Being an ESL Teacher in South Korea, you can teach at a public school or a hagwon.
What is an ESL teacher?
For those who aren’t familiar with the term ESL, ESL is English as a second language.
When you first embark on your ESL voyage, you realize that the options are limitless. You can teach anywhere; from Asia to South America.
Disclaimer: This was my experience being an ESL teacher in South Korea. Everyone has a different experience.
Being an ESL Teacher in South Korea was tough but enjoyable.
It was drastically different from my Thailand experience but I enjoyed it, for the most part. Read about the comparisons here.
I became an ESL teacher in South Korea during Covid 19. It was pretty bad in Korea at the time that I arrived. They also take it more seriously than the US, but that’s a whole other story. I arrived in late November 2019.
I got to Korea later than was planned because I was sick. Then, I started my two-week quarantine in Korea. During the last week of quarantine, I was “trained” over zoom. I basically just watched the previous teacher teach. The director and headteacher at my hagwon were very welcoming.
I literally never got a moment to myself because of all of the work and questions I had to ask in order to be the best ESL teacher in South Korea that I could be.
I taught for the first month online which was very tough. After getting “trained” through zoom, I started my first day full of anxiety. I wasn’t told how to do ANYTHING. I was told where the books were and to which classes they belonged. That’s about it.
I had a few friends in Seoul and Busan that I got to see a month or two after I landed.
Hagwons in South Korea are a hit or miss. Sometimes you can find a good hagwon. My recommendation is to do a bunch of research before committing to one Hagwon. Also, make sure you read the contract thoroughly because they will find every loophole and change things up on you.
I want to reiterate that not all hagwons in South Korea are the same. Also, I was kind of just thrown into the job, which added to my confusion and strain.
Here’s what my life looked like while being an ESL Teacher in South Korea:
I worked from 2-10 pm 5 days a week. I got out at 8 pm on Wednesdays.
For the first two months, I started teaching at 4 pm, which was great because I got to stress out for the first two hours of work. LOL.
After a few months, I got another class added to my schedule, so I started at 3. I had 5 minutes between each class. During those 5 minutes, I had to go to the bathroom, clean/disinfect my room and get ready for the next class. It doesn’t seem like much to do, but when you’re stressed and don’t know what you’re doing and have no guidance, It’s ROUGH.
Each block was 55 minutes with the exception of the 10-minute “dinner break” from 6:05-6:15. Then, the last block was from 9:05-10 (we couldn’t keep kids past 10 pm).
For the first two months, I had 21 hours of classes.
The rest of the time, I had 26 hours. So, I had 12 “free” hours during the school week.
Mondays (after the other class was added) I had two classes back-to-back from 3:10 to 5:05. Then, I had a break and then two more classes back-to-back from 6:15-8:05 and then one class from 9:10-10.
Tuesdays started off an hour later at 4:10 (my favorite) butttt, then I had 6 classes back-to-back until the end of the Hagwon day.
Wednesdays were exciting because we got out at 8 pm. I had 5 classes in a row starting at 3:10 and ending at 8:05.
Thursdays were exactly like my Mondays, except I was one day closer to the weekend.
Fridays I had 3 classes in a row and then one hour break and then another 3 classes until we closed.
This is what got to me.
Being an ESL teacher in South Korea was already rough. On top of all the stress and anxiety, it seemed like the prep was endless.
My prep consisted of preparing for classes, checking all homework (recording, notebook, student book) correcting tests (level tests and alphabet quizzes).
I prepped a lot, maybe too much. But I really didn’t know any better and didn’t really get comfortable with this hectic lifestyle until I was leaving LOL.
The recording homework included checking the storybook and student book for ALL students. All 50? ish students.
I had to give a list of students who did not do the recording homework to the director. She would usually scold them.
If a student didn’t do their homework, they wouldn’t get a reward and I would have to tell the director if it was a daily occurrence.
Correcting the level tests and quizzes definitely got easier as time went on.
Sometimes I had to put together the homework packets for the students and again, I was barely shown how to do it.
I also had to keep track of when to tell the headteacher to get new books, even though she also did it on her own.
Every day I’d have to write about each class in a notebook. The director would read it and sometimes respond.
The kids were sweet, for the most part. There are always a few kids that give you a hard time. But, they are still adorable. I grew on them though which made it even harder to leave. My students were intelligent and kind. They always laughed at my silly jokes and they were quite literally what made my day better.
I also felt bad for those kids. They work so hard and never get a break.
The Benefits of being an ESL teacher in South Korea (usually the same for all schools)
Pension, severance, health insurance, flight reimbursement, and if you’re lucky, training.
And of course, traveling, teaching, and experiencing a new culture.
Also, sometimes the parents would bring in snacks and coffees for us which was so sweet.
What Could Have Been Different?
Basically, everything LOL. I was overworked, under-appreciated, and stressed out. I lost about 25 pounds because I barely ate/had time to eat. But apparently, that’s how a ton of hagwons treat their employees.
What I Learned While Being an ESL Teacher in South Korea:
- DON’T jump into the first job offered. Take your time. I thought my school was the one. I felt great and excited after my interview. Little did I know they were too welcoming because of how disorganized and controlling they were.
- DON’T listen to your recruiter when they say that there are no jobs in Seoul. If you are patient and even if you look on Facebook, there are tons of job listings daily. My recruiter told me numerous times that there are no jobs in Seoul and I naively believed him.
- Do as much research as you can on your city. I THOUGHT I was going to be living in Pyeongtaek. I ended up living in Anjung, Pyeongtaek, which was about 30-40 mins away from Pyeongtaek City.
- Research your hagwon/school. I couldn’t find any information about my hagwon because it was so tiny.
- Make sure there are other teachers at your school. I realized while teaching in Korea that even if I had another co-teacher to help me or even talk to, it would have made the experience much better.
- Listen to your gut and the red flags. Although I left for Korea a week later, my gut was telling me not to leave. After listening to multiple Ted Talks, I learned that your guy is your second brain- so listen to it!!! I realized the red flags after I had already gotten there and started.
- Be the best ESL teacher you can be. Being an ESL teacher is difficult, but oh so rewarding. Being an ESL teacher in South Korea is strenuous yet also enriching.
- Most importantly: Do not let anyone tell you what to do. I mean, to an extent, of course. I was forbidden to leave my apartment for the first two months and I was naïve as hell. I was super depressed and stressed beyond ever before. Looking back, I wish I had done things differently. But hey, it was a lesson. I realized later that I was taken advantage of.
Once I went back to the US and settled in, I had a chance to talk to the previous teacher that worked at the same hagwon. We talked for two hours and laughed and shared our experiences. She was treated the same way as I was. It was a huge relief to both of us to know that we weren’t the ones that were the problem.
Being an ESL Teacher in South Korea was quite an experience. It’s tough accepting a job overseas because you really can’t get a feel for how the people are and the workload is over zoom. However, I realized that every experience is an experience; good or bad.
Although it was tough being an ESL teacher in South Korea, I am thankful for my time there and am so grateful to have lived there.