A complete guide to teaching English in Korea

Teaching English in Korea has become increasingly popular over the years, and not only for fresh graduates looking to pay off student loans. It’s an amazing way to experience a new country whilst still earning a great income to support yourself.

I am currently living in Korea where I teach English at a hagwon in Cheonan. It has been a life changing move, one that I encourage everyone to make.

So, you want to teach English abroad but you’re not sure where to start? The process is simple and can be broken down into a few easy steps. This guide details everything you need to know about getting a job teaching English in Korea.

My first piece of advice: Do your research and don’t trust everything you read. Google will become your new best friend and don’t be afraid to reach out to fellow expats teaching English in Korea.

So let’s jump right into it!

1. Where’s the best country to teach English abroad?
2. Requirements for teaching English in Korea?
3. What is TEFL and do I need a TEFL certification to teach English abroad?
4. Hagwons vs public schools in Korea
5. Where to teach English in Korea?
6. The recruitment process for teaching English at a hagwon
7. So, what is teaching English in Korea really like?

1. Where’s the best country to teach English abroad?

When deciding where exactly to teach English abroad, your reason for wanting to travel is the most important consideration. What do you want to get out of the experience? Is it a long-term move? Are you looking for a gap year filled with exciting adventures, partying and easy teaching? Or do you want to save money, no matter how long the hours are and intense the work is?

My reason to teach English abroad was a compounded one: Spend 1 year abroad, experiencing a new, diverse culture but most importantly – SAVE MONEY!

Visiting Nacpan Beach in Korea during school vacation

Visiting Nacpan Beach during school vacation

So, how did I end up teaching English in Korea?

Bearing in mind that my goal was to save money, I eventually decided on relocating to the K-Pop capital. I didn’t pursue teaching jobs in other countries for these reasons:

  • Thailand

As much as I would have loved to live in a tropical paradise, the salaries in Thailand are unfortunately much lower than other Asian countries and the benefits are also far less.

  • Hong Kong

Although Hong Kong has a high cost of living, the salaries do match it and hence it was one of my initial considerations. However, Hong Kong has a huge expat community and I felt that the lifestyle would be too familiar. I was worried that I would get caught up in a foreigner crowd and not entrench myself in the local way of living. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone completely and I didn’t feel that I would achieve this here.

  • Japan

Japan offers desirable packages for those looking to teach English abroad. However, despite this, the cost of living in the country is very high and this could have you spending a lot of your salary of daily expenses. Bearing this in mind, I was reluctant to move to Japan as I wasn’t quite sure how much money I’d actually be able to save. On top of this, the job market is competitive, especially for those with no prior teaching experience.

So why did I eventually decide on teaching English in Korea?

Nothing, I knew nothing about the country! Is it similar to China? Or Japan? Actually, where is Korea?! It is often overlooked and lies in the shadows of it’s bigger, more powerful neighboring countries.

Korea intrigued me as it was so foreign. The salary and benefits are great and it’s easy to get a job in the country. Check this out to see how much money you can save teaching English in Korea. It took very little convincing and I immediately decided that this is where I wanted to teach English abroad.

Visiting the folk village in Jeju Island in Korea

Visiting the folk village in Jeju Island in Korea

… and what about North Korea?

At the time, I knew very little of the North. I admit that had I been following the news, I may have been a bit apprehensive about moving to South Korea! From the outside, it seems that Korea could be caught in the middle of a nuclear disaster.

However, life in South Korea is a far cry from how the media perceives it to be. Koreans do not care about the North. I have discussed this in detail with teachers and with Koreans. The issues with North Korea have been ongoing for many years, and so the drama is nothing new. Threats continue to be made, as they were 20 years ago.

The general consensus here is to ignore them and not give any attention to the North. Don’t be surprised when your students start joking about missiles and rockets during class. It’s not that the North is a taboo and unspoken of topic, it’s just that no one really cares! Do not let the issues with North Korea influence you decisions of teaching English in Korea.

2. Requirements for teaching English in Korea?

  • Bachelor’s degree from an English speaking University/College (any degree will suffice)
  • Clear criminal record
  • Citizenship from an English-speaking country. These countries include South Africa, Canada, USA, Ireland, UK, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Availability for a 1-year contract
  • Pass a health test which includes a drug and HIV test
Teaching English at a kindergarten in Korea often involves dress up (and lots of energy to entertain the kiddies)

Teaching English at a kindergarten often involves dress up (and lots of energy to entertain the kiddies)

3. What is TEFL and do I need a TEFL certification to teach English abroad?

TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language and is also commonly referred to as TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Your options for TEFL courses are extensive and range from expensive in-classroom courses to more affordable online courses. A TEFL certificate with over 120-hours is a requirement to work in a public school in Korea. However, private academies, otherwise known as hagwons, are more relaxed when it comes to this rule.

So should you complete a TEFL course?

I recommend you do.

The competition is increasing and you don’t want to miss out on a great opportunity because you didn’t have the certification. My advice is not to waste money on expensive in-classroom TEFL courses and rather opt for the online alternative.

I completed a 120-hour online course and it cost me $35. My director didn’t even ask for my certification but I felt more confident having it on my CV. However, ensure you do your research as there are many scams out there. Choose a course that has good reviews and don’t be afraid to ask questions on online forums and Facebook groups.

4. Hagwons vs public schools in Korea

Teaching English in Korea allows for a choice of 2 types of schooling environments which often leads to the debate: Hagwons vs public schools

Hagwons are private language academies that students attend AFTER their regular classes at a public school. As a result, the working hours generally start around 13:00 and can continue until after 21:00.

Working at an afterschool academy (hagwon) means that your students would have already spent 6 hours at their public schools before attending your class. On top of this, they may have math, science, art or music academies that same day. They will be tired, stressed and unmotivated. However, as the teacher, it’s your task to encourage these students, because, in the end, they need to get top grades. And by top grades, I mean 90% and higher. Students compete for first place and the pressure these children face is unreal.

Teaching English at a hagwon in Korea

Fridays are for school outings and very excited children!

Difference between hagwons and public schools in Korea?

Below is an extensive list of considerations when deciding between a hagwon or a public school.

  • Operations

When it comes to working at a hagwon, each academy is different. Being a private business, they are not regulated and the director manages the school as he or she feels best. As a result, you never really know what you’re getting yourself into until you get there. Many foreigners complain about being overworked without compensation, issues with severance pay, being fired without notice and problems with their apartment. However, I’ve never faced these issues.

Public schools have programmes run by the government which allows for a more structured working environment. There is more consistency with regards to working hours and pay. Generally, public schools don’t take the chances that hagwons do and so it is the safer option.

  • Location within Korea

Hagwons, offer more flexibility when it comes to choosing where you want to teach English abroad. Do you want a big, busy city or a smaller one with a tight-knit community?

In contrast, when applying for public school placements, you sign up to a programme where you’re able to select one city where you would like to be placed. However, this is a lottery and you could end up anywhere in the country!

  • English teachers salaries

English teachers salaries at both hagwons and public schools are fairly similar, with starting salaries around 2.1 million won. However, when it comes to hagwons, your pay is not determined on a national scale (as it is at public schools) and the director decides your salary. Therefore, you are more likely to find a hagwon that will pay slightly more.

Both hagwons and public schools offer additional benefits and a similar package which includes flights, housing, medical aid, and pension. However, public schools often include a settlement allowance to help with your move to Korea. This is something not offered by hagwons.

  • Class size

Hagwons consist of smaller classes between 1-12 students, with no Korean co-teacher present during the class.

Public schools have much bigger classes between 20-35 students but there is always a Korean co-teacher present in class to help manage the students.

  • English teachers at your school

If you teach English at a hagwon, there may be more than one foreign teacher at the academy. Generally, there are 2-6, depending on the size of the school. If you work at a public school, you will most likely be the only foreign teacher.

I work with 2 other English teachers at my hagwon and we are considered a smaller school than most

I work with 2 other English teachers and we are considered a smaller school than most

  • Paid leave:

One of the main perks of working at a public school is the number of vacation days given to foreign teachers. The reason for this difference between public schools and hagwons is that even though the students may have school vacation, they STILL attend all their extra classes. They may even sign up for additional classes during this time and so hagwons take advantage of the free schedules the students have.

As an English teacher at a hagwon, you’re allocated 10 days paid leave per year. 5 of these are in Summer, 5 are in Winter. These days are set and you cannot choose when you want to take your vacation. In addition, you get public holidays off. However, there are cases where teachers have had to make up these hours lost due to public holidays by working on Saturdays. Sick leave – well firstly, Koreans rarely take sick leave. If you have a slight cough, you work! Private academies allow 3 days sick leave per year.

Be sure to confirm all details pertaining to paid leave before you sign your contract as this can vary slightly depending on the academy.

In contrast, public schools have around 18 days paid vacation days per year which is certainly a major drawcard for these schools.

  • Working hours

As explained above, working hours at hagwons are usually 13:00-21:00 and your total teaching time will be no more than 30 hours per week. The directors will ensure you teach for most of these hours as they need to maximize their business profits.

These hagwons may serve as kindergartens during the morning and switch over to elementary/middle/high school students in the afternoon. With this being said, there is a chance you can work normal hours (09:00-18:00) if you’re lucky enough to come across a kindergarten/elementary hagwon.

On the other hand, public school hours are 08:30-16:30. When working at a public school, your actual teaching hours will generally be less than that of teachers at hagwons. However, you would still need to physically be on the premises, even if you aren’t teaching. This is a term commonly referred to by most foreigners as “desk-warming”.

  • Teacher recruitment

The demand for English teachers is very high and as a result, hagwons hire all year round. The job market is less competitive and it’s very easy to get a job starting at a date that suits you best. Ideally you should start speaking to recruiters 3-months before you intend on arriving in the country to ensure that you have sufficient time to arrange visa’s.

In contrast, public schools have a teachers intake for the start of each semester which includes March 1st and September 1st. The process is rigid and the competition is strong. When applying to a public school programme, it’s best to start the communication up to 6-months before the start of the semester.

If you are looking at teaching English in Korea and are not available for the March or September intake at public schools, you would need to look at applying at a hagwon instead.

  • Level of English

Hagwons place students into classes based on their English level (and not their age group). The classes are therefore easier to manage as everyone is more or less on the same standard.

Classes at public schools, however, consist of students of the same age with varying levels of English. Some students attend hagwons after school and so their English is stronger while others would never have attended additional classes. Trying to find a balance between the students may be tricky at first.

  • Couple teaching positions

Many hagwons offer couple teaching positions where you’re placed at the same school as your partner. You also receive a larger apartment suitable for 2 people.

However, couple teaching positions are hard to come by at public schools as most only have 1 foreign teacher. As a result, you may end up in a completely different city to your partner. However, there are exceptions if you are married.

Hagwons vs public schools in Korea

Ballet: The girls loved it. The boys… not so much!

So you’ve decided whether you want to work at a hagwon or public school in Korea…

What next?

I actually felt overwhelmed when looking through the job boards for various hagwon positions. When applying for teaching jobs in Korea, you will be spoilt for choice. Therefore, you can be picky as to where exactly you want to live.

5. Where to teach English in Korea?

  • Bigger cities

Seoul is the capital and the most foreigner friendly city in Korea, hence it’s a popular choice for expats. Busan is the second largest city located along the coast and is also a crowd favorite due to the beaches and relaxed atmosphere. More inland are Daejeon and Daegu also offering a big city environment.

Many Koreans in these larger cities speak English and they are used to seeing foreigners walking through the streets. However, these areas tend to have a higher cost of living. I’ve spoken to many people who spend double the amount of money I do on amenities, entertainment and eating out. This is because you’re spoilt for choice in the bigger cities and they offer many services in English, such as food delivery services. There’s always something happening, people to meet and an excuse to spend your hard-earned cash.

  • Rural areas

When Koreans speak of rural cities, they aren’t referring to small farming towns with little infrastructure. These rural areas are still well-developed towns or cities with good transportation systems, shopping malls, and schools. They’re just smaller cities that aren’t necessarily as foreigner friendly as the likes of Seoul and Busan.

Communication may be an issue and you will struggle to find a wide variety of westernized restaurants. In contrast to the cosmopolitan city of Seoul, the smaller, rural areas run at a slower pace and you could go for days without seeing a foreigner!

Whilst you will save more money in these smaller towns, it can get lonely and boring. However, this allows you to really entrench yourself in the Korean culture and their way of life. It also forces you to get out of your comfort zone and make an effort to meet people in your city.

  • Rural town meets bigger city

I live with my boyfriend in Cheonan, a small city about 90km’s from Seoul. It’s a good medium of city/rural living. My apartment is right next to a park and a small stream with a very relaxed atmosphere. Cheonan is close enough to Seoul so I can hop on the KTX and visit, go on tours and meet foreigners. I manage to save a lot more money as my utilities are really cheap, and I don’t eat out or go partying often as my options are limited here. There is a small foreigner community and a handful of bars where you’re bound to run into familiar faces. Oh, and the air is cleaner than in Seoul! You may not understand this now, but when you get to Korea you will realise the difference in air pollution.

So, where should you live?

My recommendation: If you’re traveling alone and you want to meet lots of people and have the convenience of westernized luxuries, choose a bigger city. If you only plan on staying in Korea for 1 year, then Seoul is also a good choice as many foreigner-friendly tours depart from the capital, and the transportation network to all other cities is best from Seoul.

However, if you want to save money, choose a smaller town. I’d recommend living close to Seoul or Busan so that you can still pop over for weekends and take part in the weekend activities, yet also distance yourself from the busyness of living in such a fast-paced city.

Visiting one of the many temples and cultural villages in Korea

Visiting one of the many temples and cultural villages in Korea

6. The recruitment process for teaching English at a hagwon

So, you’ve decided that you want to teach English in Korea and you’re busy completing your online TEFL course. You want to apply for a teaching job at a hagwon and you know more or less where you want to live in Korea…

What next?

Step 1: Resume for English teachers

First impressions count, so make sure you include a professional picture of yourself. Included should be your previous work experience, any tutoring or skills related to teaching. Try to keep it short and sweet, not more than 2 pages.

Step 2: Apply for jobs teaching English in Korea

There are an abundance of English teaching jobs in Korea hence it’s important to know all of the above before you start applying.

I contacted a few recruiters and eventually took a job that “Reach to Teach Recruiting” had set up. After decling the first job offer I received, they sent through various other options that same day. Reach to Teach guided me throughout the process and having their assitance really made the interview and visa process a lot easier.

There are also many websites that advertise jobs teaching English in Korea. Of these, Dave’s ESL Cafe is the most popular one. Scroll through the numerous pages and all your reservations about finding a job teaching English in Korea will be gone. Recruiters will post various job opportunities followed by their email address where you can send your CV to.

There are also many Facebook groups where recruiters post job vacancies so be sure to keep an eye out for these as well.

See a job that you fancy? Apply!

If the recruiter likes what he sees on your CV, he will set up a skype meeting where he will screen you and ask a few basic questions. These include your reasons for wanting to teach, your work experience and your availability.

Thereafter, the recruiter will put you in contact with a school representative with whom you will have an interview. This may be the director, a Korean teacher or if you’re lucky, the current foreign teachers.

Step 3: The interview

This interview will be more detailed than that of the recruiter’s. Expect questions such as why you have chosen to pursue a job teaching English in Korea? What age group do you want to teach and how will you keep students motivated in class?

Make sure you can answer standard questions such as your strengths, weaknesses, interests, and hobbies. They may even give you real-life teaching scenarios that you would need to provide solutions for. The interviewer wants to see how you react to certain situations and your reasoning. They will also ask about past incidences and how you handled them. For example, a time when you experienced conflict and how you resolved it.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions during the interview. Variables such as the school culture, number of foreign teachers, the teaching environment and working hours need to be discussed. Are the lesson plans provided and what age group are the students? Why are the current foreign teachers leaving? What is the expat community like in the city? You don’t want any surprises after you’ve signed the contract so jot down all your questions and ask away!

Step 4: Contract

If the director is happy with the interview, your recruiter will send through a contract. Make sure you read this thoroughly and ask questions if need be. If there are any red flags, run!

Ensure you contact the current foreign teachers and chat with them about the academy before you sign the contract. Ask to see images of the housing that’s provided and what it comes standard with. If the school won’t allow you to contact the other English teachers, then take this as a bad sign and move on. Don’t be afraid to turn down an offer. Rather wait until you find that job that is perfect for you.

After you’ve agreed to the contract, you generally wait another month or two for the visa process which involves a lot of admin, yet so worth it!

Where to teach English abroad

Play time with the kids!

7. So, what is teaching English in Korea really like?

I teach at a kindergarten in the morning, and an elementary hagwon in the afternoon. Personally, I prefer the kindy. Korean kids are absolutely adorable and even though I cannot speak a word to the 2 to 5-year-olds I teach, I thoroughly enjoy singing songs with them and chasing them around the play area! They can be a handful, yes, especially the boys, but if you love children, then the kindergarten is for you! My afternoons include classes with elementary and middle school students. I do enjoy these older kids as I can communicate with them and it’s at this level that you see the greatest development in their English.

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