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Published: January 13th 2007
The trials of teaching
As you can see, it's a tough crowd...
"You speakee English? You want easy money? Come work my school!" -- (Excerpt from my third phone interview)
OK, actually that was about the WHOLE interview.
The bank account was looking rather paltry and I jumped on the train of easy employment, teaching English in Seoul along with tens of thousands of other native speakers. Despite my cynicism on life in Korea, I have to admit that the work itself was surprisingly pleasant and rewarding, even given my initial hand-wringing at the thought of having to entertain children all day long. And, while it is easy as pie to hop on a plane and instantly have a job in Korea, certain bits of information can drastically improve your position in life. I personally read through lots of blogs while searching for a teaching job to glean useful information, so I decided to return the favor and fill in any potential job seekers on the ins and outs of working in Seoul.
First off, most people are interested in how much money you earn and can potentially save. A typical contract for someone with no teaching experience and without a teaching degree offers about 2.0 - 2.2
million won (about $2150 -$2300 USD) per month, health insurance, roundtrip air transport, an apartment, and a completion bonus of one month’s salary. Food is relatively expensive, but taxes are only 3%!,(MISSING) so you can save $1000 a month quite easily if that’s your goal. HOWEVER, what I wish I had known before coming is that so many more high-paying jobs are out there if you know where to look! With a little luck, you can get jobs paying up to 3.0 million per month with no experience as well. There are lots of websites advertising teaching jobs, like Dave's ESL Cafe
or ESL Junction
or for Pusan PusanWeb
but the absolute BEST place to look for jobs in Seoul is WorknPlay
(there are about 100 listings a day just in Seoul). In addition to full-time jobs, you’ll find lots of part-time private lessons advertised that pay between $30 and $50 per hour. If you search around to get a higher paid position and pick up a few private lessons, you can easily save $2000+ a month. (Let me also point out that working privates is illegal, but that most people do it. Some people come on tourist visas and just fill up
Natural Medicine festival in Daegu
their days working privates, in which case you can potentially earn over $7000 a month for a 40 hour workweek if you could organize the hours.)
Most contracts are also for one year, but if you are active in searching on Work-n-Play you will find opportunities for shorter time periods as well. This is also a great opportunity to finance your travels if you are in Asia; every January and late July-mid-August, schools have winter/summer intensive sessions and you can work for just 4 weeks, earning $2500 to $3000 on average, with housing and meals provided by the camps.
The majority of teaching jobs are with elementary/middle school students at hagwons, or language academies, which will often have working hours in the afternoon/evening, such as 2-10 p.m. While this seemed perfect to a night owl like me before arrival, I have to say that I abhorred working the later hours because it messes with your whole eating and sleeping schedule. If you don’t mind little tots who don’t understand a lick of English, kindergarten may be a go for you, and those schools generally hold schedules more in the 9 to 5 range. (Be advised though that keeping
the attention span of a whole classroom of little tykes who don't really understand you takes heaps of energy!) There are also jobs with public schools that seem to offer great compensation packages with 9 to 5 hours. The benefit with public school jobs is that you have a secure position and often shorter working hours too, but you may have 30 kids in your class as opposed to 8 students in an academy class.
The single most important piece of advice I would have is to come to Korea and look for a job instead of accepting a position from overseas. (I didn’t do this.) I know, the plane ticket is quite expensive, and most contracts throw in a round-trip ticket to and from Korea as part of the compensation package. But, while I actually had an awesome experience with my school, I was extremely lucky. In the first place, recruiters make $1000 for placing you with a school and really don’t give a crap about finding something you will like. I have also heard all kinds of horror stories from other teachers about broken promises on their contracts, not receiving their pay, or having the school just
shut down overnight. Koreans’ insatiable demand for English teachers means that job opportunities are endless, provided you have a four-year university degree, so you needn’t worry about milling around for long without a job. Aside from visiting the school and seeing how well they are organized and getting a feel for whether it’s a good fit for you, meeting the teachers to talk about how things REALLY run there is priceless in comparing your options.
Job searching in person can also help you evaluate where you want to live and what the housing is like. (There are jobs everywhere in Korea, but I worked in Seoul and therefore can only really offer advice on working in the capital.) The best resources for finding your way around the city are these online Seoul subway
maps. The city is divided into north and south by the Han River, and the southern part - Gangnam - is the newer, wealthier part. If you like skyscrapers and malls, you’ll probably feel at home here. Even if you don’t, anywhere near Samseong or Gangnam stations are great places to pick up private lessons, and there’s good nightlife around Gangnam and Apkujeong. Many foreigners
live in Itaewon, which is a great place to go when you tire of Korean food, as there are many different restaurants, or if you need to find some English-speakers to pal around with in the pubs. However, it’s also full of American GIs, which can be annoying - they come and patrol the bars and the streets at 1 a.m. to bust soldiers for breaking curfew and it sends you back in time travel to your days at summer camp or whenever it was you last had an institutionally imposed bedtime. My experiences bar-hopping in Itaewon were limited, but never without running into at least one spectacle reminiscent of drunken frat party members trying to get on “Jackass.” If that’s not your cup of Earl Grey, there’s also a good mix of Koreans and foreigners in Hongdae and Sinchon, which are close to another hot spot for teaching jobs, Mokdong.
While teachers themselves get recharged by these meccas of diversity, many Korean schools/recruiters are less than enthused by racial diversity among English speakers. A very disconcerting fact of life in the English-teaching web is that you will often see ads for "White Teachers Only" or find directors refusing
to hire the most qualified candidate based on their ethnic background. Although I have met teachers here from every sort of racial background, I'm just letting you know that this attitude seems to be the rule rather than the exception among those doing the hiring. Also, many schools list preferences for North American accents, and apparently due to businessmen's preferences and some kind of scandal a couple years back involving inappropriate extramarital affairs with male "teachers", many jobs also specifically request female teachers. So, while there are jobs aplenty for any English speaker, if you are a woman from Canada or the U.S. with rosy cheeks and light colored features, you pretty much have your pick of the litter!
Practical Considerations: Life in Seoul
Speaking of choices, you can find almost everything you need in Seoul. Shopping seems to be a national pastime here - even the subway stations are turned into underground shopping havens. However, you may want to bring a few things with you. It is relatively difficult to find standard bed sheets, large bath towels, and deodorant. If you are a woman and wear a shoe size greater than size 8, you will miss out on
all the cute foot fashions on offer and will definitely need to bring all the shoes you will need with you. I’d also stock up on your preferred brand of cold medicine, since I found the ones I got in the pharmacies here utterly useless. And unless you are a die-hard fan of Korean cuisine or prefer to eat out every night, you will probably need to search a bit for ingredients and spices to cook familiar foods. There are a few Costco's
in Seoul and the foreign food store near the mosque in Itaewon that will help tremendously.
Keeping in touch is no problem; there is a PC bang (internet café) on every corner in Seoul and you can get good rates on international phone cards in Dongdaemun Market and in Itaewon. However, if you want to get your own computer, Jonny Computer in Itaewon did an awesome job getting me set up with everything for $300 and will buy it back from you when you leave, if you so desire. Foreigners can’t get contracts for cell phones so you have to pay up front to put credit on your phone and recharge it when it runs out.
The Devil and Mr. Lee
My morning conversation student at the World Cup party his company sponsored
If you’re not concerned about having the latest and greatest mobile phone, you can search for used ones at Yongsan Electronics Market and then have a phone company activate it, or ask around about teachers who are leaving Korea and try to take on someone else’s phone when they leave.
As you get acquainted with your new hometown, keep your head up. There seems to be no real method behind the madness on the streets. Motorcycles routinely drive on the sidewalks (occasionally cars do too when they are tired of waiting at a stoplight), red lights are run, and I can only make the generalization that Korean drivers are extremely impatient by observing the lane changes that ensue every few seconds during rush hour, which only serve to complicate the congestion. I read that the government had introduced a creative way to ameliorate the problem; namely, they offered a 10,000 on (about $10 USD) reward to anyone who called in a valid traffic violation and could document it. Apparently they had to quit this program after awhile because some people were making full-time jobs of it, earning up to $100,000 a year! However, it seems that their alternative to
The Palatial View
From the 17th floor in my apartment...smokestacks, sewage treatment plant, and Seoul...
this program was just to avoid any type of enforcement whatsoever, meaning that there is no real incentive NOT to be a jackass behind the wheel. Above all, the main problem seems to be a lack of respect for pedestrians. Near my school, where the road was only wide enough for one car to pass at a time and where half the people you saw on the street were children, cars would nonetheless barrel down the street honking the horn, the kids scattering like flies in the face of a flyswatter. Somehow the unspoken rule that because people are smaller and more vulnerable that automobiles, you must therefore yield to them, has the tone in Korea that because they are bigger, pedestrians better get the hell out of the way!
Given my views on above-ground traffic, my love of the subway system grew even more profound. Seoul’s subway system is very easy to use and has English signs and announcements for the stops, along with neighborhood maps in each station to help you orient yourself towards which exit you need to take. If you get a T-money card, you can transfer to the buses for free to get you
door-to-door. Public transport is quite cheap, typically around 80 cents to $1, and even taxis are really affordable. Traffic is horrendous at rush hour and on rainy days, but you may still need to hop on the bus to avoid multiple subway transfers in some places.
I got lots of questions from friends and family members on how I can work and get around without speaking Korean. Basically, the more Korean you learn the easier it will be, but honestly, it’s quite easy to live here without knowing any. Since you teach English for your work, your co-workers obviously speak at least some English, and generally you aren’t teaching the kids from scratch so you only speak English with your students as well. It is quite helpful, however, to learn the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, so that you can at least read signs and menus (even if you don’t really know what it means). If you need assistance in English, businesspeople and kids/teenagers are generally the best ones to ask. While I was shamefully disinterested in learning to speak Korean beyond the bare essentials, there are actually free classes on Saturdays at Sookmyung University
There are also lots
The day that Seoul redeemed itself
The beautiful procession in Dongdaemun Stadium for Buddha's Birthday bash
of Koreans looking to improve their English who will do language exchanges with you and teach you Korean, and will give you an instant local social connection in this enormous city. Ads for language exchanges are posted in some foreigner magazines and on the English spectrum website
, which is an amazing resource to help you buy things for your apartment, find jobs, get the scoop on cultural and entertainment options, and to find sporting or other clubs to fill your free time.
Any other specific questions on visas, travel agents, and tricky legal situations can often be answered by searching on the Korean job forum on Dave's ESL Cafe, and you can browse the following sites for more information on things to do in Seoul too: Seoul Style The Seoul Times Adventure Korea Korea Tourism Guide
I hope this serves as useful for someone out there wondering how to keep financing their nasty travel habit. :-D So get ready for a lot of awkward stares and a whole lot of pickled cabbage, and happy hunting!!! UPDATE: 10/30/2009 -- PLEASE NOTE!!!:
There are a few things I think I should mention in the text of the blog itself, as I get oodles of comments and
personal messages about this entry that I don't really have time to respond to in a timely manner.
First, the visa situation has changed since the writing of this blog; you need to get a visa in your home country generally before arriving, so check with your country's Korean Embassy.
Second, I cannot answer questions about specific companies or recruiters. English teaching academies and schools are ubiquitous; it's like asking someone if they happen to know one particular non-descript restaurant in London or New York City....the odds are one in a million that I know anything about the particular job you are looking at!
Finally, PLEASE look through the comments before asking me your question, as I have already answered many questions, more than once to different people, and don't really have the time to reply to redundant questions. And, as I noted before, I don't usually get to them in a very timely manner these days, so it would be more helpful for you too to look through other questions and replies first if you need a quick answer! I'll still reply to anything that doesn't seem to have been asked before though if I know
Participant in the lantern parade - Seoul
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