So you have made the decision to come to South Korea to be an English teacher. As we reach the halfway point of our time in Korea, it’s a good time for us to reflect. There are certainly a few things I wish I had known before signing my teaching contract. These tips are to help you before you sign yours. You are going to be in a strange, new country, having amazing experiences. It is such an underrated travel destination full of mystery and steeped in traditions.
You will want to make the most of your time here. To ensure your time isn’t hindered by a shitty school, read on! These tips have come from my own personal experience, and from speaking to other ESL teachers.
Not All Teaching Jobs in Korea Are the Same
There are two main types of teaching jobs in Korea: public and private. Both have their pros and cons. I chose to work at a Hagwon, which is a private academy. You may have heard a few (or a lot) of horror stories about Hagwons. They aren’t all bad, but the jobs are very hit and miss. Know what you are looking for in a job before you start applying so that when those offers start coming in you don’t just jump on the first one.
Pros of working at a private academy
- They generally offer higher salaries than public schools
- You won’t be the only foreign teaching there. At my academy there are ten other foreign teachers
- Smaller class sizes
- You have the freedom to choose where you want to work/live
Cons of working at a private academy
- They are a business, and a lot of them can be shady. The owners (aka directors) can be very greedy, and only in it for the money. This is not the case for every hagwon, but it’s something to be aware of if you decide to work in a private academy.
- You will get less vacation time. A maximum of two weeks vacation over the course of 12 months, and National holidays. This is less than you will get if you work in a public school, and almost certainly a lot less than what you would normally get in your home country.
- Job security is not guaranteed, your academy could be open as normal one week, and closed down the next.
Pros of working at a public school
- More vacation time. All National holidays as well as school holidays. That adds up to around five weeks of vacation a year. Definitely not a bad deal.
- You will have a lot of desk time. This could be taken as a pro or a con. It’s extra time to do whatever you want, so I would count it as a pro. I have friends that have previously worked at public schools. They got a lot of movie watching done at their desk time.
Cons of working at a public school
- Large class sizes
- You don’t get to choose where you will be placed. You can state your preference when you apply, but this is not guaranteed. If you want to be living somewhere specific, then public might not be the route for you.
- Salary is non negotiable. I mentioned earlier that you can negotiate your salary when working at a private academy. This is not the case for public schools. Take it or leave it.
Research. Research. Research!
I cannot stress this enough. Korean hagwons and public schools don’t have government ratings/reports like in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. The experience you will have in Korea will be highly dependent on your school. Use blacklists like this one to search for schools to avoid. It’s illegal for current employees to make defamation statements about their current workplaces (it is written into my current contract, I kid you not), so you may have to dig a little for up to date reviews. Doing your due diligence could save you from ending up at an awful school.
Someone once told me that 60% of your life is spent at work, so if things at work aren’t going great, then it can cause added stress in other areas in your life.
Contact Current/Past Teachers
Look for people who have worked or are working at your school. You might be interviewed by one of the foreign teachers at the school. Ask to speak to at least one other current or past employee. Even better if it is the teacher you are replacing. If the school has a problem doing this, that’s probably a red flag. Even then, you may not get honest answers. If employees of the school are worried about getting screwed over in terms of severance or a letter of recommendation, they may not tell you anything bad about the school. This is something to be aware of. Listen to your gut. Don’t just trust one person.
There are two times of hiring in Korea. February is the most popular as this is the start of the school year, some schools will also be hiring in August. Any other start dates and I would be skeptical as it is most likely someone breaking their contract. Generally, happy employees don’t leave.
Know What’s Legal and What Isn’t
It’s not uncommon for employers to put things in their contracts that are not actually legal. They assume that foreigners don’t know the law (and a lot of us don’t) and use that to their advantage. Use this Facebook group for foreign teachers to ask questions and search for information. Ensure that your contract states that you will be paying into pension (unless you are from South Africa). It is illegal for you to not be paying into pension. In terms of medical insurance, by law any company with five or more foreign employees must enrol their foreign staff in the National Medical Insurance Plan. The cost should be split 50/50 between you and your employer. If you are from an eligible country, you can claim your pension back when you leave Korea. Unfortunately, New Zealand is not one of those countries, so I won’t be getting mine back! You can read more information about pensions here.
If you’re backpacking on your way to Korea, that’s no problem. We did it. Just make sure you have all your official documents scanned to the cloud, as you will need to submit them for your visa to immigration. There are helpful apps that allow you digitally sign your contracts and other documents, without the need to pay for printing. Download ‘Docusign’ and ‘My Signature’ from the app store for free. They were super helpful for me.
Once my paper work was sorted, I went to the South Korean embassy in Bangkok, showed my documents, paid the fee and returned 3 days later. Note that you will have to leave your passport with the embassy, so be prepared to be without it for a few days.
When we embark on future ESL teaching journeys, we will ship clothing and shoes to our next prospective school or our apartment (assuming we already have jobs secured, of course). We ended up carrying winter clothing and a few other things that we didn’t need around South East Asia for four months.
Other Things to Note
- Join Facebook groups for expats in Korea. They can be extremely helpful. We especially love the Expat Women in Korea group. You can ask any burning questions you might have, and get an impression of what life is like in Korea for expats.
- Check that your contract states the hourly rate for teaching hours worked above the weekly maximum. 30 hours per week is the standard for in class teaching.
- Recruiters are looking to fill positions and get their fee. They are probably not worried about whether or not you get a great job/school.
- You should receive severance pay equivalent to one months salary at the end of your 12 month contract. Make sure this is in your contract.
- Verify vacation dates. Are the dates for you to choose or are they predetermined by the school?
- Ensure you know what is expected of you in terms of lesson planning. Are you expected to teach straight from a textbook, prepare your own lessons, or somewhere in-between?