So you want to teach English in South Korea? Here’s what you need to know about the various kinds of teaching jobs in Korea, minus all the fluff that you get from the recruiters. Basically you have 3 choices: public schools, hagwons (private institutes) and universities. I’ll talk about each of them in turn with the pros and cons of each one.
No Money Worries. The best thing about public schools is that you’re working for the government which means that you’ll get paid in full, on time each and every single month. You’ll also get the health care coverage and pension contributions that you’re entitled to, unlike many sketchy hagwons out there.
Vacation Time. You’ll get around 4 weeks of vacation time if you work at a public school in Korea, which is 2 weeks more than you’ll get working at a hagwon.
No Expectations Whatsoever. Koreans think of foreign teachers as these kind of English speaking clowns who are just there to entertain and not really teach. No classroom management skills? No problem! Just send that student to the co-teacher! Can’t plan a lesson if your life depended on it? No worries! Let your co-teacher do the heavy lifting. Can’t explain something in a way that students can actually understand? Don’t worry about learning anything such as ICQs or how to grade your language! Your co-teacher is there to translate for you. You most certainly don’t have to be a real teacher.
Co-Teachers. When I talk to people who are teaching English in public school, they tell me that dealing with co-teachers can be extremely stressful. I certainly don’t want to paint all Korean co-teachers with a bad stroke because many of them are excellent and in a lot of cases, I certainly wouldn’t want to co-teach with the foreign teacher who was telling me about their woes. Newbie foreign teachers sometimes come to Korea with an air of cultural superiority, which gets combined with a complete and utter lack of knowledge about teaching and, well, you be the judge of whose fault the bad stuff that happens is.
Desk-Warming. Totally and completely ridiculous, desk-warming seems to be the bane of many foreign teachers existence. There are no students, no other teachers, it’s often just them and the janitor in the school for days at a time. Now, I certainly wouldn’t mind because I’d use my time wisely to put up another blog post, build a website of some sort, and perhaps do a bit of reading for a break. During my massive vacations I usually go into the office each day and give myself some mandatory desk time in order to get work done. Anyway, if I worked in a public school, I’d collect my pay-check at the end of the month and pat myself on the back for all the work I got done while getting paid my salary at the same time.
A Sweet Schedule, Sometimes. There are some very decent working schedules at hagwons. If you teach only kindy kids, it can be something like 9-3. Or, if you do the elementary school thing, it can be 2-8. Beware of those hagwons that’ll have you at work from 9:30-7:30 with a big break in the middle. It’ll be killer after like a week of that. Then you have 50 more weeks to power through.
Class Sizes. You’ll have small classes-usually less than 10 students and sometimes even 4 or 6. You can actually get to know the students and have quite good relationships with them.
Family Atmosphere. If you can find a good hagwon, you’ll probably have some great co-workers, both foreign and Korean. There will be school dinners, parties, etc. And people often hang out outside of work.
Money Troubles. Hagwons are really notorious for being extremely sketchy with regards to money. It’s mostly because they can get away with it because although Korea does have a labour board that often rules in the foreign teacher’s favour, they’re toothless when it comes to enforcement. Like utterly and totally useless-they quite literally have no power (I tell you this from personal experience). When newbies complain about their hagwon, I ask them these 3 questions:
1.Do they pay you in full, on time?
2.Do you have national health insurance (including the card)?
3.Do you have proof that they’re paying into the national pension plan?
If 3 “yes” answers, well, stop complaining! You’re working at a good one, despite all the other stuff going down.
It’s a Business First. Idealistic types don’t do well in hagwons because they often come to Korea to actually “teach.” (I’m always somewhat suspicious though-doesn’t everyone come here for the money?) However, once you’ve been on the inside for a couple months, you realize it’s all about making money which means keeping the moms happy no matter what because if they’re not happy, little Min-Su and Ji-Eun are going to go to the hagwon down the street. Learning English is a possible benefit but it’s not the real reason you’re there-a white face to show off to the moms.
Benefits. The sweetest of all jobs you could possibly find, they often come with a ridiculous 5 months of paid vacation, a salary of 2.5 million and free housing or allowance on top of that. And, you’ll only be teaching 12-15 hours/week. Want to get one of these oh so sweet of jobs? You’ll need How to Get a University Job in South Korea.
Overtime. When you’re only contracted for something like 12 or 15 hours per week, you’ll have plenty of time and energy left to pursue overtime opportunities which can be quite lucrative and kick your salary into the 3-5 million won a month range.
Freshman English. By far the vast majority of teaching jobs for foreigners in Korean unis are teaching freshman English, which is like death. I’m not exaggerating. It makes you die a little bit on the inside each and every single semester. Anyone who tells you otherwise, treat with suspicion and question further, or perhaps they are just gluttons for punishment and kinda like it. Think classes of up to 40 students who truly don’t give a S*&% about English, have no motivation whatsoever and are also extremely low-level. It’s grim. I think people last so long because you can do just about anything for 12 hours a week, no matter how terrible it is.
You’re Alone. It kind of depends on the university, but in many cases you are completely and totally alone. If you’re the type who likes to have your hand held, you’re going to hate it. You have to do things like find your own housing, go to immigration by yourself, navigate a portal system entirely in Korea, design a syllabus, choose a textbook, conduct exams, and basically everything related to work or life. There is a department secretary but they can range from the nicest, most helpful person ever to someone who barely speaks English.
It’s a Trap. The fabulous benefits lure you in, the golden handcuffs go on and before you know it, you’ve stayed in Korea way too long.
Let’s Sum This Up
I’ve talked about the 3 kinds of teaching jobs in Korea-public schools, hagwons, and universities. If you can get a uni job, take it. Then, go for a public school and finally, if you must, settle for a hagwon. Hagwons are just too risky when it comes to the money thing in a lot of cases and even the “good” ones have some “interesting” accounting procedures. If you do decide to go the hagwon route, you’ll need to check out this post of mine first: Top 5 Signs of a Sketchy Hagwon.
There are a few company jobs floating around here and there (I have some friends working for a nuclear power company as well as Asiana), but they are few and far between and require a freakish combination of networking, luck, and qualifications to get them.
If you’re trying to decide whether or not to come to Korea at all, I wrote a couple articles that can help you with your decision: