Teaching English in South Korea: FAQs Part II

5:46 AM Jmo 0 Comments

It's that time of year again! Recruitment season! Emails! Oh my!

Lately I've been receiving emails from readers who are interested in teaching in South Korea and/or traveling abroad and I've been noticing a lot of similar questions. So, I decided to break them down into an FAQ: Part II to help out all you prospective expats out there!

Disclaimer: These are my experiences and opinions. While teaching in South Korea I worked for EPIK (English Program In Korea, South Korea's public school program). I do not have personal experience teaching at hagwons (private, after-school companies), but I can provide information from friends of mine who have. 

Question 1: How did you decide on South Korea, and teaching English abroad in general?

Moving to South Korea was my first experience living and teaching abroad. I initially chose South Korea because I already had a few friends there, but also because of the pay and benefits given to you by Korean schools compared to other countries. Plus, I’d always wanted to live and travel in Asia!

I'd first heard about teaching in South Korea through a friend of mine during my final semester of my BFA degree. She was leaving a month after I saw her to teach at a hagwon (private, after school program) outside of Seoul. She told me that her housing, medical insurance, and flight were all being paid for her by her school. She also told me that teaching in SOKO would afford her the opportunity to earn money WHILE traveling. I think I was sold after that.

Since I made the decision to teach, travel and live abroad I've made it to over 10 countries, 3 continents, and countless new cities and experiences. 

It's been the best decision of my life.

Interested in more details on the road to teaching ESL abroad? See my first FAQ: Here.

Hanok village, Seoul, South Korea

Question 2: What did you study in college? Did you have a plan for what you wanted to pursue after? Has that changed?

Oddly enough, I'm an artist! 

I received my BFA in drawing from Kendall College of Art & Design, Michigan, USA and I'm currently studying for my MA in Fine Art here in South Africa. I've exhibited in the United States, South Korea, and now here in South Africa. Art is and will always be a focus, but I'm always game for more. More, more, more…

My "life-path" is full of bends, winds, and curves. A straight line is a bit boring for me. I want to see and do it all. Being tied down to one career or label just doesn't appeal to me (Which is only something I've figured out about myself in the past few years.). 
I am and will always pursue art. But I also want to be a writer. A dance instructor. A researcher. A potter. A puppy-babysitter. (Is that a thing? Because I really hope it is.) I want to see and do it all. 

So yes, perhaps my goals after receiving my undergraduate degree have changed a bit. But that's the thing with travel. The more people you meet; the more people you see pursuing incredible passions, the more it makes you want to do, try, test, and experience it yourself. But, thankfully, teaching abroad allows you to work and save towards your other passions. 

I met an older, possibly 70+ year old British man in Thailand once who lived on an old WWII ship off the coast of an island in Greece. Him and his wife, who owned a little stationary shop, traveled around making parody videos of classic movies like Titanic for fun. 
Who knows? Maybe once day I'll want to do that. Ha!

I never thought I'd make it China. Yet, here I am!
Jinshanling, Great Wall, Beijing, China.

Gyeongbukgong Palace, Seoul, South Korea

Question 3: Did you find that the diet in South Korea led to any significant weight gain?

Personally? Well, yes. A bit.

Think about the Freshman 15: An enticing cocktail of new food, new freedoms, new social gatherings... new booze. The same can be said about expat-living in South Korea. You may or may not gain a little bit more than stories and experiences.
But, just like living at home, weight can be maintained with moderation and physical activity.

Typical Korean cuisine does rely heavily on carbohydrates and starches like rice, noodles, and potatoes. After a while I would ask the lunch ladies at my school to give me a half portion of rice, then I weened them down to no rice at all. It was a bit difficult for them to understand since rice is such a large part of Korean culture. But I asked them respectfully and sometimes would grab onto a love handle to make them giggle. 
There also tends to be high sodium levels in Korea cuisine that lend itself to tighter waistbands. But! Never fear. As more and more expats move to South Korea, more and more "Western" foods are appearing on grocery store shelves. But please, enjoy the food! Wherever you decide to travel and teach! Try. The. Local. FOOD. The shortest distance between two cultures is sharing food (and a beer!).  Don't drink? Swing on down to Question 9.

Hiking is also a large part of Korean culture. Grant it that the principle of your school may conclude every school-designated hiking trip with a ginormous meal and endless beer afterwards, but hey …at least you went hiking first!

Cass! Mekju! Beer!

A typical public school lunch. Oh how I miss it so!

Question 4: Did you learn a good amount of Korean while you were there and if so, was this facilitated by any language classes?

I did, I loved it, and boy was it helpful! EPIK’s 10-day orientation program provided a crash course into learning the Korean alphabet and basic phrases. After orientation EPIK provided a few after school Korean classes for English teachers that usually met weekly. 
There are also other opportunities outside of formal class. Language exchanges are very popular and are often run by Korean university students who want to improve their English. These language exchanges usually take place over dinner or coffee and you can meet a lot of new friends from all walks of life while improving your Korean.

The Korean alphabet is fairly easy to learn too! They say that you can learn the basics in 45 minutes, but it took me a bit longer. But even now, a few years later, I can still read it and speak a few conversational sentences. 

Learning to read Korean will be very helpful to you. Though most Korean restaurants and bus stations will have English there to assist you, some of the more traditional restaurants, shops, and stations do not. But never fear! If you can read Korean you find that some Korean words are actually English words written in English! For example: 치즈 is pronounced “Chi-jeuh”, AKA: cheese!

The early days of learning Hanguel.

Question 5: A friend of mine recently taught in South Korea and said that "having fun" during lessons was frowned upon. Is this true? I'd really like to teach children.

I am very shocked that your friend said that.

As mentioned previous, I taught in EPIK, South Korea's English public school program. I taught grades 3rd-6th and I'd estimate that 50% of my job was in fact creating games or activities that were outside the realm of strict blackboard teaching, AKA: fun!

We did everything from fashion shows to soccer games, relay races to animal-mask painting; anything to get the kids interested and having fun with English. Perhaps lesson rules are a bit stricter in some hagwons (after school programs), but with EPIK I had a lot of time designated to me for "games". Also, we were required to organize and teach Summer and Winter Camps while the school was on holiday. These camps were usually themed and structured with a few parts: Sports, Cooking, Art, and Golden Bell (a final quiz game). I had a lot of fun with my kiddos and I encourage you to do the same!

Rube Goldberg summer-camp creations.

Question 6: How much control do you have over the lesson plans?

If teaching with EPIK, you are required to follow along with a lesson book that is provided to you and a CDrom to match. These lessons are rough guidelines; mostly stories and grammar points that you can then supplement with games and activities. Honestly, this made lesson planning a breeze.
You do however have to follow general government curriculum and standards (EPIK). But I've been gone a few years now and I'm not sure what they are currently, but no worries that is your co-teachers job to inform you and keep things on track. 

In most ESL/EFL teaching positions in South Korea you, are paired with and work with one or many co-teachers. Some co-teachers are as new to this teaching style as you and you may have to work out the dynamic from scratch; which can definitely be to your benefit! Other teachers may prefer a 50-50 type of teaching style and some may prefer that you assist more rather than teach. It really all depends on your co-teachers. My co-teachers were extremely flexible and I'd often do most of the lesson-planning for the days that I taught with each one respectfully. We had a lot of fun together and I never felt like I was stepping on anyone's toes; or having mine stepped on for that matter!
Co-teaching is a bit of an art form and it can be a bit of a challenge; especially if you are used to ave your own classroom. but I really enjoyed it! I'm still friends with many of my co-workers to this day.

If you do decide to choose EPIK, the program itself hosts numerous co-teaching workshops and training opportunities to help further your co-teacher development and strategies.

Question 7: How did you get through your absolute worst days away from home?

Living away from home (or simply the familiar) can be a roller coaster. Highs and lows, pits and peaks. It's true I've had my fair share of days since leaving the US that have been difficult and enough to make me question my sanity. Not every day away is rose-tinted and smelling of flowers, sometimes it's a stinky durian left on the side of the road. But you get through it. 

Vent! Venting is healthy. Not complaining. Venting. And that's exactly what you should do. Don't bottle up your feelings alone. Vent. Global English teaching is booming at the moment. You will not have to go far to find a like-minded shoulder to cry on. This is especially true for larger cities in South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Expat communities are large and more often than not experiencing the same feelings you are.

Write. I found that if I wrote about an experience, or just a general shit-day, that something as simple as finding an accurate and creative way to express what you were feeling was exactly what was needed. That’s actually how this blog started.

Rediscover. I found that rediscovering something you found exciting in your "Honeymoon Phase” is helpful in wiping the grime off those rose-tinted glasses. Go to that place, eat that meal, listen to that song; whatever it is an reflect back on who you were when you first arrived versus who you've become. This bit of in-context self reflection will no doubt be an optimistic reminder that this is in fact a learning experience. And with all learning experiences there are mistakes and pit-falls but, regardless, we are still better for having had them.

I compiled a list of Tips to Curb Expat Homesickness. You can check it out: Here

Question 8: Is it safe? I mean, North Korea and all..

South Korea is safe, yes. It's one of the safest countries I've ever traveled in and quite possibly the safest country I've ever lived, including the United States. But like every other country you travel or live in, including your own, you need to be smart. Be aware of your surroundings and remember, not everyone is on vacation or gap year like you. 

Of course, things happen. Things happen in every country. Just be smart. 

And as for North Korea... most South Koreans rarely give the "doom and gloom" lurking beyond the border a second thought in their daily lives. 

I did however visit the 38th parallel, DMZ area separating the North and South. That was an interesting experience. I highly suggest you organize a visit through the USO during your time in Korea. It is a moving, educational, and bewildering place. 

Visiting the DMZ, on the border between North and South Korea.

Question 9: Would you consider it reasonably safe as a young, single female to travel Southeast Asia alone and, did you ever travel alone or were you always with a group? 

Once again, yes but be smart. 

Using Korea as a jumping off point, I traveled to many countries in South East Asia solo. Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia… It was an incredible adventure. But, you do have to take precaution as a solo-woman traveler. Walk with purpose. Conceal your money. All the usual preventative measures to ensure a fun and safe route from point A to point B. 
Personally, I didn’t encounter anything that would make me not want to do the trip all over again. 

I thoroughly enjoy traveling alone. But if the road becomes a bit too lonely, you will no doubt find friends along the way. After my EPIK contract finished I embarked on a lengthy backpacking trip through South East Asia; most of which was done solo. Halfway through Vietnam in Hoi An I met an amazing Australian girl in a hostel, we became friends, and traveled the rest of the length to Ho Chin Min City together. Hostels are great like that. Hostels and backpackers can also help organize group tours or direct you to companies that do. There are also many expat-centered excursion companies in South Korea. These groups organize everything from zip lining to roof top pool parties. 

Woman crossing the street in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Question 10: I don't drink. Is that a problem?

South Korea does have a large drinking culture. Beer and soju (Korean rice alcohol) flow well into the night 7 days a week. But you can abstain. You will most likely be offered to drink at teacher dinners, but if you let your school know early on that you are not comfortable drinking alcohol, they will respect that.
It is however Korean custom to pour drinks for elders and superiors. If your principle pours you a drink (even if it’s a Coke), this is a sign of respect and you should return the favor. 

Question 11: Do you have any regrets/self-consciousness about where you are in your life right now? I come from a place where it seems everyone in their early to mid-20s are either getting married and/or pregnant, or working towards their PhDs. How do you reconcile this?

No. No regrets. The only regret that I’d have is if I had not taken the leap.
Don’t waste your time on social pressures or comparing your life choices to others! It's your life and if you want to travel...DO IT! Please, do it. Having regret is far worse than having a passport full of stamps. 
I just turned 28. I’m not married and I do not have children. But I’ve walked the Great Wall of China. I’ve climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge. I drank local moonshine in a hut in the mountains of Northern Vietnam! Perhaps I will fulfill those other check boxes at a later date, perhaps not! But different strokes for different folks. Just don’t let social pressures thwart you from seeing or doing the things you want to see and do. Life’s too short man.
And besides, teaching contracts in South Korea are usually 1 year long and one year abroad is worth it. You never know where it'll take you. And if one year is enough, great! Then you can go back to your original life-path having a new outlook, perspectives, and experiences to enrich it. 

I don’t know anyone who has regretted going abroad. But I do know a fair share that regret not going.

My 27th birthday! Not too bad I'd say...!

Question 12: Where are you now? How has the expat lifestyle influenced your future plans?

As mentioned previous, I am currently in South Africa studying for my MA in Fine Art. I am still teaching ESL, but my classroom has moved from physical to online. 

The past 4-5 years have been an incredible and eye-opening experience. I’ve gained confidence, world perspective, and opportunity. This lifestyle is addicting and I can’t see myself giving it up any time soon.

Cape Town, South Africa. 2016.

If you have any questions not on this list, be sure to check out my first FAQ: Here

Still haven't found your question? Message me in the comment section below and I'll be sure to get back to you!

Explore on.

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