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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 Nadine Laggar?

;Nadine is currently in South Korea.

When did you complete the TESOL course?

I completed my TESOL course at Wits Language School in May 2013.

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

My partner and I tried numerous recruitment agencies as we wanted to get a job together. But we found it difficult, until a friend of a friend was leaving their job and we snatched up a joint opening.

Where was your first overseas teaching job?

My first overseas teaching job is my current one in South Korea.

When do you live and work in South Korea and for how long have you been there?

I’ve lived and worked in South Korea for two months. And what a marvelous two months they have been.

Why did you choose to go there?

I wasn’t ready to get saddled with a 9 – 5 job after studying, so I opted out of the rat race for a 1 – 8 job instead in a different country. You’re still going to work hard, but the salary is fantastic and you have an entire new country and culture to immerse yourself in. It’s also a great opportunity to write travel articles and various entertainment articles for publications, which is what I was doing before I came here.

Boryeong Mud Festival 2013

What is it like to teach in South Korea?

South Korea is quite serious about education, and about having younger generations learning English to increase their opportunities for a successful career so jobs for ESL teachers are plentiful and the salaries are great. You should be earning from 2 million won (1 South African Rand equals 97.38 South Korean Won) upwards, depending on your qualifications and amount of teaching experience.

I also get 50% of my medical paid for by the school, which seems to be the general agreement for most institutions employing English teachers, as well as a 13th check payable after the completion of the contract. My partner and I got individual flats 10 minutes walking distance from where we stay, so it is very convenient.

South Korea is also very efficient. Once you have your ARC (Alien Registration Card that is issued by immigration (after you have received your medical results) you will be able to open up a bank account, cell phone contract and you’ll be able to travel out of the country. You can pay your bills (gas, electricity) at your bank, which you feed into a machine and pay with your card. This can all seem fairly overwhelming, but you should not hesitate to ask the Korean teachers at your school for help with these processes or any translations required.

The visa to come here was easy to get once we had couriered our documents to our school and received our E2 Visa number to complete the process with. It was more difficult to actually get the documents needed to apply for the visa in South Africa such as the Security Clearance Certificate and Apostilled copies of degrees completed.

Foreigners are treated very well here, as long as you are respectful of the Korean culture, which is entrenched in respect of one another and especially people that are older than you. With your job, there is a language barrier, so there does tend to be a bit of a breakdown in communication. You might find out the day before that there is a public holiday, or you will walk into class and notice a new student that you’ve never seen before. You just have to go with it and adapt.

City Break Festival - Olympic stadium, Seoul

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

I work for a hogwan (private school) called Woonjin Thinkbig, so the hours are late (1-8 Monday to Friday). I teach four to five classes a day and my students range from kindergarten to high school. I would caution people taking a job from a hogwan to make sure that they are a reputable company as there are hogwans that just want to make money, and bring teachers to South Korea without having the means pay them regularly, or provide adequate housing. Public school jobs are definitely more sought after here with the added bonus of having three months paid leave.

As far as the children, most are great students and work very hard. There are some, however, that will take advantage of the fact that you’re a foreigner. Like all children, there will the ones you like, and the others you wish would stay home

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

I shudder to think of what might have happened without my training on the TESOL course, and the opportunity to actually teach a class. It was already an adjustment to move from adults to children, but to do that without the knowledge of what to do, how to make lesson plans and how to most effectively teach English as a second language? I would have had an aneurysm! All those ideas for lessons, creative teaching methods and games will become akin to gold in your third month when you’re recycling ideas for every class and still trying to manage rowdy 8 year olds.

Bongeunsa Temple - Seoul

What is it like to live in South Korea?

Living in South Korea is fantastic! Every time you leave your front door, get ready for an adventure. And prepare yourself to live your life in charades. There are people that can speak a little English, but you’ll have to get used to being okay with pointing at things and putting on miniature theater productions. No one is going to get annoyed because you want to spend money at their establishment. It will definitely, however, benefit you to start leaning functional Korean language to speak to Taxi drivers, or make sure to upload the Korean translation things you want to ask for or places you want to go before hand.
Koreans are a very respectful nation, so keep that in mind, especially when dealing with people that are older than you. But no matter how old you are here, everyone loves to go out to eat and drink until early hours of the morning pretty much every day. Make friends and go out, Korea is a very social nation and you should embrace it.

Food here tends to be pretty spicy with hot pepper paste being the main ingredient in almost everything. Expect lots of noodles, rice and egg, which they put in everything. There are also these great places where you cook your meat at the table, which you can find on almost every street. You also will get a lot of side dishes with whatever you order, especially kimchi (a traditional fermented dish made of vegetables with a variety of seasonings, often described as "spicy" or "sour") which is delicious.

However, you will also find a lot of international fast foods, like Burger King, McDonalds, and a lot of pizza places. There are also a lot of places that sell pastries in forms that westerners haven’t even thought of yet. Keep active if this becomes your main diet, because Koreans are a small nation. If you’re a girl, and your shoe size is bigger than a 6, you’re going to have problems. The same goes for underwear if you’re bigger than a C-cup. You can go to the western district in Seoul, though, if you’re battling to find clothes and you should be able to find something there.

The seasons in South Korea range from ridiculously hot and humid in summer to -10 degrees Celsius and snowing in winter. You’ll have to buy a proper winter coat here if you want to survive, and invest in some Wellingtons to combat the sludge from the snow.

Hello Kitty Café - Daejeon

What do you love/hate about South Korea?

There is nothing that I really hate about South Korea. Like every country, there’s the good and the bad depending on what your preferences are. For me, the good outweighs everything else. South Korea is safe enough that I can walk to the shop at 4am, and efficient enough that anything thing I’ve wanted to do hasn’t actually been that much of a problem. I love the culture and the amazing places that you can find all over the country. You just have to get onto a bus and explore.

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

The first week I was here I got really ill. I had no idea where the doctors were or where I could find a pharmacy. It was a Sunday when I decided to look for help the old fashioned way – by walking up and down the streets looking for a red cross. After walking up and down a few streets I realized that most of the shops were closed. And so were the clinic and pharmacy that I eventually found. The 7/11, however, was open as it always is, so I ventured inside and bought every kind of medicinal-looking product I could find at the counter. After taking a few pills while trying to decipher the Korean on the medication I was taking, I finally happened across a website that informed me that I was currently ingesting appetite suppressants!

Night out in Seoul

Would you recommend South Korea to other EFL teachers?

Definitely! It’s a great country with a cornucopia of places to go and sights to see. From skiing in the mountains, to remote off shore beaches, from huge metropolitans to traditional villages and ancient palaces, Korea has it all. The teaching opportunities are also plentiful and the salaries are great if you want to save a bit of money after the whole experience.

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

Make absolutely sure of what you’re getting yourself into. Hunting for a job can be frustrating but it’s not worth getting here and being unhappy in a job you don’t want. Research the school and read your contract carefully, making sure you bring a copy of the signed contract with you. Above all, you’re in charge of your experience. Accept where you are, the culture you’ve chosen to be a part of, and go with it.

Statues in Daejeon

What are your plans for the future?

I have no idea. And that’s okay. I’m taking it one year at a time and just enjoying what I have right now. Although I will probably be travelling and teaching in different countries for the next couple of years the immediate plan is to use the money I’ve earned to travel across Asia for a couple of months after my contract is complete before my next teaching job.

Bongeunsa Temple - Seoul