Teaching in South Korea

This post is primarily for anyone who may be thinking about teaching English in Korea, shedding some light on the work part of my experience, and perhaps even more so, to help me process it all. As with most recent things in my life, there is the good, the bad, and the WTF am I doing here parts.

I worked for Chungdahm, which is a hagwon (private language academy), and is a different experience than working with a Korean public education program (like EPIK). There are many different hagwons, and even the branches within Chungdahm vary greatly. Although I believe some observations I’ve made are consistent throughout the private academy system, my experience is also just that and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Good

The application process was straight forward and relatively painless. I applied through Aclipse, which is a US based recruiter for Chungdahm.

I believe the benefits of teaching English in Korea are among the highest of international English teaching options out there, especially considering prior teaching experience is not required.

Standard benefits include the flight over, housing, health insurance and enough of a salary for you to live comfortably and still put away some decent savings.

Chungdahm also provides some training, which is helpful, and you teach from pre-determined curriculums and lesson plans. It is nice not having to come up with lesson plans. (Although some prep is still necessary to effectively teach the lessons.)

The kids. I spent many an afternoon laughing with them and wondering if I was ever as crazy as they are. I’m guessing I most certainly was, and it was fun interacting with kids to hear their ideas and stories of life at that age…it’s been a long time since I was that young and carefree.

The “aha” moments – watching your students who try actually improve. This is what I came for, and although it didn’t happen as much as I hoped, the times it does are significant.

The coworkers. The quality of your students and coworkers are going to be crucial. I’ve heard stories from other teachers about coworkers who were terrible or kids who are entitled nightmares. This is the part I think may be the hardest to plan for, and also one of the most important to an overall positive experience. I was extremely lucky with the branch I worked at. Having amazing coworkers, both other foreign teachers and local Korean staff, made all the difference in my experience teaching.

The gang. The best foreign teachers/friends I could have worked with!
Celebrating our Boss’s Bday with the Korean staff – all fun and hard working ladies…I miss them!

The Bad

Hagwons are more businesses than schools. Profit is the bottom line, and in a lot of cases this goes against the students’ (and teacher’s) best interest. Some examples:

  • Students can get moved up to the next “level” even though their English doesn’t justify this. They get moved at their parents’ request, who would likely move their kids to another hagwon if they weren’t moved up. Or they are moved up because they would repeat material from a prior term if they stayed at the same level. Either reason produces the same problem, where students are now completely lost in the material at the higher level and unable to complete tasks on par with the other students at the correct level.
  • As most areas have many hagwons for parents to choose from, there is a lot of emphasis on keeping the kids happy during class. Of course most students don’t want to be there, and if kids tell their parents they don’t like it, parents call threatening to move their kid to another hagwon; this leads to less emphasis on learning, and more emphasis on making sure the kids don’t complain to their parents.

At Chungdahm, classes were 3 hours. Even the best students have a hard time focusing for 3 hours. And teaching uninterested ones for 3 hours? Let’s just say there’s a reason many English teachers in Korea go drinking after work.

The Chungdahm curriculum is also outdated, in some cases referencing “current” events and statistics from five or ten years ago. This is not lost on the students.

Most of the curriculum teaches to test taking “strategies,” stressing tricks that students can use to find correct answers on language tests over actual English comprehension and conversation. Rote vocabulary memorization is also stressed, which is usually forgotten after being crammed in the minutes before the quiz or test.

During lessons where test taking strategies are not being taught, odd Western topics such as “The history of public education in America” are used to teach English comprehension. When the understanding of English is not at the appropriate level for comprehension, topics like this make it even harder.

Try to know some Korean, it helps. Classroom management is much easier if you know what is being said around you. Are kids actually talking about the work and trying to complete their assignment, like they tell you they are, or are they talking about the latest K-Pop group?

Don’t get sick. Well, you can be sick, but calling in sick is a taboo. The kids go to school sick, you’re expected to work sick. But hey, at least you can wear a mask!

WTF am I doing here?

I think the most important thing to determine when teaching in Korea is what you are going for. Are you going because you hope to get job satisfaction from teaching eager students how to communicate better in English? Or are you coming to experience a new culture, meet some fun new people and save some money, with the caveat you will also need to provide some “edutainment” to Korean kids. If it’s the former, I’d recommend thinking twice about your decision to teach in Korea. (This is not to say job satisfaction can’t be found, it just was not my experience or that of other teachers I knew.) If it’s the latter, this is probably a great opportunity for you to do just that!

When I came, I think I had an understanding it would be more of the latter; however, I also had an exit plan with a job that would give me the impact and job satisfaction I am looking for. After getting notified that my next job was officially annulled, I could not reconcile any higher-level value that I could offer or receive by continuing to teach in this environment. For me, the teaching system provided very little opportunity for impact or job satisfaction, and I knew I wanted to get myself moving towards something different ASAP.

The average age of foreign teachers seems to be early to mid-twenties, and I think that would have been the opportune time for me to have an experience like this. As I am getting older, impact and job satisfaction are becoming more important to me than lifestyle or convenience, both of which were the highlights of my time teaching here. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to teach and live in South Korea, and recognize it was a unique one. I also believe it’s important I pay attention to my WTF voice, and make moves when needed to get me headed back in the direction I want to go.

In sum, there are plenty of pros to teaching in Korea; but for me intrinsic and professional needs were not being met, and as my situation changed, I was left to wonder: WTF am I doing here? This question eventually led to my decision to leave South KoreaOf course, questioning why I am somewhere, doesn’t necessarily mean I know where else I should be… 😉

One comment

  1. Thanks for taking the time to put this down in words…it helps your Madre understand so much better what your teaching experience was like. As usual – love the way you write!


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