Teaching English in South Korea

Applications for the South Korean government’s EPIK English teaching program for the Spring 2022 term will open online on August 23rd, 2021 at 9 am. Seoul time. This annual dash for premier ELS jobs always raises many questions.

What are the opportunities and requirements for English native-speaking graduates to teach in South Korea? South Korea has been a popular destination for teaching English as Second Language (ESL) under the government’s EPIK and other programs for the past thirty years, but the competition for teaching jobs in government schools and prestigious institutions is fierce. However, most ESL teachers are employed in private after-school academies. There are an estimated 10,000 western teachers working in South Korea’s private school sector, the hagwon industry. The majority of these schools operate as part of franchises with independent management, as opposed to the larger and more expensive corporate schools.

teach in korea

What are the requirements to teach English in S-Korea?

Firstly, candidates’ mother-language must be English and they must be from one of the seven recognized English-speaking countries, with a high preference for American and Canadian teachers. The countries are the USA, UK and Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The second requirement is a four-year Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university/ college in those countries and, thirdly, teachers must be able to pass a health test.

What schools are there in South Korea?

South Korea follows the American education system with children going to pre-school, followed by twelve years as students in elementary, middle and high school. The majority of children start kindergarten at the Korean age of four (Korean age starts with conception/ Western age of three).  Elementary school consists of grades one to six, for children aged 8-13/ 7-12 Western age. Middle schools teach grades seven to nine and High schools grades ten to twelve culminating with the national examination.

  • Some hogwans also have kindergarten classes in English. ELS teachers doing kindergarten usually get paid more for doing these demanding classes. A large portion of jobs, which are available to western teachers, are at the K1 and elementary age level.
South Korea had around 20,000 schools in 2020, of which 8,705 were Kindergarten, but the number is on the decline due to negative population growth. This excludes the private academies called ‘hagwons’. Source.

What teaching programs does Korea have?

While government-run public schools recruit several thousand foreign English teachers annually through the famous EPIK program, the bulk of ESL  jobs in Korea are for teaching English in hagwons. EPIK, the “English Program in Korea” is sponsored by the Ministry of Education, placing native-speaking English teachers in elementary and middle schools across South Korea. (Note: Seoul City and its province have their own similar SMOE and GEPIK programs.) Benefits of this program include furnished housing, roundtrip airfare, medical insurance, 18 paid vacation days per year, and a paid 9-day orientation.

Such an extended orientation program is a luxury that ESL teachers reporting to hagwons often do not have. Novice teachers are sometimes shocked when they have to teach with very little or no preparation.

What documents are needed for a teaching visa?

Getting the documentation in place to apply for a teaching job and getting a visa in place to buy a plane ticket for Incheon could take between three and five months. Also, take into account that “hiring season” for the recruitment of teachers for government schools takes place twice a year. Language schools or hagwons also prefer to take new teachers in at the start of the new school year after the summer holiday, or alternatively, after the winter break.

When drafting your resume, remember that an introductory video is often needed: take place, as well as a very good photograph. Here is a comprehensive list:

  • Hard copy of a four-year Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university/ college
    • Sealed transcripts from the university
    • A passport with an expiry date of at least 18 months in the future
    • A recent and original police/ FBI clearance/ certificate with no previous conviction (this takes months)
    • TEFL (Teaching English Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teaching English to Speaker of Other Languages) certificates. This is not required for professional English teachers.
    • Proof of Employment letters from previous schools.
    • Letters of reference from, for example, the Edu Department of your university; internship schools; schools where you have worked.
  • The health test includes a blood test (no traces of drug use/ transmittable diseases).
A secondary school in Changwon, South Korea.

Is it possible to get a teaching job without a degree?

An E1 or E2 work permit/ visa requires a 4-year degree from one of the seven English native-speaking countries. The only exception is under the Korean government’s TaLK scholarship program for persons in their 3rd or 4th year of studying a BA or similar degree. They are placed in rural schools on a six months’ contract.

How to find an ESL job?

Two major sources for finding ESL teaching jobs all over the world are well-established blogs on the Internet and social media. Many teachers get their jobs through recommendations from friends in the teaching community.

HINT: After securing an offer from a school, it is recommended to request speaking in private to the current or other foreigner teachers regarding the hagwon. Ask for pictures or a video of the accommodation, what is the commute like, what are classes and the lesson plans like, what are the school hours and the like.

What is important for your resume?

A modern resume is short and to the point (see this comprehensive article on writing a resume). Surprisingly, a very good portrait photo is important for landing a job in hagwons. School directors will bluntly explain that “the parents” demand teachers to appear professional and dynamic. Age is often a factor above experience because hagwon teaching is usually physically and emotionally demanding.

Do you have to quarantine and how are Covid restrictions?

Like other countries, South Korea is also continually updating its Covid-19 travel protocols. Since the end of July 2021 travelers fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine are exempt from quarantine requirements depending on their recent travel history. Foreign nationals, regardless of origin, must carry proof of a negative result for Covid-19 using a PCR test performed no more than 72 hours prior to departure by a hospital or medical services provider. Unvaccinated travelers must self-isolate or must undergo quarantine at a designated facility depending on their departure location. Applicants need to cover the costs of the quarantine themselves. At this time, this ranges from 1.4 to 2.1 million KRW.

What is the accommodation like?

A standard benefit for foreign teachers is a furnished apartment, but Westerners are often shocked by how small the studio apartments/ bachelor flats are. Teachers are often required to pay the utility bill to curtail excessive water and electricity usage. Running the air conditioner during the hot and humid months (especially August) can see this bill double. The furniture usually includes a bed and some covers, a wardrobe, sometimes a TV, some cooking and eating utensils a fridge, microwave, washing machine, a table and a chair. Units are often too small to accommodate anything else.

What other benefits for teachers?

  • The airfare is usually reimbursed after arrival at the school. A return flight should also be paid at the completion of a contract.
  • An end-of-contract (contract completion) bonus equal to one months salary is paid with the last months salary.
  • Healthcare. The school must contribute 50% towards the compulsory and truly national health scheme. A portion of doctors visits, hospitalization and medication are subsidized. Dental and optical services aren’t included.
  • Some private schools enroll teachers in the national pension scheme, with contributions equating 9% of the monthly salary of which 4.5% is deducted from the teacher’s monthly wage and school contributing 4.5%. Teachers apply for the refund at the end of their contract period.
  • Hagwon teachers typically receive only 6-10 days of paid vacation on predetermined days during a short summer and winter break. ESL teachers on the EPIK and other programs do have regular vacantion during holiday breaks.

How is life in Korea for ESL teachers?

How is transportation?

In the urban areas, most teachers never buy vehicles and rely only on public transport. Teachers with an international drivers’ license can With the exception of teachers in rural areas, most

Which city would you recommend?

For foreigners, the two most popular cities to visit and to work at are the two biggest cities: Seoul, the capital in the northwestern corner of South Korea and Busan, the port city in the southwest nearest to Japan. Seoul, straddling both banks of the Hangang River, is one of the world’s modern mega-cities with a population of 15 million and no slums to mention. Busan has a population of 7 million and as a modern port city has a few beautiful beaches.

How is social life for foreigners?

Except for small rural areas, ESL teachers usually have little problem meeting up with other Westerners, who keep in touch on social media and often attend special events or have group meetings on the two or three long weekends that hagwon teachers are on leave. There is a cameradie among foreigners and many tend to keep in touch on Facebook for many years.

What do you wish you brought along?

Usually foreigners want to drag mom’s pantry along when they go overseas, not wishing to adopt to the culinary culture of the host country. The advice for foreigners is to adapt to the cuisine of Korea and periodically eat at restaurants that serve Western-style food. That said, some traditional foods can be brought along for the days when one is homesick.

Any tips for new teachers?

Maybe the most important tip is to come with an open mind and not with preconceived ideas on how the Korean’s should run their schools and hagwons. Come with a positive, respectful attitude to learn and experience the host country’s hospitality.

  • The author and the editor of this article have a combined 15 years ESL experience in South Korea, from 2002 – 2021.
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