Living and teaching English in South Korea is a fantastic way to move beyond the tourist-tinted perspective of a country and really immerse yourself in a new culture. For many, this will also mean stepping outside of their comfort zones. However, it is also the opportunity of a lifetime to learn a new language, form new friendships, and learn more about the world that you live in.
Where to teach
In South Korea, the choice with regard to schools comes down to whether you would like to teach in a public school or private. Both come with their own advantages and disadvantages, so it’s really a matter of preference. Public schools usually have bigger classes, and teachers work 22-24 hours a week on average, from Monday to Friday. The experience of working in a public school, under the Korean Ministry of Education, can also be more immersive as you may discover that you are the only native speaker working in that particular school. This makes it a great option for those wanting to practice the local language with their co-workers.
Private schools on the other hand generally offer higher rates of pay, though this is accompanied by longer days, and you could find yourself teaching 30 hours a week. Classes tend to be smaller, and you’ll have fellow ex-pat colleagues, giving you an automatic social circle of peers to connect with. Private schools are a good choice for those wanting to save some money whilst also getting to explore a new part of the world. Here’s a great guide to teach English in South Korea if you want further information on both the country and available TEFL courses.
Getting set up
You can expect to pay up to 40% of your salary on a standard one-bedroom apartment in South Korea. Naturally, costs are likely to be higher in bigger cities, averaging around $700 a month in Seoul, and around $450 in Busan. If you would also like to drive, most driving licenses from across the world are accepted for use so long as they are accompanied by an international permit. You’ll need to acquire this in your home country before arriving in South Korea. Be aware that this combination of your license and an international permit is only valid for one year, and is not renewable. After this, you’ll have to start the lengthier process of exchanging your license for a Korean one.
Opening a bank account is relatively straightforward. You should go in person, no appointment necessary, and bring all of the relevant documents with you. Most branches will have staff who speak English, especially in bigger cities like Seoul. You’ll need your Alien Residence Card (ARC), your visa, and your Korean phone number. Bring your proof of employment just in case too. Also note that the banking hours could differ to your home country’s, and as a rule of thumb, banks are typically closed over the weekend.
An interesting cultural shift has been taking place in South Korea amongst the younger generation, who have started pushing back against the pressure to be high achievers. South Korea is known for having a high-pressure society, but with a rise in depression and loneliness, more people are starting to embrace a culture of resting. The emerging culture has taken the form of a rising number of young people resigning from their jobs and prioritizing their happiness and confidence. This works in the favor of those wanting to live and teach in South Korea, but who may have previously been intimidated by the infamous intense work ethic there.
When looking for your own way to wind down after a day of teaching, visiting the Gwangjang Market is a popular choice for those that are based in Seoul. Whilst Western food can usually be found in the bigger cities, the market is a chance to get a real taste of South Korea. With around 200 food stalls and plenty of benches to grab a seat, there’s everything from kimchi to seafood and lots of the Korean dietary staple: rice. You can find more tips on what else you can get up to on my article on things to do in South Korea.
It can be easy to accidentally offend people from cultures that are vastly different from your own if you are not versed in what you shouldn’t be doing. In South Korea one of the big cultural no-no’s involves feet. Typically seen as dirty, avoid sitting cross-legged in public spaces, propping your feet on train or bus seats, and expect to remove your shoes if entering someone’s home. In addition to this, as a teacher, you should steer clear of marking in red pen, as this is the color used to write the names of the dead. Lastly, if you are in a rush, don’t be tempted to eat or drink on the go as it isn’t a common phenomenon and you may be considered rude.
Knowing what to do is equally important, and when eating at someone’s home, you should always wait for someone to pour your drink for you, and then likewise do it for someone else. Mealtimes are usually enjoyed in silence, so embrace these quiet moments too to be considered a polite part of Korean culture. When using chopsticks, do also remember to rest them alongside your plate, careful not to leave them standing up or pointing at anyone. If in doubt, follow the example of others at the table, or simply ask.
With all of the above information, making the step to live and teach in South Korea should feel both far more attainable and far less daunting. It is only a matter of doing your research, and being as prepared as possible before your arrival. Teach through example by not being afraid to make mistakes. Instead utilize them as opportunities to learn from, be them a social faux pas or linguistic, just like you’d expect your students to. The rest, and how you choose to spend your time in South Korea, is entirely up to you.