Teaching in South Korea

Laura with a kindergarten class.

Imagine if you could not only travel abroad, but enhance your job qualifications and get paid, all at the same time? For many people, teaching English overseas is one way to do exactly that.

Laura Clements is one such American who decided to take the plunge and head for a foreign classroom. She taught English in South Korea and loved it so much she stayed for nearly three years.

Keep reading for my (very detailed) Q&A with her about what her experience was really like, how she survived living in a culturally foreign place, and how you can do something similar.

Laura, when did you go to South Korea and for how long?

I went to South Korea in the summer of 2005 for a one-year contract. Afterwards, I spent a few months traveling and went home for a bit, then quickly decided to return to Korea after I realized I really wanted to have a more positive experience than I’d had before (my first job was terrible, but I’d refused to quit and suffered the year). The next school I worked with was fantastic. I stayed for over a year, traveled again, went home, went back to Korea to the same school for six months, then came back to the US permanently in March of 2009 after finishing a six-month contract and cutting my losses when the Korean won crashed at the end of 2008.

Why did you decide to teach English abroad and what attracted you to South Korea in particular?

I decided to teach English in Korea because I badly wanted to live abroad for an extended period of time, and Korea presented the path of least resistance, especially at jobs for haekwons (private language academies). I had been accepted into the JET Programme [to teach in Japan] but decided I would be better off in Korea. I already had a couple of friends teaching English there, the pay and overall package was better than ESL contracts in most other countries (including Japan, relatively-speaking), and they don’t require ESL teachers at certain kinds of schools to have teaching degrees. There’s also significantly more freedom in the classroom for English teachers in Korea compared to JET and more actual teaching time for foreign teachers, which was also something that appealed to me. It was also a way to live in an Asian mega city in a fully paid apartment. Eventually, I became addicted to living there – it’s a very efficient society and easy to get around, as well as being a lot of fun.

What did the application process entail?

In 2005, the process was pretty quick – I contacted a recruiter who screened me for a school that was looking to hire in two months in Suji-gu, a suburb of Seoul. The director of the school called me for an interview and sent me a contract, which I had to send back couriered with other documents, including my college diploma, transcripts, and other items. There is actually more paperwork required now, including a state-issued certificate proving you don’t have a criminal record and an HIV and drug test required to get the alien registration card (an important part of life!). This last step takes more time, and the amount of time required really depends on where you’re from. I think it takes significantly longer for Canadians and Pennsylvanians, for example. If a school doesn’t have enough time to get you a working visa before you arrive, they will often bring you over to Korea anyway in order to start your classes and send you to Japan for a visa run.

My second job was actually a friend referral. The principal was desperate for teachers and had had a good working experience with my friend, so she called me within a day of sending her my resume and photo to offer me a job. I was already in the country and was getting out of a contract with a school I’d been at for a month and quit (which is an entirely separate story – and also found through a recruiter), and could move fairly quickly. I had to go to Japan to get a new working visa as I had two weeks before I had to leave the country or be deported. Unfortunately, my flight was on my last legal day in Korea, and I (stupidly) got to the airport late. I had to be ushered through security and immigration and run for my plane, which was being held – I definitely felt like the dumb foreigner walking onto that flight! Needless to say, I’ve been early for every flight ever since.

Anyway, after that contract was up, I renegotiated for another six-month term to replace a different teacher a few months later. Schools almost never do this, so I was incredibly lucky – I think it definitely paid to be as respectful and “Korean” with my boss as possible.

Did you have experience as a teacher before going to South Korea?

I had no experience teaching whatsoever. I didn’t even know that I would like teaching, or working with kids, but I wanted to go do it just for the experience and to say that I could. I found once I learned more about lesson planning, classroom management, and positive reinforcement skills, I really loved it. I think I might prefer working with children to working with adults – kids are so inventive, creative, easily manipulated… kidding, kidding. But it’s true that they won’t judge you for acting silly and will gladly accept a “crazy dance” by the teacher as a reward for doing well on a test. And sometimes I wish I could buy everyone else off with a sticker. But seriously, there was never a dull moment and I think I learned a lot from working with them, especially about my own skills and abilities. I think I definitely came out of the experience more confident that I could adapt to most situations.

Korean kids have a reputation for being incredibly studious. What was it like to have to teach those children, and how tough was it trying to teach them English?

There were plenty of difficulties, especially in my first job. I was given several classes of beginners who didn’t speak any English. If you can imagine figuring out how to spend 40 minutes alone with 12 non-English-speaking 8-year-olds in a meaningful way, then you can understand the pain.

Then there are the unreasonable expectations from parents regarding homework, as well as principals who feed their zealotry. If the kids weren’t sent home with enough homework (we’re talking 1-2 hours a night, on top of all their regular schoolwork and the work they get from their other private afterschool programs) they would drop out of the school and find a new one. I think middle class parents in Korea feel a lot of pressure to make sure their kids get the best possible education to set them up for the best life – the best middle schools, high schools, and universities, all of which requires passing and excelling on a lot of written tests – including English ability.

I definitely had a different experience at my later job there, where the kids were all upper class and had come from English immersion preschools. They were already fluent by the first grade and were learning from American schoolbooks (actually a year ahead of Americans!). It was far less stressful than working at the other school.

What were your hours like?

My hours at my first job sucked. It’s true. I would spend all Monday morning planning and then arrive around 11a.m. every other day, start teaching kindergarten extracurricular activities around 1p.m., then jump straight into six or seven hours of back-to-back classes, with no more than a ten-minute break.

My second job was heavenly. I would go to the gym in the morning, get to the school around noon, eat school lunch with the other teachers, plan for an hour, then teach from 2:40p.m. until 7:30p.m. No extra homework to develop, no unreasonable expectations for the kids. It was pretty fantastic. Again, if you learn to get your teaching to a place where you can have fun with the students but keep them focused at the same time, there’s nothing more rewarding.

Keeping young kids focused can’t be easy though. Did you have to discipline the students?

I’m pretty sure the kids were a lot less disciplined in their English haekwons than they were at their Korean schools. That said, they were still much better behaved than the average American child. Threatening to send a kid home to his or her mother if he or she didn’t behave never failed, as an angry Korean mother is the most terrifying threat of all (family honor is a big issue for them). I don’t know that the average American child would be terribly moved by the prospect of dishonoring him/herself.

Did you have any weird experiences as a teacher?

I once had to name multiple classes of kids with English names. It was absurd to begin with, and then even worse how quickly the kids, who didn’t speak any English, picked up their new “names.” It was really too bad when I accidentally named two kids in the same class “James.”

During my first job in Korea I witnessed the domino effect of vomiting. Essentially, one 6-year-old vomits, and the others follow suit. That was pretty horrifying. In Korea, the teacher cleans it up.

Another time I broke up two first graders who were fighting on the floor. There was some screaming on my part first, because one kid was holding a sharpened pencil to the other kid’s neck. That kid belongs in prison.

Did you speak any Korean beforehand? Was there a language barrier?

I didn’t know Korean before going, but found it very easy to pick up hanguel, or the written script. My listening and speaking were not as good but eventually I picked up enough to get by, and wish I’d learned more. People in Korea are generally very nice, very helpful, and love it when you can speak Korean and respect the local norms.

What was it like living in South Korea, especially as a white female?

Despite stereotypes about Western women that Koreans pick up from the media (i.e. that they are all lascivious), I think being a white female actually helped me quite a bit, especially in teaching, because somehow we are supposed to be more “competent.” However, I had foreign friends in Korea who had very negative experiences that probably happened partly due to the previously mentioned stereotypes.

You were away from home for quite a long time, living in a place that’s so different culturally.  How did you cope with the stresses of that?

I had a very strong group of expat friends, and along with Korean friends this was really my only source of support. The recruiters are done with you the second you enter the country and the schools mostly only care about you showing up to teach everyday, though they often have a staff person dedicated to helping out the foreign teachers, depending on the size of the school. My friends there definitely functioned as a surrogate family. It’s not unlike the friendships you make in college, but probably more intense because you rely on each other for far more. These are the people who you travel with, eat dinner with, and spend every weekend and holiday with.

So what should people bear in mind if they’re going to be moving to such a culturally foreign place?

I think if you’re going to live abroad for an extended period of time, you have to be in the frame of mind to understand that you have to be flexible and learn new things, quickly. For example, eating new foods, trying new things, realizing if you’re a vegetarian that you will have to accept that there will be random fish bits sprinkled on everything, understanding that if you’re too tall or too short that shoes and clothes will not fit, accepting that there will be a toxic cloud of dust blowing over from China in early spring, and realizing that foreign bathrooms leave a lot to be desired.

If you’re rigid, judgmental, and incapable of changing, it’s not going to go well for you. Actually, maybe you should live abroad.

Did you get much chance to travel during your stint abroad?

I traveled within the country, including a trip (that is no longer possible) to go hiking across the border in North Korea, went to Japan a few times, went to Saipan and also Thailand. It’s pretty easy access to a lot of great countries for your longer vacations. After my contract was up I took the opportunity (and free ticket) to go to other places farther away in Asia, like Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.

Overall, how would you rate the experience? Did you come away a different person?

It was definitely rewarding – just knowing you can do and like something you’d never thought you would is a rewarding experience in itself, and I have a lot of fantastic stories. Although I think there’s probably a life lesson in everything, I found teaching and living abroad helped strip the sense of entitlement that so many of us suffer from (and probably aren’t even aware of). You get to understand that really well when you’re living as an obvious foreigner in someone else’s country.

Do you have any advice for other people looking to teach English abroad, particularly in South Korea?

See if you know anyone there in your network before you contact a recruiter for a job. You’d be surprised how many people are doing it these days, and you can maximize the possibility of being lined up with a good school. Also, the Seoul public school system now has some great contracts that have become very popular. They’re also good for people who want to work with kids who are less advantaged than the kids I described earlier.


Teaching English in South Korea 2

Laura with some first grade students. Clearly, the older they get the less shy they are.



The city of Seoul, South Korea. Photo by skinnylawyer.