Teaching in South Korea changed my life.

I wouldn’t be the first person to feel that way, nor will I be the last. For many people. teaching in South Korea can be the springboard into a new life….so long as you can harness its full potential.

Graduates at a loose end, people disillusioned with their career paths and experienced teachers from around the world have all found common ground here.

It’s rare for any of them to leave ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’ the same person.

While the ESL scene in Korea is changing, it is still very much the undisputed #1 spot in the world to teach English abroad.

In my opinion,  South Korea is the perfect place to enable you to launch a location-independent lifestyle.

So, a Kick-Ass Guide to teaching in South Korea?

There are one or two great guides on teaching in South Korea online. But during my own research before going, I noticed something about them:

Some answers were missing. Hardly any of them really told you what life was like there.

I got SOOO many surprises when I moved to Korea and dealt with a lot of frustrations.

It’s damn tough to take on a new job, new country, new language and a new culture at the same time.

With this MONSTER guide to teaching in South Korea, that transition is going to be a hell of a lot easier.

All the answers about teaching in South Korea are here!

This beast is the product of some 50+ hours work.

And unbelievably, there’s more! It doesn’t end with this post.

You can have FREE access to all the exclusive bonus content…

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For the TL:DR crowd, don’t miss out on this…

The eBook version of this post is FREE and has EXCLUSIVE BONUS CONTENT including:

How to save over $10,000 in one year

The best games and activities for Elementary School

Extended teacher interviews

PLUS details on how to get a job at the INCREDIBLE public school program where teachers get TWO MONTHS PAID VACATION and GET HOME BY 3PM  EVERYDAY!

Subscribe now to get the eBook and read it at your leisure!

 

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If you don’t want the eBook, then it’s about a 45 minute read from this point. Feel free to save this post in your favorites and read it as you need it!

This Kick-Ass Guide to Teaching English in South Korea has been structured in a specific way to lead you through the journey as you’ll experience it.

Starting from your initial interest in teaching in Korea and job hunt, through the application and big move, to settling into life there and making a success of it all right up until the end of your contract.

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

TWO BIG DECISIONS
The two most crucial choices you’ll make before teaching in South Korea.

(1) Job Options
(2) Location

HOW TO GET A JOB TEACHING IN SOUTH KOREA
Everything you need to know to get a teaching job at a public school in South Korea.

(3) Eligibility Requirements for Public School Jobs
(4) Where to Apply
(5) Essential Documents

BEFORE YOU GO TO KOREA
What you need to do to prepare for the big move.

(6) Packing for Korea
(7) Booking the Flight
(8) Survival Korean

WHEN YOU ARRIVE IN KOREA
The first week with EPIK includes the orientation and the all-important contract signing.

(9) Orientation
(10) The Contract

INTRODUCTION TO YOUR NEW LIFE IN KOREA
Now you’re really here! This is what to expect in your first week as an EPIK teacher in Korea.

(11) Meeting your Co-teacher
(12) Teaching Schedule
(13) Desk-Warming
(14) Apartment
(15) WiFi in your Apartment
(16) ARC
(17) Getting a Phone

THE JOB
The buffer period is over. It’s time to show what you’re made of!

(18) What to do on your First Day of Class
(19) Dress Code for Teaching in South Korea
(20) Lesson Planning

WHAT IS SOUTH KOREA REALLY LIKE?
A closer look at what South Korea is actually like, both inside and outside of the classroom.

(21) Classroom Environment
(22) Culture
(23) Customs
(24) Socializing with Korean people
(25) Food

THE DAY-TO-DAY REALITIES OF LIFE IN KOREA
How to handle living in South Korea

(26) Shopping
(27) Health
(28) Banking
(29) Bills
(30) Rubbish & Recycling
(31) Commuting to Work
(32) Transport

BEYOND THE TEACHING LIFE
There’s more than just teaching in South Korea. You can have a lot of fun there and in nearby countries!

(33) Vacation
(34) Tourism
(35) Saving Money

AT THE END OF YOUR CONTRACT
The end rolls round faster than you think. It’s best to be prepared.

(36) Contract Renewal
(37) Moving
(38) Leaving

USEFUL RESOURCES
A treasure trove of the best resources for your time in teaching in South Korea.

(39) Support for ESL Teachers
(40) Korea Travel Hotline
(41) Facebook Groups
(42) Great Websites and Apps
(43) Blogs

FINAL THOUGHTS ON TEACHING IN SOUTH KOREA
Solid insight and advice from the people who have done it all before you.

(44) My Best Advice
(45) Interviews with Other Teachers

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

Perhaps you’re serious about teaching in South Korea but just don’t know where to begin. It all starts with two decisions. They are pretty important ones so it’s best to do your research to ensure you make the right choices!

 1. Job Options

If you want to teach in Korea, you have a few options. Qualifications and flexibility will make it easier to land a job but in any case, you shouldn’t have much trouble.

Here are your choices:

a) Hagwon

A hagwon [학원] is a private academy that operates after-school hours. They are the most straight-forward option for people who want a job teaching in South Korea. 

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My two cents on hagwon jobs in Korea

Hagwons are a great choice for night owls who want to put their mornings to good use working on other projects. You’ll have lots of free daytime hours to pursue online ventures such as studying or blogging. You could put in hard hours at the gym or simply enjoy a long lie-in to cure that soju hangover!

Opting for a hagwon job will also allow you the freedom to choose the city you want to live in. Furthermore, hagwons come with an immediate bunch of fellow foreigners to help you settle into life in Korea.

On the flip-side, the unstable nature of many of these businesses can lead to a rather stressful job, where you find yourself working exhausting hours and getting few breaks and little thanks.

You have to tow the line and play by the rules. If you don’t you may find yourself skating on thin ice. Stories of foreign teachers being sacked on the spot without warning for arbitrary reasons are not just true, they’re common. Very common indeed.

If you go for a hagwon, do your research, choose wisely. Making a bad choice could spell disaster for your experience teaching in South Korea.

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b) EPIK

There are several options for public school jobs in Korea but the one you really need to know about is EPIK (English Program in Korea).

EPIK is the most prestigious program of its kind in South Korea, offering public school jobs in cities and provinces throughout the country including the popular locations of Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, Daejeon and Jeju.

As far as programs for teaching English abroad are concerned, EPIK may only be rivaled by the JET programme in neighboring Japan. 

Infographic on EPIK jobs for teaching in South Korea

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My two cents on EPIK jobs in Korea

Perhaps I’m biased, but when you weigh the options up I think it’s obvious that EPIK is the best choice for teaching English abroad. This goes double for first-timers with no experience.

People with education degrees and several years experience have other options on the table, but if you want a streamlined, well-supported avenue into an ESL career, then the English Program in Korea is surely the best way to go.

Many people cry about all the desk-warming involved with EPIK, particularly during vacation time. I think that’s ridiculous! If you have a creative bone or any sense of ambition in your body, then you’ll put that time to productive use rather than complain about it.

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c) University Jobs

This is the Holy Grail. Anybody who intends to teach in Korea for a long time should be aiming to climb the ranks and land themselves a sweet position as a university lecturer. 

Infographic on Uni jobs for teaching in South Korea

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My two cents on University jobs in Korea

C’mon, do you really need me to tell you? University teaching jobs in Korea are awesome. Who wouldn’t want to be able to work 12 hours a week, having interesting classes with young adults and enjoying several months vacation time every year to swan off to some paradise?

Think of all that free time to work on personal goals and other ventures such as blogging, writing or developing another hobby such as photography or playing an instrument. It’s no surprise that they are highly-coveted positions with high barriers to entry.

Getting a job teaching in South Korea at a university is possible without having a master’s degree. However, you will need a BA and plenty of prior experience. A master’s degree will definitely boost your chances.

Should you land a good role at a university, you’re sure to have quite a life as an English professor in Korea.

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d) Other alternatives for teaching in South Korea

The other alternatives to EPIK are for public school jobs. All are great options for teaching English in Korea, whether it’s your first job or you’re an experienced teacher.

SMOE – The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education is a popular choice for many who want to teach in Korea as it offers positions slap-bang in the middle of the capital. If living in an Asian mega-city is your thing, then narrowing your focus for teaching in South Korea to the SMOE program may be the best way to secure your dream job. It is essentially like EPIK, but only for Seoul.

GEPIK – The Gyeonggi-do English Program in Korea is specifically for jobs in the Gyeonggi-do province, which is just outside Seoul. Like SMOE, GEPIK has similar benefits, working hours and roles as EPIK jobs. This is a good option for people who wish to live close to Seoul but haven’t been able to land a Seoul job through other avenues.

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Original Pinterest image on Teaching English in South Korea

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Want to know a BIG SECRET? There is one other public school program that is quite under-the-radar. It’s BETTER THAN EPIK in many ways. For example, you get almost 2 months paid vacation! Want to know more?

 

 

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So, what’s the best choice for teaching in South Korea?

When you want to teach in Korea, the best program for you depends on your situation. To summarize all the info above, follow these basic guidelines:

  • If this is your first time teaching abroad and you don’t have a master’s degree, choose EPIK. While you can’t be certain of where exactly you’ll be placed, EPIK should be your first choice as you’ll get the best support for a newbie. This includes orientation, which provides you with training and the opportunity to make friends with fellow newbie teachers that will be living all over Korea!
  • If being in a big city is most important to you then you should apply to SMOE or GEPIK and guaranteed that you will either be in Seoul or else very close to it.
  • If you do have the masters degree and fancy teaching adults instead of kids, dig deep online and you may well land yourself a university job. The incredible vacation time alone is worth going for it.
  • Hagwons should be treated with caution and unless you can be certain you found a good one, then they’re not worth the gamble. Even if it is a good one, your vacation time sucks and you work longer days, teaching more hours. Don’t do it!
Fishing port in Busan, South Korea
Much cleaner air in Busan than in Seoul!

 

THE SECOND BIGGEST DECISION BEFORE TEACHING ENGLISH IN SOUTH KOREA…

 2. Location

So you’re going to go to Korea, but where?

If you get a hagwon job, you can pretty much pick exactly where in Korea you will live and work. Opting for public school often leaves things a little more to chance, however you can narrow it down to a province on your application.

Get your application in early and you’ll have a good shot at securing a job in your first choice location.

There are a LOT of cities to choose from but here the biggest and best you need to know. These cities are the most diverse in a land that has many homogeneous little towns and cities. You’re sure to have a great time in any of these places.

 a) Seoul

The bustling capital Seoul is home to 10 million people. It has pretty much everything you need, which is why many of the Korean residents never leave!

Schools are large, kids have high-level English and commutes range from a walk to an hour-long subway ride. This city is huge and the subway system is a sprawling underground world of its own.

 

Twilight view over the many building of Seoul, South Korea.
The concrete jungle of Seoul is a popular choice for teaching in South Korea.

Indeed, rarely a day passes when you don’t need to tackle the labyrinthine network of tunnels and navigate its long corridors that are alive with huge masses of bodies and busy shopping malls.

Teachers can expect a large foreign teacher community and an active social calendar. There is rarely a quiet night in Seoul, which can be a challenge for those trying to save money. There are also many events, festivals and gigs so you’ll never be stuck for entertainment.

b) Busan

This southern port city has the one thing Seoul doesn’t have:

Beaches!

A microcosm of the mammoth capital, Busan has a much more relaxed vibe and its many beaches and coastal restaurants certainly give it an atmosphere unrivaled by anywhere else in Korea.

Gwangali Beach and bridge, South Korea
Busan’s beaches may make it the best location for teaching in South Korea.

Kids are smart like Seoul but classes tend to be a little smaller. Commutes aren’t as overwhelmingly busy as Seoul either.

In my opinion, this is the best city in Korea.

Busan has become insanely popular among foreign teachers in recent years, which explains EPIK’s decision to raise the bar for entry. If you don’t have BA in education, then you need a 150-hour TEFL course with 50-hour in-class practice in order to land a job here.

c) Daegu

Ahh, Daegu! The party town!

It is, in fact, a city of 1.5 million but more often than not, a visit to Daegu will end up in a few familiar streets around Banwoldong, drinking cocktails from plastic bags and munching on delicious express kebabs.

Group of young people dressed up for Halloween in Daegu, Korea
Daegu is a fun spot for Halloween! Bonus tip for the guys – dress as Santa Claus and the Koreans will love you!

A very popular choice with hagwon teachers, Daegu has a great central location on the KTX line, which puts it just a short trip from pretty much everywhere.

If you want a more manageable version of Seoul, this could be the place for you.

d) Jeju

The biggest island, known as “Korea’s Hawaii”, is a different kettle of fish altogether.

The island is beautiful and maybe the best place in Korea to visit to satisfy a love of hiking and trekking.

The teaching community is quite small, perhaps less than a hundred. Trips to the mainland are often in the form of $150 return flights during vacation periods. Unlike the mainland teachers, weekend road trips aren’t a big feature for ‘Jeju-ers’. (Or is it ‘Jeju-ites’?)

No doubt about it, Jeju is a special place though and if your goal is to knuckle down on a personal project and save money while enjoy the most beautiful place in Korea, then the island could be for you.

Want some ideas for fun things to do on Jeju Island?

e) Best of the rest

Daejeon is a large, central city that is arguably the best-placed option if you’re keen to travel within the country during your time teaching English in Korea. It is an economic hub and has a large expat population but there aren’t a lot of unique aspects to it that you can’t find elsewhere. EPIK orientation is often hosted here.

Ulsan and Pohang are industrial cities on the east coast that offer beach options and a lively teaching community. Both are good alternatives for those who can’t get into Busan.

Gyeongju is a city rich in culture and history and a great option close to Busan and Daegu. If you want to learn more about your new home country while teaching in South Korea, this is a fantastic place to do that.

Gwangju is a large city in the Southwest corner on the KTX line with a huge teacher community and buzzing social scene.

 

Man dressed in winter jacket and hat at Bulguksa Temple, South Korea
Gyeongju has many cultural sites such as Bulguksa Temple.

Return to Contents

 

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

From here on, this article will predominantly focus on how to get a public school teaching job in South Korea, with specific information on the English Program in Korea (EPIK). This ultimate guide will also detail the realities of life for an English teacher there, what to expect in the country as a foreigner and how to handle and enjoy life in Korea.

3. Eligibility Requirements for Public School Jobs

In case you glossed over the first 3,000+ words of this guide, let’s confirm you pass the basic requirements to get a job teaching in South Korea at a public school.

Here’s what you need:

  • To have a passport from an English-speaking country – USA, Canada, Ireland, UK, South Africa, New Zealand or Australia.
  • To have a Bachelor’s degree in any subject from 3+ year course.
  • To be TEFL-certified.

If you have all of these, you’re laughing. You shouldn’t have a problem finding a public school job in Korea.

Getting a TEFL certificate may, in fact, be optional but we’ll discuss that in detail in a little bit…

Now let’s get on the hunt for a job!

4. Where to apply

a) Private Recruiters

If you choose to go with a recruiter, research carefully. Find one with good reviews and communicate your desires clearly from the outset.

Quote Image created in Canva

With some coercion, the recruiter let me know that the tattoos were a problem. After that, I was about to go to China, considering four different job offers from successful Skype interviews.

It was only through a chance visit to the EPIK website that I decided to have one final roll of the dice. (Sans-tattoo revelations!)

While I harbor no ill will for the recruiter I used, it would have been good to have been kept updated throughout the situation without feeling like I was ditched.

There are plenty of recruiters offering positions teaching English in Korea all year round. Among the best are Korean Horizons, Korvia and Greenheart Travel.

b) Direct on program websites

Personally, if you really want to teach in Korea I recommend that you cut to the chase. It will save you hassle and confusion.

I may be a little biased because of my own experience but in the end, I found that dealing with EPIK directly was not so tough that I needed someone else running the show for me.

EPIK advises you start the application process six months in advance of your intended start date. So if you want to start teaching in South Korea with the August intake, you should get the ball rolling in February.

Similarly, those who want to jump in at the beginning of the Korean school year in February should start the application process in August of the previous year.

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Want to know why EPIK is a great choice for teaching English in South Korea?

Large group of happy ESL teachers with EPIK sign in front of traditional Hanok building in Korea

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c) Job Ad sites

Simply performing a Google search for “English teaching jobs Korea” will yield a bazillion results. Trawling through sites that advertise teaching jobs abroad may well turn up a gem, particularly if you go the hagwon route.

Dave’s ESL Café has long been the leader in this game but if you’re seeking a public school job, then it’s best to stick to a recruiter or go direct.

d) Facebook groups

Again, like the ad sites, you may stumble across an absolute clinker of a hagwon or private contract, perhaps teaching the Korean military or at a well-paid international school.

If that’s what you’re really after, join the most active groups like ESL Jobs in Korea and Teaching Jobs Korea and keep your finger on the pulse.

e) Friends in high places

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. The old adage is true. There have been quite a few people who have engineered their current jobs teaching in South Korea simply by talking to the right people.

Perhaps they approached the local education board in-person to secure a job in the city they wanted. Others managed to replace a friend who was leaving, lining up the position from overseas.

That incredible program that is better than EPIK? Well, the boss was very receptive to a couple of friends who simply made the effort suit-up and pay her a visit with a shiny resume.

Water temple at Palace grounds, Seoul, South Korea
Many temples around Korea look the same but this one was a little different. See can you find it!

5. Essential Documents

Ughh, this is the tough part. When I first encountered the process in 2012, I ran for the hills when I hit a stumbling block with my references.

When I finally arrived in August 2015, I managed to pull everything together remarkably fast and sneak through the back door. It may well be the latest EPIK application ever. (Guinness has yet to confirm this but we know it’s true!)

Here’s everything you need to get a job teaching in South Korea with EPIK: 

  • Application Form – You can download the EPIK application here or have your recruiter send you it. Make sure you complete it in full, including the demo lesson plan section!
  • Passport – If you want to teach in Korea, a valid and current passport is essential. You’ll need to send a color copy of the photo page during the application. As with any travel adventure, it’s always smart to keep a few extra copies of that page. Ensure you will have at least six months validity on your passport from the intended date of your arrival in Korea. 
  • Photos – The application will require a passport-style photo. Make sure the background is a solid color, take off the sunglasses and push your boozy mate out of the shot. Professional appearances matter in Asia so you don’t want to blow your chances of teaching in South Korea with a bad choice of photo. 
  • Degree – If you want to teach in Korea, you will need a Bachelor’s diploma. For EPIK, a degree from a 3-year university is the minimum requirement. You will need to get your certificate verified to be accepted. The best way to do this is to make a copy of it and get it apostilled or certified by the relevant authority. To find out exactly what is the right way to do it for your country, check the EPIK guidelines.
  • TEFL – If you want the best jobs teaching English abroad, you need to show you understand the fundamentals. For that reason, a TEFL course is compulsory for higher-paying positions in Korea, including Level 2 positions with EPIK. It’s worthwhile investing in a good course. For a native-English speaker, these courses are very easy and it’s just about taking the time to get it done.

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An important consideration about TEFL…

Some courses involve an in-class practical session where you learn with a group of other prospective ESL teachers and perform demo class activities. There is also the option of doing courses entirely online, with 100-hour and 120-hour options most popular. If you want to go to Busan with EPIK, you need to do at least 150 hours with a 50-hour in-class component. Busan is fugging awesome. If I had known long before I started teaching in South Korea, I definitely would have done this TEFL option.

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There’s more! You also need all of these if you want to get a job with EPIK:

  • Criminal Record Check (CRC) – If you do end up teaching English abroad, chances are you are going to be working with kids. Therefore it’s understandable that you will be vetted pretty damn thoroughly. A CRC or ‘Police Certificate’ is essential for your application, regardless of what avenue you choose for teaching in South Korea. This must be verified by the relevant government agency and dated no earlier than six months prior to your expected arrival in Korea.
  • FBI Background check (US citizens only) – You unlucky Yanks will have to go the extra mile and get an FBI check. This can take up to 12 weeks to be issued so get your ass in gear early if you want to teach in Korea soon. As the FBI doesn’t apostille the document themselves, you will need to submit the background check to the Department of Authentications in Washington, D.C.
  • Transcripts – Anyone can claim to have a degree; Korea wants proof! That means you’ll have to contact your university or college and have them issue a set of your final transcripts, proving you have indeed got the credentials. Don’t open these! These must be sent to Korea, where the powers-that-be must receive them in a sealed envelope, unopened and stamped by the institution.
  • References – Two letters of recommendation from a professional source are needed. No forgeries from friends or family members! You need bonafide recommendations from present or past employers, teachers or respected members of the community, attesting to the fact that you are an all-round great guy or gal capable of teaching in South Korea. 

 

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Grab this pin to remember all essential documents in your application for teaching in South Korea!


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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

You got the job! This is it; you’re actually going! You’re going to be teaching in South Korea!

OK, breathe!

Now, what do you need to bring? 

6. Packing for Korea

Some Korean people take great pride in telling you that Korea has four seasons, delightfully rhyming them off to you, before they smugly ask how many seasons your country has. I’m a little dubious of this claim…

Cartoon on Korean seasons

I imagine this would be world-shattering news for some Koreans to hear. I’ve haven’t had the heart to burst their bubble yet.

I’m sure weather experts and geography nerds will correct me to explain that Korea technically does have four seasons. I guess I can see some credence to such claims but as I come from Ireland where we have very distinct seasons of equal length, I remain dubious.

Koreans can claim to have four seasons, but neither Spring or Fall last very long at all!

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Want to know about Korea’s coolest winter festival?

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival in South Korea
The weather in South Korea can reach extremes – this makes for fun activities in winter!

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Ultimately, that means you should pack for the two extremes and you’ll be covered. You can almost wear shorts and tees almost half the year, scarves and gloves the other half!

As for work, it’s a good idea to dress smartly at first then take your cues from the other teachers in school.

The real trick is to find the balance of clothing in your schools. Many are fussy about using the aircon or heater, so you may have some cold classrooms or sweaty days!

A basic rule of thumb for dress code in Korea:

Keep the shoulders, knees and toes covered. If you have tattoos, better not to flash them, especially around school. Many of the older generation still associate ink with gangs. You certainly won’t curry favor with the Principal no matter how cool that Mom tattoo looks.

7. Booking the Flight

When you get the official acceptance to teach in Korea, your recruiter or EPIK consultant will give you a date of arrival. Get on to Skyscanner or Momondo and hunt down a deal for that date.

Whether you will be meeting a recruiter or an EPIK representative at the airport, it’s best to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed so if you can’t get a suitable time on the day, perhaps go a day early and book into a nearby hostel.

I personally recommend you book Hotel Sky in Incheon. It’s great value for money, with a private bathroom and large TV in every room. Most importantly it has a free airport shuttle!

Your contact will provide you with an address, map and GPS coordinates if it comes to it. Bring your compass and tracking skills and give yourself plenty of time to hunt them down.

8. Survival Korean

Okay, so now the flight is booked. It’s beginning to sink in. You’re actually going to Korea, where they speak Korean.

What have you done?!

Fear not, the language is definitely tricky at first for a native English speaker. But it’s also one of the easier Asian lingos to get to grips with. (Yes, really!)

Do yourself a mahoosive favor before you go and follow these 5 steps:

  • Practice it. Drill it.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat.

It will make your life a lot easier going forward.

As for basic survival Korean phrases, get these down and you’ll hit the ground running.

Hello Ahn-nyeong-ha-se-yo 안녕하세요
Yes Nae
No Ah-ni-yo 아니오
Excuse me Jam-she-man-yo 잠시만요
Please (give me) Ju-se-yo 주세요
Thank you Gam-sa-hab-nee-da 감사합니다
My name is… Je-ireum-eun … ib-nee-da 제 이름은 … 입니다
I’m from… Je-noon … es-eo was-eo-yo 저는 … 에서 왔어요
Nice to meet you… Mana-seo ban-gap-seum-nee-da 만나서 반갑습니다
One beer, please! Maek-ju han-na ju-se-yo! 맥주 하나주세요
Bathroom Hwa-jang-shil 화장실
I’m alright / It’s okay / No worries! Gwen-chan-ae-yo 괜찮아요
I don’t know Mull-eo-yo 몰라요
I’m sorry Choe-seong-hab-nee-da 죄송합니다
Where? Eo-dee-yo? 어디요
What’s this? E-go moy-ya? 이게 뭐야
How much? Eol-ma-ye-yo? 얼마예요

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Want to know useful phrases for the classroom when teaching English in South Korea?

Elementary school in Korea
In rural schools, you may discover teaching in South Korea involves a lot of the kids teaching you how to speak Korean! It’s almost essential!

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

This is when shiz gets real! It certainly can be a shock to the system to suddenly be surrounded by the ubiquitous Hangul script and vibrant advertising lights, the different language and the foreign smells. Not to mention all the staring.

When you go to teach in Korea, you better get used to the staring, especially if your skin, hair or eye color is anything other than the perceived “norm” in Korea.

The blue-eyed, ginger African-Americans get it the worst.

9. Orientation

With hagwons, you will be thrown in right away, maybe even the day you arrive at the airport! Hagwons truly can be a baptism of fire for those teaching in South Korea.

This is not usually the case with public school. I had a two-week grace period to plan lessons before I taught my first class. But with EPIK, before you even get to the classroom, you need to do orientation.

For me, that entailed nine days in Daejeon with 400 other noobs in the sweltering August heat. There we were, traipsing between lecture halls and Korean classes, having health exams and drug tests, learning the ins and outs of life teaching in South Korea while we staved off jetlag and tried to get used to the Korean food and oppressive summer heat.

It had its benefits though, particularly if this is your first time teaching English abroad and I have some great memories from my orientation.

EPIK orientation
The big day at the end of orientation!

10. The Contract

As orientation draws to a close, your fate will be decided. While some people already gather that they are in a big city, other EPIK noobs will only know their province.

All will be revealed as contracts are dished out to be signed and you will learn the exact town or city that is to be your new home in Korea. Moreover, you find out about your school or if you will be teaching multiple schools! You also discover whether they are elementary, middle or high.

No doubt is the most exciting time of the journey thus far and for many is the realization of big dreams or deepest fears. Once you sign that contract, it’s really official; you’re going to be teaching in South Korea. 

What the contract offers

Ahh, the juicy details! While prior teaching experience and previous years worked with EPIK are a factor in total salary and vacation days, the contract benefits for a teaching position with EPIK are much the same across the board.

If this is your first time teaching in South Korea and you choose EPIK, you can look forward to all of this:

  • Round-trip flight reimbursement – that covers your flight to Korea when you first arrive and also your exit flight when you leave Korea after the end of your contract;
  • A monthly salary of at least 2.1 million KRW, paid directly to your account. This salary is tax-free for your first two years teaching in South Korea;
  • A rent-free apartment, which is fully furnished in a secure building and neighborhood;
  • A 300,000 KRW settlement allowance;
  • An E-2 Visa that enables you to live and work in Korea;
  • 18 paid-vacation days per contract year;
  • 10 paid sick days per contract year;
  • Full lunch provided every day at school;
  • Health Insurance;
  • Pension Contributions (not for Canadian and Irish citizens);
  • A contract-completion bonus of one month’s salary at the end.

Your school and your handlers/co-teachers will have the final say on things like sick days and vacation days. Personally, I had little leeway with selecting the exact days I wanted for vacation time. On the other hand, I managed to pull quite a few sick days without so much as a text message to explain my illness.

The contract entitles you to all the benefits above but there may be some variation depending on your specific situation. 

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Get the full picture on vacation time for teaching English in South Korea!

Camp fire at Korean school
Vacation time for ESL teachers in Korea is more than just holidays abroad!

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

After getting your mission on the penultimate day of orientation, you know your fate.

Like cattle heading to the slaughter, you’ll all board buses together and head to a central city meeting point where all the representatives from your respective schools will be waiting with their machetes cars.

This is where it truly gets real. The EPIK orientation is a little, insulated bubble of foreign teachers having fun in what feels like a foreign-exchange college environment.

But once you’re out on your own, then you’ve truly arrived in Korea!

***

Gotta go? Don’t miss out! Stick your email here and get the extended eBook version of this Kick-Ass Guide to Teaching in South Korea. It includes exclusive content and advice such as:

How to save over $10,000 in one year

Tips and tricks for classroom management

The best games and activities for Elementary School

Practical advice for your Open Class

Extended teacher interviews

PLUS FULL DETAILS ON THE BEST PUBLIC SCHOOL PROGRAM IN SOUTH KOREA THAT NOBODY SEEMS TO KNOW ABOUT – IT HAS TWO MONTHS VACATION AND YOU GET HOME AT 2PM EVERY DAY!

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11. Meeting your Co-Teacher

Depending on where you get placed, you may have a long drive before you reach your town. This gives you the first chance to get to know your mentor, more commonly known as your co-teacher.

This is a loosely-applied term that is somewhat misleading. They might co-teach with you all the time or they might happily let you run the show. Some might not appear in your class at all other than to relay important information. It really is a mixed bag.

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Want to know more about co-teaching while teaching English in Korea?

Happy man posing with a statue at Gyeongbukgong Palace, Seoul, Korea
My co-teacher in Korea is like this statue – stoic, silent and miles away from my classroom.

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Regardless, they are your main point of contact and link to the hierarchy of the school. If you have a problem while teaching in South Korea, go to them. If they are the problem, well, then that kinda sucks.

Do what you can to forge a good working relationship from the get-go.

Some people do this by buying a small gift for their co-teacher, usually at the end of the settling in period. This is a token of appreciation that goes a long way to starting the relationship on a good footing. It needn’t be much – a coffee and bun, a small desk ornament etc.

Use your logic to gauge what’s acceptable.

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Before giving a gift to a co-teacher

Koreans embarrass easily.Try to give any gifts in private rather than risk embarrassing your co-teacher in front of other staff or students. A well-meaning gesture delivered at the wrong time could end up backfiring and making your co-teacher feel uncomfortable. For example, don’t present a married Korean woman with a bunch of flowers and chocolates in the middle of the teachers room!

***

For the first week or two at least, they’ll be your best friend, taking you on little missions to get your new life up and running with the help of your 300,000 KRW settlement allowance. If they don’t do this, then you got a real crap co-teacher and I’m sorry. This does happen sometimes.

The silver lining is you’ll adapt quicker by making friends with the existing English teachers and perhaps learning how to speak a bit of Korean to get these things done.

Also, if you have a crap co-teacher, don’t waste your money buying them a gift!

 12. Teaching Schedule

When you get a role with EPIK, your co-teacher will most likely take you from the pick-up point straight to your school. There you’ll meet the principal and VP for the first time and also fill out some paperwork. At this point you should get information about your schedule for the school or other schools if you have more than one.

EPIK teaching schedules are pretty standard across the board with a typical day being 8.30AM – 4.30PM, Monday to Friday. The contract requires you to teach 22 “teaching hours” a week. This equates to 22 classes of 40 or 50 minutes for elementary or middle respectively, split fairly evenly across the week. I never had more than 5 classes in a single day.

Quite often you’ll finish all your classes by around 2pm but you’ll more than likely be expected to stay at school until 4.30pm. This is the notorious desk-warming, which many people seem to moan about…

13. Desk-warming

Although you only have 22 hours max each week, the EPIK contract requirements mean you’ll actually be in the building about 40 hours a week.

What you do with that free time is up to you. Whether you put it to good use or just watch Netflix until your eyes bleed, it doesn’t matter. Just stay at school unless you’re told otherwise.

Personally, I think this is great. You get paid to sit in an empty room, devoid of screaming kids and often equipped with fast internet, printers and scanners. A long stretch of uninterrupted time at work where you get paid to do whatever you want?

What other job offers that?

But some people like to bitch and moan about this being a waste of time. They’re being paid to do nothing. It’s a tough life. Find out more about desk-warming here!

If you have no classes in the afternoon, a rural school may be more care-free and let you head to the bus stop early. This differs on case-by-case basis.

In any case, don’t brag too much if you have a chill rural school that lets you take off early. It has been known for fellow ESL teachers to catch wind of such liberties and then contact EPIK to rat out their colleagues.

Unbelievable but true.

***

Wondering what life is like in rural Korea?

Central river in Bonghwa, South Korea
The river cutting through little Bonghwa comes to life during festival season.

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14. Apartment

Apartments for public school teachers in Korea can vary dramatically. Some people luck out with a humongous bed or a sofa. A few lucky bastards will end up with a separate living room.

Occasionally, the teacher that lived there before you will leave behind a bunch of utensils, goods and furniture that makes your early days and bank balance very happy.

Then there are some unlucky souls who show up to find an empty apartment without a bed.

As per the EPIK contract, your school must provide:

  • A bed and mattress
  • A television
  • A rice cooker
  • A table and chairs

It shouldn’t be any trouble to get this stuff organized and if your Korean co-teacher is worth their salt then they’ll get it done fast.

My school also gave me some bookshelves, a printer and some elementary Korean language books. The printer never worked and the language books were never used but hey it’s the thought that counts.

Apartment for person teaching in South Korea
A bad panorama shot of my first apartment the night I arrived. The left wall wasn’t really so crooked but the place was small. I had to make a bed on the floor from those blankets until I got a bed later in the week!

15. WiFi in your Apartment

If you’re really lucky, you’ll have WiFi set up already. Perhaps the previous teacher that lived in your apartment left the router for you. I fed off an open network in my building for six months before finally having to buy my own router.

If you need to get one, it’s easy to snap one up for $30 followed by a 10 minute installation. WiFi in Korea is great and getting it at home will save you burning up all your data.

Olleh is the best and most prevalent throughout the country. You should be able to buy a good router at any big supermarket or Daiso store.

16. ARC

Within a few days of arriving at your hometown, your school will want you to get your Alien Registration Card.

The ARC makes you a legal resident of Korea.

Therefore, it is the single most important document you will have while teaching in South Korea.

Alien Registration Card for man teaching in South Korea
My old ARC – it’s invalid now so feel free to steal my Korean identity.

It gets you through immigration when you come back from vacation, it helps you sort banking business, it makes it possible to get a phone contract and it provides you with a discounted rate on healthcare. It even enables you to order Amazon products online. Yes, it is very important indeed!

Getting your ARC is a simple matter of filling out a few forms and getting the stamp of approval at the nearest immigration office. Once you have it you are fully approved to be teaching English in Korea for the next year!

17. Getting a Phone

Before you rub your hands together gleefully and slip into a day-dream about incredibly cheap Samsung products, think again. A contract phone in Korea will sting.

In two years, my bill surpassed $2000. That’s US dollars.

Every new contract is a minimum of 2 years and if you want unlimited data then expect to pay 80,000 KRW or more a month. Lower tariffs around 40 on an older model are a good compromise so long as you keep tabs on your data use and try to stick to the ubiquitous WiFi.

Another option is to take over an existing teacher’s phone contract. Many teachers who are leaving the country will advertise their phone contract for sale on Facebook groups. This can work out very well for both parties.

The last option is for the frugal-minded people who don’t mind being disconnected most of the time. Buy a sim-free WiFi egg, top it up and live off the data it provides.

You wouldn’t be the only one teaching in South Korea to do this and with WiFi so prevalent, it’s not as inconvenient as you might think. This is a very viable option for keeping in touch with people and while it might not work for everyone, it certainly saves quite a few bucks throughout the year.

***

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

If you’re an experienced teacher then you may have little worries about standing up to hold court and order in front of a class of hyper kids. However, teaching kids who don’t understand your language is certainly another ball game.

First impressions count and it isn’t just the kids that you need to make your mark with.  As the new teacher, there will be a certain curiosity about you from everyone in your school.

If you live in a small town or village, you may be one of a minute population of foreigners. People will see you and they will be talking about you whether you realize it or not.

18. What to do on your First Day of Class

Before you leave the house for work that first morning of teaching in South Korea, you might not be bursting with confidence. You may be a little nervous.

Don’t worry, that’s normal.

But even if you don’t feel confident, you can at least look the part!

Dress smart. If you look sharp then people know you’re taking this teaching English abroad thing serious and you’re not just another lazy backpacker passing through to collect some easy coin.

Turn up early to give yourself time to deal with any unexpected meetings or computer malfunctions – they will happen sooner or later!! Korean surprises are all part of the job!

On the first day teaching English in Korea, it’s best to crack the ice with a mix of stuff you may well learn about at orientation:

a) Rules

Devise a few simple rules – simple for the kids to understand and remember. More importantly, they should be simple for you to enforce.

b) Self-introduction

Knock together a little PowerPoint presentation with some photos from home to introduce yourself. Talk about your family, your interests and what you like. Make it light and fun!

c) Meet the kids

Now it’s time to meet the kids! Some simple introductory questions like ‘what’s your name?’ and ‘what’s your favourite food?’ are good to get the ball rolling.

If you want to nuke all that time on the clock, have the kids design name-tags with A4 pages and color pens. This is great for allowing you to get to grips with all the student’s Korean names while practicing reading Hangul.

d) Games

Finish up the class with some simple games to consolidate the topics of the day. Pass the ball or conversation role-play games will get all the kids doing self-introductions and discussing favourite things in English.

Ending your first classes with a game is a great way to endear yourself to your new students from day one.

 

Korean students holding nametags for a photo
Learing the students’ names is an important step towards building a bond

19. Dress Code for Teaching in South Korea

It’s best to start out smart, erring on the side of prim-and-proper, then tone it down as you see fit by taking cues from the Korean teachers at school.

Generally speaking, guys can’t go wrong with a collared shirt and pair of smart jeans. The ladies can follow suit with smart office-style clothes for a little while initially before turning up more casual as time goes on.

Girls do have somewhat more freedom and choice with their wardrobes and hair but ultimately if you make sure to respect the culture and keep the shoulders and midriff covered, you can’t go far wrong.

Well-dressed foreign teacher with students
Dressing smart not only gets compliments but also respect at school.

Personally, I started out with a tie, thinking it would only last a few weeks.

In the end, it became a regular feature in my time teaching in South Korea, aside from those days when the climate was akin to an oppressive sauna.

Most days I wore jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, a cardigan and smart trainers. Adding a tie to smarten the look was easy and even without it I never got anything but great compliments and friendly faces from principals, parents and teachers alike.

I always, ALWAYS kept my tattoos covered, regardless of how hot it was. This meant my sleeves were never rolled past my elbows. However, I successfully grew my hair to almost ponytail length and had a sometimes-scruffy looking beard without hearing a single complaint. I guess the tie balanced out the scruffy bum look.

Appearances are important in Korean society and if you’re under the microscope as the only foreign teacher at school, or one of the only foreign people in your community, it doesn’t hurt to look respectable.

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Want some great tips on how to make a good impression at your school while teaching in South Korea?

Man dressed smart in shirt and tie while teaching in South Korea.

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20. Lesson Planning 

Outside of teaching classes, you will have a lot of free time in Korea, even at school. However, you will need to invest a little bit of this time in preparing for said classes.

Many people simply follow the textbooks as directed by their co-teacher.

But there are a couple of catches:

Many of the textbooks and CD-ROMs are crap as most of the activities aren’t engaging for the kids.

Furthermore, they’re in Korean so it’s difficult to fully grasp how to run the lesson unless you’re fluent.

Plenty of people teaching in South Korea don’t really care about this and just muddle through it to get the job done.

If you want to go the extra mile and create your own lessons, then you probably can do so. That’s one of the great benefits of working at public school.

I ditched the textbooks in the second week and created my own lessons for the next two years.

Clear it with your co-teacher first but it shouldn’t be an issue.

Enter Waygook – the lifeblood of anyone teaching in South Korea!

This website is an absolute life-saver. Without it I don’t know that I could have successfully got through my time teaching in South Korea. It is an absolute gold mine full of teaching materials, pre-made lesson plans, games, activities, ideas and lots of little gems you could barely imagine.

While the site itself isn’t that pretty, you can search every lesson of every textbook and dig up something to try out in your classes. There’s no shortage and after a while you’ll find a bunch of activities that work for you, then you can just plug in the relevant target language for the lesson.

Within a few months, you’ll have a treasure trove of solid plan templates and games to and can build your teaching style upon that.

***

Want my instructions for the 6 awesome activities that worked a charm in every class, for every grade in Elementary School in Korea?

Get that plus more exclusive content in the eBook edition of this Kick-Ass Guide to Teaching in South Korea

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

21. Classroom Environment

At EPIK orientation, you will be told a lot about the ideal scenario of having a bilingual co-teacher who shares the workload, teaches with you and generally makes life easier. However, not everyone ends up with this scenario.

You may get it, you may not.

Personally, I had different homeroom teachers making appearances for a while but as the weeks passed, they vanished and I was left to teach alone. Sometimes your “co-teacher” doesn’t even speak English.

Regardless of whether you’re alone or not, you’ll quickly discover three truths about teaching in South Korea:

a) English is a difficult subject for Korean kids.

This is more evident in rural areas rather than cities as English exposure isn’t a big part of the people’s lives there. Even my best and brightest students who went to hagwons couldn’t hold a full conversation with me.

Many of my 6th grade kids didn’t know the alphabet or phonics.

For two years, I had to use a combination of Google Translate, my basic Korean skills and some expert-level charades.

In. Every. Single. Class.

You have to make it fun, especially for elementary students.

That means lots of varied activities and fun interactive games. Music and movie clips are good too but be sure to find the balance.

You don’t want the Korean staff or your principal seeing you as the lazy teacher who plays movies all the time.

Man teaching in South Korea posing with young girl wearing blue sunglasses.
You’re sure to meet a few little characters while teaching in South Korea!

b) Korean students don’t really take your class serious

Again, perhaps city teachers can tell a different tale, but in the boonies, foreign ESL teachers are a bit of a novelty. This attitude comes from Korean teachers in school and trickles down to the kids. Our classes aren’t ranked as important as the classes taught by Korean staff.

As a result, your authority is undermined and so many students will consider English class with the foreigner as “fun time”.

While you want to enjoy the job and have fun teaching in South Korea, it’s important to start strong, even a little bit strict.

From personal experience I can tell you that being the fun, friendly teacher can make you seem like a pushover and students will be more likely to challenge or disregard your authority down the line.

It’s hard to rein them back in once they start thinking of English class as a time for them to go crazy without consequences.

Introduce rules and reward systems that are easy to implement, which are motivating for the kids and not too much hassle for you to track and maintain.

 c) There is a gulf in abilities within your classes

In Ireland and the UK, the done thing is to segregate students by their abilities so kids on the same level have a fair chance of learning together. Everyone in a single class is roughly on the same level and so nobody gets left behind.

At least that’s the theory in the idea. I assume there are similar systems in the US, Canada, NZ, Oz and South Africa.

In Korea? Not so much.

I had mixed grade classes, with 5th and 6th grade together. They’d arrive to class with different textbooks. Sometimes in my most rural school, I was “teaching” 2nd grade students with 6th grade!

There is no division of levels here and so don’t be shocked if you end up with a class with huge disparity. You may find yourself trying to engage smart hagwon kids while also teaching disabled students.

Sadly, even if they’re not disabled, weaker students suffer under the pressure of this environment. You may soon see the sad effects of bullying in the classroom in Korea.

22. Culture

Korea is a fascinating place, mixing advanced technology and modern quirks with ancient Confucian ways and deeply-ingrained social practices. Living there really opens your eyes to a wildly different culture and lifestyle that you will most likely never have experienced before.

Entertainment

Speaking of technology, the home of Samsung is alive with gadgets and gizmos. South Korea is home of the world’s fastest WiFi, with download speeds three times as fast as 2nd placed Hong Kong. Koreans are obsessed with their phones, apps and computer games. But more than that, they are photo-crazy!

Music and dancing are massive in Korea, no more so than in Seoul. The international rise of Korean pop, better known as K-Pop, is inescapable here. From school kids to adults, in bars, clubs and shops, it’s everywhere. Soon enough you’ll find yourself Shazamming songs and humming K-Pop tunes.

The famous Noraebang, which translates as ‘singing room’ is something you’re bound to try at least once while teaching in South Korea. Korea’s answer to Karaoke is an assault on the senses as the echoing feedback, wailing voices and flashing lights are sure to leave your head spinning as much as the soju and cheap beer.

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Worried you might get a small town devoid of entertainment options? See what you can do in a small town in Korea!

Westerners teaching in South Korea at a water festival in Seoul.
Interested in teaching in South Korea? Prepare for war! Just joking….except for Kindergarten!

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Sports

Koreans enjoy sports with baseball and volleyball being the most popular. Soccer has a mass following but doesn’t get quite the same attention as baseball. They love it here!

If you’re keen to get involved, there are many teams around bigger cities and your school may also invite you to play on their volleyball team when they compete against other schools in the area.

At a baseball game while teaching in South Korea
While I would rather watch paint dry, Koreans love baseball!

Also, the national martial art of Tae-Kwon Do is one that many foreigners like to have a crack at. Finding a gym shouldn’t be too hard but just make sure it’s a real one and not some kind of crèche for all the elementary kids after school!

Fashion

Appearance is very important in Korea. People here are very fashionable, particularly in the bigger cities. However, this extends across the country and down from the older generations to the younger ones.

It’s not uncommon to see young couples dressed-to-the-nines on a random Tuesday in a fast food restaurant.

Most teenagers will almost always be in school uniform, even late at night or on the weekends. That’s right; they go to school on the weekends too!

Korea is education-crazy and many Korean teens are sadly trapped in a study cycle from dusk-til-dawn all week long.

Matching outfits don’t stop with school kids though. Many young Korean couples will wear matching clothes. While this may seem strange to foreigners, it’s a huge trend here!

Festivals

Korea is crazy for festivals.

They have them all over the country, right throughout the year. Even small little villages will have major festival events for the most random things. My hometown of Bonghwa was known for its pine mushroom and sweet fish festivals.

The Queen herself went to the famous Andong Mask Dance Festival when she visited Korea some years ago.

Holi Hai festival, Busan, South Korea
The Holi Hai color festival in Busan is not to be missed!

Safety

Korea is a very safe country and so this innocence, which may seem naive in other countries, is simply the way people are here.

It is no problem for school girls to stroll home late at night through dark streets. There is little danger of getting drunk in a bar out in the city.

You can lose your wallet or phone and 99 times out of 100, you’ll have it returned to you.

People are just that honest. Trust me, I tested the honesty of Koreans many times!

23. Customs

Here are some important Korean customs you should get familiar with if you want to fit in and avoid offending anyone in your new home country! 

Greetings

  • When you shake the hand of someone older than you, use your free hand to touch your shaking arm on the forearm, below the elbow. This is basic respect.
  • Anytime you greet someone, bow slightly to show respect. You don’t need to bow to kids but you should for older people. The older the person, the greater the respect therefore you can bow a little more. Just don’t fall over.

Dining

When you teach in Korea with EPIK, you will no doubt end up at some staff dinners.

  • While you and your buddies may look for more westernized places, the traditional Korean restaurants won’t have chairs. Everyone must sit on the floor around the short little dining tables. This isn’t very comfortable but hey, you’re in Korea now! Get used to it!
  • You should wait for the hierarchy to start before you chow down. Korean customs dictate that while everyone should eat together, you must wait for the eldest person to begin first.
  • Pass things in a similar way to the handshake, while touching the passing arm.
  • If someone passes you something, receive the item with two hands.
  • When it comes to alcohol, it is customary to always accept the offer of a drink, even if you don’t intend on drinking it all.
  • Also, you don’t pour your own drink nor should you let an older person pour their own. Keep an eye out for the Principal’s glass going empty and you can win some brownie points by refilling theirs.
  • When toasts are made, look away from your elders as you drink. To maintain eye contact with an older person while drinking is deemed disrespectful.

Most of these customs will seem alien at first and you may question why they are so important. However, if you want to make a good impression and get the most of your experience teaching in South Korea, adopting these customs quickly will endear you to your Korean co-workers and superiors.

That can only be a good thing in the long run!

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Want to learn more basics about Korean culture?

Western men teaching in South Korea dressed in Korean traditional outfits
Getting our cultural immersion vibe on!

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24. Socializing with Korean people

If you’re really lucky, you’ll have some friendly young Korean co-workers that can show your new hometown and give you free language lessons!

Even if you don’t find any Korean friends through work, you’re sure to meet some sooner or later. Many young Koreans are curious about foreigners and will approach you in the street and strike up conversation.

Having a Korean friend is a great way to learn more about culture and customs in the country while you teach in Korea. Best of all, it provides you the perfect opportunity practice speaking Korean! 

Westerners teaching in South Korea enjoying a Korean BBQ.
Smart phones and BBQ – life in Korea is pretty good!

25. Food

I have a confession.

I am not a massive fan of Korean food.

Or at least I wasn’t until near the end. With public school lunches in Korea varying between mediocre and mildly satisfying, it took me quite a while to adapt.

However, there is a lot of Korean food to choose from and when you’re here a while, you’ll find the best restaurants in your neighborhood and enjoy some really tasty grub!

While Korean food as a whole took a minute to win me over, these dishes right here are definitely a treat while you live in Korea.

Now that I’m gone, I actually do miss them.

Bulgogi (불고기)

A delicacy from North Korea, Bulgogi literally translates as “fire meat” and is one of the most popular dishes in South Korea. Its name makes it sound incredibly spicy but it’s not. The moniker refers to the method of preparation. Thin strips of beef brisket are marinated before being grilled over a charcoal barbeque. Tasty stuff!

Gamjatang (감자탕)

While pig-spine stew might not sound so appealing to everyone, this is a great meal that nobody should miss out on while teaching in South Korea. Often dished up with potatoes, rice and hot peppers, this red broth combines great flavours and tender meat to warm your insides on those cold winter days.

Dakgalbi (닭갈비)

There’s no danger of missing out on this one. Dakgalbi restaurants are ubiquitous in Korea with their round hot plates built into the tables for people to come and enjoy the famous spicy stir-fried chicken dish. Throw in the rice, kimchi, onions and basically anything else on the table to make it even more delicious. It’s easy to see why this one is so popular!

Bibimbap (비빔밥)

One of Korea’s most well-known dishes is little more than warm rice and mixed vegetables, sautéed and seasoned. Occasionally an egg may be thrown on top and just before you tuck in, grab your chopsticks and mix it all together; simplicity at its brilliant best.

Korean BBQ (고기구이)

Ahh, the most famous of all! In two years in Korea, I don’t think I once called it gogi-gui but apparently that’s the name. The world knows it as Korean BBQ (or KBBQ) and in Korea that’s no different among the teachers there. Fill your plates with all the raw meat and vegetables you want and then slap it on the hot grill, cooking it to your desires before munching it all and washing it down with a beer or soju. Repeat until your stomach is about to burst.

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

Once you settle in, the life of an English teacher here in Korea will become routine and you’ll be faced with mundane tasks like anywhere else in the world.

The only thing is, these tasks become a little tricky when you’re new and clueless.

Rather than stumble around like a dumb version of Bambi, get to grips with the menial tasks quickly by speaking to existing teachers in your area.

26. Shopping

Groceries

The main supermarket chains in Korea are Home Plus, Lotte Mart and E-Mart. Smaller convenience chain stories such as CU and 7-11 are everywhere but you should head to the bigger stores for your weekly groceries.

A good supermarket sweep to fill your cupboards for a week will set you back around 60-to-100,000 KRW, depending on your diet. Dairy products and meat aren’t the cheapest, especially red meat.

Say goodbye to good cheese when you leave your home country and get used to living out of a frying pan.

Korean apartments for foreign ESL teachers are typically equipped with two hobs and a microwave but no oven. Therefore, if you want some variety in your culinary creations while teaching in South Korea, you’ll have to invest in things like a slow cooker, an easy-bake oven and a George Foreman grill.

Toiletries

As the capital of plastic surgery, Korea is well-known for its cosmetics.

Some of your female students as young as 11 or 12 may use make-up and the nation’s obsession with beauty products is evident everywhere you go. From K-Pop stars to actors, the influence is nationwide and all the Korean women want the best products.

You’ll have no trouble finding shops to cater to your needs, with big cities like Seoul and Busan absolutely full of the biggest stores and brands including Innisfree and Nature Republic.

Malls

Korea is fantastic for shopping, especially in major cities.

Busan has the largest department store in the world at Shinsegae Centum City.

Seoul has more shopping malls than you could possibly want to explore in a year. Huge maze-like buildings incorporating cinemas, bookstores, gyms and restaurants are dotted all over the city.

Some malls even have wedding halls! This is a common choice for Korean weddings.

The only real trouble you’ll face when shopping is that you have too many options. The paradox of choice is bewildering.

 

Shinsegae Department Store, Busan, South Korea
Taking backwards photos at the biggest department store in the world.

Online Shopping

Perhaps you’d like to take the stress and effort out of the equation by doing your shopping from your laptop.

Say hello to GMarket.

Korea’s answer to Amazon is a foreign teacher’s best friend. Once you get set-up your account to purchase items through wire transfer, and then make payments with your online banking app, you’ll never look back.

Beware though, clothing sizes may vary and the whole thing can get a little addictive, like an antidote for any waves of culture shock or frustrations with life as a foreigner in Korea!

27. Health

a) Hospital (Byeong-Won /병원)

Getting sick or injured in another country is something most people want to avoid. A trip to the hospital can be traumatic enough with the added curve-ball of a different language thrown in.

Luckily, ESL teachers in Korea receive health insurance as part of the contract.

Anytime you get sick, even if it’s a common cold, just take a trip to the hospital and flash your ARC. You may need some help with Google Translate if you and your doctor don’t share a common tongue.

Most of the time you’ll get a quick prescription that you can buy for cheap at any local pharmacy. You may find that Korean doctors are fond of giving a needle to the ass or hooking you up to drip.

Don’t worry though, healthcare is good here. I had all the above and lived to tell the tale!

b) Dentist (Chee-gwa / 치과 )

It took me over a year but I finally found an English-speaking dentist in my home city of Yeongju. Had I done so earlier, I may have avoided the dodgy filling and subsequent cavity.

Luckily, my new dentist fixed the problem before a root canal was required.

Take it from me; finding an English-speaking dentist is essential.

Unless you’re okay with a guy approaching you with a drill and only half an idea what you’re saying.

Thankfully, dental treatment is also cheap so if there are any mistakes, you won’t be poor as well!

c) Optical Care (Geum-An-Sa /검안사)

I don’t wear glasses or lenses but eye specialists and doctors are a dime-a-dozen in Korea. Do your research to find a good one.

During my first summer, the rise of air pollutants such as ‘yellow dust’ caused me a lot of bother. I was rubbing my eyes bloodshot red every day for months. Finally, I managed to get some high-grade eye-drops and antibiotics from a local optometrist.

This may be a more serious issue in Seoul, so be warned.

28. Banking

When you get a public school job, your co-teacher should help you set a few things up in the first week. The ARC is the most crucial thing on the list from a legal standpoint.

After that, setting up your new Korean bank account is the most important task. You want to get paid, right?

There is a plethora of banks to choose from and I’m not sure how any is better than the other. I was with Nonghyup and they served me well for two years.

They have an English language app for your phone that enables everything from checking your balance to transferring money internationally at the touch of a button. 

29. Bills

While your rent will be covered in your contract, there are some bills you need to keep an eye out for each month.

They’re easy enough to pay – just take the bill and your debit card to the bank and have a staff member assist you with the bill payment machines. Pay attention and you’ll know how to do it yourself next time.

Gas and electric are your responsibility so keep that in mind when you’re cranking the heat in winter and chilling under the air-con in summer. Forgetting to turn the heat off before going to work can be a costly mistake.

But I guess it could be worse, you could leave the gas on!

30. Rubbish & Recycling

Korea is a very advanced country; however its attitude to the environment is quite conflicting.

On one hand, many cities are smoggy zones with heavy air pollution. On the other hand, there is a very proactive approach to correct garbage segregation and recycling.

When you come to teach in Korea you will find a series of colored bins outside your apartment building. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

In two years I never actually knew what day the bins were collected but I never had any issues no matter what day I visited them.

Whenever you begin tripping on empty bottles or choking on the aroma of last weekend’s box of fried chicken, head for the bins!

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31. Commuting to Work

If you’re teaching in South Korea with EPIK, you may well have more than one school. The more rural you are, the more likely you’ll have longer commutes.

You’ll also have some interesting experiences on your bus rides. Watch out for the ajummas and be prepared for crazy bus drivers!

Your co-teacher will be able to fill you in with bus routes and timetables. Some schools even offer the foreign teacher a lift to or from work each day.

If you are based in a rural area or have multiple schools, you will be paid small stipends with your monthly wage to compensate these added transport costs.

In any case, you should be able to get the routine down pretty quick. If you have long commutes then make sure you always have a good book or else a pair of headphones!

32. Transport

The transport system in Korea is pretty amazing. You can dart around the country quite easily and it usually doesn’t take more than four hours to get anywhere.

That being said, if you’re coming or going through rural areas, you can expect to have to make several changes from bus to train to subway to submarine….

The KTX rail is Korea’s high-speed transit system and links several major cities including Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, Daegu and Gwangju. Trains and buses are modern, comfortable and reasonably cheap.

However, regular weekends away can torpedo your goals of saving a lot of money in Korea. Take it from someone who knows!

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Most people get a T-Money card in Korea. Want to know what smarter people do?

The T-Money card makes it easy to pay for buses and subways by swiping instead of paying cash. But you can go one better by getting the T-Money feature on your debit card when you open your bank account. This way, you don’t need to carry an extra card PLUS you don’t ever need to worry about topping the card up! It simply debits all transport costs from your account once a month!

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

33. Vacation

When you come to teach in Korea, one of the biggest selling points of public school jobs is the great vacation time.

With EPIK, you’ll have 18 days split between your two breaks in summer and winter. Most people opt for a 10-8 split but there may be room for negotiation depending on your school and circumstances.

After renewing your contract, you’ll get an extra five days vacation time.

Then there’s a whole host of public holidays throughout the calendar year that add up for a few long weekends, giving you even more chances to travel around Asia and beyond!

34. Tourism

When it comes to amazing sites and rich and diverse history and culture, Korea is a little bit vanilla compared to her sisters China and Japan.

There are some great hiking trails and beaches and nobody should leave here without having experienced Jeju and a tour to the DMZ. However, to be brutally honest, everything kinda’ looks the same in Korea!

It’s not boring but you can easily do the highlights over the course of a few weekend trips, hitting up a different area each time.

The real win is Korea’s great location and huge international airport at Incheon.

When vacation time rolls around, you are spoilt for choice with so many amazing countries on your doorstep.

The aforementioned neighbours of China, Japan and Taiwan can be reached in a couple of hours. Adventures like this in Taiwan are a great break from Korea!

The amazing sub-continent of India isn’t far. Then of course, there is South East Asia; a completely different world with soooo many great locations around popular backpacking haunts.

Wild nights in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia among others attract many teachers during vacation time.

The Philippines would take you a lifetime of vacation breaks to discover it all. Unfortunately, many people just opt for the most popular island, where they discover the sad reality of Boracay.

The beast of Australia and stunning beauty of New Zealand are just a little further south and if you’re really up for a wilderness adventure you can fly north to Russia or Mongolia.

Teaching English here provides you the platform to visit so many countries and the money and time to afford it. By choosing to go teaching in South Korea, you can effectively launch a digital nomad lifestyle.

Happy group of EPIK teachers on cultural trip to Dokdo Island.
EPIK teachers on cultural trip to Dokdo Island.

35. Saving Money

This may be one of the best reasons to teach in Korea. It was certainly a motivator for me.

Unfortunately, I suck at saving money and so it took me a little while to get into the habit. That being said, I don’t regret things. I had an absolute blast teaching in South Korea!

Some people are better than others and if you’re really motivated and frugal, you can enjoy the lifestyle, have great vacations, travel to other countries and still save a bit.

If you’re really disciplined, you might sacrifice a lot in the name of saving money. Many people come to Korea to pay off student debt or to save for big future plans. Severance payments and pension rebates are good and after a few years, some teachers can leave with a deposit for a house or an extended travel adventure.

It’s not unheard of to leave with $10,000 after one year. Some people have managed to save much more in Korea.

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

36. Contract Renewal

As most contracts for teaching in South Korea are 12 months, you should expect a conversation about renewing your contract around the 7-8 month mark.

I was tempted by other options at the end of my first year but ultimately I realized just how good a deal I had.

If you want to stay for another year, this is usually a formality. Your co-teacher should do most of the work, bringing you relevant paperwork for you to autograph. The only real job you have to do is update your ARC with the details of your new visa.

While some of this is specific for the Gyeongbuk region, this post tells you how to renew your E-2 visa in Korea.

37. Moving

For many people, renewing the contract isn’t something they want to do. They like teaching English in Korea but they don’t want to remain in their current position. Perhaps it’s the school, the town or their co-teacher. They crave change and want to mix it up.

In other cases, a teacher may wish to stay but can’t. Your school may not need an English teacher for the next year or perhaps they simply thought you sucked and didn’t offer you the choice of staying.

However, that’s unlikely if you work with EPIK. You would have to reaaaallly suck, like maybe you punched a kid or stole the Principal’s soju.

 

Western man with arm tattoos playing Korean drum.
At the end of your contract, you may choose to march to the beat of your own drum!

If you want to continue teaching in South Korea but not at your current job, then you can apply for a transfer within EPIK.

This would mean going through the application process again, albeit slightly easier now that you’ve got a year under your belt.

Alternatively, you can apply to move to another program or get a job at a hagwon or university.

In any case, if you do leave your current program, your E-2 Visa will only be valid for another month beyond the end of your current contract. Short-term visa extensions are possible but you need to be proactive to secure a new teaching job before it’s too late.

38. Leaving

Many people who go to teach abroad have their curiosity satisfied within a year.

One and done, never again! It can happen.

It doesn’t mean teaching in South Korea was a disastrous experience by any stretch of the imagination.

It may simply be the case that you don’t view teaching as a long-term career option or that you have other big plans in life that just won’t wait. There are many reasons but whatever it may be; there are a few things you should take care of before jumping on the first plane out of there.

a) Clearing your Apartment

When you leave, your replacement will most likely get your apartment. Don’t leave the place looking like a bomb hit it. Think ahead of time by downsizing your belongings.

Sell what you can to friends in your town or advertise on social media. I had a lot of fun trying to shift some of my stuff in the final weeks on the Facebook group for my town.

What you can’t sell, dump or give away, package up and mail home. The slow mail can take a couple of months but it’s cheap and worthwhile.

In the end, you want to have one or two bags at most when you head for the airport.

b) Close Bank Account

Perhaps it does no harm to have an open bank account in Korea. Maybe you’ll return someday to collect the interest on that 4 KRW you left behind.

But if you’re certain you are going for good, then it’s best to tell the bank you’re out. You can wait until your last pay check and all your bonuses are paid in first. Wire all your millions home and then close it down.

c) Phone Contract

If you get a phone contract in Korea, typically it will run for two years. This can be a problem if you’re leaving Korea after just one. You have a few options available:

(i) Pass the contract on to another teacher.

Perhaps your replacement is the best option or else a friend who is staying in the country. If you can find someone else to take over the contract, they can get a good phone and you escape any hefty termination charges.

(ii) Pay to terminate the contract.

This could sting, especially for top-of-the-range smart phones. Taking an expensive hit from the phone company could take the gloss off those contract completion bonuses. It’s best to avoid this unless you have no other option.

If you do go this route, don’t make the same mistake I did! I entrusted the job to my co-teacher. There was only ten days left on the contract yet between her and the phone shop guy, it took two hours and cost me 150,000 KRW! My buddy done it through the English customer service hotline for his network and got it wrapped up quickly for less than 50.

(iii) Do a runner.

If you do this, you’ll avoid the charges and maybe keep the great phone, which you can later unlock somewhere to continue using in other countries.

However, your co-teacher most likely signed as guarantor for your contract and so they and your school will have to foot the bill. In the end, you’ll be remembered as the foreign asshole who fucked the school over.

Don’t be that person.

There are plenty of good people teaching in South Korea. Foreigners don’t need that rep.

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Want to know one more very important thing you should do before leaving? It is extremely smart thing you wont regret! Subscribe to get the eBook and find out in the bonus content!

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

39. Support for ESL teachers

The huge expat community in Korea formed on the back of the ESL industry makes life pretty easy. If you want to teach in Korea, you can be sure to have more support and guidance available to you as an ESL teacher than pretty much any other country on the planet.

When you get a job teaching in South Korea through EPIK, SMOE or GEPIK, you will have a consultant who helps you through the application process and remains on-hand throughout your time to deal with any queries, concerns or problems.

They’re just a call or email away.

40. Korea Travel Hotline

You can call the Korea Travel Hotline free on 1330, Ext. 2 for English-speaking service.

This is a very useful number to remember for people teaching in South Korea. I used it almost every weekend I was going somewhere to plan my travels.

The service is run 24/7 by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO). It is great for basic queries about transport schedules, routes and timetables as well as getting information on popular tourist landmarks and events such directions, opening hours and entry requirements.

41. Facebook Groups

Life teaching English in Korea is a whole lot easier in the modern day that it might have been 20 years ago.

This is down to the wonders of social media. It’s not hard for teachers in Korea to find great groups on Facebook. You can join groups for your specific intake, your city or your interests. There are tons!

Here are three everyone should join:

Adventure Korea – This group is great for teachers who want to get involved in fun group excursions including the winter snowboarding trips and Jeju breaks at Chuseok. They also run cultural tours and events within the country throughout the year, taking in many events on Korea’s busy festival calendar.

HiExpat – Solid resource for all things related to teaching English in Korea including job postings, industry news and language help.

OinK – Only in Korea – There is a larger, linked group with almost 20,000 members who like to chit chat, laugh, lament, bitch and moan about all things Korea. Join that one too if you like but this is the smaller group which is a good news and media source to keep you updated with what is going on in Korea.

Group of western friends snowboarding in Korea
Adventure Korea run snowboarding and skiing trips every year. They’re a lot of fun!

42. Great Websites and Apps

Talk to me in Korean – There’s a website, an app and a YouTube series. Between them all you have the most solid Korean language resource available to foreign teachers, especially if you want plenty of listening practice and grammar study delivered in a fun and easy way.

Memrise – This app is perfect for bolstering your vocab fast. Just 10 minutes a day will load your mind with commonly-used words and you’ll start to hear them from Koreans every day. With some practice and confidence you can build your speaking skills with what you learn from this app.

Korean Pro/Lite – The Lite version is free but it’s worth paying a few extra bucks to get the full version. This phrasebook app covers all the basics and can break the language barrier in many typical scenarios, whether you’re at the restaurant, in the bank or directing a taxi.

Hello Talk – If you want to take your Korean language skills to the next level, get yourself some modern day pen pals with this app. Marketed as a language exchange app, it allows for voice clips and corrections, helping you practice all four aspects of language learning. It’s also a popular method of meeting Korean lovers if you’re keen on that idea!

43. Blogs

Eat Your Kimchi – This is the most successful blog about teaching in South Korea on the entire internet. Running almost 10 years, Simon and Martina have huge archive of tips and tales for everything to do with teaching life to adapting to Korean culture and language.

The Hungry Partier – Drew Binsky may well be the best travel vlogger right now. The dude is killing it. But before he became known for his great travel videos, he ran this blog. His Ultimate Guide to Teaching English was the best one-stop shop for teaching in Korea on the web…until I wrote this! The real gold on his old site however is Drew’s detailed posts and insight into the club and entertainment scene in Korea, especially Seoul.

Seoul Searching – This creatively-written blog is loaded with great guides and current information about life in Seoul.

Toronto Seoulcialite – Kate Carter Hickey has made the Seoul fashion and lifestyle niche her own over the past few years. If you want to keep updated with the fun activities and great restaurants in Seoul, you should follow her. Her quirky take on the dating game in Seoul is a must read for any ladies interested in finding love in the big city.

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Teaching in South Korea graphic subheader from The Digital Crusader

44. My Best Advice

It took me six long years to act on the advice of my good friend, Dave. Since he went to Korea in 2009, he told me to get my ass out there. When I finally did, I got the chance to see what the fuss was all about.

My plan for one year turned to two, mainly because I was having too much fun to actually save money like intended. It’s really easy to see how people stay for a long time.

Time absolutely flies there, more so if you have multiple schools.

Once you get past the initial adjustment process and get to grips with the job, the food and some basic lingo, it gets very comfortable there. It is a great lifestyle teaching in South Korea.

And you know what the truth is?

It isn’t that hard!

I’m an introvert and so the thought of public speaking on that level was very daunting. But I conquered it.

That’s one of the great things about teaching abroad; it really does make you grow and develop as a person. If you want to get the most out of your time teaching in South Korea, make sure you do these three things from the first day you arrive, if not before!

a) Learn Korean

I couldn’t speak a single word of Korean but by the time I left I was conversationally fluent and had enough Korean to manage teaching and communicating in even the most rural schools and villages where English was barely spoken at all.

Learning Korean will make it easier for you to settle in fast and immerse yourself in the culture. The language barrier will always be frustrating but more so for those who never try to learn and improve their language skills.

Another plus is that you’ll form stronger bonds with Korean teachers and students if you can speak more of their language.

b) Nurture your hobbies and interests

One of the best things about teaching in Korea is the amount of free time you have. If you already have a creative interest such as writing or photography, then this is perfect for you. You may use Korea to truly unlock your passion and start out on a new path to future ambitions.

Learning a language or starting a blog may not be for everyone but that doesn’t mean you should let this time go to waste. Perhaps you can rediscover a love of reading, join a dance club or play basketball with some Korean friends.

c) Develop a project with a view to the future

Teaching may not be your career. You’ll realize that pretty soon after you begin. Some people love it and stay for a long time, jumping up the ranks. Others may start a hagwon business like Dave while some will return home to qualify as a teacher in their home country.

But if teaching isn’t for you, that doesn’t mean this time has to be wasted.

Whether it’s old or new, having a hobby or project to devote time to is essential to stave off boredom. Even if you’re not bored, why waste all that time when you could put it towards something productive?

Final Thoughts

You can dilly-dally and worry all you like about whether you have what it takes but the truth is you just have to take the leap. I promise you it’ll be the best thing you ever do.

I honestly believe teaching in South Korea can be the platform to transform anyone’s life. Teaching may be your calling or perhaps you’ll figure out what it is that you really want to do while you’re there.

The lifestyle certainly gives you great opportunity to develop as a person and put life in perspective.

In any case, you’ll have a lot of fun, make great friends and save a little money. If you figure out your future too then that’s amazing.

That chance alone is worth taking the plunge.

Go for it. You won’t regret it!

45. Interviews with Other Teachers

My experience teaching English in Korea has led the narrative throughout this guide but not everyone’s time in Korea will be the same. With EPIK, it truly is a mixed bag. Outside of EPIK, there are many other experiences to be had.

The people below can testify to the very different possibilities available when you choose to teach in Korea. Each of them has walked a very different path but all offer great insight into the realities of life as a teacher there.

Diana left Canada for the amazing Busan, where she worked at a hagwon. After just one year, she left Korea to teach in Taiwan…

Christina and Brandon started in EPIK, before moving around the country, working shorter contracts with different companies, getting a mix of experiences of teaching in South Korea…

Isn’t that right, Brandon?

What can you tell us about that role you landed, with an incredible 8 weeks vacation time each year? What advice would you give to somebody looking to get a job with that same company?

Brandon – Well, here’s what you should do…

Want more insight from Brandon and the others on how to get the most out of your experience teaching in South Korea? Subscribe to get the FREE eBook of this Kick-Ass Guide with extended interviews plus LOTS more exclusive bonus content!