Nina and Anthony in Korea
In 2015, when my partner Anthony and I first met, one of the things we discussed at length on our first date was our shared love of travel. Three and a half years later, we are living in South Korea for a year as English teachers after travelling around South East Asia and Australia for three months, and we plan to travel to New Zealand and America when we have finished our year in Korea, followed by another year of teaching English in Europe, hopefully!
Our decision to leave our jobs, pack up our lives and start a new life came on Boxing Day 2017. A quick conversation about our quality of life in the UK made us decide it was the right decision for us. The decision to get a TEFL/TESOL/CELTA/EFL/ESL qualification (there are several acronyms – they are essentially all the same) followed right behind. Travelling is expensive and whatever you budget for you will always need more, without fail. We knew we couldn’t last very long as we’d only given ourselves four months to save before we set off, so we needed a way to earn some money while we were travelling. Some of our friends had used their TESOL or TEFL qualifications, so I talked to them about their experiences. I also did a lot of research and discovered that it’s possible to get a job teaching English practically anywhere in the world as long as you have an accredited TESOL/TEFL qualification. My main piece of advice when looking for a course is to do your research and ensure you are going with a reputable company that can provide good training. Whether it is online or face-to-face does not matter. It is also helpful if they can provide both an online and a hard copy of your TESOL/TEFL certificate as you will need this when applying for jobs.
You’ll need to start applying for jobs at least a month before you want to leave and start your new job. The process of applying, being interviewed, gaining the job and getting the visa can take quite a long time and is sometimes costly, which you will need to be prepared for. Our process from first interview to the day we landed in Korea took 6 weeks, and wasn’t without its struggles! You will need a valid, up-to-date passport, a DBS check done in the last 6 months and – if you need a degree for your chosen job – your original degree certificate. For our job in Korea, we had to have an original DBS plus our original degree certificates apostilled and notarized. Please be aware this part of the process is quite pricey as it involves a solicitor stamping and signing copies of the documents to confirm that they are real and exact copies of the original documents they have seen. This is a legal requirement for Korean immigration rather than your employer. Once all the documentation and paperwork is ready, and you’ve visited the Korean Embassy and got your ‘Good to Go’ stamp to say you can enter the country, your new employer can book you a flight! In Korea, generally a free flight is included in your contract. But do be aware that if you leave within six months most employers will require you to repay the full cost of the flight.
There are some great benefits to choosing South Korea; most of these benefits are what made us choose Korea for our year of teaching. The salaries are generally quite similar from job to job and are roughly the same as the average income in the UK. However, when you take into consideration that you get free accommodation with your job and only pay 3.2% tax on your earnings, your take home pay per month is really healthy. Every month, we each have approximately £200 taken out of our pay for tax, pension, health insurance and a contribution we make to the running costs of our apartment, and we live in a large fully-furnished, one-bedroom apartment in a nice area of our city just a 10-minute walk away from work. In our case, we don’t have to worry about paying anything or sorting anything, it’s all already sorted for us. This isn’t exactly the same for every school, as some schools provide you with a rent allowance for you to find your own apartment instead.
As mentioned before, you will usually be flown from wherever you are in the world to Korea for free. This means you might not get to choose your perfect flight, but from experience and speaking to others, they generally choose the best flights within their budget, so you won’t be on some crazy 50-hour flight from London to Seoul. We were in Australia when we had to fly over, and it was no problem for them to fly us in from Melbourne.
At the end of your contract, every Korean school pays a lump sum to the employee called ‘Severance Pay’, which is essentially a bonus for completing your contract and is the equivalent of one month’s pay. The last contract benefit is that the school pays 50% of your health insurance; this means that if you need to visit the doctor or the hospital while in Korea, the costs will be half the original price. The health care system in Korea is very well organised and cheap.
Some of the things we love about living in Korea are the people, the food, the transport and Seoul! Not everyone can live and work in Seoul and you might find it easier to get a job outside Seoul. We live in an area called Suwon – it’s a 40-minute drive into Seoul or an hour via public transport. Seoul is a bit like London with such a great variety of little pockets with different vibes and exciting things going on, so that you could visit a new area every weekend and never get bored. We like to make a visit to Seoul into a day trip to make the most of our time in the big city. You can get into Seoul in a number of ways: there is an overground train called the KTX, the subway, or buses to each of the different areas. We love the public transport system. It is very easy to get around – the subways go everywhere and each ride is about a pound with a card just like an Oyster in London.
Korean people are generally very friendly and helpful; of course, this doesn’t account for everyone and we’ve met some rude, impatient Koreans too. If you visit their shops or restaurants, they see it as a chance to practise their English. This is especially true in the areas where there aren’t many foreigners. In our area, we are the only foreigners so people tend to remember us (even our coffee or bread order) and are easy-going and friendly. The further into the city centre you go, the more English they will have, but you’re not different or exciting to them; you’re the norm. Having said that, having a basic understanding of Korean helps massively. Being able to say things like ‘good morning’, ‘excuse me’, ‘thank you’ and ‘yes, no’ will help you and is appreciated more than you think.
In Korean restaurants, the western culture of sitting and waiting for a server is not acknowledged. Instead, they either have a button on the table for you to call someone over or you need to say ‘excuse me’ in Korean in order for them to come to you. So, having basic Korean helps. The food here is very good but not particularly varied. Korean food is mainly broths, Kimbap, chicken and beer, soups, meat and a plethora of ‘side dishes’, which range from the famous Kimchi to Raddish, and from cold cucumber soup to the very strange cabbage and mayonnaise. Restaurants don’t fight to look the best; it’s all about sitting on the floor, eating some really good home-cooked food with a beer. There are western style or other cuisine restaurants but they’re generally more expensive, and they serve some strange substitutes as a lot of western ingredients aren’t available over here. It doesn’t stop the little hidden Italian in Suwon being one of our best finds though – it tastes really good after eating Kimchi every day.
So now the important bit – what it’s like teaching here. If you get a job in a Hagwon, your school is technically ‘after’ school for the kids. They spend all day at normal school and then attend Hagwons afterwards for more intensive learning of English. The way our school is structured is that we teach the youngest kids earliest in the day, and then teach progressively older kids as the day goes on. As a guideline, I’ll give you a breakdown of our day. We arrive at work for 10am and have two hours of ‘prep time’. Lunchtime is also included during this two hours – lunch is served by the school and we eat it in our classrooms or the staff room. This is followed by teaching four 20-minute Kindergarten classes until 1.20pm. Kindergarten classes are fun classes usually based around a topic and involve singing some English songs and teaching them simple vocabulary around the current topic. They are also a good way to wake up as you tend to jump around a lot! Proper classes start from 2pm and the kids are aged five and upwards. Each class is 45 to 50 minutes long and you have a book geared to the children’s age that you have to complete, but which also includes some fun activities and games. Each class is completely different and the way you teach them will vary from class to class. I have two classes of children the same age (seven years old),following the same book, but the activities and games they enjoy are completely different. One of the classes like games using English (or that force me to speak very bad Korean) or activities where they have to explain things to me in English – generally silly things that make them laugh – and they actually enjoy doing the learning book for the most part. The other class hate doing the set work and prefer it when I put the vocabulary into games like Bingo or Hangman, so I zoom through the book and reinforce the lesson through fun games to ensure they’ve actually learnt something.
There will always be classes you enjoy teaching more than others and, of course, kids that you like more than others. Just because you are in a foreign country does not take away the behavioural issues that you can face in your home country. However, what I’ve found is that having key phrases in Korean helps; these can be used when behaviour is bad and generally snaps the kids back into being good very quickly because they are surprised and impressed that you can speak their language. This only works on the younger kids; the older ones either get bored of the few words you can say or pick up on your mistakes.
I think you will be surprised by your own level of understanding of the English language when you start teaching. You’ll realise that there are many things that you have never really thought about. For example, a seven-year old student this week asked me why ‘these’ isn’t spelt with a ‘z’ because it makes a ‘z’ sound. I was stumped and didn’t know how to answer because sometimes the English language is silly, but I couldn’t say that to him!
There can be a lot of variety in the classes. Today, for example, I had my art class (I take this twice a week) and we spent the hour outside blowing bubble snakes through bottles with socks over the top. It was such a fun hour and I am now those kids favourite person in the world! Teaching in a foreign country has its good and bad days like every job, but the positives and the life experience it provides you with, totally outweigh the bad days.
If you would like to follow my journey, please feel free to follow me on Instagram @ninaellen or if you have any more specific questions or would just like to chat about your thoughts on Korea, drop me an email at email@example.com.
Thank you so much for reading, and good luck with your TESOL/TEFL course, and your teaching!