Teaching English in South Korea

An elementary-school classroom learning English. Photos provided by the Teaching Experience.
An elementary-school classroom learning English. Photos provided by the Teaching Experience.

Seoul, South Korea: Teaching English in the Land of the Morning Calm

By Jason Gaskell

Crazy kids in the classroom. photos by Jason Gaskell.
Crazy kids in the classroom. photos by Jason Gaskell.

A group of pre-teen girls giggled and went red as I exited the toilet.

“That is girls room. Boy up-stair,” said Mr. Ahn, one of the Korean ESL grammar teachers. I guess my guidebook was wrong; not all restrooms in Korea are unisex.

I put the communal toilet roll that I was holding back on the front desk and suddenly became self-conscious at the amount of paper I’d used. I started to go a little red myself; even the simple things seem complicated here.

In at the deep end

“Okay, training finished,” said my new employer.

I had just sat in on another teacher’s class and had spent most of it trying to stay awake. The nine-hour time difference was beginning to get the better of me.

“This your book, but free talking okay first class,” said the director.

My choice of school, like many first-timers, was a blind and rather naïve one. This revelation became clear as I began to be ushered into a classroom with my jacket on, a textbook under my arm, unprepared, untrained, and with fifteen equally well-wrapped children peering from behind woolly scarves and hoods. The director closed the door and a brief silence ensued.

“Teacher – cold!” said a skinny teenage girl with round glasses and a colorful home knitted scarf. It was a bit chilly.

I was the only foreign teacher at a school that was evidently struggling to make a decent profit. When I arrived in winter, the school’s heating system was only used when deemed absolutely necessary and during this particular time, there was apparently an insufficient quota of sickly staff and students to warrant a blast from the atrophied old boiler. I began to wonder if my decision to sign a contract before arriving; might prove to have been hasty

Party time in the classroom.
Party time in the classroom.

Start as you mean to go on

Suddenly came a barrage of questions as students competed to get my attention. They were shouting out and I struggled to focus and answer one.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“How many is your family?”

“Why eye blue?”

“Do you like Singer?”

It was at this time that I made it clear that the students must raise a hand if they wished to ask a question. I pointed my hand upward to demonstrate what I wanted and after looking at the ceiling several times, they finally seemed to get it. However, it took a further five months before this system was completely automated.

Don’t always do as the Roman do!

In the summer, the air conditioner was used just as sparingly as the heating was, and I used my battered textbook as a reasonably effective fan. By this time, I had managed to get some sort of control of all my classes except the 13-year-old middle school students. This class was still running rings around me (sometimes quite literally) and my patience was beginning to wear thin.

“Aha, teacher is monkey,” replied one of the boys pointing at my excessively hairy arms. I let this one go and continued my instructions.

Then I noticed another boy putting his hands together and closing all his fingers except for his index digits, which were pointing outwards to form a skewer. His face lit with a malevolent grin; the boy next to him was bending over as he struggled to get something out of his bag.

I knew what was going to happen; I had seen this bizarre ritualistic child’s prank before. The unaware victim was about to get a ‘dong-chim’, a painful poke where you would rather not.

“Don’t!” I shouted. But it was already too late—

“Arrgh” cried the victim as he clutched his behind. The perpetrator writhed around in his chair, laughing uncontrollably. They simply don’t teach you this stuff at ESL training schools.

Be Flexible

Being a first time ESL teacher in a foreign country is all about flexibility. The training is ongoing, a daily workshop that will stretch your organization and improvisation skills to the limits. The first few months are the hardest but day by day, it does get easier. Eventually, you will inevitably begin to settle into some kind of rhythm and personal pedagogic system.

During my early days in Korea, I was given very little assistance by my director other than a textbook and a series of local disciplinary techniques, such as misbehaving students having to hold a chair over their heads for several minutes. But I never used these, what I considered to be rather outdated directions (in Korea too!). Instead, I tried to control my class with humor and a good rapport.

If students studied well, I would often have a ‘game’ section for ten minutes at the end of the class. In fact, I have never played so much Hangman in all my life. My advice is to bring games, and lots of them. They will be an ESL investment.

Do Your Research

That first job in Korea made me around 1.5 million won (around $1500) per month, plus a free apartment, for working 120 hours. I must stress that this first school was by no means typical of language institutes in Korea.

I now make 2.3 million Won ($2300) plus a $400 housing allowance for the same hours at a very comfortable school that has an established curriculum and a great training scheme. I found this cushy position with only some insider knowledge and a little patience. Korea is a beautiful place to teach if you can find a good school. My first experience was not one of the better ones, but persistence can reap great rewards.

It takes either a seasoned ESL teacher or someone with a great deal of luck to secure a position at one of these more reputable schools. Many, like myself, make the mistake of signing a contract before actually touching down in their destination.

Even if you talk to current teachers, you can never be certain that the deal is what it seems on paper. I found that the best way to find a good school is to arrive on a tourist visit, check in at a cheap hotel, and arrange interviews on site so you can see the schools and directors for yourself.

With a few ESL resources and a little spare cash, you should be able to find what you are looking for within a couple of weeks. Then you’ll have to do a visa run to the nearest foreign country to get your work permit, which is usually paid for by your school.

Someone with a frugal nature can save anything up to 80% of their earnings while in Korea and what’s more, any native English speaker with a university degree is qualified to teach. So what are you waiting for? Just make sure you do your homework first.

Resources for Teaching Abroad

Find teaching jobs around the world with this comprehensive directory.

Dave’s ESL Café (eslcafe.com): Probably the best ESL site at the moment for expatriate teachers and those looking for jobs. The site focuses on South Korea particularly and has a wealth of information in the many categorized forums.

The Korean Bridge (pusanweb.com): A good gateway for localized websites in Korea. There are all kinds of information here, including job listings.

Work n’ Play (worknplay.co.kr): In addition to daily job postings and forums, this site also allows you to post a resume which can be ‘topped’ daily, allowing potential recruiters and employers to view your credentials.

Jason Gaskell

Jason Gaskell is the editor of Oriental Tales. He is a writer and editor, currently working for a Korean publishing company in Seoul. You can see more of his writing at Jason-Gaskell.Info.


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