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[HanCinema Korea's Diary] Results May Vary: Teaching English in Korea

2011/06/25 | 1139 views | Permalink

The "Land of the Morning Calm" presents an alluring opportunity for young foreigners looking to travel and make money half a world away. Every year fresh graduates take the leap and head to Korea to experience another culture, to make money, or just have a great time before attempting to submerse themselves in a career. But not all experiences are equal.

In 2008, my good childhood friend and I decided to make the effort to travel to Korea to try our hand at teaching. I was in charge of all the planning of finding a school in the right location with a manageable workload and a good salary. The accommodation provided by the school was of great importance to me and, as such, I requested a picture beforehand. The room was big enough, clean and almost modern, or at least that was what the photograph depicted.

We arrived at Incheon in the early evening, pleased to have finally reached our destination after a gruelling 20 hours of traveling. We were met at the airport by a man who was to take us into Seoul to meet our manager and the school's owner. The car trip was long but the sights and sounds of the new world around us were intoxicating and fresh. The busy night streets were exactly what I remembered when I had come to visit my sister two years prior. My friend is the type who easily gets excited and the city and its happenings were overwhelming his senses.

To our surprise, we were first taken to the school we were going to be teaching at. Strange, I thought exhausted from the traveling, as I only really wanted to hit the hay. Our school was on the top floor of a building littered with small businesses and neon signs. After meeting our young and energetic manager, we proceeded to head up and meet the owner of the school. She was a middle-aged woman whose English ability was not strong enough to hold down any form of a conversation, but her small frame and welcoming smile put me at ease with my decision to come teach.

After we were finished with the meet and greet, we were taken to our housing. I was happy to find that it was only a couple-minutes walk from the actual school, but what did displease me were the rooms themselves. We walked up to the fourth floor of death (Korean's believe that the forth floor is unlucky because the number four sounds similar to the word "death" in Chinese) and when we stepped in, I was deeply saddened to have entered the "box" that was to be my home for the next year. It was nothing to what I had seen in the pictures.

We were then left alone to exhale and regroup as the evening deepened and the reality of our decision struck home. With no bed and only a small fold-up mattress between us, we tried to get enough sleep to appear bright eyed and bushy tailed for our first day of work.

The next day, Korea's chilly March morning reminded us that our home, South Africa, was very far away now. We made ourselves presentable and made the short trip to our school. Nervous and excited, tired yet eager, we met the staff and the other teachers we were to work with. The halls were consumed by the sound of young children being young children, and as the 9:30 bell rang, I took a deep breath and was shown my first class. I was expecting to be simply observing for the first couple days or so, being fresh from university and not thinking that they would expect me to teach the kids right off the bat. I was wrong. I walked into a bright and cheerful class with my manager and saw about ten kindergartners staring at me like I was an alien from their storybooks. After a rushed introduction to the kids, my manager wished me luck and walked out.

They looked at me, and I looked at them. None of us were sure what to do, but being the oldest, I thought it should be me to break the ice. I grabbed a marker and wrote my name on the board, not sure that anything I was saying was registering with their young and shell-shocked minds. Despite my friendly tone, the reaction I got was muted gawking and soft giggles. This was going to be the longest 90 minutes of what was looking like a very, very long day.

Stop a foreigner in the streets of Korea and you can bet money that they are either a teacher or part of the US army. More often than not, the teacher title holds true and their experiences in Korea vary as a product of both their own personal reasons for being here and the nature of the school they now find themselves tied to. There are those who are looking to travel, make money to pay off student loans, or just to save. Some are actual teachers looking for experience and some aren't even sure why they are here.

Teaching in Korea can be a highly rewarding experience both financially and personally. I found Korean culture to be both fascinating and frustrating at times, but the real joy of my travels was almost always to be found outside of the classroom. Meeting new people, and seeing a new country, it's something every young mind should experience before life hits home too hard.

The experience foreigners have here does indeed vary. Some remain giddy and excited even after their year is up, opting to re-sign their contracts. Some feel homesick and see each day as a tormenting grind. For the most part, the foreigners I have met are more positive than not about their situations here in Korea. Although there are definitely constants in what most foreigners have issues with while living here, most seem to enjoy their experiences and leave with fond memories and few regrets.

If you are considering coming to Korea, for whatever reason, do your research. The Korean culture is a wonderful thing to experience and it is its own reward, but your daily life will revolve around your visa-sponsored school. There are many horror stories out there of foreigners whose schools have not been as kind to them as one might hope. Others arrived at a great school with little or no problems whatsoever. I don't want to say it's the luck of the draw here, but empower yourself with as much information as you can. Rig your chances of finding a great position by speaking to teachers already here and trying to get their honest opinions. Korea has an abundance of teaching positions, so be picky and don't compromise yourself.

Having lived and taught in Korea for over three years now, I think that I have heard it all, good and bad. People's experiences are not the same and some things are just out of your control. I've meet people who are sourly hypercritical and those who are annoyingly overoptimistic, both of which will leave with an unbalanced perception of Korea. Somewhere between these two extremes lies the majority of teachers in Korea, but where you will find yourself will depend on you and your choices.

-Christopher J. Wheeler (

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