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

Korea-not the place for serious teachers

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.

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.

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.

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.

Can You Actually Teach? It Doesn’t Matter

Koreans don’t care whether or not you can teach. 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.

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. I regularly attend local chapter meeting of Kotesol. 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.

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, no 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 and 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, 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 and you need to be in the top 50%, ranked against your peers or you get the cut.

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 and 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.


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: it’ll eat away at your soul until you have just about nothing left. I, myself am leaving before it gets to that point.


  1. You seem like you’re unable to provide yourself with a sense of purpose and self-fulfillment anymore while teaching in Korea. Nothing to be ashamed of, as passions falter and we must adjust paths in life. As someone with the inverse amount of experience being a grownup in the real world back West, I can assure just about every career path these days is a sham if you want your hand held down the path towards retirement. Many of the things you point out about teaching in Korea might be true, but if you consider your quest and failure to be what you consider a successful English teacher a result of Korea, I think you’d be better off turning the mirror around and seeing why you stuck with something for a decade before saying “screw it.” Teaching overseas, whether in Korea or elsewhere can serve a purpose for different people with different goals trying to figure life out. Calling anything a waste of time usually says more about the accuser than the accused IMO. I hope you find success and fulfill your potential back in Canada in their education system and I’d wish the same to anyone else who is considering going overseas to teach English.

    1. Paul Lawley-Jones

      At no point does Jackie call teaching in Korea a “waste of time”, nor does he come close to saying “screw it.” The above article gives a realistic analysis of teaching in Korea (i.e. they are true), so that teachers are pre-warned about what, and what not to, expect. It’s not a whiny screed blaming his “failure to be a successful English teacher” on Korea. Indeed, the list of books on the right of this page that Jackie has written should attest that he has, in fact, been able to provide himself with a sense of purpose.

    2. Les Enfants

      This kind of sanctimonious garbage drives me up the wall. She’s clearly involved in improving both her teaching skills and her students’ English, and the lack of commensurate appreciation for this effort is probably extremely disillusioning. How you can spout off about how it’s somehow her fault for becoming less than enamored with a mechanical, are-these-boxes-checked educational process speaks poorly about either your reading comprehension or your empathy.

  2. Amy P.

    First off, you should be commended for going on and doing the CELTA/DELTA when many do not. I see you’ve worked hard as a teacher; however, you should know that being a teacher is a thankless job in most countries. Nothing is handed to you and hard work often goes unrewarded.

    You mention teaching in the Middle East as a “better” position. While I’ve enjoyed teaching in the Middle East, and I also had great students when I was there, it’s even a more racist place than Korea. Also, some students burn their universities to the ground in order to evade exams. Have you ever seen that happen in Korea?

    Also, you mention being rewarded for your work in the US. Have you ever worked in an American public school? The principal comes to your room for a 10 minute observation with the sole intention of completely destroying your whole career. I would take that over someone trusting me to do my job and not be observed any day. That’s a common problem even sometimes even with Korean teachers because your boss is busy with other things, so they don’t bother to observe you. It’s not always a problem that they don’t care what you’re doing. American public schools are facing budget cuts, so they’re even more horrible to you if you’ve been there a long to time in an effort to phase you out (i.e. get a younger teacher with less experience, so they don’t have to pay as much. It’s a wonder why they do that because they pay inexperienced teachers nothing and experienced teachers next to nothing) These are not even your worst fears teaching in a public school with the gun problem. . .I know a lot of serious American teachers who would prefer teaching in Korea to teaching in the US. Also, are you saying that American teachers don’t teach to the test?? Talk to a few, I’m sure you’ll learn a lot about what’s expected of you in an American public school.

    I’ll end by saying I have a lot of good Korean students, and even the ones who don’t want to be in my classes are at least polite about it and try to make some kind of effort. I much rather prefer that over other problems that I’ve experienced in other countries.

  3. David

    Agree with James. I’ve come to Korea to twach English about a decade ago. I taught for about 2 years before moving onto educational consulting and now I work as a PF PM manager for a private equity firm. Koreas always been a step for me… and it worked… just like how the English teaching system works VERY WELL for the students. Learn to adopt.

  4. Sara

    It looks like your response is quite bitter and overly generalized. As a serious teacher, because of so many reasons you already mentioned, I think Korea needs many qualified, serious teachers who can speak to students’ lives, not just teaching English only. So sorry to hear that you had a lot of negative experiences in Korea.

  5. Jen

    I spent 8 wonderful years teaching English in Korea. 7 of those years I worked in an afterschool program for a public elementary school. I saw my students at least 3 days a week. I met many students when they could not speak more than two words of English, and watched them grow up and have discussions and debates in class just a few years later. I received a significant raise every year that I renewed my contract. After some coaxing, my company allowed me to choose my own textbooks and develop my own curriculum. My classes were observed and evaluated twice a year. The whole experience was extremely rewarding (My degree is in Linguistics with a specialization in second language acquisition). I left Korea 2 years ago when I got married, but I still maintain contact with many of my former students. I felt very respected as a teacher in Korea. I also attended KOTESOL conferences, but I did so for my own interest and development; not to get any sort of validation from my workplace.
    My advice to anyone interested in teaching in Korea is just to have an open mind, be flexible and positive, and not compare or expect the Korean workplace to be the same as it is wherever you are from.
    My humble opinion is that it doesn’t matter so much if you are a “serious teacher”, or a recent grad looking for a job overseas, you will find the experience valuable if you take the time to understand and appreciate and value the culture rather than finding reasons to complain about it.

  6. I am more or less a rookie in Korea but I have spent 3 years teaching EFL in Spain and taught Spanish in the USA for two years.

    My biggest complaint is simply the show that is put on to make it seem as though English education is important. One of the two Korean English teachers has been asked to organize the speaking competition this year. Last year i had nothing to do with the competition apart from being asked to be a judge an hour before the competition.

    This go-round my coworker asked for my input. my first question was what is the goal of the competition. The response, “to motivate kids to use English”. Perhaps I am mistaken but a voluntary competition would only draw in kids bold enough and prepared enough or whose parents are forcing them. So I Said that if we want to motivate kids to use English I have a few ideas that would work better but where am I on the Korean totem pole.

    “If we are going to do this lets make it as fair and objective as possible.” Last year what i witnessed was a lot of subjectivity my rubric tied time to fluency and content with pronunciation. So this year i revamped the rubric laid out a topic for each grade based on what we have learned and what they should be able to do by this time of year.

    I was met with objections that if we deviate from last years program it will come down on us so we should just stick with what was done last year.

    I have high expectations for my students and myself. i have always tried to do hard work to get the rewards but here I find myself starting to say,”screw it” and doing the minimum to get by.

  7. Alex T

    You knew all of these things ten years ago when you moved to Korea. We all did and still do. Do you think that maybe you’re putting unfair pressure on an industry just because it’s not what you think a job ‘should’ be? It sounds to me like your expectations were flawed long before any of your other problems started.

  8. Michael

    Largely agree with your post, except for one big problem with the part about Freshmen English:

    “Students who often don’t want to be there, are totally unmotivated and have extremely low-levels of spoken English. Serious English teachers who do this year after year?”

    I’m really bewildered by this complaint. The reason they’re taking that class is to improve their English skills. Your job was to help them. Do you expect all of your students to have strong skills when they enter your class? Regarding motivation, that’s part of being a good teacher. A great EFL teacher can get students to actually enjoy learning English. And what do you think teaching is like back home? Highly motivated students who all excel in the classroom? You’re in for a surprise.

    I think part of the issue is that you did a CELTA and DELTA, which are geared toward teaching adults in small elective classes (e.g. European-style language schools). That’s a very different type of setting from a large Korean class taking a required course.

  9. Melanie

    Korea is great as a ‘side’ career. Something you can do on the side as you complete an MA, write a novel, or work on a business(other job) because you have the time to do it! Teaching in Korea is not ‘taxing’ and so it’s easy to go there if you want the time to pursue other things.

    But to try and be a serious teacher is a joke. There’s no accountability whatsoever. Having taught in Canada, you feel so much more ‘useful’ because you have expectations and feel a purpose in what you’re doing. Whereas in Korea, anyone with a pulse can do the same thing. So I believe people go to Korea to travel, experience the culture, and dick around more than ‘try and be a serious teacher’

  10. Rhetoric

    In what is otherwise a good breakdown of some of the Korean realities, Jackie misses the most profound reason why occupying a position labeled as English Teacher in Korea might not be for the serious. It’s that you’re not teaching English. In Korea, Hangul is held to be paramont to all other languages. There is no such thing as cultural relativism. There is a fixed hierarchy (not only about language) and Englishee is epistemologically inferior. Actually learning the language is viewed ontologically as a kind of patriotic heresy. It is tolerated in a limited way out of necessity. The fact that the language is far superior at naming, categorizing (singular/plural; temporal classifications), and expressing cause-effect relationships (the wealth of prepositions), as well as the plethora of engaging narratives, is rationalized with the “English” curriculum. Students are shown how Korean appropriates the language, and forced to memorize or invent algorithms to cover the gaps between the language and Hangul. The goal is a better Korean language, not any kind of English fluency.

    Native speakers are seen as being an unfortunately necessary handmaiden for this process; and, if being an animated tape recorder, who can demonstrate the ability to fetch, speak, and perform on command, is within your purview, you can seriously work in Korea. As to changing things, the premise of Korean pedagogy with regard to English is patently absurd to the expatriate teacher, so if you’re there, you’re either reveling in that absurdity or oblivious to it. If you’re reveling, you might indeed be contributing to some shift in consciousness, something constructive, change. If you think you’re teaching English, then your romantic attachment to an unreality means that those actual opportunities to effect change are likely to pass you by. From this post, it appears that there remains a great deal of daylight between Jackie Bolen’s teaching ideals and the pedagogical programmatics of the Korean polity she serves. While such cognitive dissonance may eventually serve to further some constructive discontent, that meeting those pedagogical goals can proceed apace no matter what Jackie and her colleagues think of themselves and their profession serves here to reinforce our definition of employer and employee, patron and client, master and . . .

  11. ESL

    Like one of the comments noted above, I am also a little puzzled why you stuck it out for ten years before deciding to throw in the towel. It doesn’t sound like these are fresh observations you have, and your writing comes off as more of a dissatisfied-employee-rant than an intelligent analysis of the ELT profession in Korea. I’ve only been teaching in Korea for several months, and I agree with you that much of the “teaching” we are doing is more along the lines of entertainment, but this is no different than ELT in other countries in Asia (notably Vietnam and Thailand). I’m curious to know what countries in the Middle East you are referring to where there is less entertaining and more academic rigor/critical thinking than what you’ve experienced at universities in Korea.

    While you make the qualification about over generalizations, it is really hard to get beyond the disgruntled, highly stereotypical lens you are looking through. I am 46 years old, with an MA TESOL from an American university, and five years of ESL teaching and program development experience in the US. I am hardly beautiful. My employer was explicit in the interviewing and selection process that he is working to dismantle the age and beauty personification that is well-known in Korea’s ELT profession. To be sure (which you may have witnessed at some of the keynote and session presentations at the 2015 KATE conference), Korea is going through a phase of self-reflection and transition regarding the ELT profession. Many administrators and hiring personnel at all levels of the profession are aware of systemic problems and how those problems impact institutional bottom lines and the lives of the students we teach. Things are changing, but you are wise not to wait around for this as it will take more time than you have the patience for.

    Ten years is a long time to do anything, and you are better off calling it quits now than kidding yourself that you will do anything for 20-30 years. Jobs eat at your soul after time regardless of what they are. Take it as a pearl of wisdom that you will need to change your life (and maybe your profession) at least every ten years if you want to evolve and feel intellectually and professionally challenged.

    You said this yourself: “Maybe I’m just stupid for totally wasting my time and I have nobody to blame but myself.” Living and working abroad, regardless of where you are in life, is difficult, and part of the difficulty is accepting how other systems work (or don’t work) and adjusting your life to them. Instead of considering this a waste of your time, I would encourage you to shift your perspective and accept that it is time for you to move on. Certainly there are some fruitful and positive things you are taking away from your ten years that can’t be chalked up to a waste of time? I hope for you this is true.

    1. admin

      I said that my professional development was a total waste of time in the Korean context. I definitely don’t think my time here has been a waste. I’ve paid off my student loans, invested a big amount of money in the stock market, written 10 books, gotten websites up and running, and actually taught myself enough about websites/writing/marketing/programming to turn it into a job in Canada. My only regret is staying these past few months. I was ready to go, but didn’t want to break my contract so am sticking it out for my last semester.

  12. I pretty much agree with your article. I taught in Korea for 9 years (from 2003 to 2012) and worked for both hogwans, and the public school system. I just couldn’t take working for the public schools anymore. I am currently in China.

    Having said that, it seems that much of the problem isn’t “Korea” but the “educational system”. Basically, it’s kind of stupid to force someone to learn something they don’t want to learn just because it might be “good for them” or “benefit them”. If the person in question is a kid who is 8 years old, then yeah I can see MAYBE forcing them to learn something because that kid has no clue what he needs to know as an adult. But an 18 year old? By the time you are 18, you should have a pretty good idea what’s going to be useful for you to know.

    To be quite frank with you, a majority of the Korean students you had, are not really going to need English to function successfully in their daily lives. I think if you really wanted to be honest with yourself, and put yourself in their shoes, you would agree that English isn’t really going to help them that much.

    So, if you go to Canada, or the middle east, or Timbuktu, you are going to encounter this same problem. It will just manifest itself in a different way because it’s a different culture, but the underlying problem will be the same.

    1. admin

      I agree that it’s ridiculous that Koreans have to study English for mandatory classes in university. Most of them don’t need it. It’s what makes teaching freshman English so terrible.

  13. The Teacher

    I have been in Korea for the long run as well. You state what most long timers have observed. I myself got tired of the system so I made my own school from nothing. I am happier, my students are happier, and parents are happier. There literally is no job advancement working for schools here no matter how much work a person puts in or how much training I went through. Its really about how you are precieved by others. I enjoy teaching students, its my life’s work but when bosses told me I must fake grades it tends to destroy the goal of helping students. But if the passionis there, as they say, the right students and parents will come.

    This is why, if anyone has been following trends they are cutting the budget and downsizing most schools. Korean Univeristy degrees are not academically regonized abroad either, like in America from my understanding. This is due to plagiarism even among some tenured proffessors. The education system changes on the whim of elected presidents.

    The hagwan system is not doing well and parents are moving towards more qualified tutorings or smaller studyrooms so they can send thier kid abroad. Kind of tells a lot about the trust that has been lost in education here. Thanks for the article, I thought it was pretty on point for most parts. As the author said this might not be everyones situation just their experience don’t get too shaken up.

    Talk to korean parents genuinely, the ones that care. They will tell you how feed up they are about how schools and most hagwans are ran, don’t take my word for it. Call me what title you may I am CEO/ Director/ some guy who likes to teach in his own small school. I collaborate among other small art, reading schools and foriegn and Korean university proffessors. They too have visions for a better system. We all fight a battle, Korean society is so fast changing the old system can’t keep up anymore.

  14. ASM

    I’ve noticed that the teachers who actually learn Korean get better jobs, get much more respect from their students and employers, and are able to move up much easier. You can’t really expect to make a successful career in a country where you don’t speak the language; imagine trying that in an English-speaking country!

  15. Amanda

    I agree with a lot of what the writer says here. I noticed a lot of the comments are negative and I think that people get defensive b/c they are taking her ideas to mean, “you must not be serious, that’s why you’re here teaching,” which is not what I think she meant at all. She is right about a lot of things but it’s worth noting that it does depend on what you are after. Right after Uni I taught there in hogwans (kindergarten) and I know for a fact that my students were engaged and learning and made incredible progress. But, 6 year old students are like sponges and it is easy to see progress when you start from beginning (no skills forward) and right after college the money and lack of possibility of promotion wasn’t a big deal. I am a trained teacher and have continued to teach–it is my passion–but that wasn’t the only reason I was there. Also, I’d like to throw it out there that the west is looking to the east for *brilliant* ideas in education and this year my pay WILL be tied to student and parent evaluations along with test scores (even for the homeless kids or kids w/drug addicted parents etc.), and our curriculum is being tightened every year to conform to standardized testing. There has also been big pushes to privatize education. The negatives of the system there are seeping into the US as well.

  16. I absolutely agree with everything stated here. She didn’t say she wasted her time. She’s merely pointing out the realities of the English teaching profession here in South Korea. I’ve lived here for 7 years and have worked from elementary school, university freshmen teaching, English department, and now into teacher training. Teacher training is a bit more satisfying since the trainees have more motivation but when it comes to teaching methodology, the same issues come up that she mentioned. Since they only teach to the test, any new innovative and effective teaching methodologies taught are not used and won’t be used until a major educational transformation happens in this country. It’s been an very enlightening experience and I do enjoy teaching the individual students here. Korean students are lovely and they deserve better from their schools and teachers. The tail that wags the educational dog is the big exam and other tests. This won’t change any time soon because Korea is just a test based culture and has been that way for many many years (Confucianism). At the end of the day, we have to accept the differences in educational philosophies and know when it is time to leave. I’m getting to that stage as well. KOTESOL is really good for academics who want to propose new ideas and for anyone who wants to gain some skills as a teacher but don’t expect to make any large scale changes. Serious teachers who invest a lot of time here will have to accept things the way they are at least somewhat, or will torment themselves to death if they don’t or can’t. I care about the big picture and have broad thinking so it does bother me when I know the system is very broken and needs fixing but no one seems to be doing anything about it. For anyone in Korea, just focus on the students as individuals and try to be professional. Fighting!

  17. Patrick

    Everything the author is saying is absolutely true, but as often is the case, some people will get defensive and start spewing their venom on the article. All I can say is that sometimes addressing those matters with certain types of people is a waste of time. Many of those people who will react with much vehemence against this article are not teachers. They have no clue! Many of them were struggling at home, and Korea offered them a way to survive and perhaps brought some sense of purpose into their lives. How do you expect the to understand the issues facing real teachers? Those individuals benefit from everything that’s wrong with the system and are completely happy with the status quo. That’s all.

    1. You are right Patrick. I wouldn’t say a “real” teacher feels these things. I think the writer and I have just been in Korea long enough to see the deeper issues. There are a lot of people here who accept the status quo but not everyone can do that. I think we are both seeing the bigger picture. Still, if you are a serious teacher and can tolerate the larger issues, just focus on the individual students as best you can. It really is sad because I’ve met so many fantastic teachers here who have all left because of the exact same reasons.

  18. 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.

  19. 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 😉

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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

  26. 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.

  27. 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).

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

Leave a Reply