My Experience Teaching ESL in Korea

Shortly after graduating college, I made a snap decision to pack up my things and move to South Korea for a year. Two weeks after beginning a web search for jobs that would take me out of the United States, I found myself boarding a flight out of Detroit Metropolitan Airport with just over three hundred dollars and suitcase. Two weeks later, I couldn’t stop asking myself, “What was I thinking?”

So, “why Korea?” you ask. I’ve been asked that question a thousand times. Why in the world would a 24 year-old single woman want to move halfway around the world by herself without even knowing how to say hello in Korean, let alone not knowing anything about the culture? My first answer has always been because I wanted to experience life in another culture. The second was that I wanted to learn another language, and the third was simply because I needed a job. Looking back now I realize I could have achieved these things without leaving the country at all; Los Angeles could have given me all the cultural and linguistic diversity I was craving, along with a paycheck. I just wanted to live in another country, it didn’t matter where, but like so many who have been bitten by the bug called wanderlust, I chose Korea over the abundant opportunities for teaching ESL all over the world. The package deal to Korea far surpasses any other country that solicits native English speakers to come work for them, that is if the employer honors the contract.

The package I was offered was the standard contract that most ESL teachers are given when working for a private academy, or Haegwon. This should be the minimum by the way, never accept anything less. My contract stated that I was to be given:
� Roundtrip airfare
�A very small but suitable single studio apartment with furniture and telephone
�A work schedule of 30 hours per week with seasonal paid overtime
�Health insurance, fifty percent paid by the school
�2 million won a month (in 2004 it was the equivalent to 1600.00 USD)
�2 million won severance pay at the end of the one year contract
�10 days paid vacation plus regular Korean holidays
�5 paid sick days
�All expenses for the work VISA paid by the school

I arrived at my apartment in Suwon, located just outside of Seoul on a Saturday night. I started working the following Monday and I was immediately overwhelmed. There was no training, and there was no set curriculum to base any lessons on. I had no idea where or what to begin teaching my students (who were between the ages of six and thirteen) and I had no idea of the acceptable forms of disciplining them. I resorted to an old tactic I learned from teaching Spanish to childrenin the United States: I played games. I quickly learned that games were not a tolerable, because the parents paid a great deal of money so their children would learn English, and children do not learn from playing games. Therefore playing games was wasting their money.

After a few days I started to get a feel for how the school operated. I viewed the Haegwon as little more than an after school babysitting service where I was told by the non-English speaking parents how to teach their child English. I began to see how much pressure was put on the students as well, as they went to school all day and attended two or three Haegwons afterward. The weeks went by and I realized that my role at the school was more to boost enrollment rather than teach, although I was constantly told that I wasn’t doing a good enough job because the children weren’t learning. I wasn’t allowed to teach them in a way that they could learn.

East Asia’s society functions based on a hierarchal system called Confucianism, where the young respect and obey the old and employees never question their employer or come to them with a problem. That was never explained to me and caused much confusion before I realized my place. My employer was a woman with two sons, one of which was in my class and caused nothing but trouble, but of course there was nothing I could do about it. If I did have a problem, I was to see another Korean teacher who acted as a sort of supervisor. She called herself Stephanie, (most Koreans who learn English give themselves an English name) and she did not like me. Over time I learned it was useless to go to her with ideas or concerns that I had. It made my year very frustrating but it turns out I was in the lucky minority. I have since been told horrific stories of other teachers’ experiences working within the Haegwon system.

It was dificult for me to understand and accept the cultural differences and the way business was done in Korea, however my biggest frustration concerned the contract. Written contracts are not honored in Korea the way they are in the United States. Still, these contracts are important if you must take legal action against your employer. I first learned that contracts in Korea were more like guidelines than legal documents when I was told I could not receive a telephone. Apparently the teacher before me did not pay the bill when he was living in my room, and if I were to get a telephone installed, the Haegwon would have been responsible for paying the outstanding debt. As a result, I was not able to have internet connected in my apartment either. After speaking to my employer, she agreed to get me a cell phone, but after weeks of waiting for it she finally told me she could not find one cheap enough. She was going to leave it at that but at this point I was six weeks living in Korea with no way for my family to get a hold of me directly and I started balling. That very night she found me a cell phone. Since it was not in my contract, she wanted me to pay half the cost of the phone, which I did, and I returned it to her at the end of the year, without getting my money back.

My year-long stay in an environment that was totally foreign to me took its toll on my immune system. I was sick for weeks at a time, with upper respiratory infections, allergies and frequent attacks of dysentery. To make things worse, I wasn’t given the health coverage that was promised in my contract. Stephanie would occasionally take me to the doctor (which I had to pay for) but then she would tell everyone that I was a terrible teacher because I was sick. I only took a total of three sick days throughout the year and came to work when I should have been in bed. I eventually enlisted the help of another Korean teacher when I became ill. Her name was Anne, she was always supportive and understanding, and to this day I have never met a lovelier woman. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have lasted an entire year.

As for the 10 days paid vacation, don’t plan on taking them all at once, or even taking two separate week-long vacations. Asking for a day off is the most uncomfortable situation to be in when working in a Haegwon. I was fortunate enough to be able to take five days off during the course of two weeks because my brother came for a visit. I had learned some things by this time and asked Anne to talk to the director for me, and it worked in my favor. I never asked for the other five days. However, I can say that I had one of the more enjoyable experiences in Korea then most people because I was always paid on time, I was always paid for overtime, and I was never asked to work more than what was expected in my contract. I was also given the severance pay that is required by Korean law, which many teachers never see. Finally, my VISA expenses that required a day trip to Osaka, Japan were also taken care of by the Haegwon.

Although I encountered many problems while I working I Korea, overall it was worth it. I learned a lot about Korean culture; things I could have never guessed and things I wish I never found out. I also learned to speak a fair amount of Korean and I earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. The geography of South Korea is spectacular, with gorgeous mountains and semi-tropical islands. Seoul is one of the most amazing cities I have ever seen and with the money I saved working for a year, I was able to take a month-long vacation to Thailand. When I look back at all the inconveniences I experienced working at the Haegwon, I remind myself that the Korean teachers I worked with worked much harder than I did, and were paid less. They never had vacations, and they dared not become ill. I put up with a lot of things I wouldn’t be expected to put up with from an American employer, but I wouldn’t trade my experience in Korea for anything.

If you are interested in teaching ESL abroad, there are many resources on the internet to help you choose a school with a good reputation. and are two good sites that can assist you in finding a Haegwon. I would also advise asking for the e-mail of other native speakers at the school you are considering. That is the best way to know what you are getting yourself into.

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