Ultimate Guide to Teaching in Korea
How exactly do you become and English Teacher in South Korea and what are your options? This guide puts together everything I know, every useful link, and over a month of additional research in March, 2015 to make sure I have up to date info. If I made any errors, feel free to add it in the comments and I’ll make sure to update ASAP. Just FYI, this is mostly useful to American citizens.
A – Pre-Qualifications
1) Do You Even Want to Teach Here?
While not a ‘rule,’ the amount of disgruntled expats in SK is alarming. Some hate their particular job, some hate everything about teaching, and some can’t stand Korea in general. Korea can be amazing, but only if you really want to be there.
2) Citizenship in an English Speaking Country
You must be a citizen of the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, South Africa, or Ireland. You don’t have to be born in said countries, but it is asked that you did at least middle school and above there.
3) Bachelor’s Degree from an English Speaking University and Country
To legally get a decent job, you must have a 4-year (3 for Canadians) degree in any major. Bi-lingual countries like Canada have exceptions as degrees from French speaking Unis in Quebec are generally not accepted.
Edit: 5/20/2015 – The public school programs are now requiring a TEFL of TOEFL Certificate.
You passed the test, and are ready to go. Be aware that the process can take anywhere from 11 weeks absolute minimum to over 4 months. Long story short, don’t expect to look for a job and be in Korea by next month, it just isn’t going to happen.
B – Paperwork
Most things are relatively easy to get, but there is one limiting factor that drags the entire process to a snail-like pace, and that’s…
1) FBI Criminal Background Check (CBC)
Pre-2011ish, all you needed was a State-Level CBC, but that’s changed. Here is the FBI website with instructions. All other paperwork takes a week or two to gather at most, but this takes from 10-16 weeks (from the day you mail your fingerprints in).
Read this guide first before submitting your CBC.
When it arrives, you must get the CBC..
- Notarized – Go to a notary public to get the CBC notarized. To do this, you have to make a statement swearing that this is a legitimate document (known as an affidavit). The cheapest and easiest notaries are at the UPS store, which charge ~$10. (Not available everywhere)
- Verified – After getting the affidavit, you need to get the signature verified. Every notary is registered in a county registrar/clerk that can verify that this indeed is a legitimate notary public. For this reason, before doing the affidavit, ask the notary where they are registered because you will need to go there. Make sure the notary knows you will verify the signature because they must sign the affidavit exactly as the signature that is on file. I learned the hard way, that this indeed is a big deal.
- Apostilled – You can think of an apostille as an “internationally recognized notary public.” Their seal is what Korean officials want to see. Apostilles are handled at the state level, so every state is different. Go here to find out about your state. It should be noted that while they might say that you can skip the ‘verified’ step on their website, I have personally been rejected for not doing it.
While I have always done it the option #1 way, doing some research on the same guide I linked above leads me to believe this getting a “Federal Apostille” is much quicker and less of a headache. There are several options on getting one, but again, read the guide before moving forward.
2) Copy of your original bachelor’s (or above) degree
You will need to make a copy of your degree. From here, follow the same process as he CBC above to get it apostilled. If for whatever reason, your English speaking University decided to get all fancy and give out degrees in Latin (which happens), you will need to get it translated first. Furthermore, if you are a recent grad and a degree is not yet available, you can get a letter from your school, which will also need to be notarized, verified, and apostilled.
Like any job, a resume is required and the more relevant experience the better. It should be noted that experience teaching in a foreign country, and Korea in particular, is looked on a lot better than experience back home. Exceptions, of course, are for registered teachers which are preferred.
This is not required for the visa, but both of my employers as well as many others I applied to expressed that they would like to see them. It is good to have on hand a few sealed ones just in case.
After all of these documents are acquired, you will have to mail them to your prospective employer so that they can sponsor you for a visa. Since the CBC takes forever, it is a good idea to look for jobs after you have already submitted your fingerprints to the FBI, but hopefully, before it arrives to reduce the total time wasted in this process.
C- What Are My Teaching Options?
You have three major options, and a few minor ones listed further below.
1) Hagwon / “Private Academy”
There is no real American equivalent, but the closest is something like Sylvan Learning Center mixed with a private school. Education is huge in Korea and a large amount of the population invests in these ‘hagwons’ that teach anything from English to how to build LEGOs.
English is one of the more popular hagwons, so a lot of them employ ‘native speakers’ to distinguish themselves from those that only employ Korean teachers. The benefits of this is in (hopefully) developing a natural accent and having a more speaking-oriented English experience, as opposed to the Korean style of focusing on grammar and writing. The drawbacks are that the majority of hired teachers have little to no experience, relying on a ‘crash course’ (if that) prior to beginning lessons. This is often one of the bigger complaints by first time teachers in Korea. Furthermore, this is a business and perception of success is often more important than actual progress. Be aware that there are some schools who will only employ you to be a pretty face, not to actually do any teaching. Great schools are plentiful too, so tips on distinguishing the two are further down.
- Higher Level Students
- Students in hagwons usually attend for years. Unless you teach pre-school, they are rarely blank slates. From talking to teachers in the EPIK program (further down), teaching lower levels can be frustrating and a sharp difference in ability is noticeable.
- Higher Pay
- This can vary, but a beginner teacher can expect to make anywhere from 2.1-2.3 million on per month (roughly 2,000-2150 USD). Salaries of 3.0-3.5 are rare, but not unheard of for those with experience.
- You Know Where You Will Teach
- You will know exactly what city / province you will be teaching in prior to accepting a position.
- Set Curriculum
- Different companies and franchises use and advertise a certain program which they have been using for years. While it is good to have a lesson plan, the general framework is set.
- The Hours are Long
- Hagwons , are often after-school programs or a hybrid of morning (for kindergarten) and after-school. Expect to work at least 8 hours, but it is not unusual to put in 9-10 hour days.
- Subject to Scams
- This hasn’t happened to me personally, but some teachers have had jobs that are late with paying, withhold things they agreed to, and basically don’t deliver on what was promised.
- It’s a Business
- Most principals and directors are businessmen first, and educators a very distant second, but exceptions do exist! My first year in Korea, the boss showed up about 5-6 times the whole year and blatantly told me he’d rather gamble in Vegas and Singapore than be there.
- Another danger is the school closing before your year is finished. In one occasion, a friend of mine arrived in Korea only to find out his new school had just gone out of business!
- Vacation is Shorter
- Typically, you are allowed one week in the winter and one week in the summer in addition to 15 national holidays. Said holidays could land on weekends though, so it might be less. You will learn to love Chuseok (3 days off) and Seollal (2 days off)!
- Money – In my experience, FETs (Foreign English Teachers) in Korea aren’t very good with numbers and trust me, employers use that against you. Make a chart to find out how much you are REALLY being offered. Standard benefits include:
- Paid Round-trip Flight – for my nearest airport, this is $1200 USD or $100 a month
- Half Medical Insurance – It is required, equivalent to $60 a month. You usually pay the other half.
- Rent – My place was worth ~$400-$600 a month, but it varies. Keep in mind, if they don’t provide housing, Korea usually requires a deposit of 3-15,000 USD (more or less depending on your place) which you might have to put up out of pocket. Chungdamn (a huge hagwon chain) is one I personally find dishonest for making their pay look good by giving you a stipend instead of an apartment for their ‘hourly workers.’ Do the math, it is not worth it.
- Severance – You are due one month extra pay upon completing a year contract. This is the law and anyone avoiding this is probably not someone you want to work for.
- Pension – Everyone in Korea pays into a mandatory pension program (similar to Social Security). The difference is that it is actually saved money (unlike SS) and you are due to cash out if you leave Korea. Most foreign teachers don’t stay for the rest of their lives, so it is a nice chunk of change when you leave (equivalent to about a month’s pay per year, plus accumulated interest). Two possible scams here. Some just don’t offer it making some excuse. This is a red flag, so don’t work for them. Another trick is offering you 2.2% pension. Pension is 2.2%-4.5% and is YOUR choice. The employer must match it, so it’s a 100%+ investment. You’d be stupid not to. Legit employers just straight up advertise 4.5%.
- How To Know if your School is Good – When it comes right down to it, like any job, it is hard to know for sure. Here is my #1 tip.
- The Interview – Chances are, you will not be hired without an interview with the director of the school or an official of some kind (if you are, red flag). Ask questions regarding the responsibilities, the students, and anything you might be curious about. Ask for the emails of current teachers along with pictures of the accommodation. Most importantly however, think about the kinds of questions THEY ask YOU. A red flag to me is when a principal asks no questions related to education or experience. A director that cares about the education part of his business is someone you want to work for.
2) Public School System / EPIK
Students from the third grade and up are required to take an English course as part of the normal curriculum. These days, a ‘native speaker’ is hired to fill in the task in addition to a Korean teacher who teaches grammar and makes connections with the Korean language. Note that this program is gradually being phased out.
- As a government program, you won’t have to worry much about getting scammed out of your pay.
- Hagwons can be hit or miss but the public school system is fairly stable.
- Longer Vacation
- Generally, you are allowed about 4-6 weeks vacation per year in addition to national holidays.
- Lower Pay
- Here is a pay scale of what you get with the EPIK program.
- You Can’t Choose Location
- They put you where you are needed and you will know this upon arriving in Korea. This means that you could be in Seoul or in the country side somewhere in Gangwon-do. You are allowed to give your top 3-5 choices though and they pick from those.
- Class size
- Hagwons are usually limited to 10-15 students per class. Public schools have twice to 3 times as many students.
- Different Locations
- Depending on where you work, you might be required to commute between multiple schools.
- Less, if any, Foreigner Co-workers
- Personally, I liked have enjoyed having other foreigners in the work place. On the other hand, being the only foreigner pushes you to learn Korean and consequently, you probably get a grip of Korean society much faster than those who don’t leave the foreign bubble. This can go either way. At the end of the day though, it is what you make of it as you can find foreign friends outside of work and you can push yourself to learn Korean and adapt on your own.
- Level of Students
- Kids in the public school system will often be of a lower English level than kids who have been going to hagwons for years. This can make teaching frustrating (or challenging), but again, it is what you make of it.
People who work in universities are usually what we call ‘lifers.’ The job is so good, there is really no incentive to go home and struggle to make ends meet. With tons of vacations, you could potentially be visiting family more total time than if you were actually living back home.
- Work Schedule
- Usually, work is limited to about 12-20 hours a week and only 3-4 days a week. One friend of mine worked MWF but given the option to do M-Th.
- The least vacation I have heard of is 10 weeks and the most being 5 months. Yes, that is paid five months vacation.
- Much like public schools, you will not get scammed here
- Everyone wants this job, so the requirements are pretty high. In the past, experience was all you needed but these days, more and more schools are asking for a Master’s degree in a relevant field.
- Level of Students
- Many of the students are here because they have to be as a graduation requirement. The difference is that they are college students and have much less patience or capability of learning a new language than a blank slate kid.
- Considering how much you work, 2.1-2.4 million or somewhere around there does not sound bad at all. However, this varies too much to be considered a pro or a con.
4) Other Options
There are a few other options which I won’t go into detail because they are rather small and I have no extensive knowledge on them other than research. However, I did want to mention that you can teach in Korea without choosing one of the three above in case you want to look them up yourself.
- Private Schools
- Many student who attend hagwons also attend private schools as opposed to public elementary schools. These are fewer, but also hire FET to teach English, and usually at a higher level than public schools.
- Winter / Summer Camps
- You may go on vacation or watch cartoons at home. You know what a Korean kid is likely to do on vacation? Go to an intensive “English Camp!” They probably won’t be happy to be there, but some have just decided to make the best of it. Like the English Villages, shorter contracts are a draw.
- English Villages
- These places are kind of like theme parks where kids come and experience ‘Life in English.’ The main benefit is that a lot of these places contract for much shorter periods than the standard one year.
- International Schools
- International schools are run as if they were American schools and are usually targeted to the children of expats (like teachers, businessmen, diplomats, etc). The benefits are excellent as is the compensation, but they usually hire accredited teachers with experience.
D – Where to Find a Job
Finally, you are going to need a job, but where to look? First, there is a little warning / advice I would like to give, and that concerns recruiters. Many Korean schools can either not communicate well enough, or do not want to bother with the process of hiring someone, so they hire recruiters to hire you. Some of these recruiters handle a couple of schools as a side job, and some have grown to be full blown companies that do nothing but recruit. Despite what anyone will tell you, recruiters DO NOT have your best interests, but that does not mean you should avoid them. All that means is that whether they give you a good or a crap job, it’s all the same to them. They get paid 500-2,000 USD as soon as you get an alien registration card, which takes a couple of weeks from the day you arrive.
This was one of the first and still one of the best resources for people to find jobs teaching abroad, despite the site looking like it is stuck in the 90s. Don’t just browse the job listings either, I have been offered some great jobs by uploading my resume and having the employer do the work. Certain jobs post exclusively on this site, so it should be your first stop. Dave’s also has a community of people who share resources, along with posting stuff for sale.
Although some of the ‘jobs offered’ might make you feel alright about being unemployed, it is difficult to ignore that certain schools do advertise here. In fact, the highest offer I ever got from a job was an Advanced Placement prep school I found on CL. You can also upload your resume, and again, have the school call you.
3) Korea Bridge
Kind of like Dave’s, but a bit newer.
Another expat community for finding jobs, asking questions, or buying and selling your stuff.
5) Go Overseas
An organization connecting prospective teachers and volunteers to opportunities abroad.
In my honest opinion, you should try to find a school directly and by yourself to ensure that you get the best deal. However, recruiters are sometimes that necessary evil to find more options. Do not be loyal to any of them and shop around as much as possible. Furthermore, never send your documents to any recruiter until you have been hired by a school. There are many companies and what they offer varies on availability, but here are some to consider:
I hope this guide was useful and don’t hesitate to ask any questions in the comments. See you in the RoK.