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Where in the World – Teaching in South Korea

Following on from our Teaching Around the World interviews, our Where in the World? interviews aim to provide you with some insight into the great travel and teaching opportunities that are available to TESOL graduates. In each interview, we will be speaking to past TESOL graduate about their experience of living and working abroad as an English teacher.

We hope that you will find these interviews interesting and informative and that they will help to inspire your own English language teaching adventures.

Where in the World is Cara?

Cara is currently in South Korea.

When did you complete the TESOL course?

I completed the TESOL course in November 2011.

How did you go about looking for your first teaching job?

I knew that I wanted to teach in South Korea, so I looked online for reputable recruiters. Before I chose one, I read countless reviews on ESL websites to make sure that I wouldn’t be taken advantage of. I really recommend reading as many reviews as you can before choosing a recruiter.

Where was your first overseas teaching job?

My first (and current) teaching job is with the South Korean government teaching at a public middle school.

When did you live and work in South Korea? / How long were you there for?

I started working in South Korea in March 2012 and I am currently completing my second year in the same job.

Why did you choose to go there?

I chose South Korea because my brother had been there before me, and really enjoyed the experience and strongly encouraged me to come. I also felt that the programme run by the South Korean government to recruit teachers is established, trustworthy, well-managed and offers teachers a great package. I had also heard that the programme welcomes South African teachers, which is not the case everywhere.


Bibimbap

What was it like to teach in South Korea?

It’s fairly easy to teach in South Korea, and I think the package we are offered is outstanding. Native English Teachers or NETs (as we are called here) work from 8.30 to 4.30 with an hour lunch break. If we have to work extra hours (many NETs teach after-school programmes) we get paid overtime. We are generally expected to run a two-week summer camp during summer vacation, and a two-week winter camp during winter vacation. We get 18 days paid vacation, and all public holidays off.

All NETs are provided with an apartment, for which the school pays rent. It is furnished with a bed, a table and chairs, a stove, a microwave and a fridge. South Africans don’t pay tax for the first two years in Korea, and after that it is very little (much less than in South Africa). All NETs automatically receive national health insurance. With the national health insurance, going to the doctor and getting medicine is very cheap. A doctor’s visit usually costs me around R30 and medicine usually costs another R30. However, the national health insurance doesn’t cover terminal illnesses or major surgery, and only partially covers minor surgery.

Getting a work visa is very easy when you work for the South Korean government. You receive your contract while you’re still in South Africa, which enables you to apply for and get you visa before you go. When you arrive, the Korean English teacher at your school takes you to the immigration office to apply for your Alien Registration Card (ARC), which basically functions like an ID and allows you to open a bank account, get a cellphone contract, etc.

What organisation do you work for? What kinds of students did you have to teach?

I work for the Korean government, more specifically, the Chungnam Province Office of Education. I teach middle school students (in South Africa, Grade 7,8 and 9) but when you apply to teach in South Korea you can choose between elementary level (elementary school, Grade 1 to 6) or secondary level (middle and high school, Grade 7 to 12). I chose secondary level, hoping to teach high school, but ended up with middle school. I teach at four schools, which is not unusual, especially if you are placed in the countryside.

Three of my four schools are very small, with very few students, and are located in remote areas outside the city. One of my schools is a very big, very reputable all-girls school in the city center. I receive extra pay for having multiple schools, as well as for teaching in the country. Countryside students are very humble and polite, but generally cannot understand or speak English very well, as they are never exposed to it. City students are better at English, but can be spoilt and are extremely competitive. So each situation has its advantages and disadvantages.

Middle school students are an extremely difficult age to teach, as they are going through puberty, finding their identity, and making the transition into young adulthood. But it is also a fun age to teach – they generally have great sense of humour and are a lot of fun.

How did the TESOL course prepare you for your first job as a language teacher?

The TESOL course helped me immeasurably in preparing for real world teaching. Although I had been an English teacher before, I cannot overstate how different teaching English as a first language is from teaching it as a second/foreign language. Being put in a situation where I had to teach students with limited English skills made me realise this, and taught me some invaluable skills for coping with the unique challenges of teaching English as a second/foreign language.

I can definitely tell the difference between NETs who did a TEFL/TESOL course with a practical component and those who did a TEFL/TESOL course without a practical component. Another important fact worth mentioning, I think, is that due to the high numbers of people applying for positions as NETs in South Korea, the government is becoming increasingly more picky about who they select. I believe that, from next year, they will only select candidates who received face-to-face instruction and observed teaching practice (both of which are offered by the WITS Language School).


Gyeongbokgung

What is it like to live in South Korea?

Living in South Korea is great. Some things are more expensive than in South Africa (food) while others are much cheaper (health care).
The public transport in South Korea is incredible. Within cities, there are public buses that go everywhere, frequently, all day, that are very cheap. There are also taxis which are very affordable if you need to get somewhere in a hurry. Between cities, there are trains and buses, both of which are comfortable, run frequently, and are affordable. South Korea is a small country (a tenth the size of South Africa) so even to get from north to south only takes a few hours.

The weather is…extreme! Summers are very hot and very humid, and winters are freezing cold with a lot of snow and ice. But what I love about the weather in South Korea is that there are four distinct seasons, which is something we don’t have in South Africa. Spring is beautiful with flowers everywhere, and of course the gorgeous cherry blossoms. The weather is best in autumn, with warm days and cool nights, and the red, orange and yellows leaves are also gorgeous. NETs have vacation during summer and winter, so it is also possible to escape the bad weather (I always go home to South Africa in the coldest month, February).

Access to Western products varies according to where in South Korea you live. I live in a small city, and while we can get many Western products at the big supermarkets, we can’t get everything. However, the capital city Seoul is just a two-hour bus ride away, and there you can get any Western product your heart desires.

Not many people in South Korea speak English, which can make everyday life here very difficult. When I first arrived, I asked some locals directions to the supermarket and they ran away! Koreans are very proud people, and terrified of embarrassing themselves, so unless they can speak fluent English, they generally don’t speak it at all. This, of course, varies according to where in Korea you are: people speak much better English in Seoul than in the countryside. This problem can easily be overcome by learning Korean, which I have done. The Korean alphabet is very simple, and even learning a few phrases makes your life a million times easier.

What do you love/hate about South Korea?

I love that Korea is so safe. I can walk anywhere anytime by myself and not be afraid. I love Korean people, and I love Korean history and culture. I’m really enjoying learning Korean. I love Korean food. I love travelling in Korea, there are so many beautiful places to see.

I hate the work culture in Korea. Teachers (except me) work until 9 pm, and people who work for big companies work up to 15 hours a day, often work on weekends and sometimes have 5 or fewer vacation days a year.

I also hate how hard students have to work here. Middle school students stay at school until 9 pm doing “self-study,” and many go to private academies after that, which means they get home at 11 pm or midnight. They eat breakfast, lunch and dinner and school and have very little free time or family time.
And finally, I hate how few people speak or are willing to speak English. It makes making Korean friends very hard. But that said, I have to say I have the most incredible support network of Korean friends here. So it’s difficult, but not impossible.

Can you tell us about a funny/embarrassing/interesting experience that you had in South Korea?

One day, two friends and I went to a festival in a small town called Namwon. The festival celebrates a famous Korean love story, between a courtesan named Chunhyang and a nobleman named Lee Mongryong. As part of the festival, there was a free costume rental, where you could rent a costume and dress up like Chunhyang. So my friends and I rented the costumes, with the plan to take a few pictures together and the take them off and return them.

Soon after stepping out in our Chunhyang costumes, a photographer asked us to pose for some snaps. Soon another came, and another, and another. After just a few minutes, we were surrounded by more than thirty photographers with huge lenses all snapping away at us simultaneously.

They ordered us to go to different places, on the bridge, by the stream, in the garden, and directed us how to walk, how to pose and where to stand. It went on for more than thirty minutes. Eventually, I found a photographer who spoke English, and told him we were hot and tired, and asked him if we could stop!

I have a lot more sympathy for professional models now. It really isn’t as easy as it looks. I also have a picture of my friends and I in Chunhyang costume hanging in the Chunhyang Museum in Namwon.


Hanbok

Would you recommend South Korea to other EFL teachers?

Absolutely!

What advice do you have to EFL teachers thinking of teaching in South Korea?

Use a reputable recruiter. I’ve heard of so many people who’ve had negative experiences because they didn’t research the recruiter before they chose them. Never give money to a recruiter. Always have an open mind, be flexible, be adventurous and start learning Korean as soon as you arrive!

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to stay in Korea for the foreseeable future.