[Twenty-One] Advice on Teaching and other Education Jobs in Korea

Dear readers,

I hope this blog entry finds you well. I cannot believe how long it has been since I last posted on Chomsongdae!

It has been just over 4 months since I have permanently moved to Korea after years of going back and forth. Adjusting to life in Korea after living in Canada for over 10 years was definitely not easy. You won't be able to imagine all the adventures, challenges, and also fun that I have had here.

Where do I start? Well, I guess I should start from the beginning. I initially came here because I had a job offer, but, well long-story short, things didn't work out as smoothly as I wanted. I worked hard in the summer at a K-12 school here, but decided to move on from that opportunity.

Education is a huge industry in Korea. As such, there are many different kinds of schools. To name just a few, there are public, private, international, "foreign", and specialty schools (in golf, tourism, design, farming...you name it!). On top of that there are "cram-schools" or "after-school education institutes" called 학원 (hag-won) that students here go to after-school and during vacations. If you're interested in education, Korea is an exciting place to be because there is a great deal of innovation and R&D in this field here. 

If you have ever thought about teaching English in Korea, I am sure that you have heard of English hag-wons before. You'll find everything from your standard book-based hag-wons to play-based hag-wons and focusing on topics ranging from practical English to preparing for the NEAT test (the National English Ability Test), which was developed by the Korean government as an alternative to tests like TOEFL. 

In addition there are a myriad of other learning institutes that teach other foreign languages, art, sports, and more. Trust me, there is more to Korean education than rote-memorization and English cram-schools.

As you can see there are a variety of different education-related businesses in Korea. Not only is the competition between schools and institutes is fierce, but also among the prospective parents and students to these places. Word about the best English institute in Gangnam (강남/gahng-naam) spreads quickly and news about the school with bullying problems is known by people in the industry. 

No doubt, there are great teachers and administrators in this country who truly care for the students in a way I have not seen elsewhere. There are teachers here who are more like a mother or a father to their students-- coaching them and helping them realize their dreams, even if it means opening up their own pockets to do so. Koreans also show their respect to their teachers every year on May 15 on 스승의날 (seu-seung ehh nal). 

However, this is not always the case (of course, like in any other country). Some people teach in English hag-wons because it's simply easy to find a English-teaching job, not because they have a particular interest in ESL or teaching. Some administrators here are mainly interested in the profits to be gained in this lucrative industry.

I am not describing my particular experience in the above paragraph and will not elaborate. But, to say the least, I had quite the experience... It was a shock for someone like myself who had never directly experienced the dark secrets of this industry before. 

My experience should not be taken as a representation of the experiences of others working in the field of education in Korea, but I wanted to write this entry to use my experience to give advice for anyone who is considering teaching or education administrative jobs in this country, or frankly anywhere.

What I have learned from this experience is:

1) Do your research! Teaching abroad will be a huge change for you--whether you're working at an international school/institute with other expats or working mainly with domestic Koreans. Take an interest in reading education-related news in Korea--but do read between the lines a little bit (why was this article written, what information has been omitted, etc.) and read widely (big-name papers to small local papers--another reason to pursue #2). 

2) It doesn't matter what you're thinking of teaching here, it would help tremendously to learn Korean. It will help you to live a much more independent life here and help you to talk to people dealing with HR who don't speak English extensively. Remember, you can't always rely on help from your respective country's embassies for difficulties you face when working in private companies.

3) Make Korean friends or get to know people who have taught in Korea before and ASK about reputable and stable schools. You will probably learn more when you're here on the ground, but it's best if you prepare ahead as much as possible.

4) Always have a back-up plan. Sure the school might look very nice on the outside, but you really don't know what's going on internally unless you work there. Do you have someone you can stay with in Korea? Do you have enough money to purchase airfare to go back home? 

5) Consider taking Bachelor's of Education or CELTA before coming here. This will help you to be an attractive candidate at all schools. 

Really my tips here can be summarized into: "Ask yourself, are you truly interested in teaching in Korea? If yes, make sure you prepare for it as best as you can!"

I hope this entry does not scare-off anyone thinking about education jobs in Korea or elsewhere. You know, I had a bad experience, but I am hopeful (and know it is realistically possible) that I will find a better opportunity here. In addition, with such high interest in education in this country, schools and institutes that face problems will have to solve these issues sooner or later to survive. 

As long as one tries to find a school with the realization that there is not "perfect" school offering the "perfect" condition anywhere, I think you will be fine! And even if you find yourself stuck in an uncomfortable situation, I hope that it will (at the end) be a good learning experience for you. Keep your head up!

Praise to all you educators and administrators who are committed to building schools that truly value its staff, students, parents, and the local & global community.