Is Teaching English in Korea Right For You?
So you're thinking about teaching English abroad and you've started to consider South Korea. Now what!? I had a hard time finding comprehensive (and up-to-date!) information on the real deal about living and teaching English in Korea. So, after nearly a year here, a post to help those who might come after me (and for anyone else who's interested).
This post will deal mostly with the teaching and the pay aspects, with a bit on the day-to-day. Most of that is better found elsewhere throughout this blog, however you can also check out my post on the cost of living.
It should be noted that I can only speak with any real knowledge about teaching in Busan, but I don't think that tooooo much is different in other parts of the country (strictly speaking to working conditions and for the most part, pay).
Average monthly salary for an English teacher ranges from 2 million won to about 2.5 million won. It is possible to earn significantly more. But let me be clear that you are probably not going to earn more than 2.3 your first year here unless you have a Masters degree and even then, maybe not.
Let me elaborate further. There are, as I see it, four options for teaching English in Korea, which I will illustrate in depth below:
1. Public School Job
Anticipated Pay: 2.0 - 2.3 million won per month. One month's severance at end of contract, round trip airfare, housing or housing stipend, shared pension and health care costs.
Teaching Hours: Teaching or desk warming for most of a 40 hour work week, though occasionally (over holidays) not having to desk warm for all or some of the time (in other words, extra vacay days!).
Pros: Stable, timely pay, schools honour their contracts, earlier days (usually more of a 9-5 schedule), you share the class planning (to varying degrees) with a Korean co-teacher, someone always available to help with the difficulties of settling in a new place with a new language
Cons: Very tied to one school (dependent for work, pay, housing, etc), not allowed contractually to tutor (though some people do anyways), day time shifts (a con if you are a night owl), you may or may not get along with your co-teacher but you will have to spend a lot of time with them.
2. Private School (Hagwon) Job
Anticipated Pay: 2.0 - 2.3 million won. One month's severance at end of contract, round trip airfare, housing or housing stipend, shared pension and health care costs.
*Be warned that if you come to Korea before signing a contract, they will likely only help cover the costs of your visa run to Japan and not your actual flight over. Learned that one the hard way! They will, however, still provide your airfare home*
Teaching Hours: Varies greatly. Usually up to 30 (with additional time to be used for planning). Many will expect something close to a 40 hour work week from you.
Pros: Easy to acquire, potential for less teaching hours than some public school jobs, later working hours may be a pro for you (often 1-9 or similar), depending on the school you may have to plan none or all of your classes, you have more choice and control over which age groups you are willing to teach (by choosing the hagwon accordingly)
Cons: Very tied to one school (dependent for work, pay, housing, etc), not allowed contractually to tutor (though some people do anyways), some hagwons have trouble paying on time or might alter your terms without notice, occasional horror stories of someone being fired before end of contract so the hagwon could avoid paying severance and airfare, later working hours (a con for some, a pro for others), depending on the school you may have to plan none or all of your classes, only 5-10 vacation days (and they may not all be used at your own discretion), some of these jobs can be a bit of a joke but that might mean 'easy' and thus might suit you - it's such a mix.
3. University Job
Anticipated Pay: 1.8 - 2.5 million won per month
Teaching Hours: 8 - 20
Pros:These seem to be, for most foreigners, the sweet spot in terms of English teaching gigs. Did I mention the 2-4 months of paid vacation per year?
Cons: Ummmm...they can be hard to get, you won't get airfare or severance, and well that's it. These are good jobs.
The Catch: You need a Masters degree, something you can convince them is equivalent, someone on the inside or - most likely - some combination of these things.
4. Part Time Jobs
Anticipated Pay: Potentially limitless but let's say 1.5 - 4.0 million won. Roughly 25,000 - 35,000 won per hour. Tutoring gigs can run as high as 50,000 per hour.
Teaching Hours: Varies greatly but for the above pay about 15-30 per week
Pros: You can somewhat determine your own schedule, you have the maximum control over your own earning potential, more free time to write that novel you started five years ago
Cons: Potentially frustrating scheduling conflicts, different bosses = different expectations, payday may be inconsistent, no "perks" like airfare or severance or housing or health care, your job can change or alter your hours (and will) whenever they want to
The Catch:This one is pretty well impossible to set up until you are here, and can take months to get to a full pay cheque. But if you have the time, float money, and energy to do so, it can be a real money maker. The tricky part comes into the legalities, though. If you want to keep things above board (and you might have to, to get the better jobs), you need one job to be your sponsor and then each job thereafter can only have a decreasing portion of the hours you've been sponsored for. This can get tricky.
Many schools are willing to fudge the amount of hours you really work and say you work less, but you may still reach a point where you cannot add another school to your immigration documents and then you are either stuck at that number of hours, or reliant on being able to find gigs that will pay under the table. Which is a possibility, of course, but it might make things harder on you.
What about the rest?
The best job for you really will depend on what you're coming to Korea to accomplish. If you're coming to save money, your choice will likely be different than if you are coming to take it easy and check out a new culture. Then again, maybe you can have it all! I chat more about the possibility of savings here, so be sure to check it out if you're interested.
Working in general, and teaching English in Korea, specifically, can be a real challenge. It was a lot harder than I anticipated, culturally. The work environment can be frustrating, exhausting, and plain confusing on a near-daily basis.
But the students are - nearly across the board - smart and well behaved. That can go a long way :) The rest of my blog has more information on my day-to-day ups and downs so I won't get into that here.
In terms of location, that varies a ton as well. I would recommend making two lists.
First, your top three job "deal breakers" - the things you need to have to be okay going to work each day. That will help narrow down the above options.
Then, in terms of location, make another list. Do you need quick access to the beach? How comfortable are you being stared at? What if someone were to pick through your garbage? Do you love to hike? Are you hoping for a big community of expats?
When you decide what those things are, you might have to search around a little bit more because I don't know enough about all of Korea to tell you any more.
Suffice to say that the big cities and the smaller towns are going to be vastly different experiences - though I would think still rewarding in their own ways.
I will tell you that Busan has a huge, amazing expat community, good jobs can be competitive (so pay can be lower), the beaches and mountains are great but sometimes really crowded, the Koreans here are considered by some (me!) to be the least friendly in the country, English (spoken and written) and Western food are prevalent, the shopping is great and diverse, location within the city is important because of it's size, and it offers easy access to Japan.
The biggest expat forum in Korea is koreabridge. It is well used and loved in Busan, with posts to jobs, common questions, classified ads, etc. I recommend checking it out to get a sense of the roles and extra curricular options in a potential city.
Good luck with your decision! If you have more specific questions, you can leave a comment below and I will do my best to help out!