In the last 70 years, South Korea has seen an incredible economic turnaround. Visit South Korea in 1950 and you would find an uneducated, impoverished population mostly engaged in farming. Today South Korea has the world’s 12th largest economy and one of the most highly educated populations. Analysts point to South Korea’s focus on educating its population as the key to its industrial and technological success. The country has no intention of backsliding and continues to increase academic expectations for its students. As a result, there are many opportunities for teachers of English to find work. For those trying to navigate the many options available to them, what are the pros and cons of teaching in South Korea?
Teaching abroad can be an enriching and satisfying experience. Those looking to teach in South Korea will find free housing with affordable food and transportation. Educational expectations are some of the highest in the world so teachers can expect schools and parents to support their efforts. The country itself is beautiful with many diverse regions to explore.
On the other hand, those looking to work in South Korea should be aware of some common pitfalls including long hours, stressed students and potential changes to signed contracts. Candidates are encouraged to research recruiters, potential schools, and employees of the school offering a contract in order to ensure they can experience all the benefits of living and working in South Korea.
Basics of the Education System in South Korea
South Korean students spend six years in primary school, three in middle school, and an additional three years in high school. The school day for the younger students often begins at 8 am and ends at 1 pm, where the older students will often remain in school until 4:30 pm.
After the public school day ends most students proceed to a private school known as ‘hagwon’. These private schools serve as enrichment and often focus on learning English. Students may attend more than one hagwon. This practice is so common the government required hagwons to be closed at 10 pm to prevent students from staying at school until midnight or later. Needless to say, Korean students are spending more time in school than many students around the world.
The average teacher salary in South Korea is around $20,000 and the average teacher of English will make between $1300 and $2600 per month if teaching at a public school, and between $2000-$3000/month if teaching at a hagwon. Only after working for six months are international workers eligible to join the National Health Insurance Service, South Korea’s national health insurance program. Prior to the six-month mark, teachers will need to seek out private health insurance coverage. Additionally, the national health insurance option may not cover treatment for significant diseases like cancer consequently supplemental health insurance is recommended.
The Pros of Teaching in South Korea
Travel should be a major pro if you are to spend time teaching in South Korea. South Korea is the perfect mix of ancient history, diverse environment and modern conveniences to make traveling a relaxing and enriching experience. In a country smaller than most states in the USA you can find mountains, forests, tropical islands and dynamic cities. There are 14 UNESCO World Heritage sites in South Korea with all but one in the category of culture. All of it is easily accessible using the country’s rail system.
The country-wide bullet rail system is exceptional, with the longest of its trips just under three hours. This means weekend trips around the country are entirely feasible and affordable. Round trips from Seoul to Busan will cost you less than $70 and Seoul to Daejeon are $30. Hotels can range from less than $45 a night for hostels and up to $99 for a quality hotel room. Flight time to Japan is less than 2 hours and you can get there on Korean Air for less than $100. Bali and Taiwan are nearby as well with travel less than 3 hours and airfare around $200.
Living and traveling in Korea will mean exposure to diverse and adventurous cuisine. Kimchi has become popular in the west but with 250 different types available in the country it is likely to be an entirely new experience. In major cities, street food is safe and delicious to eat, popular dishes include Korean fried chicken, sweet and savory stuffed pancakes and Korean corn dogs which are enormous and come in a wide variety of flavors compared to the traditional American version.
Each region of the country has its own take on traditional Korean dishes; those new to the country will never be bored.
By law, it is required that housing is provided to international teachers. For a single person this is typically a studio apartment, but couples looking to move together may have access to bigger accommodations. Utilities and internet are not covered but those are typically low cost and can range from $90-$120/month. Apartments can come furnished with furniture, cooktop, air conditioning, and washer. Most teacher apartments will be conveniently located a 5-15 min walk to the school.
The cost of living in South Korea is relatively cheap, especially if you stick to Korean food and products. A meal for one at an inexpensive restaurant should cost around $7.00 or less. A Mcdonald’s value meal is a little over $5.00. A monthly pass on city transportation is around $45.00.
The Cons of Teaching in South Korea
The expectations of students and teachers in the South Korean education system often far exceed what international teachers are familiar with. Private hagwon schools are notorious for asking teachers to work a significant amount of unpaid overtime. Additional tasks may include after-hours ‘phone’ teaching, Saturday hours, supervising after school activities and planning for special events and parent observation days. It is highly recommended teachers seeking positions ask about these additional tasks before signing any contracts.
Parents have high expectations for teachers and are known to complain if their children don’t bring home enough homework. Even young children between the ages of 3-5 are expected to have a significant amount of after school work despite grueling school days that may not routinely include recess. International teachers have reported they have cameras in their classrooms that may be watched by supervisors and sometimes parents.
The pressure on students of all ages can result in students who are agitated, tired and distractible. Some report the average hours of sleep for South Korean middle school students is four hours. This is far below the recommended and developmentally appropriate 8-10 hours. The combination of puberty, sleep deprivation, and pressure to succeed may not only make the teacher’s job more difficult, but be heart-wrenching to observe.
Housing is free and provided by the school, but this also means teachers do not get to choose or sometimes even see the accommodations before arriving. It is important to make sure words like ‘furnished’ and ‘clean’ are defined. There have been reports of teachers arriving to ‘furnished’ apartments that have nothing but a bed, or apartments that have not been cleaned since the last tenant.
Finally, the process of acquiring a position in South Korea can go very wrong if the candidate is not prepared to identify fraudulent recruiters. It is common for people to find their Korean teaching positions through recruiters, or individuals hired by schools to find qualified international teachers. It is important this person or organization is vetted by the candidate to ensure they will follow through if issues with housing or the school arise after arrival in Korea. It is not uncommon for employers to make changes to contracts after they are signed, and a reputable recruiter can intervene.
Teaching in South Korea is sure to be an adventure, if candidates are educated on the potential cons and actively try to avoid them, the experience has the potential to be meaningful personally and professionally.