Teach Abroad

What to Expect While Teaching English in South Korea

Caitlin McCollum-Martinez

Caitlin is a travel writer and polyglot from sunny Southern California. She has traveled to over 15 countries and lived in Spain, the Czech Republic, and South Korea. She currently resides in Edinburgh, Scotland.

More and more every year South Korea is gaining international recognition, be it for award-winning films, record-breaking pop idol groups, or its delicious food. With their high rate of cultural exportation, it’s easy to see why Korea is such a significant player in today’s global scene. Not too long ago South Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world, today it is an economic powerhouse, an important political actor, and one of the most popular destinations to teach English abroad.

If you speak to most Koreans, they will tell you that Korea is not a big country and it lacks many natural resources compared to more powerful and economically advantaged nations in the region. However, one thing Korea does have is its people. Korea focuses heavily on investing in its human capital in order to be a great nation. Naturally, education is incredibly important in Korea and the education industry is steadily growing, especially the ESL industry.

Like many other countries around the world, Korea realizes the value of having a population with knowledge of the English language. Because of this demand for English education, Korea is one of the best countries to get a job as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. However, you may be thinking to yourself, “What is Korea really like?”.

Having lived in Korea for over one and a half years as an ESL teacher myself, I’d like to share my insight and what I wish I had known before I started teaching English in South Korea.

The Korean Education System

Perhaps the number one thing people don’t realize before coming to Korea is that the education system is not going to be the same as in your home country. In fact, many new teachers may come to South Korea and find what they perceive to be flaws that they’d like to change.

You should come to Korea understanding that it is a different country and the way your country does things is not inherently better. And no, you are not going to convince the higher-ups to change the system to a way that you think is better!

Education is intense in South Korea and from a young age the majority of students attend multiple schools and spend most of their time every day focusing on education.

In Korea, kids start their education at kindergarten (from ages 3-6) and around the age of 7 or 8 students start elementary school. Most students will attend at least one after-school private academy, also known as a “hagwon,” with English being the most popular subject studied. It is not unusual for some kids to attend several different hagwons every day and arrive home late into the evening!

Hagwons vs. Public Schools

Most of the English teaching jobs in South Korea are at hagwons. Hagwon is the Korean word for a private academy or institute, also known as a cram-school in some countries. Teaching at a hagwon is quite different than working in the public school system, from the hiring process to the teaching environment.

Working Hours

The main difference between public and private schools is the working hours. Typically private schools run after public schools let out, so some hagwons will be open late into the evening with most teachers working from 2 P.M. - 10 P.M. You will definitely work longer than those scheduled hours and at least 30 of your weekly hours will be in-class teaching hours. At my hagwon, I typically worked 52 hours per week!

In a public school, you are guaranteed working hours of 40 hours per week, though not all of those hours are dedicated to teaching. You will spend a good amount of time doing “desk-warming”, where you are scheduled to be at school, in your classroom, without any classes to teach. Essentially, while desk-warming you are paid to do nothing. At a public school, you will rarely have to work more than your scheduled hours, which is a big benefit compared to hagwons.

Salary

Most ESL jobs in Korea will have a starting salary of around 2.1 million Won whether you’re at a public school or a hagwon.

If you are teaching at a public school the salaries usually start low, unless you have real teaching experience or qualifications (more than a TEFL), and vary slightly between provinces. You can check out the pay scale for the EPIK program here. There is also a possibility to earn a bonus if you work at multiple schools in your city.

Hagwons can have a starting salary anywhere from 2.1 to 3 million Won, with Seoul-based schools having the highest salaries. It is a bit more difficult to find the higher paying jobs if you do not have any prior teaching experience, but it is possible. Furthermore, the highest paying jobs are usually only open to applicants already in the country, so after your first year teaching in South Korea, you can snag one of those more lucrative jobs!

Hiring Process

Epik Program: To obtain a job at a public school, candidates typically apply through the EPIK program, a government-run organization that works to place native English speakers in public schools throughout Korea. There are similar government programs such as GEPIK, which focuses on the province Gyeonggi-do, which surrounds Seoul, and SMOE, which focuses on the metropolitan area of Seoul.

Read more: Comparing EPIK, GEPIK, and SMOE programs

Recruiters: It is possible to apply for public school jobs through recruiters like Korvia, which focuses on assisting people with applying for the EPIK program. However, recruiters are most often used when looking for hagwon jobs. Recruiters are usually the best option because they are free (if yours is charging you it is a scam!) and they can expose you to many more jobs than you could find on your own. Recruitment companies like Travel and Teach are a great way to find hagwon jobs in South Korea.

Apply Directly to Schools: In South Korea, many of the hagwons are franchises or part of large corporations. Only 15 ESL companies own more than 70% of the private education sector in Korea! Since many large companies own multiple schools throughout the country it is possible to apply directly to a school without using a recruiter.

How to Help Your Students

Being a student learning English in Korea is not easy, but the time they spend in an ESL classroom can often be an escape from their normal, intense routine. Most hagwons and the public schools in Korea are beginning to institute more interactive teaching methods in ESL classrooms that allow for more engaging and exciting learning environments.

Traditionally, English learning in South Korea had been focused on memorization and surface-level understanding of the language. While these methods proved effective for students in Korea to pass English examinations with soaring marks, it did not create an environment conducive for real comprehension and fluency. Now, more and more schools are bringing fun into the ESL classroom, using activities and games to help students learn English. They are also focusing more on practical conversational skills and student confidence.

Read more: What It's Like Teaching Students in South Korea

As an ESL teacher, you can be the fun teacher that your students can feel relaxed and comfortable with. When I was teaching I always focused on building up my students, helping them to gain confidence in themselves so that they could feel comfortable speaking English even when they had a low skill level. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of Korean education, I tried to focus on what I could do with my students each class to let them have at least one fun and enjoyable class of the day.

Living in Korea

Although you will be teaching most of the time, you will still have a life outside of your school. Obviously living in Korea is quite different from living in the “West”. If you go to Korea with an open mind you will be able to learn about these differences and realize that they are not good or bad, they are just things that happen to be not what you’re used to.

Language

Despite the emphasis on English education in South Korea, the average Korean does not speak English very well, so it is helpful to know some basic phrases so that you can get by. The Korean language, Hangul, was designed to be easy enough to learn to read and write in just a few days, so you should have no excuses when it comes to learning some Korean!

There are many free resources online that can help you learn survival phrases to make your time in Korea more enjoyable. One of my favorite (free!) Korean language resources is Talk to Me in Korean, which is available online, as an app, and a podcast!

Age

Age in Korea is very important, but it is also very unique compared to the western world. In Korea, babies are born one year old! Everyone celebrates their birthday in Korea, but you do not get older then -- instead, all Koreans age together on New Year’s Day. This is helpful to know if your school tells you your kindergarteners are five years old when really they could be as young as three years old!

Politics

Though it is not necessary to enjoy life in Korea, I would recommend learning a bit about Korean history as it will help you understand Korea’s modern issues and culture.

Although it seems like North Korea is in the news nearly every week these days, it is not an issue that Koreans discuss frequently. You will find the majority of people are not concerned about Kim Jong Un or the daily goings-on in North Korea. Seoul is about 15 miles (23 km) from the border -- they can’t be stressed about it constantly, life has to go on.

Just as you are probably curious to ask Korean’s many questions about their thoughts on North Korea, you will be a political and cultural ambassador for your country as well. You will be asked about politics in your country, your opinion on your world leader, and recent events. If you’re not someone who is knowledgeable about these topics I suggest you try to freshen up on them so you are prepared when someone inevitably asks you!

Working life

The way people work in South Korea is very different from what people do in the West as well. In Korean companies, hierarchy is very important and as a new ESL teacher you will, of course, start at the bottom. In most settings, people are promoted or obtain raises and more seniority purely based on age; as in other aspects of Korean culture, age is key. In a company, you always have to show respect for the higher-ups and you cannot openly criticize their decisions. When you’re lower down on the totem pole you’re expected to just do the work you’re told to do.

I’ve seen a lot of ESL teachers struggle with these concepts when they come to Korea. They often think that if the boss makes a poor decision it is their place to let them know, however in Korea this is very disrespectful. Yes, your boss will likely make ridiculously and often illogical requests or mandates, but you just have to go with the flow. Resisting the bosses will often result in more friction between Koreans and foreigners in the workplace.

Though the Korean work hierarchy can be a bit hard to get used to, there are many other aspects that can be enjoyable. In Korea, your boss is often seen as a sort of elder or parent-like figure; they are your boss but they are there to care for you as well. This may come about in the form of mandatory staff dinners (often with excessive drinking), gifts, one-on-one lunches, or unsolicited comments on your health. Koreans are very straightforward people and they will discuss and point out things that would be very taboo in the west.

Don’t be surprised if your boss comments on your weight, acne, or other health-related issues. To them this is not offensive, they are coming from a place of concern. It can be easy to feel insulted when a Korean makes these comments, but if it makes you uncomfortable just gently remind them that in the West we do not comment on those sorts of things.

Standard of Living

Korea is by far one of the best countries to be an ESL teacher in, but like any place, there are scams to be avoided. There is a certain standard of living you should expect from a job offer and anything less is below average. Typically you should expect the following from a job offer for a one year contract:

  • 2.1+ Million Won starting salary
  • Apartment w/ rent paid (NOT shared)
  • One-way flight to Korea (at least)
  • ½ of national pension and health insurance paid
  • Severance bonus equal to 1-month salary (at end of contract)
  • 10 days paid holiday + Korean National holidays

Ready for the Job Hunt?

If you haven’t found a job yet and want to learn more about teaching English in Korea there are many resources on Go Overseas! Our job board has regular postings from employers and recruiters for new jobs teaching English in South Korea and beyond. If you’re ready for the next step, read about how to get a teaching job in South Korea.

This article was originally published in June 2014, and it was updated September 2020.