Top tips for teaching ESL in South Korea

Making the decision to leave your country, friends and family to teach ESL in South Korea can be a tough one. But selecting the wrong school can be even worse. Here are our top tips on getting the right job, keeping it, and enjoying your new life to it's full potential.

Gangnam, made famous by Psy's 'Gangnam Style' - Life Itinerant

1. Ditch the recruiter Some people may not feel comfortable doing this, but I cannot tell you how many recruiters I spoke with once I set my mind on South Korea. They all told me the same story of varying degrees, 'You will have to take any job you can get, because you are inexperienced, and you will have to go somewhere very remote'. I heard it so much I almost started believing it.

I read crappy contract after even dodgier contract before deciding to ditch the recruiter and find a school that suited my personality and expectations. You know what? I actually got exactly what I wanted - and I only applied for that one job.

2. Do your research and know what you are looking for

Teaching in South Korea is not the gold mine it used to be. 5 - 10 years ago it was a teachers market, so much so you could apply for jobs in the evening and wake up to a plethora of emails offering positions with great benefits the next morning. This is no longer the case.

The word escaped long ago of the carefree life available in South Korea, with it's; free housing, airfare supplements, health insurance and competitive wages. There is now so much competition that even qualified teachers with years of experience are being rejected. And, as much as I hate to admit it, South Korea is a country that rewards attractiveness which attractive people can end up with the best jobs, so know your market. How do they know what you look like? I hear you say. Well, simple, you are required to attach a photo of yourself with each application. My advice: dress professionally, look friendly, and have good lighting. A good picture is very important.

Begin with nailing down what kind of teaching experience you want; public school, private academy (Hagwon), International School, or more 'fun' based camp learning facilities. A public school or Hagwon may mean you are the only foreigner at the school. A public school job will involve teaching the same set of students all year, whereas Hawgwon classes may see drop ins or outs. You also need to consider the hours you will work, public school hours tend to be more traditional.

Once you know what you wan you can apply for the ones that suit your needs. Getting the wrong job could mean crazy long hours, no breaks, and terrible working conditions (including not getting paid on time). Read the reviews, read them in context, not everyone comes to Korea knowing what to expect, but complaints about pay and living conditions should be treated seriously. Avoid institutions that have reports of non-payment like the plague, you shouldn't work for free.

Be flexible with location, not everyone can work and live in Seoul, and to be honest you will be living in a tiny apartment if you do. Transport is so good in Korea you really do not have to worry about being remote, most of the time. If you do take a position in another location like; Busan, Changwon, Suwon or Chuncheon you will likely find a strong expat community and a love for South Korean culture that would not have been possible in the big smoke.

3. Be prepared

Once you have decided you want to come to South Korea and you know what you are looking for, you should prepare your documents. This is vary depending on which country you are coming from. For us (we are Australian) this meant hundreds of dollars and weeks of waiting. This can be very annoying if you have already been offered a job but the school does not want to wait for you.

We began obtaining our documents a month before we applied and once we applied we had everything we would need to make our visa application right away. This certainly will put you ahead of other applicants.

Once you have a position make sure your affairs at home are in order. One thing you will learn pretty quickly is South Korean's like to do things last minute. Unlike Australia they do not book flights months in advance. This may be annoying at first, let it roll over you, does it really matter if your flight is $800 one way if it is being reimbursed?

4. Be open

A new country means a new culture, of course you know that. But what you may not be prepared for is how much it will affect you.

I love and hate things about South Korea but in the end, I chose to come here and I knew it would be different. South Korea is not about to change it's culture any time soon so I knew I would have to adapt to it. At times this has meant intense frustration, and sometimes you just have to walk it off - watch some tv and forget about the day.

At the same time this place will offer things you cannot find any where else in the world (like home delivery anything, and an abundance of themed cafes) and you need to be open to experiencing it. I find it is best to leave your prejudices at the door and just go with it. You may find yourself swept into a world of magic.

또옹카페 (Poop Cafe), Insadong, South Korea - Life Itinerant

5. Adopt a persona This point is crucial. I like to think that I am two people; one that is a teacher, and one that is a normal person (this one usually surfaces at clock out and on the weekend). My classroom persona is 'Robot', yeah it's original I know, but the kids love it and it really helps with classroom and behaviour management.

Basically it goes like this, kids come into the classroom, I introduce myself, they ask me questions to which I respond in a way that a robot would = entertained kids = generally obedient kids and it saves my voice and sanity.

My reasoning behind this is as such; some times I don't feel like teaching, sometimes I am a human being with feelings that render me emotionally fragile, but adopting a persona makes me a performer. For the time I am in class I can forget my real self, instead I am 'Robot', I know my character, lines, and positions. Once I leave I can resume my doom and gloom, if necessary, but my students deserve my best.

I have a secondary personal 'unicorn princess', but she only comes out on special occasions.

Unicorn Princess (aka me) and fellow teacher - Life Itinerant

6. Have an exit plan

If your plan is to come to South Korea, make a life and live here forever - great. Many of my friends have come, planned to stay for a year or two at most but stay for much longer. Why? Because life here is so comfortable and convenient, basically it is easy. The pay is good, possibly less is expected of you than at home, and you can stay preserved in a time capsule. Without a plan in the blink of an eye 5 years have passed and you are in the same position as when you first came to Korea.

I had been in South Korea for 3 months before I was warned of this 'convenient life', Soon I found myself settling into life, finding my favourite places to eat, how to get around, the challenges of a new life subsided. It's easy, it's great, but I can here for a reason and I needed to keep reminding myself of that.

I could have easily stayed here for another year, saving money and being comfortable, and perhaps another year after that. If you have goals, make sure you use your time to achieve them and leave having developed into a richer person, not just in money.

Dreaming of new adventures looking over HaLong Bay, Vietnam. Read more about our adventures here - life Itinerant

7. Make friends, quickly This may be a no-brainer, but friends make your new life so much easier. The expat community in South Korea is close. If you are lucky enough to have other foreigner teachers at your school they will quickly become your family. The South Korean teachers at your school will become your friends too and it's important that you respect the rules of friendship and deference accordingly, these may be different from your own culture. When in doubt ask, for the most part I have found people love it when you show interest in their culture.

The worst part of all of this is saying goodbye. Just the other day two of my closest friends left, ON THE SAME DAY! This was the worst thing that happened to me all year, tears were shed. I know, though, that like myself, my fellow teachers are travelers and I have made the best friends from all over the world and I hope to crash on all of their couches at some point.

The best friends a girl could ask for; Megan and Ellie - Life Itinerant

8. Explore your country You know how the saying goes, we never explore our own backyard. Well the same rings true when you move to a new country. When I first in South Korea arrived I was reluctant to explore, after all I hardly knew any of the language of South Korea. Every time I had vacation I went abroad. It wasn't until I had been in South Korea for 6 months before I started exploring outside of Seoul.

When I did, I fell in love with the scenery and felt so lucky to be able to explore a new country in my time off. Getting out and exploring your surroundings will make you feel less confined. When you leave you will have awesome stories and be able to give your friends all the tips for the best places to visit when they visit South Korea. There is also the added bonus of being able to act as 'tour guide' for visiting friends and family, it makes me so happy to share my favourite places with my special people.

Dean and I at Nami Island, South Korea - Life Itinerant

9. Be more than just a teacher

It is easy to forget that you have your own personality. At the end of long day of teaching all you feel like doing is eating yourself into a food coma. Whilst you should maintain professionalism in the classroom, once you step out of it you should try and leave it behind. If you take work home it can become toxic. Sometimes you need to remind yourself that this job is much easier than any you had before and that your complaints are actually quite trivial.

And sometimes, having a little glass of beer doesn't hurt either.

Me and a little after hours drink - Life Itinerant

10. Leave before you hate it It's a tale you will hear over and over 'so and so hates South Korea, they were here for 3 years, they really should have left after 2'. I ask 'why did they hate it so much?' to which the response, more often than not, is 'No idea, but they are talking about coming back again to teach next year'. Like I said before, life is easy here, and that makes people complacent. It's far too easy to displace your frustration with yourself onto the world around you and things that were once amusing can quickly become annoying, like the game of charades you have to play every time you need to communicate.

Part of planning to leave is ensuring you leave with good memories because once you leave you will realise how awesome your life in South Korea really was.

Eating out with my friends in Seoul - Life Itinerant

Disclaimer: my experience may be very different to anyone/everyone else who comes to South Korea to teach English. I worked in a very unique environment which concentrated on immersive language learning delivered in a camp environment. However, having spoken to many of my other friends they preach the same principles.

I don't pretend to know the secret to happiness but my tips have certainly kept me out of trouble during my time as an ESL teacher.