Teaching English in South Korea

Here’s what you need to know about teaching english in South Korea

Teaching English in South Korea (English as a Second Language – ESL or TEFL) was a fantastic way for my friend Grace to immerse herself in a new culture. She spent three years teaching English in South Korea, and wrote this below post.

Living abroad has lots of benefits. Once you’re living overseas, you can make lots of short trips, and your time in the classroom and actually living in the country can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Surprisingly, you don’t need to already speak the language in that country to teach English there.

South Korea is a great place to take a gap year abroad or teach English in a foreign country.  Here is a short overview of the main teaching positions offered to native English speakers.
There are generally two education systems that hire native English teachers in Korea: Hagwon and Hakkyo.
teaching english in South Korea - ESL classroom fun
ESL Students in the classroom in South Korea

Hagwon institutions are privately owned and operated businesses that offer students tutoring in core subjects like English, math, and science.  There are many hagwon institutions in Korea and if you perform a job search on the Internet, you’re likely going to find a hagwon job.  Hagwon jobs pay well and most offer similar benefits (medical insurance, housing allowance, round-trip flight reimbursement) but the contracts are made between the native teacher and the business.  It is important to do your homework and make sure you work for a reputable hagwon; some have been known to fall short of their promises and/or don’t treat their employees well.  Generally, you teach alone in the classroom, the work hours are in the afternoon and evenings, like 1pm to 9pm, the classes are smaller (up to 20 students), and you’ll likely have 5 -6 classes (~40 minutes long) each day.  Some hagwon institutions close on national holidays and vacation is usually 10 working days.  The better hagwons require a degree in English or English literature.

Hakkyo is the public school system.  Korea has many public schools and there are native English teachers at all three levels (elementary 1-6; middle 7-9; high school 10-12), though there is a stronger presence in elementary schools.  You can be hired directly by a school or, more commonly, you can be place by a government-sponsored program called English Program In Korea (EPIK).   The contracts pay well and offer good benefits like the Hagwon institutions but they also offer pension and other monetary benefits when you renew your contract.  The contract with Hakkyo offers more vacation days (almost double) but if you work for EPIK, there are other requirements you’ll have to fulfill like “summer/winter camp” classes and the contract is rather restrictive.  The work hours are usually 8:30am to 4:30pm, the classes range from 30 to 40 students, and you’ll be allowed to work up to 22 hours per week at the discretion of the school.  Classes are taught with the help of a Korean English teacher who can help translate and manage the classroom.  The Ministry of Education is tightening its belt on native English teachers in general (hundreds were cut from the program in Seoul this year and more cities are likely to follow suit) and they now have higher standards for academic credentials.

teaching english in South Korea - ESL classroom fun - the boys
ESL class in South Korea – the boys

I was hired and assigned to a public middle school in Daegu by EPIK.  Aside from some of the nuances in the contract, I prefer hakkyo.  In a huge leap of faith to quit my job and move to Korea, it was a comfort to know that I would have a contract with the Korean government, not a private business.  I haven’t heard too many bad stories about hagwon institutions, but I have been relieved to know that I have my contract to protect me in some instances.  Additionally, EPIK brought me in and put me through a 9-day orientation program with other native English teachers in my city.  It was a great way to get to know other native teachers (88 in my class).  Some of my closest friendships in Korea were formed there.  

Korea, as a place to live, is great.  There’s a vibrant Western-influenced culture in the major cities but still a strong presence of traditional Korea.  Korea is quite beautiful with a lot of mountains, coastlines and islands.  There is a lot to do and see in South Korea and it’s easy to travel around.    
teaching english in South Korea - students in ESL classroom

One of my reasons for coming to Korea was the opportunity to travel.  Korea is a great gateway of sorts to countries in Southeast Asia.  Travel from Korea to countries in Southeast Asia is cheap and places are easy to get to.  In the two and a half years I’ve been here, I’ve taken about 15 trips outside of Korea and been to more than a dozen countries in Asia.

There is also a huge economic benefit of coming to Korea.  Although the salaries are not as high as the United States, the cost of living is low and you’re able to save a lot of money if you choose to.  It’s easy to find things to spend your money on (for me, it’s travel), but many people come here to pay off school loans and save money.   I often hear that people save between $1,000 and $1,500 a month.

teaching english in South Korea - ESL students
Post additional questions about teaching English in South Korea (or any other country) in the comments section below and we’ll try to get them answered for you.
Helpful websites:
English Program In Korea (EPIK) website
Job posting websites:  worknplay.co.kr and eslcafe.com/
Website for foreigners in Korea (job postings too!):  waygook.org/
Good luck!!

One thought on “Teaching English in South Korea”

  1. 2 words: Air Asia! There’s now daily flights from Seoul and Busan to Kuala Lumpur so traveling around SE Asia is now easier than ever.

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