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The Pros and Cons of Teaching in Korea
South Korea remains one of the most popular countries where foreigners can teach English. The salaries are among the highest in the ESL industry; there are great perks like free housing and flights to Korea; and Korea is, for the most part, a fantastic place to live.
However, the experience is not the same for everyone. There are thousands of schools employing foreign English teachers and a range of schools where you can work at, from public elementary schools to private after-school academies to universities. These schools run the gamut in terms of management, amount of support you receive, vacation days, schedules, and more.
As a result, your happiness is largely dependent on where you work. But, of course, you also have to be able to adapt to life outside of your job, including changes that have to do with the culture, food, and language.
So, is Korea for you? Read on for some of the pros and cons of teaching English in Korea.
Most schools offer teachers free, single studio housing furnished with the necessities, and are usually within walking distance of your school. Your rent typically excludes utilities (although some pay those as well). If your apartment isn’t ready when you arrive or if you are attending orientation in a different city first, the school or program pays for your hotel room. Needless to say, this is a huge perk and the reason you can save money in Korea.
In addition to a free apartment, most jobs will pay for your airfare to Korea. Furthermore, if you complete a 12-month contract, many will also fly you home and also give you a one-month bonus.
50% medical insurance and pension
Your school will most likely contribute 50% towards your medical insurance and pension (although this depends what kind of school you work for), with the other half coming out of your monthly salary. Korea has top-notch healthcare, so English teachers are in good hands here.
Tax exemption for first two years
Public school teachers who are from the U.S., U.K., South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland (universities only) are exempt from paying income tax in Korea for their first two years in the country.
Ok, forget all of the other reasons—come to Korea for the food. Korean food is an exciting brew of flavors, textures, and colors. It consists of a lot of meat (hello, Korean barbecue), veggies, soups, noodles, and of course, spiciness. And there is soju. Lots and lots of soju.
Prevalence of English
If you live in a big city, you’ll find that many people speak at least a little English (particularly younger people). This is especially true in Seoul, which is the economic heart of the country and the home of the country’s top universities. Many sources of transportation, business signs, and menus are Romanized, enabling those who can’t read Hangul, or the Korean alphabet, to get by in the country.
Speaking of Hangul, or 한글 in Hangul (see what I did there?), Korea’s written language is renowned for its simplicity and connection to the spoken language. In fact, Hangul has been called “the most perfect phonetic system devised.” As such, it’s considered one of the easiest in the world to learn.
There are a number of websites and apps that help users learn Hangul, and you can learn the language in a few hours—yes, seriously. Of course, it takes some time to become proficient at reading the language, and you have to learn vocabulary to understand what you’re actually reading, but when you can look at a word in Korean and decipher it you feel like a rock star.
Koreans are, for the most part, incredibly warm, friendly, and fun. If you’re also kind and friendly, you should have no problem making some wonderful Korean friends. Koreans will also go out of their way to help you. On two or three different occasions when I found myself confused in a subway station in Seoul, I was immediately approached by a Korean person asking where I was going and showing me how to get there.
Koreans are also extremely polite and respectful, since social interactions between Koreans are heavily influenced by respect for one’s elders and those in higher positions in university and work (customs which are informed by Korea’s Confucian past).
If you teach at a public school, you will likely do a lot of “desk warming.”
…are desks in Korea cold? No.
Desk warming is time spent at your desk in the afternoons and during days (or weeks) when school isn’t in session, which is up to 10 weeks a year. On the plus side, you can get a lot of planning done during this time. But if you don’t have work to do, it can be boring and frustrating.
Long days at hagwons
Hagwons are private academies in Korea, and if you don’t work for a public school, you will probably work for a hagwon. There are many advantages to working for a hagwon but one of the disadvantages is that you will probably teach 30–35 hours a week. That might not sound like a lot—you may work 40 hours a week in your country—but 30 hours of teaching can be exhausting. You might not have the chance to sit down or eat for very long, either.
Lack of control over vacation days
If you work in a public school, you can only take vacation when there is no school. Teachers often don’t get a lot of advance notice about when their vacations will be because you have to plan around English camp (camps offered by schools during vacation). Vacations are also in peak travel times (July/August and December/January).
You’ll likely have a limited number of sick days, but these are only supposed to be used for major illnesses. What’s more, you are often required to show proof you visited the hospital on your day off.
Hagwons are businesses and you are largely at the mercy of the boss and the success of the school. If your school is doing well and you have a good boss, you won’t have a problem getting paid on time. However, if the hagwon isn’t doing so well—or your boss decides he has better things to spend his money on than your salary—you may not get paid on time, or you may lose your job altogether.
We hope that these tips help you understand whether Korea is the right place for you. Please leave any questions you may have in the space below!
Originally from San Diego, California, Whitney taught ESL for ten years, both in the U.S. and most recently in Korea. She’s now a freelance writer, which enables her to work while roaming the world. After six months in Southeast Asia, she’s now in Italy writing, taking pictures, eating everything she sees—and trying to find the motivation to work between adventures! Follow her at www.the-spaces-between.com and on Instagram @_the_spaces_between_
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