If you have ever considered teaching abroad and want to know what it’s really all about, check out this week’s Abroad Blog of the Week: Travel Thayer. The blogger, Michael, has now been teaching English abroad at an elementary school in Jochiwon, South Korea for right at a month and in his blog shares the details of teaching, living, and learning in Korea. For anyone contemplating teaching abroad, the blog has great posts about classroom management, the experience of being a new teacher, and adjusting to living in a country where you don’t speak the language. What I like best about Travel Thayer’s posts is that they are regular, detailed, and seem to reflect his true experience.
I caught up with Michael via Gmail last week and was able to ask a few questions about being an ESL teacher in Jochiwon. Here’s what he had to say:
What countries did you consider when you were looking for teaching positions abroad?
I had been thinking about teaching English abroad ever since my 2008 summer internship in Hangzhou, China where I taught English at a middle school summer camp. Once I finished my Bachelors I looked into three countries for teaching: Japan, Korea, and China. I researched these countries simply because they were places that I was interested in spending time learning language, eating food, and experiencing the culture.
After much research I finally decided on Korea for several reasons. Korea is one of the highest paying countries for English teachers; an entry-level teacher with only a Bachelors can find jobs paying about 2,000,000 Won per month for public schools and about 2,200,000 Won per month for private “Hagwon” schools. Korea also provides free housing in every job offer I have seen. I believe that this is also very common in Japan. You still have to pay for utilities, but free housing is a great bonus! The third economical reason I chose Korea is because the cost of living is very affordable, especially on an English teacher’s salary!
I believe that Korea and Japan offer similar contracts in terms of free housing and pay, but from my research I have found that Japan’s cost of living can be very high. China is a wonderful country that I have spent about 6 months studying in, but I simply could not afford to live there on the salary that the English teachers are paid. Perhaps if I had less student loans. . .
How did you decide to take the placement in Korea?
My first step after deciding which country I wanted to work in was to figure out which school I wanted to work for. It can be an incredibly daunting task if you are not prepared! There are probably thousands of different schools in Korea, some of them good, others have very poor reviews. It is important to thoroughly research a school that is offering you a job and ask if you can speak with current foreign English teachers.
How do you find these schools in the first place? To be honest I did not go out looking for individual schools. I simply put my resume up on an ESL teacher forum that several schools use to find new teachers. It was not until later that I found the recruiting agency that I used to land my current job. Recruiting agencies can be extremely helpful, especially if you have never taught overseas before! They help you with everything from how to get all of your documents completed and certified, to preparing you for your interview with your potential school. Be sure you find an agency that is looking out for you and not simply trying to fill a quota of teachers. I had an excellent experience with Footprints Recruiting, but I have friends who used Korean Horizons and had great things to say.
Lastly I want to talk about public schools and private “Hagwon” schools. Public schools are government-funded and organized, much like public schools are in the United States. Private schools are “for profit” schools. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems to be more likely to lead to a bad situation. Most of the bad stories that I have read about come from people teaching in hagwons. This being said, I have friends who teach in great hagwons and are very happy with their placement! Each person lives their own experience, some people are more culturally adaptive than others though. I think the most important thing is to be open to new things and smile!
Now that you’ve been in a Korea for a month, what do you love so far?
So far I love everything! I love the food, the people, my co-workers, my students, my apartment, and my city! I have a hard time thinking of things that I do not like about Korea. Even for the two weeks I was sick with a very stubborn cold I was happy about where I am.
Specifically though, the food is absolutely wonderful! I am a very adventurous eater, and I love trying new food. Some of my favorite foods here are duck, hot pot, and gimbap (Korean version of sushi).
I really must say how grateful I am for the kindness of the everyday Korean person. My language skills are very poor right now as I am a beginner, so the patience and kindness really helps.
What has surprised you the most?
What surprised me the most is how kind most people are here. A long time ago Korea was known by China as “The courteous people of the East”. I have to say that from my experience that this is very true! It is, of course, important to be courteous in return.
Also the number of Christian churches here is very surprising. I had read that Christianity is quite popular here in Korea, but I never imagined to see so many churches! When you look down on my city at night-time you can see all of the red crosses (neon lights).
What are three items that you brought with you from home that you just couldn’t live without?
My computer, my camera, and deodorant. I do not really need any of these things to live, but they are things that I do enjoy and appreciate a great deal. Technology is very well advanced in Korea; I am always finding new things in shops that I had never seen in the West. That being said, computers are more expensive here in Korea. I really enjoy taking pictures, writing about them, and sharing them with others; there was no way I was going to leave my camera at home. Deodorant may sound a little funny, but it is not as easy to find here; when you do, it is much more expensive than back home. I ran across the same issue in China where I paid about five dollars for a tiny roll-on deodorant. This time I came well prepared!
What words of wisdom would you give to a recent study abroad returnee interested in teaching abroad?
The absolutely most important thing I can think of is to arrive with a smile on your face and an open mind! If you have already been traveling, your mind has probably been opened a bit; keep it that way! The worst thing you can do is to shut out experiences because you think that they are weird or embarrassing. By being narrow-minded you will not reap the full benefit of the experience and you may even offend people.
Make sure that you actually want to teach; don’t think of teaching abroad as a vacation. My regular schedule is about 22 classes per week. I am at school from 8:30am-4:40pm (6pm on Tuesdays), but since I enjoy teaching I love coming to work.
If you are serious about teaching abroad I would highly recommend taking a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. There are several of these courses offered online, but be sure that you take one that is at least 100 hours. By doing this you will gain a great deal of information on how to teach English to students with a different native language. As an added benefit, most schools offer a higher wage to those who are TEFL certified.
As far as schools go, research them! I spent at least 3 hours every day for about a month prior to my arrival researching schools, contracts, issues people had, and simply life in Korea. Also, buy a book about the culture of the country you plan on going to. This is probably one of the best ways to avoid the brunt of culture shock. Either before you leave, or once you get to the country, try to learn at least some of the language! It makes an incredibly good impression if you are able to say “hello”, “goodbye”, and “thank you” correctly in the native language.
Michael with two of his students
Thanks, Michael, for the interview!