Finding an English-Teaching Job in Korea

Troubled by the recent US elections and you’d like to get out of the US for a few years? Can’t find a job at home that rewards your wallet and your sense of purpose? Just want to not live at home with Mom and Dad? Well you may have thought about going to teach English in South Korea because you’ve heard it’s lucrative, it’s easy, and it’s fun. (Spoiler alert: It’s a mixed bag.) While there is a decent amount of information online that outlines the necessary visa documentation and examines daily life as a foreigner in Korea, there’s a shortage of info how to actually go about, you know, finding that first job as you sit on your couch in Kentucky reading this.

Let’s Get Started

Suddenly I’m getting friends and friends of friends asking me about finding a job as they look to cross the Pacific for adventure and, admittedly, some escapism. This article is for them and for you. I wrote this post a few years ago, but have cleaned it up for you and addressed some of the questions I’ve been asked since I got home to the USA.

Have your own question not addressed here? Ask in the comments and I’ll try to help.

First thing first, my standard disclaimer whenever people tell me they’re interested in going abroad to teach: Do not do it if you don’t like kids.* I wish this was obvious, but all ex-pats teaching abroad have met colleagues overseas who disdain kids, yet come to teach them anyway, thinking they can muster through a school year to reap the rewards of a free apartment and plane ticket across an ocean. Unfortunately, these people are usually miserable and do harm to the ex-pat community’s image and to the students’ education.

That said, once you’ve started gathering your visa documents, it’s time to figure out how to go about getting a job from behind your laptop in your home country.

*The few jobs that teach English to adults in Korea are often on split schedules to accommodate students’ work schedules. For instance, you’ll have classes early in the morning, a long break during the day, then more classes at night. The nice thing about teaching adults is that you (usually) don’t have classroom discipline problems. The downside can be that you won’t see as much improvement in your students as you would with a child whose brain is in that prime age for language learning.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

The school could not pay you. You could be teaching in sub-par conditions. Your school may not have registered you for national healthcare and if you twist your ankle you’ll be out of money and maybe a job. They may not reimburse you for airfare. You may actually be in the country illegally and subject to fines or deportation.

Got it? Luckily these situations are rare, but they’re not as rare as they should be. This article should help you navigate the job search.

Get Ready

To really, really simplify things, there are three types of schools in Korea. Public (GEPIK/EPIK), private (hagwons, also spelled hagweon or hakwon or 학원), and international schools. There are also universities and colleges. The bulk of this document applies to hagwons, though a lot of it is just good common-sense info that can be applied elsewhere. Why, you ask? Well, hagwons are less competitive to get hired by (since there are thousands upon thousands of them) and I taught in one, as did the majority of my friends in Korea.

I already said this, but it bears repeating: Gather your visa documents! Yes, before you even decide for sure that you want to go to Korea. It’s a long process that’s different every year for every nationality looking to become an English teacher. You don’t want to be left out in the rain if a really nice position comes along and the school chooses another candidate because you didn’t have something notarized.

As these visa requirements can change, I’m putting the onus on you to Google ‘documents to teach English in Korea for an [your nationality]’ to double check what’s needed. However, as of January 2017 these are the only nationalities eligible for the specialized E-2 teaching visa:

  • USA
  • Canada
  • UK
  • Ireland
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • South Africa

Don’t see your nationality on that list? There are other ways to get to Korea to teach. Some nationalities (like The Philippines) may have an easier time of it than others.

And if you haven’t heard, no — you do not need to be a certified teacher in your home country to teach English in Korea. But if you are education degree-certified, your school options are better. (More on that later.)

Using Recruiters

Recruiters are people in South Korea — most whom are Korean citizens — who work for a placement company or freelance their skills to get native-speaking English teachers into schools. There are also recruitment companies run by agencies outside of Korea. The benefit to using recruiters is that they help you with the visa document process, answering questions and making sure everything is in order. However, the fact that they’re paid per-head they get to sign school contracts can be concerning to some job seekers who wonder if the recruiter just has dollar signs in their eyes.

If you use a recruiter to find and interview for a job teaching English, do NOT let them pressure you into signing for any job that you don’t feel 100% sure about. A great recruiter will work with you to make sure you’re placed in a school where you’ll have a meaningful, respectful relationship with the school and staff. A bad recruiter will tell you things like, “It’s impossible to find a job in [city you said you want to live in]. You should just take this job in [place you don’t want to go],” or “That salary [you researched and know is authentic and fair] is too high. I suggest you settle.”

I was hounded by my first recruiting agent to take a teaching job I didn’t want and I cut him loose because I’d been through the same thing in China years before and it never worked out well. At the end of the day, recruiters are making money off landing your butt in a school, don’t forget that. While many recruiters are genuine folks, there are those who are in it for the money by any means and just want to place you as fast as possible.

If you find out a recruiter is lying to you about anything — how to get a visa, how nationalized Korean health insurance works, standard number of sick days set by law, that everyone in Korea is losing their English teaching job and you should be grateful for the shitty one she just presented to you — end your relationship with her in the politest way possible. If a recruiter keeps hounding you after that, ghost her like you would a crappy Tinder date.

Searching for A Job on Your Own

So you’ve decided you feel iffy about recruiters. You’re going to Google ‘English teaching job in Korea’ instead. Once you’ve sifted through the recruitment agencies, you find forums like ESLCafe, Dave’sESL and even Craigslist. These sites have their own mileage in terms of trustworthy postings and disdain within the professional ex-pat community. A good rule of thumb (like with any forum ad that looks too good to be true) is to copy and paste the text (body and/or title) of the posting into Google and see if any other fishy posts come up, especially ones saying ‘Watch out for this!!’ from other English teachers who were scammed.*

An option a lot of people don’t think about is Facebook. More often on Facebook groups — and sometimes on the sites mentioned above — current English teachers will post to find a replacement for the job they’re leaving at the end of their contract. Chances are, if they’re helping out their school like that, it was a nice gig. There’s always an incredibly slight chance they’re trying to get you to take over their contract so they can legally leave a bad school, but doing research will help you suss out the truth.

*“What if I get scammed or something seems off? Can I make my own ‘watch out!’ post?” If you’re leaving Korea for good, sure. If you’re still in Korea or trying to get hired, Korea has strong ‘slander’ laws and the world is growing smaller and smaller online. You may be better off keeping your comments offline until someone asks for your help and you can take things to Skype.

Research that School

Even before you know what you want out of a teaching job, join a Facebook group for ex-pats in the geographical area (city, province) of Korea you want to teach, preferably a job-seeking Facebook group if there is one. Sometimes these groups are private so you’ll have to apply and message the admin on Facebook and explain your situation. Once you have access, keep an eye on what people are posting about their Korean teaching salaries and benefits offered, plus résumé criteria schools are looking for, etc, so you know what the industry ‘standard’ really is for that geographical location. And don’t be afraid to post yourself to ask questions not already outlined in the group’s About/FAQ section.

Once you find/apply to a school for an interview over Skype or the phone, research the ever-loving crap out of your school and the city you’re going to be living in. Korean locations are listed as City, Province. For example, if you see a posting for Hwaseong, Gyeonngi, ‘Hwaseong’ is the city, ‘Gyeonngi’ the province. You may also see it listed as Hwaseong-si, Gyeonngi-do, where si and do are the Korean way of saying ‘city’ and ‘province’, respectively.

Some places to go check out the city/province:

  • Facebook groups; ask members how they like their town or if they’ve been to a different city you’re considering
  • Wikipedia; also, if you need the Korean spelling of the city/province, Wiki will have it
  • Google Maps. Use the street view to virtually walk about town and see how rural/urban it is, etc. If you can’t live without McDonald’s/The Apple Store/Starbucks for some strange reason, make sure there are some in town.
  • Lookup Instagram hashtags with the city name in English (or copy/paste the Korean from Wikipedia) to see photos and a slice of life
  • Visit Korea for festivals, heritage sites, etc.
  • The excellent blog Eat Your Kimchi may have videos and blog posts about your city

Ask on your Facebook group if anyone has worked at the school you’re considering or if anyone has lived in that city. A recruiter will likely give you the email of an English teacher working at the school if you ask to talk to someone, but there’s always the very slight chance that teacher is telling you everything you want to hear because if you take up her contract, she gets to legally leave a shithole of a school. And then you’re the one stuck. To cover all your bases, try to find a former employee to ask your questions. Know ahead of time that people may be reluctant to post things publicly about a bad school because Korea has very strong ‘slander’ laws. Offer to take your questions to Skype instead.

If you do talk to a current English teacher at the school and he tells you the school is not above-board and you should stay clear, for the love of God do not turn around and tell that info to your recruiter or to the school itself. That teacher probably went out of their way to help you, warn you, and you are potentially screwing them over big time. The school holds the contract and the teacher’s health insurance in the palm of their hand, and if the school really is a bad institution you may have just lost that teacher his job and insurance and money for trying to tell you the truth. Instead, tell the school/recruiter thanks but no thanks and end it at that, move on to other job offers. If they push you for a reason for not accepting the job, make something up. No, seriously. I’m sure you’ve lied to get out of a parking ticket or a late history report — save someone who put their neck on the line for you.

I can hear questions from the audience in the back, so let me answer them before moving on:

“Why should I care about that teacher?” Well, besides not being a royal dick, the ex-pat community in Korea is small and word travels fast when you’re persona non grata. Them’s facts.

“Shouldn’t I tell my recruiter what’s really going on at that school?” You have no idea if that recruiter knew the situation beforehand or if they’ll reach out to the school with the damning information. Some readers may have different opinions, but frankly I think it’s too big of a risk to take the chance that the recruiter will get the current teacher into hot water.

The Final Gut-Check

If something seems fishy, inconsistent, or you have just a bad feeling about a school or a recruiter… Go with your gut. You’re moving halfway around the world; don’t risk it. You will find another job, one that makes you eager to get on that plane. And if your gut never sits right even after the research, even after the amazing job offers, maybe you don’t really want to pack up and move to Korea in the first place.

A Brief Breakdown on School Types

Public schools are (mostly) always above-board and take care of their foreign teachers because they’re government affiliated, so naturally they are more competitive. It is possible to get hired by a GEPIK/EPIK school, especially if you’re willing to be in a more rural area, so if you’d like that safety net and don’t mind the waiting and competition, find a public school recruiter/program as they’re usually the best way to get your foot in that door.

International schools are schools for the children of diplomats, international professionals, and the well-to-do. Generally, these schools only hire teachers certified in their home country with experience teaching. They are quite competitive to work at as they generally offer a higher standard of living. But again, do your research about the specific school.

Jobs teaching English at Korean colleges and universities are also difficult to get as they are usually reserved for certified teachers, Ph.D holders, and English teachers who have lived and taught in Korea for years.

My Job

I worked 9:30 AM — 5:30 PM Monday through Friday in a private (hagwon) kindergarten. My students were between the ages of three and six and I had about 100 of them split evenly through that age range. I taught English and, as just sort of happens with this age group, I also taught how to be a functioning human being on a basic level where blowing noses and cleaning off tables is concerned. I taught twenty-two regular forty-minute English classes per week along with one cooking-in-English class and six extra-curricular English tutoring classes. On Fridays, I would be doing anything from leading four basic yoga-in-English classes to chaperoning a field trip or helping make kimchi or cut birthday cakes. For most of these classes, a native-speaking Korean teacher was with me to help out.

My school was a business first, there’s no two ways about it. However there was never any doubt in my mind that the owner/principal loved children and wanted them to be healthy and happy. She was a former high-ranking Samsung employee who put her money into opening up a kindergarten. Just before I left she finished construction on a brand new kindergarten building with a tree house and huge playroom.

When I asked what was expected of me, I was told just to make sure the kids were happy and had fun. The textbooks I was given were selected without any real educational guidelines, and from these I made my lesson plans. But, really, in the back of my mind, I was less of a teacher and more of a person for students to practice speaking with. The way I saw it, my real duty was to foster an enjoyment of learning English (or at least not fuel a hatred of it) and give the students practice with talking to a native English speaker. They’ll need it; for the rest of their education, emphasis will be on grammar and reading, much to the detriment of their oral abilities.

I was paid to be in the school from 9:30–5:30 regardless if my butt is merely warming a desk chair. (This is a big part of work in Korea for foreign teachers. Your butt will be so good at sitting and waiting for 5:30 that by the time you leave Korea you should just try out for the sitting Olympics.) I was paid to make my own lesson plans, follow directions from the principal/owner, and not offer a dissenting opinion. In return, I had a free apartment that was only kind of shitty, free school lunch, and a boss that paid me on time and didn’t deign to interact with me beyond a few pleasant greetings as she didn’t speak English very well. All in all, I got a pretty solid deal.

Afterword

This is the way teaching English works in Korea. There is no cookie cutter for schools, public or private. As many different directors and principals as there are, that’s how many different types of schools you will come across. Some of my friends work four hours a day and have all of the material prepared for them, and outside of report cards there’s little paperwork. Some of my friends have bosses who work them sixty hours a week yet they’re paid for forty. Some have even had bosses scam them and nearly get them deported out of South Korea. (I highly suggest you read their story.) Some people work in amazing schools where they’re treated as educators with equal skills and talent to bring to the table. You just never know what you’re going to get unless you inherit the job from a friend.

On the flip side of that coin, the schools get what they pay for. Most of the English teachers here are not teachers. If you want to become an English teacher in South Korea, you must be a native speaker, have a clean background check, a bachelor’s degree in anything, and a pulse. Being a white, young female helps a lot, too. (If you have more qualifications and experience beyond this, you can find a school more to your liking or negotiate for a higher pay. However, as of 2014, if you make 2.4 million won or more, your tax gets hiked up from 3% to 15% so be careful when you sign that contract.)

“There will always be jobs in Korea,” someone said to me as I was starting my own search. But until you step into your first school, you may not be wise enough to figure out which schools to avoid. My own job could have been a lot worse. It also could have been better in some ways. But for a first time job in Korea, I did alright, and I hope you will too.

Have a question not addressed above? Ask in the comments and I’ll try to help.

**Please note that while I linked to a few recruiting agencies and schools in the above text, I do not necessarily endorse these programs.**