A reader question about whether I’d recommend teaching English in South Korea. Obviously, I’ve been living here for 10 years and have been happy enough to stay, but I’m not sure I’d necessarily recommend it as heartily today as I would have back when I first got there. It’s kind of seems like Korea, as an ESL teaching destination is past its prime and you’d likely be better off to consider some up-and-coming countries like Vietnam or China.
Here’s Why Korea Doesn’t Get my Hearty Recommendation as an ESL Teaching Destination
Salaries to teach English in South Korea have gone down significantly, in real dollars because while inflation has increased significantly, salaries have remained stagnant. 10 years ago, 2.2 was a normal starting hagwon wage. Today, it’s basically the same and prices on everything have increased. For a quick example, a starting bus fare 10 years ago was around 800 Won, today it’s 1300. A roll of gimbap could be had for 1000 Won, today it’s 1500-2000.
For some solid advice on finances for ESL teachers, check out my book: The Wealthy English Teacher: Teach, Travel, and Secure Your Financial Future.
Fewer Great Jobs-Public School
There are fewer good TEFL jobs in Korea these days. Even 5 years ago, public school jobs were plentiful but after government cutbacks, these jobs are few and far between and competition to get them is fierce. Like for real. 10 years ago, anyone with a pulse and a BA could get a public school job but these days, it’s way more difficult! While there are some annoying things about working in a public school (co-teachers!), they are traditionally quite good jobs due to the low working hours, decent vacation time and the paid in full every month guarantee, unlike a hagwon.
Competition for University Jobs in Korea: Fierce!
Qualifications and competition has increased for university jobs in Korea, such that it’s difficult for someone without a master’s degree and a couple years experience teaching adults or high school students to get the job. These are by far the best teaching jobs in Korea, with the exception of corporate jobs, of which there are very few. For advice on getting a uni job in South Korea: How to Get a University Job in South Korea: The English Teaching Job of Your Dreams.
Here’s Why Korea isn’t a Terrible Choice Though
You Can Still Make Serious Money
That said, if you want to teach English overseas, then Korea isn’t a bad choice. The money-saving potential is still there, especially if you do private teaching (but it’s illegal, so of course I’d never recommend it or do it myself) and you can make upwards of 4 million a month. Alternatively, if you work at a university that is light on the required hours and heavy on the OT, you can get up into the 5 million a month salary range easily enough.
Even without private teaching or working at a uni with lots of OT, most teachers can expect to save around $1000 US/ month if their lifestyle isn’t too extravagant, which is often far more than they’d be able to save in their home countries.
Korea is much More Westernized These Days
It certainly is a lot easier to live in Korea than it was 10 years ago in terms of social attitudes since Koreans are getting a lot more used to foreigners and there are simply just way more of us, although racism does still exist (as it does in any country).
In terms of availability of all things Western, you can pretty much get anything you want just by going to the local supermarket or clicking the mouse button a few times (Gmarket and Iherb!). Gone are the days of trekking to Itaewon in Seoul with an empty backpack to go to the English bookstore and foreign food mart.
Someone will Speak English almost Everywhere you Go
In terms of English ability, Korea is getting better and better as the years go by such that it is normal that at least one person speaks passable English at any place you might want to go. Doctor, bank, police station, etc. It’s really quite easy to not speak Korean in Korea these days, unlike 10 years ago.
Come if you must! It’s not terrible.
But, if you plan on sticking with the ESL teaching gig for the long-term, why not start at the bottom in a country that has a bright ESL industry future and work your way to the top, unlike Korea which is on the decline. I think that if you start in Korea now, with an eye on moving onward and upwards, you’re going to pretty disappointed come 5 years from now.