So You’re Thinking About Teaching in South Korea? I Have the Insight From a Black Perspesctive

Andong, Korea

It’s a new year; new decade. You’re thinking about making some changes in your life. Or maybe, you were like me; in your last semester of college trying to find a job and then you find an ad about teaching English abroad. Sounds interesting right? Make some decent money, free rent, pay off the loans, and the opportunity to travel in Asia. But before you get too excited reader, you gotta do your homework before diving right in. As an African American who’s working as an ESL Teacher in Asia for the past 3 years, here’s some updated information for those of you thinking about teaching in Korea. Yeah, I’ve written a lot, but I believe the more information a reader has you’ll be able to decide if this path is right for you. I’m discussing the topics on how much money to bring, my experience in being a black ESL teacher, the struggle of being VERY tall in Korea and more.

Kyungpook National University Hospital Station, Daegu

Best time to come to Korea
If you want to know when is the best time to come to Korea, the simple answer is at anytime of the year. Hagwons and public school programs like the GOE hire all year. You could come within the next couple of months if you have all of your documents ready. The fall semester begins the hiring process in the late spring to the end of summer(May-August). Whereas the spring semester hiring season starts in the late fall through winter of the following year(Nov.-Feb). Before you start sending out resumes and CV’s, make sure you have all of you documents ready so they can be delivered to you within a week or so. This makes the process smoother and faster.

Do Some Research
As you would back home, you should never jump into something without doing your research. Same thing goes for teaching in Korea. You should research the application process, the school/academy, the location of the school, or really just about anything Korea. Take your time to find all the information you need. Ask around on reddit or on Facebook. Someone will gladly answer your questions if you can’t find an answer. If you’re not sure about a contract, reach out on social media and someone will help. As you’ll come to find, there are so many outdated blogs about living in certain parts of the country. While the information is useful, take it with a grain of salt, as times have changed. Salary wise if you’re a first time teacher and or fresh out of college, you’ll start out with 2.1 million Korean Won(roughly $1800USD) and will get paid every month. If you’re a licensed teacher and or an English major with some experience working with children, then you can negotiate a larger salary.

Which City Should You Work In?

2019 Nintendo of Korea’s Smash Bros Tournament at Lotte World Tower in Seoul

This should be something you spend the most time researching. Do you prefer the larger cities like Seoul and Busan? Or would rather have a smaller rural setting like Andong? Just like in your home country, costs can vary depending on where you live. Seoul is one of the most expensive cities in the world so it’ll be a challenge to save money during your first year, unless you’re frugal.You can put down your location preference when applying with a recruiter. Be advised that job hunting will take longer if you’re interested in a certain location. Personally, I’m not interested in living in Seoul or the surrounding areas. For me, living in a medium size city like Changwon or Jinju has more charm and has better air quality. If you want to know the city I recommend, keep reading to find out.

How Much Money Should You Bring When Moving To Korea?
If I had a chance to start the Korea process over again, I would’ve saved more money next time. When you first start a job you won’t get paid until the following month. Until then, bring at least $1500USD or more to help you get through the first month. When you arrive in Korea, you’ll have to take a medical exam which you will have to pay for in order to obtain your Alien Registration Card or ARC. As mentioned before, your daily expenses will vary on where you’ll be living. 

Can a Person of Color Become an ESL Teacher in Korea?

Yes, it’s possible for those with a darker complexion to teach in Korea! There are more black people teaching in Korea in over a decade. However, it will not be so easy. Sadly, there are some Korean employers and parents who would rather have a Caucasian teacher than a black teacher; even if the brotha or sista has equal or higher qualifications as a white applicant. Don’t take my word for it. I’ve had my white friends tell me this. Other black teachers who have worked in Korea longer than me told me this. Even a recruiter I’ve worked with in the past told me he was having a difficult time finding a job for me because they don’t want a black teacher. This was back around the summer of 2019 when I was job hunting with plenty of experience! Don’t get discouraged and keep looking if something isn’t coming up.

This is an actual job listing on Dave’s ESL Cafe.

Public vs Private

NOTE: Recruiters get commission for each applicant they sign up for a school. Some of them don’t care if an applicant works at a shit school and they know it’s one.

The first question you’ll ask yourself is whether to go work for public school or an academy. And with anything, both sides have their pros and cons. Some expats prefer the random and hectic schedule of an English academy while others would rather stick with the public sector. I haven’t had the chance to work in a public school so I can’t say much. If you’re a licensed teacher in your country or have the qualifications to work in a Korean public school, I suggest you go public! Public schools tend to have more time off, work about 9am-4pm, and never have to worry about being paid on time. In the summer and winter, teachers will be doing a lot of deskwarming so bring a device to watch Netflix.

Hagwons Are a Mixed Bag.

Had a Pokemon battle with one of the students for a Halloween party

Like many first time teachers, it’s common to start your ESL journey at a hagwon or also known as an English academy. You tend to work longer hours with less time off. You would either work for a kindy/elementary academy(9am-6pm or even 7) or the elementary/middle school set and those hours can vary. You could end up teaching high school students or even adults. Some work from 13:00-19:00, 14:00-21:00 or even from 15:00-22:00. When a hagwon job listing says you get 10 days off, this means a week off in summer and winter. While it’s true you could make more money in this sector, it all depends on the job and your experience. I’d say that hagwons in Korea (and possibly in other countries) belong into three categories:

  • There are the great hagwons that have kept employees for more than two years and have great management that’ll go above and beyond to help foreigners. They actually pay on time as well as pay into your pension. With that being said,  these are honestly rare to find. If a employee has been with a company for more than two years, that’s always a good sign. If the school has been on the greenlist, that’s also a great sign.
  • Then there are academies that fall into what I call the “Meh” academies. Yeah they pay on time and actually follow the law but management is not always the best. The hours are too long and the workload can be a bit too much. Its only good to stay for the year and then bounce. I’ve worked in these places and probably the best thing about the school was my fellow Korean & foreign co-workers. 
  • As you continue your research into what it is like living in Korea, you will find posts about nightmare hagwons. Directors trying to scam employees out of their salary. They won’t pay into the pension, which is illegal. Most would try to do an eleventh month firing in order to get out of paying severance before a teacher’s contract is complete. Or you’ll have terrible management that’s so incompetent at business, the school shuts down and you’re out of a job. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced some of these situations and I’m not alone. If a school has been blacklisted, don’t sign the contract!

Not All Hagwons are Alike (Branches May Vary)

Don’t let the negative reviews and posts about an academy discourage you about working at hagwons. Your overall experience with a hagwon depends on what branch you work for. ChungDahm for example, is one of the largest English academies in Korea. It has and continues to have a mixed reputation with expats. I worked at one branch in Daegu and my overall time there was aiight for the most part. While my branch was in the okay category, the branch in, Banwoldang, for example, could have great reviews from past and present employees, yet, the branch in Ansim is an academy to stay far away from. Even the small mom and pop schools can be a mixed bag. There are great ones while there are others schools that need to be shut down immediately. Before you sign a contract, ask around about the franchise. If your branch is in Ulsan for instance, ask around the Ulsan Facebook groups and get an opinion from someone who’s worked there.

Find Something To Keep You Occupied

Retro Game Bar in Seoul Hosts Smash Bros Events

The weekends arrived and you’re wondering what to do. Of course you could always go drinking with other foreigners at the expat bars. But that’s something anyone can do. When I first arrived in Korea, one of my coworkers Destiny gave me great advice about living in Korea. Find something to do during your downtime. To this day, I give this advice to other new teachers arriving in Korea. Learn some Korean, take an online course in coding, play some recreational sports or something. I also suggest looking for groups and activities you enjoyed at home. If you loved Ultimate Frisbee, check out the Republic of Korea Ultimate Frisbee League(ROK-U). It’s a great way to meet people, get some exercise and travel the country. Plus there’s 13 different teams scattered across the country, so there’s always a team nearby. Now if you’re a Smash Bros Melee or Ultimate fan, then good news! The Smash Bros scene in Korea continues to grow and have tournaments for both games. So bring a GameCube controller and play a few rounds with fellow Smash Bros fans. If you can’t find a group for a hobby or interest you’ve enjoyed back home, then create one. I’m sure there are other expats with similar interests out there.

Big & Tall People Problems

Yeah be prepared to do this……a lot

I’m gonna keep 100% with y’all. If you’re a giant or above average height, Korea is gonna be uncomfortable. Be prepared to duck your head or tuck in your legs more than usual cause Korea (and all of Asia) isn’t built for us vertically challenged. And of course you will stand out more than usual. Those with some weight, would be okay for the most part. There will be stares but it’s nothing you can’t handle. All I can say for both parties, don’t bother trying to buy clothes in Korea. Shoes, you might be able to find something from ABC Mart. I usually have no problems find my size there. But for everything else, you’re gonna need to order your clothes from abroad.

Best City to Start in Korea??

Now comes the big question as to where should you start. Your location could help determine when you can come to Korea. As I mentioned before, if you’re open to move anywhere then the process will be much quicker. If you want a specific location, then it’ll take some time. If you want to stay in a large city, then I got just the place. Personally, I recommend Daegu over Seoul and Busan any day. It’s smaller, which makes it much easier to get around. The metro only has three lines to remember so getting lost won’t be a hassle. And most importantly, it’s not as expensive as the other big cities like Seoul, Busan, and Incheon. Daegu has a large expat community so there are many things to do and people to chill with. Daegu is also in the sweet spot so if you want to visit the larger cities for the weekend, you can ride the city bus (Korean Greyhound) or the KTX/SRT trains. If you have travel plans abroad, the airport is right there on the red line. Should you have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll try to respond asap.