I feel like the majority of people looking into teaching abroad naively believe that you can simply send your application, get hired by an eager school, pack your bags, and then you’re well on your way to Gangnam Styling around Seoul for the next year. I was one of these people back in January 2016. However, the process is actually a lot more complicated and time consuming than might you think. Even if you execute all of your paperwork on time, you still need a good 3-6 months to do diligent research, prepare your documents, wait for shipping, and communicate with recruiters and potential schools.
But trust me, it is 100% worth it.
FORMS AND DOCUMENTS
You will most likely be getting an E2 Visa which is solely for foreigners teaching a language in South Korea. Here are the documents you will need:
- 1 notarized COPY of your diploma w/ apostille attached
- 1 original nationwide FBI criminal background check with federal level apostille, (do this ASAP but it also needs to be done within 6 months of applying to the school or else it expires!)
- Click HERE for a really helpful page about this! It can be confusing!
- Updated resume
- Valid passport
- E-2 Health statement
- 4 official passport photos
- Sealed University transcripts (order at least 2-3 sets)
- Extras: Letters of recommendations from past professors/employers, TEFL/TOEFL certification
*Recently, there has been an increased crack down on E2 Visas. Schools had teachers with E2 Visas teaching other subjects, such as math and science, which ultimately meant that these teachers were in violation of their visa agreements. Some schools were shut down and teachers were even deported, so just be aware.
Most of you will be teaching at a hagwon (학원), which is an “academy.” Students go to academies after school and if they are younger, like in kindergarten, they go during the daytime as well. The hours at hagwons can range between 9am-5pm or 1pm-9pm. It just depends on the program and your school. Korean students have an enormous, almost sickening, amount of pressure on them to excel in all subjects. In turn, their parents typically send them to at least two after school academies. Hagwons are also known as “private schools” since they are not run by the government. They are for-profit and are privately owned and operated. Therefore, you do NOT need a teaching or education degree to work at one. You don’t even need a TEFL/TOEFL certification. They just ask that you have a Bachelor’s Degree.
In terms of the hours that hagwons offer, there are pros and cons to both. When you work the earlier shift of 9am-5pm, you have the same hours as the majority of the workforce. Which means you’re traveling at peak commuter hours and will have a harder time visiting government services (such as banks, immigration etc). However, you will have a “normal” work schedule. When your friends want to go out on a Friday, you can easily join in. If there’s a concert happening at 7pm, you can hop on the subway after your day of teaching. You can do more with your nights and you’ll probably feel more in tune with the rest of the city. Most people prefer these hours to the following.
If you’re working the later hours of 1pm-9pm, you’re able to get a lot done before your workday begins. You’ll be able to grocery shop, visit the bank, or even go to the hospital while avoiding the crowds. You’ll miss the cramped commuter hours and won’t have to worry about government services closing on you. I even had coworkers who would go to the gym or dance class before work. However, the cons are pretty clear. You’ll be ending your day close to when people are getting ready for bed. It’ll be a struggle to meet friends after work and your internal clock will have your waking up later than you’re probably used to. I worked 1:30pm-9:30pm and had no problem with the schedule since I am absolutely not a morning person. There were a few times when I couldn’t make an event or birthday dinner, but overall I didn’t mind it at all. It really comes down to personal preference.
Hagwons can get bad reputations and there are a few large ones that hire loads of foreign teachers such as Avalon, DYB, YBM, Cheongdam, and Poly. If you do a simple Google search, you will definitely find unsavory reviews about all of them. HOWEVER, large Hagwons like these have numerous campuses across the country and they all range in terms of number of foreign teachers and their overall treatment of their staff. DO NOT judge a Hagwon based on a few scathing reviews on the Incheon branch when you will be teaching in Jamsil (just an example). Hagwons also can become franchised in which an individual buys a branch of the school for the name and contacts. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it’s not. I met someone who worked at a franchised version of my Hagwon and he didn’t have to do half of the paperwork we did, but we used all of the same books and curriculum. A downside is that franchises can sometimes lack structure and guidance because they aren’t directly linked to the corporation. This is where late paychecks or HR issues can arise.
If you want to work for a public school, you will be applying for EPIK/GEPIK/TaLK. I didn’t apply for the public school system so I have limited knowledge on the process, but I do know that it is harder to get into and they prefer foreigners with teaching degrees. You are a lot less likely to get placed in Seoul or a metropolitan area because of the number of teachers vying for the same positions.
From my experience, recruiters should not take any money from you but are instead paid by the school that you end up signing with. Here are the two recruiting companies I really recommend!
Adventure Teaching (Robyn was my recruiter and she’s the best!)
There’s a copious amount of recruiting companies out there, so I recommend contacting multiple to see who you feel the most comfortable with and the one that you think will be the best fit for you throughout the whole process.
Keep in mind that their job is to place as many teachers as at many schools as they can. That being said, you will likely to run into a few pushy recruiters who don’t really listen to your preferences and take advantage of your lack of knowledge of the country and the system. If they tell you that you can’t find a job in Seoul, they are lying. I’m not saying that working in smaller towns and cities isn’t fun or just as fulfilling, but don’t let them bully you into thinking that is your only option. Hagwons are desperate for teachers right now and I know for a fact that there are always schools in the city looking for new hires. You are living there for a year and should be satisfied with your location.
Robyn really listened to my preferences and was exceptionally accommodating, helpful, and understanding. If you are honest and candid about your wants and needs from the start, you’ll be a lot happier with the outcome. I definitely communicated with various recruiters and quickly ended correspondence when I realized that they didn’t have my best interest in mind.
Now that I’ve mentioned location… I think it’s important for people to understand how crucial your location can be in South Korea. There are two major cities: Seoul and Busan (The capital and the southern coast beach city). I know people who have worked in Incheon and tiny cities like Sejong. They enjoyed it and the students were definitely nicer, BUT it did hinder their overall experience in South Korea. Seoul itself is a giant city (see above). It would take me close to an hour to meet my friends via the subway on a Friday night just because going from one side to another is JUST.THAT.FAR. But I think that as long as you are in Seoul, subways, buses, and cabs can get you where you need to be at any time of the day. It’s difficult to encounter jobs in the most popular areas such as Gangnam and Itaewon, but living in a quieter area can be nicer anyway. You can’t be extremely picky about your specific neighborhood, especially if you are a new teacher, but I think that every area of Seoul has a lot of charm and can be made a comfortable home for any foreigner.
I lucked out on this and hadn’t even considered the idea of “timing” until I returned to the states. Personally, I think starting your term in May (Summer) or September (Fall) is the best… and here’s why:
If you come in the summer, you will have a WAY easier time meeting people. People are out doing things, hanging out in parks and at restaurants, and going out more in general. There will be tons of group trips you can sign up for and other events going on. No matter who you are, moving to a new place can be lonely and hard, but socializing and staying busy can make the transition so much easier. Also, you will be ending your term in Spring, which allows for you to leave with beautiful weather and have some unforgettable last goodbye nights out.
Now, if you come in the Fall, the weather is still hot from summer but quickly cools down. You’ll still be able to meet people and enjoy the outdoors. The biggest perk is ending your term after summer. Summer in Seoul is legitimately so inexplicably fun. While the weather is extremely humid, people are still out and the city seem busier than ever. Again, you’ll be able to do any group trip you never got around to or finally coordinate a fun day trip with your coworkers. By then, you’ll know so much about the city and have made solid friends, making for the perfect ending to your time there.
THINGS TO ASK
Before signing with any school, it’s essential you ask to speak with a current teacher at your specific campus. I spoke with the head teacher at mine, and while she is now one of my best friends and she was very honest in her answers, it’s probably wise to contact someone who will be at your level. This way, you get an accurate depiction of the school, the accommodations, as well as their personal opinions on whether or not signing there is a good idea.
Here are some questions you should consider asking:
Overall, how do you like teaching at your campus?
How is the apartment that they offer? What is included?
How long does it take you to get to and from work? Is your apartment close to the school and other public transportation?
How do you feel with the work days starting later in the day? (Our hours were 1-9pm)
What has been the biggest challenge about teaching in South Korea? Or about the campus? (the kids, the parents, adjusting to the culture etc.)
Would you recommend this campus to other teachers?
What would you want to change about your campus or the staff?
What was the biggest surprise when starting your job?
Is there a separation between foreign teachers and Korean teachers?
Have you run into any issues with your contract/payment?
Do you feel like you have a good work/life balance?
Would you resign for another year? If not, why?
I hope this guide was helpful and I’m working on some other posts about my experience there and compiling more advice I can give! Please contact me if you have any questions. This was the best year of my life and if you’re considering it, I would love to help it be the same for you.