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.

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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.

Review: My Local Guide Istanbul Tours

Big city, short vacation: a tour guide was the perfect answer.
Big city, short vacation: a tour guide was the perfect answer.

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Continue reading Review: My Local Guide Istanbul Tours