to teach my students. I enjoyed my teaching hours and conversations with some of my advanced and older students. I enjoyed working on test preparations and holiday activities with my co-workers. I enjoyed the positive aspects of being a teacher and working inside a school. But, too many negative occurrences outweighed the good.

I quit my ESL teaching position at the school in Yongin and returned back to Seoul. I did not say goodbye to my manager, only to my fellow co-workers and all my students. I felt bad that I could not say goodbye to my Venezuelan roommate/co-worker who had left on vacation 2-weeks prior.  But, I had no regrets once I was out.

Looking back, teaching in Korea (*at that position) took a heavy toll on me: physically, mentally, and emotionally.  I want to say it happened in that order, but really it was a mesh.  I was always drained by the end of each school-day, and was ill with something throughout the duration of my teaching time. I also felt stressed mentally by working under the books for so long that I needed peace of mind. Lastly, emotionally I felt deceived. My manager whom I thought was a sincere person was not. She was a businesswoman first – who seemed more interested in her business and savings than in honoring her contracts and employees.

She lied over and over to me throughout my 8-months at the school. So, it was only fair that I lie to her to. During my final week I told her that I was returning to the states and I mentioned that I was quitting afterwards. It was an abrupt and unprepared resignation, but it was certainly justifiable.

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(Picture above: Looking at some educational books at YP – Young Poon Bookstore)

Once I moved back to Seoul with the help of my boyfriend I decided to start assessing my personal experience as an ESL teacher in Korea. As mentioned earlier at my former place of work more negative occurrences outweighed the good. However, I did try to make the most of my experience by being the best teacher that I could be. My mantra back then was: Help the students, they deserve the best. I focused on just that. But, in the end I couldn’t continue that type of living/ working situation.

Being an ESL teacher is not meant for everyone. It also is not a walk in the park type of position for anyone. You need to want to teach for positive reasons. Whether its to change the life of one student or a thousand students you need to have a positive reason to teach. In addition, you need to realize that teaching goes two ways.  It is a giving and receiving type of position. The more you give the more you will receive.

For anyone who has either taught English, were private tutors, or knows someone else who has worked within the English education field I am sure that you may have heard lots of stories about ESL teaching in Korea. Well this is my story. My experience in teaching in Korea was not a great one. Actually, it was pretty bad I admit; and it shouldn’t have lasted for as long as it did. I also shouldn’t have tolerated the treatment I received. But, overall I am grateful that I did make a difference in the lives of my students.

While this is a reflection of my own experience and observations I do not think ESL teaching is pursued wholeheartedly. Too many people I have met during my time in Korea had utilized English teaching opportunities for their own gain.

My advice to any prospective ESL teacher is to pursue teaching opportunities first at home and then abroad. While at home you can get your feet wet by getting in some experience as well as obtaining your TEFL or TESOL certification. You will also have your family and friends nearby to provide you with support. This is the route I recommend. I do not recommend moving to a new country you may be unfamiliar with to teach just for fun. Teaching in Korea is a fun position, but it can also be a tough painstaking position as well. So, here are my reasons for why or why not to teach in Korea.

WHY

  • Ability to gain international teaching experience
  • Have your own classroom and/or work coincidingly with a Korean teacher
  • Learn how to lesson plan, create curriculum catered to various ages/ levels/ subjects
  • Working with children, helping them grow
  • Learning new skill sets in collaboration, management, planning, etc.
  • Having a career that means something to people (i.e.your students, the parents, etc.)
  • Learn about Korea through teaching & from your students (you’re in a new country, your students will be your teacher as well)
  • You can share and/or introduce your own culture in your teaching lessons

WHY NOT

  • ESL teaching is not pursued wholeheartedly, it’s a lucrative industry nowadays
  • You will not reap any positive benefits for using English teaching opportunities for your own gain or as ‘easy money’
  • ESL teaching is not easy, it is not a position well-suited for everyone
  • Completing an all-online application you really do not know what your situation will be until you arrive compared to working in your own country
  • Teaching contracts can be broken or altered once you arrive or already begin working (*this happened in my case and to some other people I know)
  • The salary is not so high (*remember its teaching)
  • A break year can be spent doing something you are interested in (*if teaching is not an interest)
  • ESL teaching is meant to help in career growth, if the education field is not in your future then you maybe wasting your time.
*Note: All  pictures posted are owned by the Yeppunshikan author, usage of these pictures without the owners consent is strictly prohibited.
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