I remember the call. I had been through the gamut of ESL teaching job boards and extensive applications that led me nowhere. I'd been disappointed, rejected from schools in South Korea I really wanted to work at.
Quite honestly, the process of searching and applying for a job teaching English in South Korea had begun to overwhelm me. Then, over spotty Internet connection in a tiny town in the Philippines, I took the Skype interview that finally landed me an ideal gig at a small private school in Korea’s Gangwondo province.
Though you can definitely get a teaching job in Korea without more than a college degree (I’m proof of this), it's beneficial to get TEFL certified
After months of navigating this frustrating application, recruitment, and hiring process, I can’t tell you how good it felt when I got the call confirming my placement. I only wish I had a little more guidance throughout the whole teaching-in-South-Korea thing. I wish I had someone walk me through the Dos and Don’ts of securing a job, and later navigating the work and culture of this foreign country I would be living in.
Lucky for you, you've stumbled on theses helpful insider tips for teaching in South Korea to make the process (both pre and post placement) a whole lot easier for you.
1. Get Your Documents in Order
Along with preparing yourself for the copious amounts of soju you will inevitably ingest in your year (or more) in country, you’ll also need to prepare for your lengthy applications. Specific programs differ in their requirements, but the first thing you’ll need to do is gather your documents. There’s plenty of information out there to help you with the nitty gritty, but here are some additional tips for getting organized before you’ve even been hired:
DO make sure your passport is valid and has at least 1 free/blank passport page.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but note that you’ll need a valid passport (18 months out for public school jobs). This is SUPER important, obviously.
DON’T rely on a photocopy of your college degree
Be sure to have a hard copy of your degree on hand (and be prepared - you’ll need to have it notarized for your application). If you’ve just graduated and you don’t have your diploma yet, be prepared to have acceptable substitutes on hand.
DO request official college transcripts. Lots of ‘em.
Depending on where you decide to teach (public or private school), you may need official, sealed transcripts. It would be good practice to have at least ten (two per school, estimating at least five schools you’ll be applying to) on hand.
DON’T bring printed Instagram selfies in lieu of official passport photos.
You’ll need legit full-color passport photos taken and at least seven of them (same shot, duplicates)—four for Korean Immigration, one for the Korean Consulate, and two for your health examination and alien card once you get to Korea. So be sure to dress and look professional. FedEx Kinkos and other similar businesses (some Walgreens even) can perform this service for you. If in doubt, remember: more prints are better than less.
DON’T have your mother write your recommendation letters.
Though recommendation letters may not be required if you plan to teach at a private school (hagwon), it is helpful to have on hand. Just make sure the letters come from academic or professional sources, such as former professors or employers. Letters should also include the person’s contact information and signature. If its printed on official letterhead, bonus points.
DO make copies of all of your documents.
Not only for your own records, but your future employer may ask for them at some point. If you ever have a question about a certain requirement (Will a copy suffice? Should I get this notarized?), always err on the side of official. This advice will help you once you get into the country in terms of work culture as well.
2. Use a Recruiter
Once you get your documents in order, look for a recruiter. When it comes to private school placements especially, I highly recommend it. Trust me, I tried applying on my own, and not only is it exhausting, it’s also a waste of precious resources (primarily, your time!).
Recruiters know the industry and there are lots of great ones out there (I used Footprints Recruiting personally, and had a great experience working with them). Recruiters can assist with the visa process, and some offer other perks too.
Footprints is definitely not the only recruiter out there, so explore Go Overseas' list of recruiters in South Korea, read reviews from former teachers, and decide which one is best for you.
3. Read Your Contract Thoroughly
Again, there are a ton of resources and forums on this topic that you can find online, but be sure to do your due diligence and read the fine print before you sign your year (or more) of life away.
This means asking the following questions, if you are working for a public school:
- Do you have one month of severance pay at end of your contract?
- Are there settlement and renewal bonuses offered to you?
- Are your working hours standard (9am – 5pm) with no weekend work?
- Are you supplied comprehensive work training before starting your job?
And if you are working for a private school:
- Does your salary meet market rate (typically teaching salaries in Korea start between W2,000,000 – W3,000,000 per month depending on experience)?
- Is your airfare prepaid or reimbursed? Typically, you should be offered one or the other.
4. Research the Benefits of Getting TEFL Certified
Though you can definitely get a teaching job in Korea without more than a college degree (I’m proof of this), it's beneficial to get TEFL certified -- especially if you're aiming to teach at a more professional level.
If you’re interested in working at a public school, I would highly recommend pursuing a TEFL, TESOL or CELTA certificate. Korea's EPIK program, a government sponsored teaching program, actually requires applicants to have a TEFL certificate, so you'll have more options as well.
Another benefit to certification is that it increases the chances that you will get paid more at a private school. Figuring out where to start with TEFL certifications is tricky, but we've got a guide on TEFL certifications to help you out.
5. Expect to Make a Dent in Your Student Loan Debt
In most cases, with your employer providing you with housing (a standard benefit of your employment), as well as airfare, you can anticipate saving tons of money while teaching English in South Korea.
The cost of living in the country is relatively cheap, as long as you avoid spending a lot in larger cities like Seoul or Busan.
On average, you can expect to make around $1,800 - $2,000 a month, even with minimal teaching experience and educational background. Often the high income plus low cost of living allows you to save half your paycheck or more each month. Or (as was the case with me) goodbye pesky student loan payments!
6. Set Up a Local Bank Account for Bill Payments Abroad
On that note, if you're paying off debt and/or bills back home, you can save yourself the headache of wiring money back home each paycheck by setting up a payment schedule with your local Korean bank when you first open your account.
Within my first week of work, the director of my hagwon went around on various errands helping to set me up with a cell phone and opening a bank account locally -- a huge help!
With my limited language skills and general unfamiliarity with Korean customs, I don't know how I could've done it without my boss. When it comes to setting up monthly payments for bills back home, I highly recommend asking a Korean colleague or counterpart to help you navigate the process.
Though most staff at banks speak some level of English and should be able to assist you, it was comforting to have someone accompany me on these tasks that are headache-inducing and grueling, even in the States. Plus it provides time for bonding with new friends (especially if you treat them to a coffee or beer after as a thank you!).
7. Learn At Least "Please" and "Thank You" in Korean
Is it necessary to learn Korean for your day-to-day life? Maybe not. But it is respectful. Most people speak English to some degree (especially with awesome teachers like yourself doing their job!); however, especially in the more rural areas, learning to speak Korean is a respectful gesture toward the people and culture in which you are a guest.
You may not be living in Korea forever, but its still worth it to learn a bit of the language while you're there.
Again, you don't have to become fluent. But you could start by learning some simple words, such as please (hasibsio) and thank you (kamsahamnida). Other vocabulary I think would have been helpful in the beginning of my year:
- Hello (informal) - Annyeonghaseyo
- Hello (on the phone) - Yeoboseyo
- My name is ... - Chonun [name] imnida
- Cheers - Geonbae
- Excuse me - Shillehagessumnida
- Sorry - Mianhamnida
Another idea is to research Korean language schools for foreigners in your area. Often you can find low-cost community programs for learning Korean there.
You might also want to see if there is a peer who you can exchange language lessons (ie: English for Korean) with. By attempting to learn Korean, you’ll impress your colleagues and new friends by showing cultural respect, I guarantee you. Bonus -- its a really fun language to speak and write! Just saying.
8. DO Drink with Your Boss... No, Really
This was the hardest thing for me to get behind, but trust me on this one -- it's a crucial aspect of Korean work culture, as you'll soon learn!
If you aren't a big drinker, its fine to politely decline; but if you're invited by your boss and if it's ordered for the table, I do encourage you to sip a little soju or rice wine (makgeolli) with dinner. Drinking with my hagwon director was interpreted, believe it or not, as a sign of respect.
Other tips to showing respect include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Body language -- bowing your head and nodding, for example, in conversation
- Small gestures of friendship -- bringing sweet treats and/or small gifts for colleagues on occasion
Again, this is by no means a comprehensive list (we've listed out some more ways to behave while teaching in Korea), but these small gestures will certainly be appreciated by your colleagues. The efforts you are taking will also allow workplace relations to flow more smoothly.
9. Don't Turn Down Opportunities to Go Out with Your Korean Colleagues
To reiterate this point, another sign of respect in Korean culture is to accept invitations from your Korean friends and colleagues.
This doesn't mean you have to attend everything you're invited to, but try to have an open mind, especially when it comes to Korean cultural events and festivities. Make a point to take advantage of these opportunities!
From kite festivals to making kimchi dumplings (I've gone on both and everything in between), just go. You'll rarely regret it.
10. Don't Leave Your Shoes on When You Enter a Home
As is common in most Asian cultures, walking in someone's home with your shoes on is very rude. Be sure to always ask if shoes are okay, or just assume you'll be removing them at the door. This may mean investing in some quality, or at the very least hole-less, socks.
11. Bring Plenty of Your Favorite Cosmetics
This tip is especially for the ladies -- if you have a particular brand of foundation or powder, be sure to bring it with you into the country.
Many of the beauty products you will find in Korea contain chemicals for lightening your skin, including face washes and lotions. Unless this is a feature you're looking for, be sure to pack plenty of your favorite type/brand/shade, or ask your friends and family to send you care packages with those products.
Korea does have some great cosmetic shops, but just be aware of this fact if you aren't exactly looking to lighten your skin tone.
12. Travel Off the Beaten Path in Korea
It's true that Korea is a great hub for exploring Southeast Asia. China, Japan, Indonesia... they're within your reach. But there's also so much to see within Korea itself, and through the most interesting, unconventional means.
The best part is that, for the most part, you don't need to take a ton of vacation to see everything. Weekends are great for adventuring the country! Here are some of my favorite short trips for you to draw ideas from:
- Temple stays -- A great way to experience the simple Buddhist life for a couple days. There are a variety of locations and programs; some are more structured than others (mine, for example, involved no English speakers and an evening of making mandoo dumplings with a group of monks).
- Train trips -- Such a clean and efficient method of travel! I would look up destinations and choose a city (often on the coast) at random to visit for the weekend. Love motels provide cheap and reliable accommodations in Korea for spontaneous travelers who care mostly about a comfortable bed, and maybe an interesting story (and there are a ton of themed motels).
- Couchsurfing -- If you're looking connect with other Americans and expats, being hosted by (and hosting) through Couchsurfing is one option. Some of my favorite Couchsurfing memories involve sunrise beach bonfires and visiting the DMZ with my hosts. I also made good friends with a Korean host who I'm still close with today; so don't limit yourself to one kind of person!
13. And Finally, DON’T Spend All Your Time in Itaewon!
Known unofficially as the "Little USA" with tons of American outlets and amenities, being so near to the military base, Itaewon is not a horrible place by any means -- and is pretty fun to visit once in awhile (especially if you're feeling homesick).
But please don't spend your year (or more) in Korea eating at Outback Steakhouse. Venture out! Korea is a beautiful country, rich with a culture and history that's just waiting for you to explore.
Become The Insider
So you're all set for your year (or more) teaching in South Korea. In my opinion, it's one of the most unexpectedly incredible countries.
Prepare yourself for an adventure -- one filled with cultural missteps and moments of unpreparedness, but also very fun-loving, giving people, and of course, supremely delicious food. You're gonna love it.Photo Credits: Martha Landry, Ellie Taylor, Stephanie Heinrich, and Derek Winchester.