My ESL teaching experience in Korea

I have done two interviews with English teachers in South Korea to share their experiences and give some tips on living and teaching ESL (English Second Language), as well as how to apply and get a teaching job in an Asian country such as Korea. The first interview was with Ramish from the USA.

Tell about yourself and where you’re teaching

“Hi Ramish! Thank you so much for joining us today. I know that there are many English teachers that want to come and teach in South Korea, so first off, where are you teaching right now?”

“Hi Eric! So right now, I’m teaching in a public school in Seoul.”

Okay, tell me a little bit about yourself. Could you introduce yourself to the audience?”

“Yeah, so I’m Ramish. I am from the United States; specifically from New York City. One of the big reasons why I’m here is just because I’ve always loved Korea and teaching, so I thought the two would be kind of just perfect for who I am and so far my experience here in Korea has been pretty amazing, even with Corona things have been really nice and so I’m definitely looking forward to maybe choose to stay on next year.”

Kinds of schools for ESL teachers

“So, you’re teaching at a public school in Seoul, South Korea. What kind of positions are there? What kind of schools can teachers apply for if they want to teach in South Korea?”

“Right, so there are really three big categories of schools that are here in Korea. The first that pretty much everyone knows about, is EPIK, the English Program In Korea, which recruits English teachers for public schools.

(EPIK’s sister programs are the SMOE program for Seoul Metro English, GEPIK program for Gyeonggi, around Seoul, or GOE program (Gyeongnam), the Changwon-Jinhae coastal region near Busan in the southeast. The same requirement rules apply for EPIK-sister programs.)

(EPIK recruitment for Spring 2022 starts August 23rd!)

“Technically I guess it’s like being a government employee. You get a lot of the benefits that other government employees would get and the same number of days off and so on. But with this but being in a public school, you’re usually the only foreigner, the only foreign teacher and so it can be a little isolating.

“The second is being at a hagwon. Hagwons are private academies here in Korea where students go, not just for English but many other things (lessons) too like piano and guitar (music, math, and science).

“Usually in those schools you might actually be with other foreign English teachers, but perhaps – since it’s not technically a government job – you might not have as much job security and there are a few risks that people have to keep in mind with hagwons.

“Then the third category that you might hear about are international schools. International schools are a bit different because you actually need to be a qualified teacher back home and have had a few years’ experience under your belt.

“Your international school in Korea is set up much like an American or British private school, depending on the system that it runs on and you need again a lot of experience. They pay well, but it’s quite competitive though. So, those are very competitive main jobs.”

“I think some people might have heard of after-school (afternoon) jobs. That’s basically like an academy where you work at a public school but you’re essentially working for the academy. Then also you have university positions that are difficult to get –  you need the right qualifications.”

Requirements to Teach English in Korea

“What requirements are there if you want to teach in South Korea?”

“Right, so the requirements itself change depending on the certain visa requirements, but the visa that most people will get to come and teach here is the E2-visa,  which is specifically for teaching languages. It’s not just English it can be any language actually.

“The biggest requirement besides just being able to like actually know English (as your mother language), is that you have to be from seven of the major English-speaking countries or at least what Korea considers to be the seven big English countries which is the USA, the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“Some exceptions I would want to point out, because a lot of people don’t actually know about this, there are some very rare exceptions in the program at least for EPIK, or at least for the government in general in public schools.

“That is if you’re from the Philippines or you’re from India, they might be able to make an exception for you there is this rare possibility. You also of course need a bachelor’s degree. It can be a bachelor’s degree in any subject. People freak out all the time when they hear that my bachelor’s degree was not in English.

“You can have a bachelor’s in underwater basket weaving (anything) as a major and not related to teaching, but then need to do a TEFL course online (Teaching English as Foreign Language).”

“I’ve got a question, is it possible to teach in South Korea without a degree?

“I’m actually not entirely sure if it’s an E2-visa requirement, but to my knowledge, I don’t know of any English teaching positions that you could do without a Bachelor’s degree. I have heard of some cases but it’s very difficult and in some cases, it might be illegal.

“There is one exception, it’s a special program called the TaLK program (Teach and Learn Korea). Can you explain a little bit of what that’s about?”

“They kind of consider it as the sister program of the EPIK program, however, you must have completed two years of study at a university and will be placed in rural areas. The TaLK program’s contracts used to be six months but are now also for a year.”

Quarantine and EPIK orientation

“When you came to Korea was it difficult? Did you have to quarantine, what was that process like?

“I actually came in in February of 2020 when the first wave was just starting, so there was no quarantine at the time. You didn’t even have to wear a mask indoors or outdoors.  

“I attended the EPIK orientation just outside of Seoul and although we didn’t have to quarantine, we were not allowed to leave the orientation site and have the normal cultural experiences. Our orientation was definitely quite different from what we thought we would have.” (Note: ESL teachers reporting at hagwons often don’t get much of an orientation.)

“So, I can’t speak for the quarantine experience, but based on what I’ve read, if you do come here these days you only have really two routes that you can go. The first route is if you know someone here, maybe a Korean person who when you first arrive the immigration can confirm that you know this person and then you can self-quarantine with them for the two weeks.

“You of course have to download the quarantine app (the Self-Quarantine Safety Protection mobile app) and provide Covid test results on entry.

“The second route is that you go to a government quarantine location. It does cost maybe a thousand dollars for the two weeks (A good website for the latest updates is wego.com. To do online registration follow this link to the official Korean Immigration site.)

How is the teaching experience in Korea?

“How has teaching been? It must have been difficult with Corona?”

“Right, so based on what I’ve heard about pre-Covid times it’s now mostly the normal way that it’s supposed to go. You’re usually the only foreign teacher in a public school like me and then you have maybe one or two or three co-teachers or even four.

“Generally, you teach third to sixth grade in a public school. Your school could be very small or very big it depends on your area. If you’re in a rural area you might even have more than one school then you have to travel.

“For the teaching aspect, I would say that one thing people who are choosing to come here need to keep in mind is that even though the culture is very different than where you might be from, you have to remember at the heart of it, kids are still kids and although their culture influences them, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be that drastically different from a kid that you might be in the US or a kid you might be in the UK.

“Try to adjust your teaching style not based on necessarily the culture, but based on the fact that you know that this is how children respond to things in general around the world.”

“What about your style of teaching in the classroom?” How do you usually run your classrooms, or once Corona is finished, how would you run your classrooms?”

“I would say my style or my way of teaching the classroom is very flexible and it’s mostly dictated by my co-teacher. So, a lot of people might come here and think how maybe I’ll have control of the classroom and I’ll be able to do whatever pretty much I want, but in most cases with EPIK you’re teaching with a dedicated co-teacher who also teaches English and most of the time you are kind of more like an of an assistant.

“So, the way I approach the teaching, at least in my school is, to make the job of the co-teacher easier in certain aspects whether it be helping them to learn something about the English grammar that they might not even know so that they can teach the kids right, or maybe if there’s an activity that they think would be good, you can try to give your feedback.

“So really I think it’s not about specific teaching style like how you’re going to teach the kids directly but really I think it’s about how are you going to teach with a co-teacher; how will your teaching style change based on the co-teacher that you’re teaching with.

“Maybe they’re very hands-off and they say you just take the class. Maybe they like to do things a certain way and you assist them. It’s up to your co-teacher, but if you’re going to teach at a hagwon, or perhaps a university or somewhere else you might be responsible for creating the curriculum or for lesson planning or for whatever activities.

“Yes, it depends on when you teach, but sometimes you’ve got winter and summer camp. Do you have summer and winter camps?”

“Yes, I do have a summer camp coming up and I also do teach winter camp so summer and winter camps are at least for public teachers in public schools mandatory and part of that is when I think your role as the native English teacher really comes through.”

What’s the cultural experience like?

“It’s such a shame that during orientation you didn’t get a chance to experience some cultural aspects of Korea. So, my next question is about culture shock; how was your experience getting used to the Korean culture?”

“Before I had come to Korea I did try to learn as much as I could about Korean culture. I was watching tons of Korean dramas, Korean variety shows and listening to a lot of K-pop. I learned to read the language and speak some very basic phrases.

“So, when I got here the overall culture wasn’t too much of a shock, but there were these little things that I had like some stereotypes in my head. Like how maybe Koreans are extremely polite to people who are much older than them, but that’s not always the case. They’re just polite, nothing extreme about it.  

“I realized it’s a little bit overkill to bow so deeply to every old person I see, I can just kind of act normal and relax and chill.

“One funny story I have is that when I got out of orientation and met my co-teachers, they took me to my school to meet the principal and the vice-principal in the principal’s office. Everyone was sitting down but I didn’t sit down because I thought I shouldn’t sit down until they invite me to sit down. The principal looked at me like ‘Hey man, just sit down, why are you still standing up, what’s wrong with you?’ They were as confused as I was!”

How is the food?

“Let me ask you about the food what can you tell me about Korean food or what is your experience with food here?”

“So, first off I really do love Korean food. Seriously, I’m a huge Korean foodie. Just about any Korean food, I’m all for it but I know a lot of people are kind of nervous about the food here. They might have heard like there are some exotic foods, but honestly, most of what people might have heard are from the dramas they watch or shows about Korean culture.

A bowl of Kimchi – Korea’s national dish, spicy fermented cabbage.

“Most of it is pretty delicious. It’s Asian, so it’s always rice with just a ton of vegetables and then a soup on the side. It’s so healthy, so much veggies with sometimes a little bit of meat and then of course kimchi. Just about with anything you ever eat here you’ll get kimchi as a side dish. Kimchi, which is just fermented cabbage and some spice.

“You’re going to have to learn how to eat with chopsticks and then I think what’s important is that if you’re a new teacher going to the cafeteria is remember to clear your plate and put all the extra food into the soup bowl and clean your plates before you hand it back.”

“Do you have any favorite Korean dishes that you enjoy?”

“So one of my most favorite Korean dishes is actually bibimbap right and so I’m sure a lot of people have heard about that. Bibimbap is very simple it’s one of the simplest Korean dishes, but it’s so representative of Korea.

“It’s just rice with a ton of vegetables sometimes an egg and a little bit of gochujang, which is a red hot pepper sauce, including red hot chili or pepper sauce and um and then a little bit of meat.”

Should you learn Korean?

“So, should one learn the Korean language before arriving here as an ESL teacher?”

“Just learn Hangul. I think that it can help you a lot. So, just write down the Korean Hangul alphabet’s 24 characters and start learning how to read and write.”  

“What are some important expressions or Korean words that you think are valuable to someone just coming to Korea?”

“I would implore everyone to learn as much as Korean as you can and some helpful phrases to get you through your daily life, like how to greet somebody: “An-nyeong-ha-se-yo – hello,” or “Kam-sa-ham-ni-da – thank you.”  To ask for something you can say the name of the item in English and then just add “ju-se-yo – please (give it).”

“Then probably in any language the most important thing is to learn how to ask: What, where, how, who, and why.

“A little trick is to download a translation app that’s very popular here in Korea. Most people here don’t use Google translate; they use a translator Naver app called Papago. The app has a phrasebook for a myriad of situations. So, you can just open it up and you know maybe even on the plane to Korea start practicing those situational phrases.”

“Yeah, these phrases are very helpful but again something you’ve got to understand is to think that you’re here as an English teacher and Koreans know you’re a foreigner, so it’s okay for you to speak English. Especially if you’re up in Seoul or other cities a lot of people want to practise their English so it’s okay for you to speak English. Just use it slowly.”

What’s it like living in Korea?

“Let’s talk a bit about living in Korea. How has your experience been?”

“So, my first year was 2020 and it was pretty good even with Corona that was just starting. I’ve met a lot of friends now, but the friends that you first meet at orientation are almost never going to be with you by the time you leave Korea. They’ll be teaching elsewhere with their own circle of friends.

“But maybe if you’re working at a hagwon, those are the friends you want to keep close to you for your first few months here, because those are the friends that you’re most likely going to go out with, that you’re going to experience Korea with.

“Who you choose to experience Korea with is so important to me. If you’re with people who also have a very positive outlook on Korea and who really enjoy the country and what it has to offer, you’re going to leave Korea with a very positive experience, even if you might have not had such a positive experience at your workplace.”

“Where would you recommend someone go to live? What is your opinion on living in Korea?”

“Right, so it depends on your desires. I’ve seen people who really desire to just learn the Korean language in a crash course way and one amazing way to do that is to put yourself in a situation where you can just never use English because no one understands English.

“So, if you’re that kind of person a very adventurous type who want to learn Korean right away, or go hiking, go look for jobs somewhere out in the countryside, because that’s most likely where you’re not going to be able to find people who speak any real level of English.

“But you know if you just want to play it safe, if you just want to kind of be comfortable for a year or two years, then I think a city is perfect for that. Something like Seoul, Busan, Daegu or Daejeon is totally okay. So it really depends on your desires.”

What’s there to do in your free time?

“How do you keep yourself busy?”

“Well, because of Corona I did have to limit myself to indoor activities, so I actually ended up a few months into my stay here getting a gaming PC built for myself and play games with both foreigners and Koreans together.

South Korea has many hiking trails.

“When I first came here I was really also into hiking. The one thing you’re gonna learn very quickly about Korea and Koreans is they love hiking.

“The hiking culture here is insane and the reason for that is because Korea is such a mountainous country.

“You know I like to think of Korea as a bunch of mountains that are surrounded by cities rather than cities surrounded by mountains.”

“Yes, I really enjoy hiking easy-medium difficulty routes, or medium-hard difficulty, anything I want. So, playing games, hiking, and maybe on the weekend just a quick coffee to meet up. Those are generally the things I enjoy.”

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