Why South Korea isn’t the Place for Serious English Teachers

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Korea-not the place for serious teachers

So you want to teach English in Korea? Are you the idealistic type who thinks you can actually make a difference? Have some sort of meaningful cultural exchange?

Good luck with that. You might want to have a read before making your final decision.

Korea: Avoid if You’re a Real Teacher

In my opinion, Korea is not the place for serious English teachers. By “serious English teacher,” I mean ones that are well-qualified (CELTA/DELTA, MA TESOL/Linguistics, or are qualified teachers back in their home countries) and experienced (5+ years teaching a variety of levels, classes and ages).

If you’re a serious teacher, you’d be better off teaching in an international school, in your home country (language school, community college, or public school) or somewhere like the Middle East, where with serious pay comes serious expectations for results.

Let me back this statement up. I anticipate some controversy. And, of course, before you come down hard on my over-generalizations, I’ve been in Korea for the past decade and have seen it all, and then seen it all again. There are exceptions to these statements I’m going to make and I’ve seen plenty of them. But, take these as general principles that might not necessarily represent your own experience.

Anyway, here are my top 10 reasons why South Korea isn’t the place for serious teachers.

Will The Celta Help you Get a Job in Korea? Hot so Much

Foreign Teachers aren’t Respected in Korea

Foreign English teachers in Korea get trashed by the Korean media as drug addicted, unqualified sketchbags. Some of the reputation is deserved and I certainly would never make the argument that we’re the most upstanding group of people but we’re certainly not as bad as the media here seems to portray us as. If you don’t believe me, ask an average Korean on the street what they think of foreign English teachers and it’s not going to be positive, trust me.

It truly doesn’t matter if you’re a real teacher. You’re going to get lumped together with every other single teacher and get the label of deadbeat slapped on you.

It’s tiring after a while.

There’s no Room for Advancement

In other countries if you’re a good teacher, you move through the ranks into management into something like an academic coordinator or assistant principal position.

Here in Korea, there’s no upward mobility. I’ve talked about this before when I called working in a Korean university the best dead-end job you’re ever going to have.

Serious teachers who make it to the top (me!), but have nowhere left to go but sideways or down for the next 20 or 30 years? That’s pretty grim. I certainly don’t want to live this way and it’s a big part of the reason why I’m leaving Korea in a few months to go back to Canada.

Now, maybe I’m just not self-motivated enough? But, teaching in a job where it doesn’t matter how good I am at it? It makes me weary. And unmotivated.

Just say no to the dead end!

Pay is Stagnant. Cost of Living keeps Increasing

Way, way back in the day, over 10 years ago when I first came to Korea I worked at a hagwon and made 2.2 million. I make a lot, lot more than that these days working in a Korean university, but the entry-level positions you see advertised on places like ESL Cafe pay that much, or even less.

The cost of living has risen dramatically such that English teachers in Korea these days struggle to save $1000 a month. 10 years ago, you could do that without even putting a single thought into how that was going to happen.

For serious teachers, it’s not all about the money, but isn’t it a fact of life that people like to be rewarded for hard work and extra effort they put into any endeavour? The real teachers in Korea get paid the same amount as the most terrible ones and there is almost no such thing as a merit-based raise.

The days of making prime bank in Korea are probably done. Forever.

Can You Actually Teach? It Doesn’t Matter

Koreans don’t care whether or not you can teach or manage a classroom. It’s way more about having a young, white, beautiful or handsome person for them to look at.

If Koreans did care about your teaching ability, they’d be willing to hire a 55 year old with 20 years of educational experience over a 22 year old straight out of uni with no experience whatsoever. Except they’re not.

If Koreans cared about teaching ability, they’d insist that every single teacher had something like a CELTA before giving them a teaching visa. Other countries do it-it’s not impossible.

If Koreans really cared about having great teachers, they’d insist that every single person working in a public school has a teaching certification from their home country. Except they don’t. Other countries do it-it’s not so crazy.

The fact is that it’s all about appearances in Korea and actual teaching ability isn’t important. Seriously, appearance is everything.

Professional Development-Who Cares

Now, I don’t want to be all judgey McJudgerton here, because I totally get where people are coming from. But, there are plenty of long-term teachers who’ve been here 5, 10 or 15 years who’ve never attended a single professional conference of any kind, or done anything to learn any sort of new skills related to their profession. I’m not judging them because I think they’re actually smart for realizing that the Koreans they’re working for don’t give a S%$& about this. Like truly couldn’t care less.

I’ve done more professional development during my time in Korea than probably 99.9% of other foreign English teachers. I did the CELTA and DELTA. I have a blog about teaching and regularly attend local chapter meeting of Kotesol. Heck, I was even the secretary/webmaster/VP of that chapter for periods of time.

I’ve done maybe 15 Kotesol presentations on a variety of topics at national and international conferences and local chapter meetings. What did all this activity and professional development get me? Nothing. Except for some better teaching skills.

Koreans have no idea what the CELTA is, bizarrely, since it’s the most popular and reputable TEFL certification in the entire world. Whatever, I guess?

In other countries, don’t you get like funding and days off to do this stuff? Don’t employers have expectations that their teachers will engage in PD? Isn’t part of your pay raise and contract renewal based upon this? Seriously. How can someone teach for 10 years in Korea and avoid it entirely? It just seems like the bar for what is acceptable and what is not is set far, far, far too low here.

Maybe I’m just stupid for totally wasting my time and I have nobody to blame but myself. I wish I’d watched more TV!

Hagwons are Businesses First, Educational Institutes Second

Many people get their starts in Korea working at hagwons. These places are often owned and/or run by businessmen or women who have no training whatsoever in second language acquisition and sometimes don’t even speak English.

Sure, there are a few exceptions such as Wall Street English or CDI which seem to have excellent systems in place that get actual results, but the mom and pop fly-by-night operations? I’m not sure why any serious teacher would ever want to be part of such a thing. Hagwons are all about making money first, and education comes a distant second.

As a kind of aside, universities in Korea are no better and it’s really all about keeping the students happy no matter what. As long as students keep paying tuition, they’ll get shuffled along and eventually graduate. It doesn’t matter how much, or how little they actually know.

Public Schools-Teaching to the Test

In Korea, all teaching that happens in public schools seems to be geared towards the big test that students will take in their final year of high school which will determine their place in society and ultimate course of their life.

I’m not being overdramatic. If you do well on this test and get accepted into one of the top 3 universities, you’ll be set. Don’t do well and attend a third-tier one in the boonies? Well, no amount of hard work and stick-to-it-tiveness is going to make up for this massive failure when you were 17 years old.

Once students graduate from high-school, they turn this energy to other tests such as TOIEC, etc. There just isn’t much room here for teaching that isn’t geared towards a test of some kind. I’m all about getting students to think for themselves and examine things critically. It seems like as teachers that should be our most important job. Except in Korea, it doesn’t matter and test preparation as well as conforming to a very rigid and narrow mindset are far more important.

I personally and professionally find it demoralizing to teach little robots who often have no idea how to think for themselves. I do my best, but I often think it’s perhaps too late. The stuff that I’m trying to teach them-well, they should have learned it in middle school when kids in Western countries do.

Public Schools-Your Class is Not Important

Let’s move from the philosophical to the more practical. When you work in a public school, your class isn’t that important. Isn’t it the first one that gets cancelled for all manner of reasons including things like sports day practice, or math test tomorrow!

And, how often do you see your students-maybe once a week at best, and once a month at worst. If Korean public schools were serious about your class and the students actually learning English, they’d see you far more often. And, your class would be the last one, instead of the first one to get cancelled.

Freshman English = Ridiculous

The majority of jobs at the university level in Korea are for teaching freshman English. It is possible to move up the ranks and escape this fate (as I did about 4 years ago), but it’s what most people find themselves teaching, for at least part of the day.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, is there any more demoralizing thing to teach? Students who often don’t want to be there. Students who are totally unmotivated and have extremely low-levels of spoken English. Serious English teachers who do this year after year? I certainly couldn’t do it any longer than I did (6 years) without losing my mind.

Universities-It’s all About Student Evaluations

In Korean universities, our renewals are often based almost solely on student evaluations. It’s a well known fact that these evaluations are not an accurate measure of actual teaching ability or student improvement. And yet, it’s what many universities use to decide who to renew and who to let go. At my own university, it’s the only measurement that they use. You need to be in the top 50%, ranked against your peers or you get the cut.

Crazy, huh? Half of the people get let go every single contract renewal. Not really a way to build moral, is it?

If universities were actually serious about education and having quality teachers, wouldn’t they come observe our classes to see what we’re actually doing? Give us some feedback for how to get better? Except this isn’t the case. In my 10 years here, I’ve never had an admin or head-teacher come into one of my classrooms, ever. Doesn’t this stuff happen in other countries? It’s not so crazy.

Korea: Not Ideal for Real Teachers

Just a few thoughts on why Korea isn’t the place for serious English teachers.

If you do, however, want to get perhaps the easiest job you’re ever going to have in your entire life, consider a Korean university. I’ve even written a little book about how to get yourself one of these sweet, sweet gigs. If you’re a serious teacher though, be warned. This job will eat away at your soul until you have just about nothing left. I, myself am leaving before it gets to that point.

What Do You Think: Is Korea a Good Place for Serious Teachers?

Is Korea a good place for real teachers? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Last update on 2019-09-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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  1. Having spent 13 years in South Korea starting in 2002, I left late 2014. I can speak Korean, Had my own study room, and taught preschool English in the mornings. What really got to me was not the teaching, but the focus. Its all about the money. Parents want their kids to learn English so they can pass the ‘big test’ go to uni and earn money. Schools need the students to earn the money. In order to get it the kids become less important and the people paying (the parents) become more.

    In the end I had to get out. I care about learning outcomes. True language learning takes time and does not often yield immediately visible results. i love teaching, but I won’t compromise the essential truth. The student MUST come first and sadly the visible results and not the student are more important, I left, returned home and trained to teach in primary schools. Much happier here in New Zealand because students count – not just results.

    Life is not just money. I’ve gone to the top of the ESL pile in South Korea. Money does not make you happy, yet its EVERYTHING in the life of a majority of Koreans. I’d rather get much less, and really help my students while living a balanced lifestyle.

  2. Dedicated ESL Teacher

    Hello there,

    Great blog post.

    You forgot to mention one thing to your list of reasons why serious English teachers should not remain too long in South Korea:
    the expected teaching methods.
    -Try to use the methods you learned on your CELTA or Trinity cert.TESOL course during an interview or while teaching, you will find yourself shot down. Point out that you are using methods from said courses/100 years of Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology and you are still shot down. Supervisors will tell you that your teaching methods are ”wrong” because you are not turning pages in the poorly-written book as fast as possible while entertaining the students. CCQ any listening or reading text, and you are ”boring” and are ”wasting time.” Have the students practice controlled or free speaking activities and they don’t understand why. Have vocabulary lists that are 20+ words long per one hour lesson, and then wonder why the teacher is unable to raise the daily or monthly test scores. (Must I go on?).
    -Conversation lessons for students who have forgotten English/don’t understand English (false beginners) and therefore think they can become fluent by osmosis and without the aid of a coursebook (or any other grammar/vocabulary reminder or explanation).
    -Apparently, even we qualified ESL/EFL teachers are not good enough for anything other than these so-called ”conversation lessons” because we are unable to teach grammar.
    -You must use the previously tried, tested and failed methods and be blamed when these methods fail. Meanwhile students and superiors are not open to other strategies despite repeated failure of aforementioned ineffective methods…..

    1. Good point. I was told by a Uni teacher that “nobody knows CELTA around here and they would probably look down on it or be intimidated only because they don’t have it”. Then I had an interview for a Uni job when they asked me what I learned at CELTA (felt like they were curious what it was about). Just seemed like it meant nothing important to them. I teach elementary students, so you can imagine how using the CELTA method goes over in class with 10 year-olds 😉

  3. Sam

    Save $1000 dollars a month? Impossible in Japan. Other than that. Similarities are dead on, CELTA or not.wages have been stagnant for years. Eikaiwas (language schools) have been breaking Japanese Labor Law for years by not paying Shakai Hoken (health insurance, pension) for their employees. Contact hours are a back breaking mind numbing 30 per week. 10 and 5 minute intervals between lessons when a teacher is switching out materials, updating records, preparing a whiteboard are unpaid, Language schools don’t care. It’s a business that thrives on the high turnover of fresh foreigners who want to experience Japan for a year and then leave and move on with their lives. They don’t have to pay tax or health insurance their first year here, so no one is the wiser. Experienced teachers who live here struggle to survive as health insurance and taxes continue to increase. Until immigration increases the minimum salary requirement for a visa, nothing will change. Salaries stay the same because companies really don’t care if they have good teachers or not. Any native speaking warm body will do. Private schools don’t really care about the students actually learning English, only that they keep paying for lessons. The industry is sick and broken. I love teaching, I love my students and I love Japan. But I despise the industry. They are stealing from teachers and students alike and they know it. All we can do use join the union and keep fighting.

  4. Roger dix

    Your observations about teaching in Korea are accurate, but it hasn’t always been this way. When I went to Korea in the early 90s with the first teaching program in public schools, things were very different. But as you have noted, teaching in Korea has steadily declined over the decades.I spent twenty years in the country in a very unique teaching system. I was very fortunate, although certainly out of the norm.

    1. Dav

      I agree with all your subheadings, but one minor thing I disagree with is the mention of Middle East jobs in your intro. They can provide high salaries so they do attract serious teachers -career minded ones with several qualifications and skills – but serious results are NOT expected in most cases. Rich small countries throw money at their education systems. The “show” is more important than the “substance” many times and unmotivated lazy students are commonplace.

      Other than that one minor detail, I thought your article was right on.

  5. Dean

    This is pretty much all spot on Jackie! The only real problem is what you said about foreigner’s classes in public schools being the first to be cancelled. Typically, when classes are cancelled for some reason, the whole year group, or indeed school will be going off to do the same thing. It might just feel like that because then the NET is left with nothing to do, as they don’t have responsibilities outside of teaching (think homerooms, sports clubs etc).

    Thinking about what you said about having fully qualified teachers in the public school system, the budget increase would be astronomical. I suspect you’d have to pay at least 5 million won a month, plus pay rises year on year, and then provide something better than the typical one room shoebox apartment. Comprehensive medical cover too. After all that, you’d really need a foreigner to replace all the Korean English teachers for them to have more of an impact than the current one hour per week. At the middle school I used to work at, we had 1000 kids. 5 full time English teachers, one foreigner, and 2 on temp contracts. So 8 x Probably 7 million a month = bah, can’t we just speak Korean louder instead?!

    1. admin

      Good point about everything being cancelled and not just English class. I don’t know the ins and outs, having never worked in a public school.

      Yes, it would be expensive to replace the public school teachers with certified ones. But, I don’t necessarily think you’d need to give them a package equivalent to an international school. There are plenty of certified foreign teachers in Korean public school for the normal pay. Filipino or Indian teachers would be another option to consider I think. You could likely hire someone extremely well-qualified for like 1/2 the price you’d pay someone from the USA or Canada.

  6. Breno

    Interesting post. I wasn’t thinking about going to Korea and now am sure it’s not a possibility. The saddest of all, though, is to read the complaints of a Canadian teacher who has the option to go back teach in Canada and compare to the reality of English teachers in other parts of the world, including Europe: no prospects to grow, only freelancing work and the lack of benefits that come with it, disrespect and the business-before-teaching mentality are also rampant here. South Korea sounds just like another not so good place. Were you actually complaining that you have to struggle to save 1000 dollars? To save? Most Europeans would be delighted to save this money! South Americans van consider themselves happy to make this money. Hey, it’s not because there are worse places that you should accept your uncomfortable situation, but it’s just that at times the writer doesn’t seem to understand he reality of teachers around the world. Good you’re Canadian, I guess.

    1. admin

      I’m certainly not naive and I know that the situation in Korea is better than in a lot of other places. I wasn’t complaining about it being able to save only $1000 a month. I was stating that starting salaries in Korea haven’t gone up in the past 10 years but cost of living has so the financial situation for teachers here isn’t as good as it once was.

      1. Breno

        I understand what you meant. I go through many of the same problems you have described in your post and believe that something similar is taking place in many parts of the world, really. There are just too many “teachers” and not many people willing to pay what good classes are really worth. I’m Brazilian, have lived in Canada, Czech Republic and Poland and have over 10 years of experience in different countries, and comparatively good education. I believe that wages haven’t gone up in Korea because the supply of teachers keeps increasing, so there’s no reason to pay more, only less. But tell me, do English teachers make more than the average South Korean? I mean, given the lack of recognition, this would be expected…

        1. admin

          The average English teacher in Korea makes about 2.2 million Korean Won. That’s the starting salary for a university grad in a company of some kind. The difference is that those people get significant bonuses twice a year and pay raises as they move up the ranks. Foreign teachers are generally stuck at around that same salary unless they move up the ranks into a university job, where you can make serious money doing overtime.

  7. Simeon Flowers

    Interesting article. I find in Japan this is much much less the case. While things may not be perfectly fair, university teaching (at least beyond adjunct status) requires a master’s degree and three journal publications, minimum.

    On that note, I am looking for someone in Korea who is interested in contributing to an international research project along the lines of the one discussed in this article: http://digitalmobilelanguagelearning.org/2015/11/preliminary-results-from-a-telecollaborative-facebook-exchange-between-japan-and-taiwan/

    If anyone is interested please comment on the article describing how you would like to contribute, and I will get back to you. Thank you very much.

  8. Agreed. Been here for 4 years and sometimes it kills me, but I always try my best.
    Where would you suggest other than your home or the Middle East for serious ESL teaching? I’m certified, I love teaching and I would like to live abroad and be able to implement my ideas and really be challenged. I am qualified for the Foundation phase. Any advice would be welcome. Thanks

  9. This was a fantastic read. I have been here for over six years teaching in hagwans, private elementary schools and now after school English in public schools (the best non-Uni ESL job in Korea). WHat you wrote was so true and it just made me wonder why you keep hanging on! I got the CELTA a few years ago and was just blown away how I couldn’t get a Uni job. Just a few years earlier, working at a kindergarten was enough to get into a UNi if you had a good recommendation and at least cut your hair and dressed the part. What keeps me here is the lifestyle, I do make pretty good money for three hours a day plus night-time privates. The bills are pretty cheap living outside of Seoul and off the subway. Continuing education really takes a backseat for me in Korea now that I know it doesn’t really matter here. Yes, I want to do the best job I can and me a better teacher. But when all that’s asked of you is to put a smile on the faces of your students and their parents, what’s the point of continuing ed? I’m still doing it (enrolling in a MA program soon) because I want to open all doors for my ESl career and also, I’m heading to other countries. Who knows what the expectations for foreigner teachers are there? Most important thing is I’m happy with what I’m doing. Otherwise I would be gone by now.

  10. Taught in Korea for 6 years straight out of college with no CELTA or State teaching licence. One thing I learned was that some people got all the credentials and are still terrible at teaching. You either got it or you don’t. Either the students want to listen to you and learn from you or they don’t. Yes Korea is frustrating for many reasons you mentioned, but hiring over qualified retirees to teach isn’t going to improve a thing. The older, more certified and experienced I get the more I realize what a terrible teacher I would make in Korea now because I just wont put up with one minute of BS. Young me could tolerate it ALL DAY with a smile on her face. Korea could change the Visa requirements to give the appearance that they are really invested in English education. But, like everything else, it is only at face value. A real investment means retooling, restructuring and money! So they change the requirments to save face, turn young bucks who are willing to break a sweat away and the professionals arrive to find out they need to make balloon animals and perform magic tricks (this has happened to me at least twice).

  11. Tim Burstall

    So true. I taught in a hagwon without a CELTA in 2001-2 and realised the teaching methods would not help the children learn conversational English. The curriculum was imposed by the owner. I felt the aim of the school was to provide afternoon lessons to kids and give the parents kudos. Real teaching? Pay was 1.8m and I did save good money but returned to the UK and got a CELTA. Great experience for a year but no longer. I taught Business English twice in Germany for a larger chain, too many hours, unpaid overtime and a bad boss but teaching and PD was better. Finally chose a good company in Hamburg and was self-employed on a decent rate. Next incarnation will be a website/skype and language holidays specialising in Technical English. You may have had a better experience with autonomy and PD. My colleagues in 2001 though would surely agree with me but many were Canadian and with the easy VISA situation and their need to earn cash end up in Korea for years.

  12. Wayne Herron

    The question was asked, “why would anybody stay for 10 years, if they felt so negatively towards the place?”

    I can only answer according to my own reasons for staying 9 years; it was the money.

    While the income may not look great compared to what I would make in Canada, when you factor in the free housing, low cost of living, low tax rate, no need for a car (and all the expenses that go with it) etc etc., you realize the potential to save your income is much better than you will find in most other places in the world.
    (that and the fact that I hate winter)

    I have to agree with most of what the article says, a lot of the EFL jobs turn out to be

    less than satisfactory.

    Yes, some people did manage to find better, more rewarding jobs. But they were definitely a minority.

  13. Julie Bartsch

    Very interested in your info, as I have been considering teaching overseas, and thought that SK would be a top choice. I have followed your site for years and learn more each time I log on. Keep posting the valuable and sensible insight-

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