The Guide: Teaching English in Korea

So you wanna know, how does one teach in Korea? What do you need to know? Whats the best way to go about it? My best advice and tips are below. I’m not all-knowing, but I can certainly tell you about my experiences and the way I came to Korea, as well as some of the things I’ve learned through talking to other teachers and researching. This is my advice, these are my tips, my knowledge can now be your knowledge.

Note: This article details the how. If you want to know why, check out my article 5 Reasons to Teach English in South Korea over on Life After Study Abroad’s website.

Quick Links:

Program versus Recruiter

If you’re interested in teaching in Korea, you’re probably wondering exactly how to go about it. Going through a program is definitely an option, but it’s not the only one.

About signing up through a program:
One of the biggest advantages of a program is exactly that: it’s a program. People are employed to answer your questions, help you through the process and in general, make you feel more comfortable with the fact that you’re going to live in a foreign country. If you don’t understand the paperwork you need to fill out, you’ll be able to get help from someone in a timely manner. In addition, since you’ll be part of a group arriving in Korea, you’ll have some sort of orientation with other English speakers that gives you the opportunity to meet people right away. Programs are designed to help with those rough edges of a huge transition and that’s a plus on all accounts. Also, side note, programs work exclusively with EPIK schools. (What’s EPIK?) The downside of a program is that most cases, you won’t know where you’ll be placed until you’ve already arrived in Korea. That piece of information was important enough for me that I chose the alternative route of recruitment. This might not bother others at all.

About being recruited:
How does one even go about being recruited? Well in my case (and in most cases, from what I’ve read), people are recruited through job boards. I went through Dave’s ESL Cafe and found my job on the Korean Job Board. The advantages of doing this are that I was able to see my salary ahead of time, choose the age group and look up information on the school itself and where it was.
The disadvantages of going this way are a bit obvious: I am on my own. There was no orientation for me, there was no buffer time between my arrival and beginning my job. The first weekend here, I had to use my survival skills (neighborhood-people-asking-skills) to figure out how to find food and the grocery store.

Regardless of which way you go about it, once you’ve started your job and met your bosses and co-workers, you’ll be able to ask them about anything. And then recruiter versus program becomes irrelevant.

Public School versus Private (Hagwon)

The Korean school system has two main elements: public school and private. Many students are involved with both, signing up for classes at the Hagwon after school and on weekends. Which one should you choose?

Public school teaching is a more typical structure: normally hours are 8am-5pm, Monday through Friday. Most schools aren’t in session on Saturday. Kids are kids and obviously public school is required, so they may not be thrilled to be there (but some definitely are!). You might be asked to run or plan an English camp during vacation. You’ll teach classes by age group, just like you’d imagine. Public schools are known to give more vacation (and work-from-home) time to their teachers, but this is of course a generalization and is not true for every school. Many teachers are busy doing English camps during vacation, as well.

Private tutoring schools or Hagwons are a huge industry in Korea. The hours are normally later, so you’ll start the day closer to noon than 8am and work later. Hagwon teachers also teach on Saturdays, with some exceptions. Your classes will likely be mixed age groups, unlike the public school system. The vacation time is shorter, in general. The pay, however, can be a lot better, but of course it depends. There are plenty of public school positions with comparable pay. Hagwons are also vulnerable to sudden changes, such as being purchased by a different hagwon company. Your job could be less stable, because of this, but I’ve met many people who didn’t encounter this issue at all.

More than anything, it’s important to remember that each school is different. Everyone will have a different boss, hence different rules and a difference schedule and different levels of flexibility in their contract and schedules. These descriptions are pointers, guidelines, but by no means rules.

What’s EPIK / GEPIK?

EPIK is the government sponsored English Program in Korea, which provides opportunities and the basic benefits that you associate with a native teacher position in Korea: your housing being paid for, a good salary, Korean healthcare, etc. If your school uses EPIK funds to hire you (all public schools and some private schools), then you’ll be filling out a little extra paperwork. GEPIK is the same idea, but it’s specific to the Gyeonggi Province, the area surrounding Seoul. Once again, it just means that your school uses government funds to hire you and give you those benefits. An orientation is included and the hiring season is limited to twice a year.

It’s possible for a school to not be funded through EPIK or GEPIK and not be hagwon. For example, I work at a private school and don’t have an EPIK contract. I still have all the typical visa requirements to receive my E-2 visa, except for EPIK paperwork. I was also able to partially renew my contract (i.e. not a full year) and negotiate the details of it. But as a result, I also missed out on the EPIK orientation week and didn’t get to meet all the other foreign teachers right away.

Getting Started: Paperwork

So you’ve decided you’re going to do it. You’re moving to Korea, baby! What’s first?
If you’re from the USA, don’t wait a single moment longer: start the paperwork for your criminal background check. It takes up to three months to fully process everything. Even if you’re only kind of sure, a little wishy-washy, still: start the paperwork. You can always not finish the process if you change your mind.

The paperwork you need can be found on this website: a great, detailed overview of the required documents, from the point of view of a USA passport-holder. Also, compared to getting your criminal background check, the rest of the paperwork is cake. My advice to you is that you read multiple sources’ information about paperwork processes that confuse you and if you’re still not sure, contact your program or recruiter for clarification.

In regards to the Apostille, here is the simplest way to explain it: an Apostille is a kind of notary, but for international use. It certifies that your paper is real from an internationally trusted source. Your criminal background check needs an Apostille from Washington, D.C. because it is a federal document. Your university degree needs an Apostille from that state’s capital, because it’s a state-issued document (in a way). If you are using a letter of expected graduation in replacement of your diploma because of university processing time, it will need an Apostille too, also from your state’s capital.

One last paperwork note: be ready to shell out some cash for the paperwork and visa process. It’s not fun and it adds up, but as long as you’re prepared to do so, then you won’t have any problems. I spent about $200 on paperwork, copying, notarizing, mailing and apostilling. However, my costs were a bit escalated because I (1) got double of all my documents in the case of an emergency and (2) I needed to mail documents to Korea twice: if you do it right the first time, you’ll only send things once. Paperwork is a big pain, but landing in Korea and then starting that first day of work will all be worth it.

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Aren’t Teachers in Korea Being Eliminated?

Ah, the rumors. Ever since 2011, newspapers have reported that native English teachers in Korea would be phased out and there would no longer be jobs available in the public sector. As of this writing, December 2013, there is plenty of evidence of these budget cuts but it’s by no means the end.

First of all, these are only teachers in the public sector: hagwons and private schools are still widely hiring. Secondly, the budget cuts seem to primarily affect two groups of teachers: those living and working in Seoul and high school and middle school teachers. Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, its neighbor, have had wide cuts to their public school programs and if there are any jobs left, they will be tough for a first timer to get a hold of. If your heart is set on Seoul, try going a different route, such as a hagwon, because applying through EPIK and hoping for the big city is a very long shot. As for the second category, elementary school teachers in public schools across Korea still (seem to) have job stability. It’s only high and middle school teachers that are affected right now. So if you’re hoping to teach older kids, you’ll want to search for private schools (recruiters can help you) or hagwon jobs. While it’s still very possible to do that, EPIK won’t be the best route to go about it.

That said, it’s important to know that especially in Korea, things could change within a moment’s notice and you should always be flexible. Also, each Province has their own provincial budget and ways that they are dealing with the budget cuts. Some provinces, such as my own (Chungnam), adore their native English teachers and are doing everything they possibly can to keep them in schools. Others may be less reluctant to let go of jobs in public schools. In any case, jobs are still everywhere in Korea, but they’ve just been redistributed. The budget cuts are no reason to not apply for a job in Korea.

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University Jobs

Korean universities also hire native English teachers, but the requirements are much more strict. You’ll need at least a few years in-classroom experience, definitely a TEFL (if not a CELTA) certificate and best case scenario, also a Master’s degree in any subject. As well, these jobs tend to go to people who are recommended by the former teacher, so you may need a stroke of luck and the right friend to get an in. Universities also like to test out teachers during their summer camps over vacation time, so if you can get a job at their camp (and do a good job), then they’ll likely offer you the upcoming position. If you’re lucky enough to land one of these jobs, the vacation time and pay can be phenomenal; four months of paid vacation and usually no more than 20 teaching hours a week.

There are also jobs at Universities that are part of the “language center” and offered to civilians and other non-traditional / temporary students in the area. These are nicknamed “unigwons” (university + hagwon) and generally offer less vacation time, work hours more similar to hagwons (later in the day until evening) and the courses aren’t for credit. Unlike the more “serious” University jobs with long-term students, you don’t need an incredible resume to get one of these positions. (But you will need some experience!)

When it comes to the money, every university (and unigwon) is different. Some pay next to nothing compared to public school teachers and others pay quite well, so you’ll have to check on an individual basis.

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Other Resources

I’ve written a lot about teaching in South Korea, here you can find all the articles I’ve had published on the subject including more personal accounts of my time here. Perhaps you’ll find the answers to any more of your questions in one of these.

Things other people have written:

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Helpful? Useless? More questions? Contact me here or, if you’d prefer, at abreathofforeignair [at] gmail.com. You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

How To Stay Warm in Winter Like a Korean

Before I left for Korea, my grandmother asked me one question that I remember clearly: “Are you bringing a warm winter coat? I heard winter in Korea is bitter cold.” At the moment it was June, and I knew her knowledge of Korea’s weather primarily stemmed from news that troops were freezing their balls off during the Korean war, which (at least during the winter months) was fought closer to North Korea. So I brushed it off, seeing that the latitude was similar to Pennsylvania and thinking that yeah, North Korea is probably bitter cold in the winter, but I’ll be in the South!

Well, imagine my surprise later in the year when the freezing rains became freezing snow and then it was dry and just plain freezing. Freezing, I tell you! I’ve never been so cold. I’ve also never been to Russia, Canada during winter months or anywhere with much of a temperature drop in comparison to Pennsylvania. So I was caught off guard, to put it simply. Grandma, you were right, dang it! (That’ll teach me to ignore advice from smarter, older people.)

I suffered a lot during my first winter, because I didn’t have a good jacket at first, didn’t own a lot of leggings and couldn’t figure out how the heating worked in my apartment. Eventually I figured it out, though, and I’m much more prepared for this upcoming winter. Part of my preparation comes from picking up tips from the Korean winter experts, themselves: Korean people. They look stoic in the winter months, not shivering, not uttering words of complaint. Sometimes I like to imagine that Koreans are actually just immune to temperatures and have special Asian skin made for horribly, painfully cold temperatures. Totally not true, they just know what they’re doing cause, you know, they live here. All the time.

Except for those girls in short skirts, there is definitely magic going on there. You girls be crazy.

So, if you’re new to Korea and don’t understand why your coworkers aren’t chattering their teeth and losing limbs to frostbite, I’m about to break open their secrets. None of them are particularly genius, really, but for those of us with little cold-weather sense, they make a big difference. This is how to stay warm in the winter, like a Korean.

The Clothes

First, you need a serious thick sweater that goes with everything, so you can wear it everyday. You’ll want all of your shirts and sweaters to cover your butt, so buy them as long as you can find. Bonus if it has a hood. Then you need thin, warm underlayers. They are the foundation of everything: under your pants you’ll need thin leggings, under your long sleeved shirt you’ll need a thinner, long sleeved shirt. Those girls you see in Seoul wearing only leggings in the bitter cold? They have a secret weapon, a fuzzy, fur-like lining inside the leggings. Back to the top, even better if you have a thin tank top underneath that thin long-sleeved shirt. Think layers, tiny layers and way too many layers. Don’t just embody an onion in layers of personality, dress like an onion. (Don’t smell like an onion, though.) As for your footsies, buy the super fuzzy socks or if you need to put shoes on top, wear two pairs of socks.

Like these!
fuzzy socks

Outerwear, you’ll want a scarf and a hat (duh), maybe with cute ears attached to it (double duh). Get cell phone friendly gloves, the ones with magnetic magic in the tips of the fingers so you can use your phone from the warmth of your finger blanket. Your jacket needs to be hardcore: multi-layered, fuzzy or fur inside, rain resistant and long. Spend money on your jacket because it will become your dearest possession when those temperature digits start growing, but in the negative.

Most popular among older people and children, cloth face masks must be mentioned, even if they make people look like they’re sick and trying not to spread disease. In reality, they’re just keeping the air warm before they breathe it into their lungs, and I can attest from personal experience that not only does it work but it’s wonderful for freezing cold morning runs. (I just look ridiculous, that’s all!) You can grab them in plenty of colors, with cute pink animals adorning the front or in a simple frill-free white.

I mentioned so much about underwear/clothes, because that’s the big secret: be the onion. And then wear a good jacket.

The Housewares

The big Korean secret that you’ve probably heard about but don’t quite understand the gloriousness of (until you experience it) is ondol, the underfloor heating system, where warm water flows through pipes below your feet. There is nothing better on a freezing cold winter day than putting a blanket on the floor and laying down on a warm surface. Nothing compares.

Another secret, which once again isn’t such a big secret, is using an electric blanket. During the worst months when six blankets isn’t cutting it because your face is still exposed to cold air, the electric blanket will do the trick. (But making a cave and tunneling under all your blankets won’t hurt, either!)

I do a stock image search for "blanket" and this is what it comes up with... really?
I do a stock image search for “blanket” and this is what it comes up with… really?

If you must, there are also space heaters, but that opens up a whole new can of worms called “how not to set your house on fire while you’re sleeping”, so I’d advise just figuring out how the ondol works and cuddling up with the below.

The Noms & Drinks

Asians are pretty stellar at having seasonal foods and drinks that should be consumed dutifully only during particular times of year. Koreans are no exception.

While Koreans eat hot food for pretty much every meal, throughout the year, no matter what, the fare gets a little heavier when it’s cold outside. Rice porridge becomes more popular, instead of only among sick people. Soups become meat-heavy and rice is given in excess. While roaming the streets, one of the most popular (and spectacularly tasty) items to buy is hodeok, a pancake-like thing filled with warm cinnamon and nutty goodness. Also good are red-bean-paste filled pastries, served warm, mandu or Korean-style dumplings and pretty much anything else warm that can be eaten. Another one of my winter favorites is no nonsense, baked sweet potato, peeled and eaten as is.

It's warm, but ANYTHING BUT THIS. [Read about how I got food poisoning and it was all my fault, here.]
It’s warm, but ANYTHING BUT THIS. [Read about how I got food poisoning and it was all my fault.]
As for the drinks, there are a plethora of coffee/milk/unidentified warm drinks ready to go at every convenience store. My favorite of these is definitely the honey and ginseng drink, which is exactly what it sounds like: honey, ginseng and water. (Ginseng in general is considered a winter necessity, in whichever form.) Koreans use warm drinks essentially as hand warmers in the cold months while at work, cupping their little instant coffee and only occasionally sipping it. While this goes for all year round, as well, drinking soju and makgeolli warms even the coldest body up.

The secret: eat warm, drink warm, and be warm.

[For a full list, see Seoulistic.com’s article: 15 Popular Korean Winter Foods and Snacks]

The Big Secret

You’ve become the onion and draped a giant coat on top, embraced the ondol (and the heating bills that come with it) and begun consuming a steady stream of warm food and drink. If you’re still cold, the last secret I can give you is this: ignore it. Pretty much your only other option would be to become Korean, and if possible, I’m both impressed and in favor of that transformation. But as far as I can tell, if a Korean is cold, they’re not talking about it. They’re ignoring it. I think that’s the final weapon, the last ditch effort against a constant affront of freezing wind and really cold feet. Don’t think about it. Go where you’re going. Move on.

And with that, you’ll be warm enough.

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Tips and Resources for Learning Korean

Before I arrived in Korea, I spent about a month studying Hangul (the Korean letter system) and was thrilled with my ability to read words out loud. Shortly after I arrived, I realized that I’ll probably also need to understand the words, not just read them. It was going to be a long, tough road to conversational in Korean. After going down that road for some time, I realized it was actually going to be more of a mountain climb than long walk, and perhaps I needed some better equipment.

That’s what this list is. This is your mountain climbing equipment for learning Korean. If you’re in Korea, you’ve already got a nice jacket of language immersion to help you out. If you’re not, that’s okay: you’ll need to bring more effort to the game, however. If you want to learn Korean, be able to converse and understand people in a variety of contexts, you need to work really hard. So hard. This shit ain’t easy, but if you can communicate to someone that you really love rice cakes in Korean, you’re infinitely more likely to get a surprise bag full of freshly made rice cakes the next day. What I’m trying to say is that it’s worth it.

Before I get carried away, let’s just get to the point. Here’s what you can use to get to the top of that giant mountain and eat your rice cakes, too.

Internet Resources

Talk To Me in Korean

Hands down one of the best resources I’ve ever encountered. If the audio lessons aren’t your thing, you can head straight to the PDF for explanations and example sentences. One of my favorite features is just the website search bar; if I encounter a word I don’t know how to use, I just search for the lesson on that topic and enlighten myself. Bam. They also have lots of cool video lessons to mix it up when you’re feeling bored with that same old grind.

Sogang Korean Program

Heads up, this resource is best in Internet Explorer. A bunch of people swear by this website, and I’ve looked through a few times and learned a thing or two. I personally prefer the TTMIK (above) but definitely check this out before deciding where to study. Or study all of the Internet resources. Whatever you want. This site combines audio, reading comprehension and all that good stuff you’ll need to become a Korean conversation master.

UC Berkeley Online Intermediate College Korean

Like the title says, this is available in the intermediate level only. It’s a lot of Korean words in your face which can be scary (more like terrifying), but the explanations are clear and there are listening and other exercises to help you practice. There’s also lots and lot of vocabulary for you to remember!

Naver Dictionary

Naver is the biggest Korean search engine and it’s no surprise that their English to Korean dictionary is fabulous. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can look at their endless example sentences (most are not low level by any means). The dictionary gives several definitions so you can get a better feel for the meaning.

Helpful Korean vocabulary for navigating the website: 사전 = dictionary, 영어 = English, 단어/숙어 = word translation, 예문 = example sentences, 더보기 = see more.

iTalki

This is a great site for a couple reasons. First, you can video chat with a native speaker who will help you with pronunciation and conversational errors. Fo’ free! Second, you can also set up scheduled language tutoring sessions or more intense, actual lessons with a teacher via Skype. This is great for those without a convenient classroom setting to jump in on. And at the bare minimum, you can also write notebook entries/practice sentences and receive corrections from other users.

TOPIK Guide

This website is designed to prep people for the TOPIK test, a Korean as a foreign language test that certifies you at different levels of ability. However, even if you’re not planning to take the test, there is a treasure trove of vocabulary and grammar for you to study, with definitions. You can also download old versions of the test and try out the practice questions, or actually simulate a test as intended. Your call!

Quizlet

Now, flashcard fiends, welcome to your new best friend. Stop killing so many trees, install the app on your phone and practice using virtual flash cards. The games are pretty basic, but they help more than you’d think and you’re also able to generate quizzes and tests for yourself. The phone app is nice for a passive commute or whenever you’re just too lazy to turn on your laptop.

The Paper Products

Talk To Me in Korean Textbook/Workbook

I haven’t personally used either of these, but judging from their audio lessons and other resources, these books are probably the shit. I’m waiting for a workbook to come out that’s at my level, but for those starting out, there’s wonderful news. The level 1 textbook and workbook have already been completed and are available for purchase!

Korean Made Easy For Beginners

This textbook is clear, straightforward and even comes with an audio CD! (As any language learning book worth it’s salt should. For real.) I have it, I used it and I would recommend it! Also, it’s bright pink… can’t go wrong there.

Korean 1 by the Language Education Institute of Seoul National University

For beginners, this book is kind of a rough ride, because it’s so Korean intensive and prefers to explain through numerous examples and as few English words as possible. It also concentrates on learning the formal tenses of Korean, which drives me nuts, since that’s not as useful. I’d recommend switching between this textbook and one of the online resources, because dang does it get boring. But the content is useful, rigorous and helpful if you can get past the eye-stabbingly-bland design and give it some brain work. It’s also a nice place to dig up new vocabulary words, if you’re into that flashcard kind of thing.

Children’s Books

Wait, really? Yes. Revert to childhood, crack open a story for two-year-olds and bask in the simple, decipherable sentences that you actually have a chance of understanding. This is wonderful for noticing typical sentence patterns and learning words like, “once upon a time”, “magic”, and “dedication”. Don’t worry, no one is forcing you to take those books out in public, it’s okay to keep that at home.

In-Person

A Native-Speaking Language Exchange Partner

This is one of the aspects of learning Korean that I’m lacking and I’m constantly wishing I knew someone in this tiny, 40-year-old-man infested country town! But really: work your hardest to find a native Korean who’s willing to meet you somewhat regularly for conversation practice. (Or meet them virtually, using iTalki, above!) I met someone for the first couple months of my studies and it really helped me start off with correct Korean pronunciation. I once paid my Korean tutor in alcohol to make sure I could read the alphabet correctly, before I arrived in Korea. Whatever you have to do, do it. It doesn’t matter what stage of learning you’re at, you can figure out something for them to help you with on a weekly basis, even if that’s just listening to you repeat the same 25 nouns for half an hour.

A Traditional Korean Class

If you live anywhere near a University that offers Korean language classes, you should probably get in on that. If the pace is too slow for you, you can always supplement your curiosity with the above Internet resources. I know that some classes are expensive, and sometimes people in your class are so stupid you want to bash them over the head. (Pro tip: don’t do that.) But if you have the money or can even bribe the professor with brownies into letting you audit, it’ll be worth it to have the regular motivation and not have to search out material to study. You can’t take a month “brain absorption period”, aka slack for a month when you’re enrolled in a class!

Tip: If you’re in Seoul, I’ve heard awesome things about the Seoul National University courses, and Visit Korea’s website has an entire list of the Universities that offer classes for foreigners in all of Korea. I’ve also heard of people taking classes at their city’s YMCA and occasionally some education offices will arrange free classes for English Teachers in the area.

Even More Resources

These are some massive lists of way too many resources, all in one place. I don’t have time to go through all two million of these and evaluate them, so I’ll leave that up to you. If nothing above helps, then you’ll definitely find something here, though you have a thorough search ahead of you!

So You Wanna Learn Korean?

Matthew’s Korean Study and Reference Guide

Reddit: The Ultimate Beginners Resource Thread

My best tip is this: don’t just use one of these resources, use as many of them as you can handle regularly. Schedule a day for vocabulary building with Quizlet, an hour with a conversation partner and some lessons every day with Talk to Me in Korean. The next week see what that Sogang website it all about and do a virtual lesson on iTalki. Spreading yourself out on all of these isn’t what I’m suggesting, because you will need to commit to some kind of schedule to keep yourself going. But don’t block in 3 hours a day with TTMIK, 5 days a week and nothing else. Variety is the spice of life… Korean food is spicy, and your study routine should be too.

Anyways, it’s time for me to get going. I’ve got a Korean mountain to continue climbing, but I won’t be needing my hiking boots today.

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being sick in Korea

no matter where you are in the world, being sick sucks.

but as an expat, it’s even more miserable, because the likelihood that your mother will fly in with six blankets and endless amounts of chicken noodle soup for you to eat is pretty close to zero.

I’ve been sick twice, probably because I work in a middle school where students are expected to attend classes even when they are sick. which leads to germs spreading and me ending up with a fever. ironically, I still go to work and just nap, hidden in the English room, the entire time to try and combat it. which is exactly why I get sick, because someone didn’t stay home. whatever, it’s the way it works in Korea! Continue reading being sick in Korea