Teaching English abroad has been the adventure of a lifetime. What started as a 1-year-stint (because I wanted to continue traveling after studying abroad in Australia) has turned into 4-going-on-5 years of teaching English in both South Korea and Spain. It’s allowed me to live in two different continents like a local and experience traveling on a completely different level.
So how is teaching in Spain vs. teaching in Korea? I wouldn’t be able to say which is better, because both have been very different experiences, so we’ll compare in different categories – Money, Cost of Living, Teaching Experience and Lifestyle. I’ll be comparing teaching at both a public and private school in Korea, and also a public school in Spain.
These are all my own personal experiences and not a general consensus of each type of job or country. I also lived in 2 very different cities in Korea – my first year I was in Ulsan, which is a fairly small city, and my second year I was in Busan, the second largest city in South Korea. I taught at a public school and then a private school, respectively.
Money (Monthly/Yearly Pay)
Korea (Public School)
*For Korea, this is one full year of work: March – February.
No, this isn’t the most important part, but it’s the driving factor for a lot of people. Not every teaching job is the same in either country – pay varies from job to job, but here’s my personal experience: At the public school, I was paid 2.1 million won a month (roughly $2000USD) but from this amount, health insurance (~$90/month) and pension (~$100/month) were deducted. For Americans, you can work tax-free for 2 years (so no taxes in the US or in Korea) and pension is taken out monthly, which your employer will match and the total will be returned to you when you leave Korea.
In addition, I was given a ~$200 settlement allowance when I first arrived, 1.3 million won to fly to Korea and another 1.3 million to fly back home (or wherever your next adventure is), ~2 million bonus for completing the year (1 month of work) and ~2 million for pension that had been collecting over the year. Yes you read that correctly – they literally gave me about 5.3 million (~$5000) when I left my first year. When you stay multiple years, these numbers double and triple.
*As noted in the above graphic, the currency exchange is reflective upon the current rate
Korea (Private School)
Private schools are more or less the same as public, depending on your employer. There’s more risk for you to get less than what you’re legally owed (I didn’t receive pension at my private school) and some schools/academies are more legit than others. I’ve heard plenty of stories about people working at hagwons and getting completely screwed over (fired the last month of school so they didn’t get their bonuses, the employer promising bonuses originally and then making up excuses not to give them, etc etc). That’s why it’s always good to have a contract and make sure your boss knows you won’t take their shit (spoken like a true American, I know).
While I didn’t receive pension, the bonus or flight allowance, I still got paid 2.2 million a month (tax free again and this time with no pension or health insurance deducted) and received a settlement allowance of around ~$200USD.
Spain (Public School)
*For Spain, it’s for 9 months of work, so summer isn’t included and you are free to find your own work or not.
I work at a public school through the Language and Culture Assistants program by the Spanish Ministry. I believe teachers in most areas of Spain get paid €700 but in Madrid, we get €1000/month. Health insurance is included with no fees taken out monthly and this amount is also tax-free for Americans. No other allowances are granted (you must pay your way to Spain and there aren’t any extra bonuses or pension when you leave).
Cost of Living
*Note that these prices greatly reflect the area I lived in and that my first year in Korea I was in a smaller city and my second year I lived right by the beach.
Korea (Public School)
- Rent: Included/Free. Yep, accommodation is included if you weren’t already convinced to move to Korea.
- House Utilities: About 30,000 won/month for gas, electricity and water
- Internet: 20,000 won/month
- Cell Phone: 65,000 (this was for an iPhone that I had brought unlocked from the States. I used Olleh which I never had problems with.)
- Public Transportation: I spent approximately 30,000-50,000/month on the bus (~1,100 won per trip) when I lived in Ulsan because the boyfriend and I lived and worked about 45 min away from each other.
Korea (Private School)
- Rent: Included/Free. If you decide you want to find your own place, my school offered a 400,000 won/month bonus to cover your rent. The boyfriend and I lived together this year so we received an extra 400,000, which covered all of our bills + our monthly Costco trip.
- House Utilities: Since we lived in a nice area close to the beach, it was about 200,000 won/month (this included a monthly 65,000 for building maintenance and admin fees that aren’t super common)
- Internet: 40,000 won/month
- Cell Phone: I opted not to pay for a cell phone anymore and bought a “WiFi Egg” through Olleh. This was a little device that was basically a Hot Spot I could connect my phone and computer to. It was 10,000 won/month for 10gb of data.
- Public Transportation: About 20,000 won/month. We could walk to school, the beach and many bars and restaurants.
Spain (Public School)
- Rent: We pay €850/month (€425 each) which might seem expensive but we live right in the center of Madrid in our own (beautiful!) place. We’ve heard of people paying as low as €275 (for one person) – but this is in a shared place and sometimes not right in the center.
- House Utilities: ~€100/month (for the entire flat)
- Internet + Cell Phone: €62 for unlimited fiber-optic (300mbps) + €6 for 2 cell phones (4.2 gb data split between the two of us) via Movistar.
- Public Transportation: We each buy a monthly pass for the metro/train/bus – mine is €55/month because I only travel within the center (Zone A) and Nate’s is €82 because he travels almost to the furthest zone for work
Eating Korean food is super cheap but foreign food can be pricey. Drinking can be cheap if you buy Soju, but drinks at bars are usually upwards of 5,000 won. There are plenty of cheap/free things to do in Korea – festivals, temples, hiking, beaches etc. There’s also tons of shopping to do and weird Korean things to experience. Or you can just go to Thursday Party, play foosball and drink jager bombs like we did most weekends :P.
It’s easy to find cheap places to eat delicious food (under €10 for a meal) and plenty of high-end restaurants for the foodies. Drinking out is surprisingly cheap – a beer or a glass of wine is usually under €2 at a bar and we’ve found plenty of places that have €2 tequila shots too :P. There are lots of beautiful places to see in Madrid and if you’re an art buff, Madrid has some of the best museums in Europe. And of course, there’s the option to travel for pretty cheap all around Europe.
Teaching in Korea is your standard 40 hours/week job. I taught at a middle school Monday – Friday from 830am – 430pm. I had 18 different classes of about 36 students each that I saw once a week and was in charge of planning and executing the entire lesson. My co-teacher would usually stand in the back of the class and help if the kids got out of control. For some reason, class gets cancelled a lot at middle schools, so on average, I would teach about 14 classes a week, leaving me with 26 hours of “desk warming”. I was the only foreign teacher at my school also, which was pretty common. More details about teaching middle school HERE.
Nate taught at an elementary school and would usually actually co-teach. Meaning, he and his co-teachers would plan the lesson together and would split the teaching 50/50, which was fairly common at elementary schools.
Time off at the public schools is generally 2 weeks off in winter and 1 week off in summer. Taking days off otherwise can be difficult, depending on your school.
Our school was a bit unique because there were 10 of us foreign/native English teachers and it was an English immersion school. So we all had our own class of kindergarteners (for some reason, there are 3 ages of kindergarteners, 5/6/7-year-olds) that we taught for about 5 hours a day (more details HERE). Then in the afternoon, we taught 3 after-school English lessons to smaller groups (this is the “hagwon”/academy side of the school). Most of our lessons were just book-work so very little prep was involved.
Overall, having my own class was so much more rewarding and the best teaching experience I’ve had. I had much more freedom as a teacher, I could work with my students more individually and actually see their progress.
Time off at hagwons/private schools will depend on your school. I got one week off during the summer and then every major holiday. Getting time off outside these dates was nearly impossible.
Teaching in Spain gives you a lot more free time. I teach Tuesday – Friday (3 day weekends every weekend!) and 16 in-class hours. I teach 17 classes a week at a secondary school (11-18 year olds). I’m technically not the “teacher”, but an “assistant”, although I still often teach the entire class. I’m one of 4 English assistants at a “Bilingual” school. This means the students are learning many subjects in English so I actually teach science and music in addition to English. I teach with ~5 different teachers and so their use of me varies from me sitting at the desk occasionally translating a word or correcting pronunciation, to giving presentations, leading discussions and coordinating games and activities.
My schedule varies each day. My first year, my timetable was Tuesdays: 1140am – 125pm, Wednesdays: 920am – 220pm, Thursdays: 920am – 220pm, Fridays: 830am-220pm. Then I have evening private lessons (“clases particulares”) on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
I’ve always loved teaching the little ones but teaching at a high school has also been incredibly rewarding. We’ve talked a lot about current issues and politics and I was able to relate to my students much more and have actual, real conversations with them. But also, they’re still hormonal teenagers so there’s that.
Spaniards love holidays and days off so there is usually at least one day off a month in addition to your 3 day weekends. Winter break is around 2 weeks off, Easter is a week off and then there’s 3 months of [unpaid] summer vacation. Getting time off is doable, depending on your school. Many schools will let you trade days around to extend your holidays.
Cultural Differences & Lifestyle
Korea was hard to adjust to at first – and even in the end, there were some things that still drove me crazy. Things tend to be last minute and unplanned, you sometimes never know what people want because they can be so evasive and indirect, and of course, the communication barrier can be impossible (learning Korean is effing hard). Overall though, the people are amazing. They’re kind and funny and Korea is incredibly safe. They take a lot of pride in their culture and love to share things about their country. They also party surprisingly hard, which was a bonus:). Going out for group lunches/dinners often is the norm (I miss you, Korean BBQ!) and there are always things to do (festivals, events, street markets, etc).
The people here are great as well. Spaniards (or at least Madrileños) are super social and helpful. Spain is also a western country, so I haven’t experienced as many culture shocks as I did in Korea. The siestas (midday naps) threw me off in the beginning because a lot of places are closed from ~2-5pm, but you get used to it! Their daily schedules overall are a bit “delayed” – dinner around 9pm, going out around midnight. In general, I would say the living’s much easier here (and in Korea as well) than in the States. Maybe it’s because of my lifestyle or job, but I have far fewer responsibilities and the stress level is way lower. Traveling is incredibly easy (i.e. $70 roundtrip flights to London or a $10 bus to Barcelona) and there are tons of groups/clubs/Meetups/activities to do around the city, along with festivals and fairs during most of the year.
Overall Pros & Cons
- Make a lot of money, save a lot of money
- Delicious food
- Completely different experience outside your comfort zone
- Completely different experience outside your comfort zone
- Language/cultural barrier
- Not a lot of time off
- 3 day weekends!
- Easy to travel around Europe + soooo many places to see
- It’s Europe.
- Low pay, not a lot of opportunity to save money
- Not technically a teacher but an “assistant”
Teaching in either country is an incredible experience and this post hardly does is justice. You’ll meet amazing people who will become your family, discover hidden gems off the beaten track, eat exotic food, have a thousand adventures and misadventures along the way, and check off a million more travel cliches that always annoyed you (✓Cheers-ing under the Eiffel Tower, ✓Motorbiking selfie in Thailand, ✓Finding every Game of Thrones filming location in Croatia and pretending to be Khaleesi, etc etc :P)
Try it for 6 months or stay for 5 years. Go with a friend or by yourself. It’s not nearly as difficult as it seems to drop everything and move to another country. I can’t promise the entire transition or experience will be easy but I swear it’s absolutely hundo-P worth it:).
Click HERE to learn how to teach English in South Korea
Click HERE to apply to teach English in Spain
If you’re already a teacher, click HERE for games and activities to use in the classroom