Teaching in South Korea: My Long Search for a Good School
This is my personal experience with teaching English in South Korea, and does not reflect every school here.
When I came to Seoul six months ago, I had no intention of teaching English here because I had plans to head to Thailand and then to Cambodia, where I already had guaranteed teaching positions. But sometimes you just have to go with the unexpected flow that every traveler is well acquainted with.
Shortly after I had arrived in Seoul, I was invited to a party in Gangnam for foreigners and Koreans to meet and talk, kind of like a language exchange except in a bar/club environment. After mingling, I met with the organizer who had sent me the invite. When he learned that I had teaching experience, he asked if I would be interested in a substitute position at a kindergarten. It turns out he was also a recruiter.
It felt like a stroke of good luck because I had recently been thinking about staying in Seoul for a while longer and putting my positions in South East Asia on hold. I quickly accepted without carefully thinking over the details of a substitute job. It turns out that the school I would be subbing at for the next month was on the exact opposite side of the city from where I lived. No problem I thought hesitantly, it’s only temporary.
I served the kids snacks and lunch, made sure they brushed their teeth and washed their hands, and taught English for a whole 15 minutes
Little did I know that 7 AM is a very popular time for subway commuters, so I got to spend over an hour each morning crushed up against the backs and chests of strangers. One quickly gets over her embarrassment of invaded personal space in a big city. Needless to say, I quickly made up my mind not to accept a position so carelessly in the future.
For the most part, working at the kindergarten was not enjoyable. There didn’t seem to be much organization and I was thrown into the position without any clear expectations made of me. I ended up being more of a teacher assistant and helper, rather than teacher. I served the kids snacks and lunch, made sure they brushed their teeth and washed their hands, and taught English for a whole 15 minutes, while the Korean teacher did everything else and I just looked on as an observer while she taught.
I know it sounds like I am complaining about a super easy gig, but I am the type of person that doesn’t enjoy going to work just to be seen. If there isn’t a job for me to do, then I’d rather be somewhere else. But again it was only for a short period of time so I stuck with it.
After the kindergarten position ended, I spent a lot of time trying to find something else. This may have been a good time to continue on to my next destination, but I had made friends and was comfortable with my new life, so I kept on with the job hunt.
Though Seoul is a fairly inexpensive city, there is no way to support yourself on two hours of teaching a week.
After some time I was able to score a position at an after-school English academy. I had hear some pretty bad rumors about these types of schools, yet despite the lack of organization or any kind of effective curriculum, mine was one of the better ones because I was paid on time. Plus, I really liked my students. I taught a reading class to five pre-teenage students, and although the material was a bit dry, we had some good talks and many laughs.
Unfortunately the program was being downsized and because it was already a tiny school, in the middle of nowhere, my hours were cut to just one class a week. Though Seoul is a fairly inexpensive city, there is no way to support yourself on two hours of teaching a week. So my job search began again and this time I found a school closer to where I lived. The position was full time, which meant I had to give up my class at the academy.
Even though I was sad to lose my students, it was the best decision because the new school turned out to be pretty great. My new students were younger than what I would have chosen, but they were incredibly smart. The school was fairly organized with an American curriculum so I was more familiar and comfortable with the material. If it wasn’t for my upcoming extended trip back to the States, I could definitely have stayed on for a while longer.
My teaching career in South Korea has come to an end or is at least on hold for a few months while I pursue a different path. My teaching plans look nothing like I had imaged six months ago, but I believe I have learned a few new things from taking this unexpected path. I may have had to kiss a few frogs before I found my right school, but like they say, third time’s a charm.