South Korea: The No BS Guide to Teaching English

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Did you wake up today thinking, “It sure would be nice to make money and travel on the other side of the world.”? 

Korean money (won)

If so you’ve come to the right place!

One of the best ways to accomplish this is by teaching cute kids English on, you guessed it, the other side of the world!

When I first read about teaching English abroad during my senior year of college, it definitely piqued my interest. As someone who enjoys traveling, adapting and immersing myself in other cultures, why wouldn’t I want to get paid while doing it?! You can teach English in virtually any country, but one of the most lucrative places to teach these days is in South Korea.

This is because of the benefits offered by the government-run programs as well as the private academies. These benefits include:

  • $1900+ a month, depending on qualifications
  • Rent-free, furnished housing
  • Flight reimbursement or paid flights
  • Severance pay at the end of your contract (a full month’s paycheck)
  • Medical insurance
  • Up to five weeks of vacation for public school
  • 12-month contract with the option to renew (you’ll get a bonus for this in public school)

I’ve gotten questions from people who were curious about the process and have shown interest, so I decided to put together this guide for those of you who may also be curious. It’s a long read, so grab a snack and a notebook! 🙂

This is a two-part series with the first being all about working here in South Korea. The second half focuses on living in South Korea with insider advice from current expats to get you going on the right foot and level out your expectations. Thanks to everyone who contributed, you know who you are! I couldn’t do this without you!

This guide is a resource for an inside look on how to search for and apply to jobs, required documents for your application/visa, the differences between private academies and public schools and what life is like in South Korea. Now, let’s get into this!

Myeongdong, Seoul, Korea

WHAT DO I NEED TO WORK IN SOUTH KOREA?

The requirements to teach in South Korea are fairly simple:

  • You must have a bachelor’s degree (diploma for U.K. citizens) from an accredited university. This can be in any discipline, so don’t worry if English or Education wasn’t your major. (I’m a criminology major!) You are paid more money when you have an Education degree for public school and you can haggle for private. You’re also able to apply for the public school programs before you graduate as long as you’re able to get a letter stating that you will receive your degree.
  • Be a legal citizen of the following English-speaking countries: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, or New Zealand.
  • Produce a clean criminal background check from the FBI (crazy, right?).
  • You must have a clean bill of health and be drug-free (ain’t nobody got time for that).
  • A valid passport with blank pages (how else are you going to get here?).
  • If working for public school, you must have a TEFL/TESOL/CELTA certificate. It’s recommended for private, but not really necessary in most cases.

 

WHICH ONE IS BETTER: PUBLIC OR PRIVATE?

Well, this is entirely up to you, really! There are pros and cons to each, which I’ll list below and you can get an idea of which one would work out better for you. I initially was gung-ho for public school due to the job security and experiences of others in private academies, even did applications for two programs, but after doing more research and really thinking about what I wanted in Korea, I personally chose the private route.

PUBLIC SCHOOL: EPIK, GEPIK, GOE, SMOE

Teaching in the public-school system is the most popular way to teach here in Korea. Those that are hired to work in public schools are hired under government-run programs, mainly EPIK (English Program in Korea). EPIK has recently taken over hiring for the SMOE (Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education) as well as the GEPIK program (covers the Gyeonggi-do area). The main intakes for EPIK are in February and August, but they do have some late intakes. The GOE hires year round but still does a main intake as well. You’re able to give a preference of where you’d like to teach, but that’s not guaranteed by any means.

When you work for the public school program, your working hours are typically 8-4 M-F with some downtime, otherwise known as desk warming. You get a Korean co-teacher in most cases, who is supposed to assist you, however, this can go either way: either they’ll be really helpful or they’ll be the bane of your existence. Some of them feel as though they can handle the class without you, this includes coming up with the lesson plans and the students, so they will ignore you or tell you to re-do entire lesson plans that you worked so hard to come up with, it’s a mess.

On the flip side of that, some of them will be more than happy to help you out both in class and out of it. They’ll help you set up your bank accounts (which is a whole different ball game that you’re used to but I’ll talk about that later), set up your cell phone, keep you in the loop, etc. So, it’s luck of the draw when it comes down to it.

Your class size will depend on the location of your school. The typical class size is 25-40 students but can be as small as 14 in rural areas.  You will teach around 22 classes per week, so don’t expect to learn everyone’s name or really get close to them besides maybe a few of your favorites. There’s typically a curriculum that’s been set by the school and you supplement your lessons around that, though not always. Teachers will typically use PowerPoints, videos, games and other hands-on activities to get their point across, but beware, as a lot of students generally don’t care WTF you have to talk about. There are also mandatory camps during the summer and winter.

Side note: Don’t believe the hype about how well-behaved these kids are! They can be heathens and act like they don’t understand what you’re saying when you tell them to ‘stop’, ‘be quiet’, ‘stop speaking Korean’, etc (they do). So, mentally prepare yourself for that frustration.

One cool thing about the public school program is that they provide you with an orientation. My warning to you though is don’t think that’s all you need to be prepared. Teaching here has its ups and downs and you’ll deal with situations in the classroom and with your fellow staff members that weren’t mentioned during your orientation. I.e. only the strong survive *squints*.

Pros of public school:

  • There’s better job security since the programs are backed by the government.
  • You’ll get an orientation to kinda soften the blow of living and working here.
  • The vacation time is double that of private academies
  • Technology is provided, which makes teaching lessons a lot easier
  • There are bonuses for certain things, like multiple schools or rural living
  • You’re guaranteed to be paid on time

Cons of public school

  • Long-ish application process with specific intakes
  • You may end up with a whack co-teacher who will make teaching hell
  • You will usually be the only foreign teacher there
  • There isn’t a real choice in your location
  • You’re left in the dark until you get here, so prepare for a lot of “Where are you going again…? YOU DON’T KNOW?!”
  • Things change last minute A LOT, so just be flexible and try to keep your best smile on despite the frustration. 🙂
  • If you try to teach as a couple, it can be difficult

PRIVATE ACADEMIES (AKA HAGWONS)

My students working at hagwon

If you’ve heard anything about them, it’s probably been negative, but I’m here to tell you that they’re not all bad. In fact, I’m in a pretty ideal situation, myself. I’m at a great school with awesome staff and a director who goes out of his way to make sure I’m taken care of and well adjusted. The classes are small so I’ve bonded with my kids pretty well, I don’t work weekends and I’m in a huge four-bedroom apartment on the next floor up from my school. My living situation is different than most since I have a roommate, but I actually really like it since I have someone to split the bills and explore with.

Hagwons really are a hit or miss, so you have to make sure you don’t jump at the first opportunity that comes your way, but you also have to use your common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, nine times out of ten it is. Make sure you know what you want out of a job. Do you want health insurance? Do you want to be enrolled in a pension program (if eligible)? What hours work best for you, morning or afternoon? What age level are you trying to teach? How much do you want to be paid? These are the questions you have to ask yourself before you start your job hunt so you don’t get swindled into a bad deal by accepting just anything. Try to get in touch with people who’ve worked there before you.

The main difference between public school and private academies is that these aren’t backed by the government and run off of the money that the students bring in for tuition. Students come and go here throughout semesters, so don’t be surprised when that happens, it happens for a multitude of reasons. The only time you should worry is if the number gets significant. No students = no money and no money = no paycheck. Again, ain’t nobody got time for that. The good news here though is that it’s fairly easy to find a new job once you’re in the country.

There are two main types of Hagwons: a) Kindergarten & Elementary or b) Elementary and Middle School. There are also schools that cater completely to adults. 

The hagwons that cater to kindergarten & elementary tend to be the morning jobs, typically from 9-6 or 6:30 and the afternoon start times are for elementary and middle. There is a whole variety of schedules out there. You’ll get your kindergarten kids until 2 or 3 before the elementary crowd rolls in. In my case, I teach elementary and middle (ages 8-16) from 2-9 PM. This schedule is ideal for me because what the heck is morning? I wake up 10-15 minutes before my shift 99.5% of the time. So, for you night owls, this is also ideal. There’s also a set curriculum at my school and tends to be the case for most hagwons since there are a lot of chains. This means not much has to be done as far as lesson planning.

The classes are sorted based on the student’s level, but you will still have some that are slower at understanding the material and/or what you’re saying. It can get a little frustrating when you’re trying to explain something seemingly simple, “Write about your vacation.” and you get “Teacher, what?” along with cute, confused faces, but for the most part, they’ll understand you.

“Teacher, what?”

Pros of private academies

  • You have freedom of applying to schools where you want to live
  • Academies can offer higher salaries than that of public school
  • Schools hire year-round, so you can start when it’s most convenient for you
  • Most schools offer at least one-way airfare in or out of the country
  • Smaller classes mean bonding with your students
  • More schedule variety for those who aren’t early risers (like yours truly)
  • There will be at least one other foreign teacher

Cons of private academies

  • They’re businesses that could be open one day and closing the next
  • Some make you work on the weekends
  • Less vacation time than public school
  • Some directors will try to take advantage of you
  • Discrimination is real and it’s harder to get a job if you’re anything but white

 

GOT IT? HERE’S HOW TO APPLY

For public school, the easiest thing to do would be applying directly on the EPIK website. There are also recruiters who will assist you through the application process. Applying for these programs is pretty straightforward, just lengthy and with a lot of waiting time. Within the actual application, you need to fill out the usual information, your preference, work and school history, certificate info, etc. There are also three essay questions to answer as well as a lesson plan that you have to submit. Let me tell you, that mess stressed me out since I wanted it to be perfect. Luckily, there’s a lot of information on the web to help you with it.

As mentioned above, there is a lot of waiting involved with the public application. After you submit the application, you have to wait to hear if you’ve moved on to the interview phase.

If you have been invited for the interview, you do the interview and wait to hear if you passed that. At this point, you’ll be asked to send required documents over if you’ve passed whether that’s through the recruiter or straight to EPIK. Then begins the visa process.

Private school is even more straightforward, quick and typically requires the help of recruiters to secure a job, though not always. Recruiters are there to act as a middleman, they connect you to schools that are looking for teachers and get paid for these services. With this in mind, don’t feel as though you need to be loyal to one recruiter, you’ll get exposed to more job opportunities if you use more recruiters.

Here’s the usual process: You create a profile/application with the recruiting service, have a chat with your recruiter via Skype or email and the recruiter will pass your information to school who will say if they’re interested or not. If they are, you’ll be contacted for an interview via Skype or over the phone. The waiting time after this interview is typically brief. It took me a day to hear back from my recruiter that the director liked what he heard and enjoyed speaking with me. Then I was asked to send the application documents to the school and began the visa process.

Application to apply to Korea-The

APPLICATION DOCUMENTS

  • Your completed application with a photo (public school) or signed contract (private)
  • Apostilled copy of your degree
  • Resume (private)
  • One set of sealed University transcripts (public)
  • Apostilled Criminal Background Check from FBI (US)
  • Two letters of recommendation from University/Professional setting (public)
  • Photocopy of your information page in your passport
  • Proof of TEFL/CELTA/TESOL certificate (required for public)
  • Completed health form

Applying for these positions can be a little heavy on your pockets, so be sure to take that into consideration when you get ready to apply, gather and send them. I would set aside about $200 to be safe.

 

APOSTILLED DEGREE AND BACKGROUND CHECK

When I first heard about needing an apostilled copy of my degree and FBI background check, the first thing I literally said was “WTF does apostilled mean?” So, to answer that question, an apostille is a stamp that is put on official documents to certify that it’s real and legitimate before it’s sent to a foreign country to be used. After I made a copy of my degree at FedEx, I took it to a mail store near my house and got the copy notarized. I also bought a large, orange envelope to send it in without bending and another envelope for when it’s returned back to me.

Every state and country operates differently, so be sure to look up what’s required before you send your degree off to be apostilled. In Florida, there’s a request form that needs to be sent along with the $10 fee. It’s simple to fill out and needs to be included in the envelope along with the notarized degree, the $10 check or money order, and the return envelope. It took about 2 weeks to receive this back with the apostille from the Secretary of State.

The FBI background check process was also fairly simple. I used Fieldprint as the FBI channeler to obtain my fingerprints which were then sent directly to the FBI for processing. I received my background check through email within a few hours. It was very quick and efficient, costing $30. After receiving my background check, I used Monument Visa as my service to get the apostille. The apostille has to come directly from the US Department of State. It’s a family run business and they hand deliver the document to be apostilled. The price of the service is $55 and includes return shipping for the apostilled document to be returned to you. It took a little over a week for me to receive it.

VISA PROCESS

The visa process is straightforward and takes about 2 weeks to receive unless you live in a city that has a Korean consulate. These are the documents that you’ll need to send in order to obtain your visa:

  • The application form (duh!)
  • Your passport (the actual thing)
  • A passport photo
  • One set of sealed University transcripts
  • The $45 fee in either cash or a money order made out to the Korean Consulate
  • Self-addressed envelope for your passport to be returned to you

 

HOW TO FIND JOBS

So, besides the obvious of applying to EPIK for most public schools, how else can you find a job?

Recruiters like Korvia and Korean Horizons are able to help you get placed in programs like the GOE (Gyeongsangnam-do Office of Education) in the south, which is another public school program that’s operated by the province itself, or privately owned public schools. The GOE offers the same benefits as the EPIK program with a short orientation.

Here is a list of recruiters to use if you want to go the hagwon route (maybe you’ll have better luck than me):

Adventure Teaching

Reach To Teach

Teach ESL Korea

Premier ESL Recruiting (They got me my job, shout out Tara!)

WorknPlay

There are many more, so be sure to do your research! One thing I can say from dealing with several recruiters is that they will try to pressure you into taking a job you don’t find desirable, don’t let them do that! Recruiters get paid to place you with a school, that’s their only motivation and they are not your friend. Some of them are slimy and if you show disinterest in the jobs they’re pushing on you, they’ll stop contacting you altogether (been there, done that.) There will also be recruiters that don’t get back in contact with you at all after you apply, their loss. There will even be recruiters that try to push other countries on you even though you’ve explicitly said you want to teach in Korea. “How about China? China is blah blah blah”. Spare me, please.

Facebook is another useful resource for finding jobs. There are groups that are dedicated to posting jobs and if you join groups for people living in Korea, you will often find people who are looking for replacements when their contract is up.

Believe it or not, Craigslist is also a way to find a job and that’s actually how I found the recruiter that got me my gig. I searched the education section on the Korean Craigslist site and found a posting that appealed to me. The recruiter got back in contact with me and it was a very pleasant process overall. When you apply, they’ll typically want you to email a headshot and your resume so have those prepared.

How much money do I need?

This is an age-old question that’s asked a lot and the answer really does vary. However, a safe number is $1000. Do your best to budget your money and not go too crazy with all the cool things you see in your first couple of days. I actually managed to last until my first payday with about $600, so it depends on the person. If you’re able to come with more, that’s cool too, but try to carry about half on you and the other half on a card so that you don’t lose it.

More info on costs of living in part two!

AFTER YOU’VE ARRIVED…

Public

So you’ve got the job and made the long trek from your home country to Korea. Arrival at the airport is smooth, as customs aren’t really that much of a hassle. If you’ve gone the public school route (EPIK), there is a process that you must follow before heading off to your orientation location. Be aware that your arrival time in Korea is completely up to you. Many applicants arrive weeks in advance to explore the country and get over the jet lag and culture shock before orientation. If that sounds ideal to you, go for it! But you will be responsible for arriving at the airport at the designated time of departure.

Arrival Process

  • Arrive at the airport (either from your arrival gate or your taxi)
  • Bring your luggage to the designated gate (This location will be emailed to you in the orientation packet)
  • Go to the gate desk to receive a form with a number
  • Wait in line for your number to be called (get comfy, it may take a while)
  • After your number is called, You must go to the desk again (with your passport in tow) to receive your bus assignment.

This process can be long and irritating, especially if you have just gotten off a plane, but hang in there! Orientation is right around the corner. Depending on the location you’ve been placed, your orientation will either be in of two places. Those placed in Seoul and Gyeonggi-do will be in Seoul and all other placements will arrive in Busan. Your orientation will last a total of 9 days, so be prepared for early mornings and hot, humid days (seriously, Korean summer is HOT!!) for fall intake.

Spongebob Hot gif

What to expect for your EPIK orientation

Right when you thought your days of summer camp were over…EPIK orientation, AKA adult summer camp, strikes! Here, you will be assisted with your transition into ESL teachers, taking crash courses on culture and history, language,  co-teaching, storytelling, and of course your contract. At the end of your orientation, you will be expected to present a lesson on a given topic. Don’t worry, you won’t lose your job over this and you aren’t expected to do it alone. Think of it as a practice on co-teaching.

Sound stressful? Well EPIK feels your pain because they have planned activities to ease your mind. This includes a special taekwondo performance along with an outing ( If you’re in Busan, you may head to the beach). You are also able to explore after schedules are complete for the day. Beware, the day is done after 8:00 pm and curfew is at 11:00 (the lockdown is REAL). SO have fun and enjoy your orientation, because you are thrown to the sharks (students) as soon as it’s over.

Private

For those of you that choose to do private, you will likely receive directions from your school director about what to do once you arrive. Depending on your location, they may have someone to meet you at the airport or train/bus station. When I arrived, I flew into Incheon Airport which is about 4 hours away from my city. My director told me to take the KTX train to my city and he met me at the train station. I flew in on a Sunday and I was allowed to use Monday to rest. The very next day I was meeting my students and introducing myself. Some don’t even get a day of rest, they start the day after landing.  An introduction activity for your classes should be prepared beforehand to save you some stress.

A piece of advice: Remember, the kids don’t know that you have no idea what you’re doing. Stay calm and just be yourself, the kids really will love you!

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen! That’s everything you need to get started on your journey of traveling to the East and embarking on a new adventure! There’s really nothing like it, you won’t know until you get here!

For the next and most important part about teaching in South Korea, you know, living in South Korea, click here!

Comment down below or email me any questions you may have at Bria@finessingfinances.com! I’m more than happy to help and I can lend assistance with your applications!

And be sure to follow my adventures on Instagram and Facebook!

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