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.