Surviving Korea – Advice for future English teachers

Hiking along the river to a nearby Buddhist temple outside of Ulsan

Teaching English in Korea can be extreme. And when I say “extreme”, I mean, it can be extremely-many-things.

Life in Korea can be extremely difficult and frustrating. Teaching English here can be extremely rewarding. The weather was extremely cold when I got here and is now extremely hot. Soju is extremely cheap and bars and clubs are open extremely late. Some of my kids are extremely smart, while others are extremely strangle-worthy.

 

I rarely find an occasion that isn’t “extreme” in some way. I am often extremely overwhelmed with the element of surprise Koreans seem to love so dearly – that, or they’re just used to it after years and years of doing everything last minute to where they’re just never able to catch up. Like my first day teaching at the public middle school I was hired at – no preparation or guidance about what to teach, not even a warning before my classes started (just a tap on the shoulder that it was time to go teach class).

I am sometimes extremely amazed at how kind Koreans can be – helping me carry my groceries on the bus or insisting on giving me their seat and so I can sit down.

So while life in Korea can, at times, be extremely exasperating, it has been an extremely amazing experience regardless. You’ll do things you never thought you would, have many “first’s”, make a ton of friends and learn a lot about life, other cultures, and most importantly, yourself.

For my fellow, future English teachers out there, here are some tips to surviving Korea :)

Some Advice:

1. Like I said above, embrace the element of surprise – I’m still working on this myself.

2. Some things just don’t make sense here (like the glares I get from wearing a tank top by the same women who don’t mind seeing each other – or even ME – naked in a jimjilbang – AKA a public bath house) – don’t hurt yourself too much trying to figure it out. Some things just don’t make sense.

3. Don’t pack too many clothes, unless you’re already used to ridiculously-cold winters and suffocatingly-hot summers. I’ve already bought tons of clothes to suit the weather (the shopping here is great anyway so may as well).

4. Embrace the culture – take taekwondo or a K-pop (Korean pop) dance class. It’s good to have Korean friends outside of work and to learn more about the culture from a different perspective.

5. Create a blog. Document your travels. Take pictures. It goes by fast and you’ll want to keep the memories. My friend Carrie, who teaches here as well, advised to “Take a lot of pictures during your first 6 weeks. After that, things that were strange or funny will seem normal. Once you go back to your own country, it’s these pictures that will bring back the most memories.”

6. Create a budget. You won’t have many bills (if you’re living in Korea where the rent will be taken care of) and it’s super easy to save at least half of your monthly salary (you will probably make around $2000/month). You’ll be happy you did a year later.

7. Do something productive during your downtime. And trust me, you will have a LOT of downtime. My “desk-warming” activities at work consist of blogging, reading, taking online classes, and catching up with friends and family back home (and okay, a fair amount of “Pinteresting”, as well)

Hunter Wellies

8. Invest in a pair of heavy-duty rain boots. And not just because they’re cute, but the rain here is no joke. My Hunter wellies are one of my favorite possessions (and they better be for $225). I don’t believe the fabulous pair I have are still being sold, but you can find a similar pair here.

9. Purchase a bicycle. It’s definitely worth the investment (and then just sell it before you leave) – and remember, “A Bike Ride a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

10. Don’t let the job get you down. I came here thinking I was Robin Williams and I was going to “Good-Will-Hunting/Dead-Poet’s-Society” all my kids. It might not be what you expect. It might be frustrating. You might not get to teach what you want or get the attention you think you deserve. You might not think you’re making a difference or think that it’s even possible to make a difference. This job is rough. You’ll see the endless cultural differences and some might drive you crazy. During these times, it’s okay to shut yourself inside your little flat and indulge in everything non-Korean like American movies, TV shows and junk food. But just remember to come back out and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience of living in a completely foreign country.

For those who have just started thinking about teaching abroad or who are in the middle of the application stage, you can go here for more info, plus a breakdown of the steps I took to get here!

In addition, Footprints Recruiting is the agency I went through to get here. They help out every step of the way and make applying so much easier! You can also visit their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter (@FootprintsJobs).

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  1. SamWise says: Reply

    Thankyou, for number 10 – I thought I was alone in thinking like this

  2. Maelah says: Reply

    I really enjoy your blog :) I’m getting ready to teach in Korea, and I love reading about all your experiences!!! If I decide to do it for more than a year, I’m definitely going to use footprints recruiting. The process has been long and hectic, but hopefully teaching in Korea will be rewarding.

    1. Footprints was awesome! I’m using them again to apply for a private school job up in Seoul! They’re so helpful and make everything so much easier! Hope you enjoy teaching in Korea, it’s been a crazy but very rewarding experience :)

  3. Wayne McKenzie says: Reply

    I love your post. One of my plans is to teach English in Korea. Last year, I started the process and this year I’m motivated to get there. Recently, I also applied with the JET Program in Japan. Since you went through the interview process, how difficult was it? I’m really working on getting into the public schools there. From my research, I heard hagwons are not as good. I would love to get your feedback.

    1. Hi Wayne, sorry for the late response! The interview process actually wasn’t too difficult – they asked the usual questions about your work ethic and teaching philosophy and a few situational questions that were fairly simple! Of course, I’m not sure how much more difficult the JET Program would be, but I have a few friends that have taught in Japan as well and they didn’t make it out to be incredibly hard to get a job!

      In regards to Hagwons, it’s really varies depending on the school. I have a ton of friends that teach at hagwons and most of them only have good things to say. This is due in part to the fact that if people DO end up in bad hagwons, they usually don’t stay. And when I say “bad”, it usually boils down to the owners being sketchy with pay/hours/workload and all that. Most of the time, you can get a feel for how legit the hagwon is in the first couple of weeks, in which case you can get out early and find a different job. I’ll probably get a hagwon job this upcoming year up in Seoul and the only thing I’m not looking forward to are the hours. Public school jobs are usually from around 830/9am-430/5pm while hagwon hours are usually a bit later.

      Hope this helped and please let me know if you have any other questions! :)

  4. Ceri says: Reply

    Thanks for this post. I’m definitely trying to get myself prepared for Korea so this helped a lot. :-) And the link to the agency is fab because I was looking for another recommendation.

  5. I enjoyed your article. Even having taught in Korea for close to ten years I felt refreshed and reminded of my first experience in Korea to be appreciative of my time here.

  6. Tan says: Reply

    Thank you so much for your post I am going to be teaching in Ulsan as well through Footprints Recruiting also!

  7. What a great post! I think that a lot of your advice can is relevant for anyone living abroad anywhere – embrace surprise, take one day at a time, and hold on tight!!

    1. Thanks Reganking! You are absolutely right – when traveling ANYwhere, I try to use the same advice as well :)

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