I normally don’t talk about teaching ESL in Korea or these days in blog posts or in You Tube videos. To be honest, I feel pretty disconnected from the whole ESL industry and from life in Korea. I left Korea in 2007 and when I left Korea, I left the ESL industry.
I do however still receive loads of emails from people asking me about teaching in South Korea and Japan. Sometimes I think my knowledge about Korea is now pretty dated. Like most aspects of life in South Korea, the ESL industry changes quickly and unless you are there on the ground and have some sort of vested interest, it is impossible to keep abreast with those changes. I have also never taught English in Japan so any knowledge I have of the industry here is purely second hand. I listen to stories from my friends who have or do teach ESL in Japan and read about it in newspapers.
That being said, I wasn't to impart some basic information to those interested in making a career in ESL or just taking a year or two to try teaching. The advice I am about to share is general stuff that basically doesn’t change with time. Most of it simply has to do with being professional. I suppose this will be some advice that could be used for many different professions.
1. Do I need a university degree to get a teaching job?
If you want to work legally as a teacher in Korea or Japan, you must have a university degree. You must have a degree in something (doesn’t matter if it is Science, Arts, Business, etc.). This is not a great global plot to keep those without degrees down; it is simply necessary for visa regulations. These governments consider teachers to be skilled/white collar workers and they need degrees. Besides, wouldn’t you want your child’s teacher to have a degree as well? In order to be a teacher in the United States, Canada, U.K normally you need more than one degree to be a teacher. Long story short, there is no way around this. If you want to teach in Korea or Japan, but have no degree, you will have to take a few years and get it!
My first job in Korea (2002) was at a large franchise operation. I didn't care for my first job, but the folowing year I worked at a great school.
2. Once you get to Korea will I screwed by an employer?
I would like to say no, but it does happen occasionally. You also have to remember that that sort of thing happens in Canada and the United States as well! I did meet a few people that did get screwed out of pay by employers and it even happened to me on two occasions, but those cases are still relatively uncommon. There really is no way to prevent this from happening. Most large schools are franchise operations so where one branch might be an awesome place to work, the next branch might be a crap –hole! If something does happen, the Korean Labor Board is very good at going to bat for teachers. If your case is legitimate, they will certainly put the crews to the school owner. For more on dealing with the Korean Labor Board, there is a great podcast on it here at the Midnight Runner Podcast website.
3. Is teaching ESL an easy job?
Teaching is never an easy job. It can be challenging and very rewarding at the same time. You may at times find yourself frustrated with the cultural differences though. Koreans generally push their children very hard and education is far more important in their eyes than in Western culture. You have to realize that you cannot change Korean/Japanese people to think the way we do about education. You simply have to go with the flow. You are a guest in their culture and paid by them to teach the way they want you to. As far as the teaching goes, it can be intense. Please remember that you should take your work seriously. This isn’t a part-time job at a shopping mall or a fast food restaurant. You are doing a serious job that takes time and preparation, often outside of your contract hours. Welcome to teaching! In fact, welcome to most professional jobs anywhere in the world. Being ask to show up 10-20 minutes before class (contract hours) is not unreasonable, it is the way companies around the world work. As a teacher in Canada and now Japan, I put in countless hours of preparation work outside of my contract hours and I never complain because I take pride in my work!
Teaching adults during my 3rd year in Korea. I personally prefer teaching children, but it was a great experience for one year. I certainly learned a lot about Korean culture!
4. Why do I come across so many negative people online/in person?
There will always be a lot of negative people online. Welcome to the land of trolls. It is the perfect hiding place for disgruntled teachers who need to vent about work. Many folks who head to Asia to teach would never be interested in teaching in their native countries. It is a means to an end and many don’t like the work they do. Mind you, some people may have legitimate gripes about things. You will also meet many negative people once you get to Asia, especially Korea. I don’t think there are so many negative people in Japan because many who come to Japan to teach are already enamored with the country and culture long before they get here. As for Korea, I think many people simply go there for work purposes. Many of those people are simply not cut out for lie in another culture and get easily annoyed by the differences in language and life. Some others you may meet complain often simply because they are young and inexperienced in life. Many new university graduates arrive in Korea expecting to party all year and treat it like “University Year 5.” Those are the people who give all teachers and foreigners a bad reputation in Korea. They are also the ones who are simply unprepared to have a full-time serious job and complain the loudest. Often they see their job as something that gets in the way of the party!
5. How should I behave in my host country?
Remember, you in a way are not only an ambassador to your own country. You are an ambassador for all foreigners living in Korea and Japan. If you misbehave or cause trouble, Koreans/Japanese don’t se you as an American/Canadian/Australian. They see you as a foreigner and they will judge. Just as we do in our own countries, people in Asia will brush you with broad strokes. If you act like an asshole in front of Koreas/Japanese, some of them may assume all foreigners in their country are assholes! Don’t miss around. Act the same way you would in your native country. Have some respect for your hosts and they will happily return that respect!
For current and useful information on teaching in South Korea I’d recommend some great video blogs by teachers who are there now doing it!
Simon and Martina: They are a married couple from Canada and work as public school teachers in Korea. They are serious professional teachers who make the most entertaining and useful videos for those coming to Korea. They have many “how to” guides. Their website is amazing too: www.eatyourkimchi.com
Qiranger: Is an American ESL teacher living outside of Seoul. He is a serious teacher and a very fun video blogger. He makes useful and informative videos about many different aspects of life in Korea. He also has some other fun travel videos!
Zenkimchi is a wonderful website about Korean food. www.zenkimchi.com
Myargonauts: For great videos about the JET (Japan Exchange for Teachers) program in Japan, watch myargonauts.
If you are working and living in Korea and are having problems with your school, don't complain about it on You Tube or your blog. Korea is one of the few countries in the world that has criminal liable laws. If your school finds out that you are bitching about them online (and mentioning the school's name) they can press charges! You can actually be arrested and sued!!!