Questions from a reader: teaching English

Another question from a reader – actually several good questions here, so I’ll post them – and my answers to them all.

Hi Chris,
Google brought me to your blog and I was hoping you wouldn’t mind giving me some advice about ESL in South Korea. Just a couple of questions:

-How long in advance should I start looking for jobs before I plan to go?
-Have you come across any great or horrible teaching programs I should know about?
-Do you think Seoul is the best place to live or have you found other places you prefer?
-Most of the offers I find are offering about 2-2.5 million won per month. Is this a practical income? Will I be able to save money? Is there any fine print I should be aware of?
-Should I get certified to teach English before I leave? (I have a degree in Journalism and no professional teaching experience.)

If you are terribly busy or whatever, feel free to ignore this email. Otherwise, I’d love to hear what you have to say!

Thanks so much,
Molly

Hi Molly,
What a wonderful set of questions – let’s get to them one by one.

-How long in advance should I start looking for jobs before I plan to go?
Start by looking forward about 3 months in advance – but start at home first. It takes awhile to find a job, interview (by phone) for said job, get the paperwork (the background check, notarized and apostilled, can take some time), send the paperwork, and make the other preparations for leaving. That also factors in any unexpected delays (not receiving the paperwork, the paperwork being rejected, etc.). It helps to be flexible with the exact time / date, by the way.

Begin looking for jobs after you’ve started the paperwork process, since that may actually take longer. Most recruiters are recruiting for jobs that will open up within the next month or two – or sometimes ‘ASAP’ is the time frame. Having all the paperwork you need, being able to send it off, and having a phone interview quickly will make everything go smoother. One quick tip: get multiple copies of your college transcript and criminal records check (CRC). If something happens and they lose what you sent (it happens), it’s easier to reach into your files and pull out another copy.

-Have you come across any great or horrible teaching programs I should know about?
If you’ve read anything on Dave’s ESL Cafe (http://www.eslcafe.com/ if you haven’t), take 98% of what you read with a big grain of salt. I’ve found two groups of people that live in Korea: those that like / love it here, and those that can’t wait for their contract to end. The latter have little more to do than drink at the local bar and complain about everything Korean online; the former are usually too busy living it up to write much of anything for other people to see. In any case, one website that’s new but getting more popular is called http://www.ratemyhagwon.com/ – search for the place in question and learn more from teachers who’ve worked there or are currently working there. There’s also lots of news and other stuff about the whole teaching / living in Korea thing. http://www.galbijim.com/ is essentially a Wikipedia on all things Korea – and has a great section on how to get a job and get here.

On the darker side, there are quite a few hagwon blacklists organized by former teachers or other concerned expats. It’s fair to say that there are more than a few bad hagwons out there – just as there are more than a few bad teachers out there as well. With that said, take what you read with a grain of salt – and let your intuition / gut help more than an anonymous stranger. Here are a few to check out:

http://www.geocities.com/hagwonblacklist/

www.usingenglish.com/links/Detailed/4853.html

http://marksesl.com/black-white_list.html

http://blacklist.tokyojon.com/ – and the accompanying green list at http://greenlist.tokyojon.com/

-Do you think Seoul is the best place to live or have you found other places you prefer?
Seoul is a WONDERFUL place to live. I’ve made it a point to visit at least one new place a week and will run out of time before I run out of places. Other areas around Seoul are good as well, as long as they’re on the Seoul subway system (ask and insist on this information – it’ll save a lot of hassle down the line). Bucheon (where I live) is ok; my friend Meghan lives down in Suwon (about an hour subway ride from downtown), another friend lives all the way down in Cheonan (about two hours from downtown Seoul; I don’t recommend unless you like the small town life). Other cities in Korea have lots of things to see, but be aware that most Koreans look to Seoul as the trendsetter. It’s the New York of Korea.

That being said, there are many many other places to get a job if the big city life isn’t for you. You’ll see lots of jobs in the small cities, where you might be one of a handful of foreigners in the town. In some cases, these smaller towns pay a little more (perhaps $100 / month) to attract people to their neck of the woods. Most public schools in smaller towns or rural areas also pay a little extra based on the location.

Other larger cities in Korea include Busan (port city in southern Korea, sometimes compared to San Francisco), Incheon (the city you’ll fly into, and connected to the Seoul subway system), Daejeon, Daegu, Gwangju, and so on. Each has their own interesting scenery and areas of interest. Most Koreans look up to Seoul as the capital city and the city with the most history, so don’t be surprised by that.

-Most of the offers I find are offering about 2-2.5 million won per month. Is this a practical income? Will I be able to save money? Is there any fine print I should be aware of?
I personally get paid 2.1 million won working at a hagwon (private English school) – the most common job and the most common starting wage as of when I was hired (March 2008). That translates to a pretty decent lifestyle BEFORE you factor in the free apartment (with it, it approaches about $26-30k/ year, depending on the won to dollar exchange – right now it favors the dollar). Yes, it is a practical income. You can’t go out and party every night of the week, but there will be enough to enjoy a night on the town, a dinner with friends, and enough left over to save something for what comes next. A lot of English teachers also have credit card / student loan debt back in the US / Canada – if you want to aggressively pay that down, you may have to tighten the proverbial belt to make your payments.

As for fine print, the biggest fine print simply involves reading the contract and knowing what you’re agreeing to. Your conversations with the director / recruiter is also important – if they indicate you’ll be working with, say, kindergarten, consciously agree to that instead of simply saying ‘yes’ to get the job. If you prefer the older age groups, say it – and be prepared to say ‘no’ to a job that isn’t what you want. The other important part may well be location – if it’s a city you’ve never heard of, ask where is it is in relation to Seoul (northern part of South Korea) or Busan (southern part of South Korea, and the second largest city in the country). Google it and find it on a map so you won’t be surprised or disappointed.

-Should I get certified to teach English before I leave? (I have a degree in Journalism and no professional teaching experience.)
It can’t hurt… but it may not help much. Korea actually has a shortage of teachers right now – the won (Korean currency) has lost about 30% against the dollar since the beginning of 2008. In other words, it costs more Korean currency to ‘buy’ other currency – a big deal if you send any money home at all. Getting the certification may help you get a bump in your salary – but you’ll have to negotiate for it. A bump from, say, 2.1 to 2.2 million won is about an extra $70-$80 / month – not bad for a little of your time.

For all intents and purposes, what your degree is in won’t really matter (if it was in Home Economics, Elementary Education, or something dealing with children, then you’re ahead of the pack). I was a Business major and a Music minor, if that helps any. Your knowledge of Journalism will probably only help in the classroom if it gave you some creative ideas on communicating with kids, or if you’re working with kids that have an attention span :)

Related
Share!Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Email this to someonePrint this page
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03708273691893291730 Diana

    About Seoul–I chose not to live there (I’m in Daegu), even though it is the historical, trendsetting capital. I don’t get to dance as much as I’d like (I’m a swing dancer), and our restaurant selection is about half as good, but I’m really happy I chose to live elsewhere.

    Here’s the thing, I can VISIT Seoul. If you’re not a big city person (and I’m not), even Daegu with its 2.5 million people sounds intimidating at first, but there are most of your big-city advantages here, with a lot fewer drawbacks (as I see them). I would say that the people who have the best experiences in Korea AND the worst experiences are in Seoul (the most active, popular bloggers are in Seoul and the most annoying petty complainers/heavy drinkers are in Seoul). Keep in mind it can be overwhelming.

    I’m also pretty certain I save more money here than I would in Seoul, if only because there are fewer things to get out there and do. And most foreigners in Daegu pick up a few phrases of Korean, even if they don’t try, but that is not true in much more metropolitan and English-friendly Seoul (people do learn Korean there, it just takes more effort and doesn’t come as naturally because you get less regular practice).

    Other than that, Chris is pretty much on target in his info. :) Just wanted to offer a different opinion on the Seoul/no-Seoul option. Good luck to you!