Teaching in Korea

Current and recent legislation in Korea has made it more difficult for Hagwons to function and pull a profit in Korea. This has made life a bit more difficult for foreign teachers here as hagwons have started to disappear across Korea (even while new ones open up). As it stands, teachers are required to have at least a college degree in order to teach in Korea legally. Private tutoring (tutoring outside a hagwon) is illegal in Korea and results in deportation of the foreign teacher.

A great way to start off your post-college life is to travel to foreign countries and work your way into other cultures and ethnicities. I’d estimate about 70% (excluding armed forces) of foreigners are in Korea teaching English at hagwons (학월) or schools across the country. A lot of the work is what you’d expect (after school tutoring with children, mostly in elementary to middle school) while very few teach in companies or work with adults or college students.

Don't recognize this? You will.

I have a few friends who are teaching right now in Seoul and have a great time doing so. After-school hagwons (학원) leave mornings and early afternoons free for other jobs or late-sleepers and frequently pay for room and board. These positions can be seasonal or full-year contracts and usually include a year end bonus for both. I had a cousin who taught at an elementary school (after-school program) for six-months by the beach. It had it’s moments, I’m sure, but it paid for a decent studio and her salary was enough to live a comfy life while here. Most of the positions won’t be enough to pay back your student loans all at once, but they should be enough to live comfortably and make payments. Almost all of these positions have to pay for a flight to Korea (and back) so they’re interested in keeping teachers for extra years or a few more months to avoid having to pay for another teacher’s tickets. So if you come here and decide you want to stay, it’s easy enough to stick around as long as you’re a half-way decent teacher.

Most people who choose this do their research on living in the country, which areas are the best and general survival in a foreign country. But many more still, don’t do enough research into their employers and a few of those end up in less than desirable situations. There’s even a blacklist (scroll down) of certain schools and organizations who have screwed over their foreign teachers. Teachers are pretty easy targets since most come into the country speaking no Korean and knowing nothing about the culture. But there is hope, while many organizations try to tell foreign teachers that since they are foreigners they have fewer rights it isn’t true. While xenophobia runs rampant in Korea, there are organizations committed to making sure that foreigners don’t get screwed. I’ve read stories of teachers being fired early so they aren’t paid bonuses or having their bags searched upon arrival, if it isn’t part of the contract it isn’t part of the deal. Subsequently, being fired early for no reason is enough grounds to sue your school and get paid back pay as well as rent. Many foreigners leave Korea dejected after dealing with these schools and feel as though the country has laws built against them, but in reality there are many laws and even a branch of the government which deals with the protect of foreigner’s rights. If you feel as though you’re being treated unfairly (bad working hours, no days on leave, violation of contract) then contact the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

If you do decide to teach in Korea, there are a few things you need to know :

  • Pay is generally listed as being between 2.1 – 2.3 million won per month (which translates to about $2000 or more depending on currency fluctuations). It is possible to find places to pay more, but it’s generally better to find somewhere that pays this rate but asks for fewer hours (4-5 hours of work per day).
    • Note : If you speak Korean or [better yet] are a Gyopo (교포, American-born with Korean parents) you should command a higher salary. I’ve seen job postings asking for Gyopo but offering the same as everywhere else, these are rip-offs. I’ve been offered six-figures to private tutor a rich family’s daughter. I didn’t take it (and I sort of regret it) because it wasn’t my chosen career path but you should know that Gyopo in Korea are rare and settling for any amount of hours and less than 2.5 million won per month is settling for less. Foreigners who speak Korean (well mind you, not just hello and good bye) should command at least $100-200 a month extra. You will have to be willing to demonstrate it as well (with your boss, coworkers and student’s parents).
  • A year end bonus is almost always included but check the contract to make sure. A year end bonus should be one month’s pay and a plane ticket home should be included but separately.
  • Rent and deposit are very important and need to be included (관리비, or managing expenses are about  ~$60 to $50 a month and are usually not included nor are internet, TV, phone or other utilities).
  • Make sure that hours of work are clearly defined. You don’t want them to force overtime on you (and then not pay for it).
  • Make sure the wording for the contract refers to you as a teacher, not worker or instructor. Lots of places use this term to get out of treating you like a teacher and treat you like any worker at any job. It seems small but laws in Korea are supposedly very strict on this wording.
  • Vacation days are almost the same for every hagwon or teaching position, the issue becomes how the places deal with them. Some teachers are known to get entire weeks off to go sightseeing around Korea. My friend in Seoul has trouble getting days off as the hagwon has to hire a part-timer to work her shifts. Depending on the boss, vacation days can be easy or impossible.

There’s the other side of the spectrum as well, when you do find a job that gives you all of the things on the list above there is a trade-off.

They're not kidding.
  • Try to learn Korean. Even if you suck and you don’t use it on a regular basis, showing an effort makes your employer feel better about the extra hundred bucks a month they’re spending on you.
  • Look professional. This means dress well, groom yourself well, and be polite to your coworkers. Koreans a strict on appearance and I’ve known several teachers to be fired or have their contract not-renewed due to their grooming.
  • Act professional. Unlike in the US, teachers are respected in Korea. This doesn’t mean that children will always respect you but parents usually do. As such when in the classroom, don’t teach from the chair and don’t let students walk all over you. If you teach from a sitting position, that’s strike one. If your students can’t pass tests, that’s strike two. If your boss doesn’t think you’re putting forth an effort, that’s strike three and you’re probably in danger of being fired. Most foreigners see this as harsh but it is a business and you are an employee, your job is to make sure that these children can speak English better than if a more qualified ESL teacher taught them. Don’t forget that.

The rest of the job really comes from negotiating with your boss after signing the contract. Sometimes they’ll have you take home work to grade and sometimes they’ll ask you to stay to cover someone’s class. Just remember that this is a workplace regardless of how many times you might go drinking with your boss.

I’ve heard of lots of hagwons allowing two weeks leave and a free flight to Japan and back instead of a plane ticket home if you decide to renew. They won’t pay for hotels or anything else but still, a free roundtrip ticket to Japan is definitely worth asking about.

After this you’re pretty much home free.

Well almost.

EXTRA CREDIT:

I feel a bit hesitant to post this due to all the negative sentiment on this site but there does exist a blacklist for Korean schools.(Wonderland and a few others are named as non-workable. That means don’t, under any circumstances, work for them.)

The issue is that this is technically illegal in Korea (having a blacklist of Korean schools I mean). Also a lot of the site is geared towards getting people not to come to Korea.

Here is a list of blacklist lists (fun I know), other topics in the forum itself has some great insight as to living in Korea as well. As much as I hate to say it, it is definitely a must to check any prospective school against the blacklists before taking any positions. The application process takes a while and so does the work visa process, so it’s worth it to look into the school which is sponsoring your visa process.

Worst comes to worst? Send me a message and maybe I can use a few of my contacts to feel out a position for you. But I apologize in advance if they don’t work out or if they won’t represent you (they are strict with high standards).

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