I started looking into teaching abroad in my last semester of college – as a Spanish minor I was really interested in going to Spain but chose Korea in the end due to the money and likelihood of landing a better job.
I used a recruiter to identify possible jobs, interviewed over the phone or Skype, and ended up accepting one of the first offers I received to work in a hagwon. This might seem naive to all the ESL veterans out there and it was – but it was also exciting and after speaking to 2 current teachers I was convinced – I was going to teach in Seoul.
My contract was standard: I was paid 2.1 million won, received free housing and airfare, and the school handled all the heavy lifting during the visa process (with the exception of applying for the physical visa, which I did at the consulate in New York).
Despite only teaching in Korea for a year, I ended up having 3 apartments – the first was only for a week until another teacher left, at which point I moved into his (more on this below). For the first few months of my employment, my school was in the process of constructing a new building complete with apartments for the foreign staff that we ended up moving into in month 4 I think.
Apartments 1 and 3 were basic studios and fine for living – they both had double beds, a couch, private bathroom, washer, and a kitchen. My 2nd apartment, however, was a diamond in the rough and it was a sad day when I had to move out of it. It was a loft complete with a living room, balcony, and even a bathroom with a tub – an incredible luxury for those teaching in Korea.
It was so awesome that I ended up recording a quick tour, feel free to check it out for a glimpse into what your apartment might be like.
My School in Seoul
I went to school the first day after I arrived – I was picked up by a van filled with all the other teachers and that was how we met – in carpool (carpool stopped when the new school was completed as we could now all walk to work).
My first day was almost all training, getting to know the curriculum, observing classes, and meeting the rest of the staff. On the 2nd day, however, I actually taught a bit (with supervision) and met what essentially would become my ‘homeroom’ class.
The initial school was nothing to write home about – it was sandwiched into 2 floors of a building and to be honest I don’t remember that much about it. The new school, however, was awesome and a free-standing building in the heart of Seoul with 3 floors and a rooftop playground.
I made a video tour of it as well and after viewing a few of my friends’ schools I feel like most hagwons share a lot of similar characteristics.
My Students and Schedule
In classic hagwon fashion, the age and ability of my students changed throughout the day. I spent each morning teaching my primary kindergarten class (we rotated through 4-5 lessons a day) before taking on a primary school class early afternoon and then a middle school class later in the afternoon on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
My schedule was as follows:
- Monday/Wednesday/Friday: 9am-12pm, 1pm-6pm
- Tuesday/Thursday: 9am-12pm, 1pm-4:30pm
Yes, this is a lot of teaching. Yes, had I known better I would have considered an opportunity with fewer hours. But no, I don’t regret it.
I had some amazing students and most days I looked forward to almost all of my classes. Yes, of course some lessons flopped and I often felt like I had been thrown into the deep end (especially at the beginning), but the teaching time didn’t both me too much.
It was too much for others, however, and we had one couple do a runner (disappear and not show up for work) after 2 weeks and return to America.
The Staff and Administration
My school was owned by a single woman and staffed by about 5 full-time Korean staff and an equal amount of Korean co-teachers. The owner was an incredibly intense but caring person – she was difficult to work with sometimes but not mean spirited. On top of that she always took care of her staff, we frequently had group dinners and she was always receptive to our concerns, even if she didn’t agree with them.
The staff was also pleasant and certainly had the unenviable responsibility of dealing with 8 foreigners who didn’t speak enough Korean to order a pizza. They took care of the scheduling, billing, issues with our apartments, flights to and from Seoul, and curriculum management (if we needed a book or tool).
There are no shortage of horror stories out there about nightmare schools and owners, but I got lucky – the staff were easy to deal with, I got paid on time, and no issue ever went unaddressed (even if we had to bring it up a few times). If you’re just starting your job search for Korea, the best thing you can do to ensure you don’t get a terrible school is to speak to current teachers (speak to more than 1) – they’ve been in your shoes and will give you the truth.
Would I teach in Korea again?
In a heartbeat.
I absolutely loved my time teaching in Korea and regret leaving after only a year. Looking back I can recall some moments with incredible clarity – I remember my interview with the head teacher, I remember getting the job offer via email as I came out of a movie and the day I mailed off all my documents. Maybe even more importantly I remember my first and last days of school and the nervousness and sadness that accompanied each.
Teaching English in Korea was an incredible experience for me and I cannot say enough about my time in Seoul, the people I met, and the students I taught.
For a new teacher like myself, teaching in Korea was an adventure filled with new experiences both inside and outside the classroom. My experience was a bit trial-by-fire in that I felt unprepared and even with my training was extremely nervous to get in front of a classroom. Luckily, those butterflies faded quickly and I found myself looking forward to classes and bonding with my students.
I do remember hard days that just seemed to drag on and lessons that didn’t go well, but I was fortunate to have a bunch of other co-teachers to lean on for advice and even luckier that I am still friends with a few today.