If you’re planning on teaching in Korea, then this guide lays it all out for you from the very beginning on where to teach and actually being in the classroom.
So you’ve decided. Of all the professions in all the countries in the world, you’re going to teach ESL in South Korea. You’ve made the decision, and now you’ve just got to figure out the how. How is this going to work?
Well, in this very long post, I’m going to detail everything. Often times different websites or companies break up the information in various PDFs, but I’m going to lay out everything I know right here. I’ve taught in Korea for nearly 3 years in total so far, including 2 years as a public school teacher in a lil, ole city called Namwon and for a year as an adult and after-school teacher in Suncheon (where I am currently).
If you want something to reference quickly, bookmark this page because here’s your ultimate guide to teaching in Korea.
A Guide to Teaching in Korea
Decide Where to Teach
1. Decide what kind of setting you want.
There’s the classic hagwon vs. public school debate, but here are the different programs you should know about before applying:
- English Program in Korea (EPIK)- This program covers pretty much all of Korea. I was a part of EPIK for my 2 years in Namwon. This program deals totally with the public school system in Korea. Hours are typically 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. with weekends off and normal vacations. You work for the government.
- **NOTE: Right now there’s also Jeollanamdo Language Program (JLP) for the Jeollanam province. However, from what I know it’s soon to be absorbed into EPIK.
- Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE)- EPIK for Seoul. The contract is pretty much the same with a few small differences that can often lead to slight pay differences.
- Gyeonggi English Program in Korea (GEPIK)- EPIK for the Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul. Same as SMOE, similar contract to EPIK but with some smaller changes. I know a friend who just switched from working in Gyeonggi to Jeollabuk because it was a 200,000 won pay difference per month.
- Hagwon– Also known private academies. The hours are typically after school and can go to 9 or 10 at night. It’s much more of a business than a school, and you’ll ultimately work about 3x as hard as a public school teacher with 1/4 of the vacation time for the same salary or less. People have a very mixed bag of experiences. My friend Lauren talks about her hagwon experience here where she’s comparing TEFL jobs in Vietnam vs. Korea.
- Teach and Learn Korea (TaLK)- With this program, basically half of everything outlined in an EPIK contract (hours, pay, vacation) and add in a few incentives. It’s geared more towards people wanting to learn more about Korea as they often have conferences, cultural experiences, etc.
- University – I honestly don’t know much about university positions because they’re typically the unicorns of the ESL world in Korea. They usually pay about the same as public school positions but you get a lot more vacation and free time to pursue other things. Check out Profs Abroad for a more detailed rundown to see if you fit the bill.
**Keep in mind, you frankly won’t know your situation whatsoever in terms of schools, class sizes, quality of the programs until you’re actually walking into your first day.
***I should also note that my position in Suncheon doesn’t really fall under any of these. I basically worked for the local government, which provides free English classes for adults and after-school classes for elementary school students. I was in the midst of applying for JLP when my recruiter asked me if I’d be interested.
2. Find a Recruiting Company and Apply.
There’s an abundance of recruiting companies that cater to Korea, some with better reputations than others. I went with Adventure Teaching for my first round because their website is incredibly straightforward, and I really enjoyed working with the recruiters. The second time I worked with Canadian Connection because they were the only recruiting company for JLP.
You could also apply to a Fulbright if you’re fresh out of college, but, to be honest, the only advantage you might get with it is using the name for whatever Ph.D. program you apply to in the future. From the stories I’ve heard, it’s a huge ripoff here vs. going through a recruiting company. If you want to go the Fulbright route, I recommend using it to go to less accessible countries.
3. Now Figure Out the Geographical Location.
Maybe not so much with Seoul or Gyeonggi-do, but think about whether you’re okay with being in a more rural location than in a major city. Keep in mind, when Koreans say rural, you’re still going to be able to get around easily and find what you need.
You’re not typically in the middle of farm fields where you have to bargain outside for your fruits and vegetables. However, if you listen to any Korean interviewing you, you’d think you have to help milk a cow to get milk!
You’re more likely to get a small city vibe more than anything else. I personally prefer the countryside because the air is cleaner, you get paid a little more, and class sizes will be smaller. Plus you get a bit more of a community feel that just can’t happen in bigger cities.
With your recruiter’s help, apply to various postings for whatever program you choose and qualify for. When I applied as a new teacher with an English major and a TEFL degree, my choices were pretty limited. I could only apply to the Jeonbuk Office of Education. The application included:
- generic information (name, DOB, etc)
- qualifications (degrees, experience, etc)
- essay (why do you want to teach?)
- sample lesson plan (about 1 page and supplemental materials if needed)
My JLP application was pretty much the same thing, and I actually recycled my essay and sample lesson plan for it. *cough*
The Application Process
1. Documents. Documents. Documents.
So with AT, I had to get a bunch of documents so they could create a profile for me to send to different schools. Mine worked out in that I got the callbacks as my documents got to Korea, so I wound up not needing them as quickly as I did. Documents included:
Notarized copy of diploma with an apostille
- If you’ve never gotten something notarized, it’s super easy and should only cost maybe $10 or less. Google where a notary might be in your town, and there should be a few that pop up (FedEx or UPS usually can). I got mine at a used car shop because that’s how random notary publics can be.
- For the apostille, you follow whatever your state follows. I just went to Harrisburg on one of my days off and they had it ready in a few minutes. You can mail yours in, but I was kind of rushing, so I didn’t want to have to wait a few weeks when I knew I could do it in an afternoon.
- ***MAKE SURE: if your diploma isn’t in English, you need an official translation in print from your school. To Washington College students, that means ours.
FBI background check with an apostille
- Option 1: All you need to know about the background check is here. The FBI actually does quite a nice job of laying it all out. Basically, you’ll submit:
- Applicant form
- Fingerprints form – Call to see which local police station can fingerprint you, and they should have the forms for them there. DON’T go to the UPS store to have them done. You need the actual fingerprints forms, the UPS will be for national background checks. This was $25 for me, and I asked for 2 copies.
- Payment – If you’re paying with a credit card, you need to fill out the CC form, if not a check will do. It’s currently $18.
- Get an apostille. This is a totally different apostille than your diploma. It’s federal level, so it’ll go through the offices in D.C. There are 2 ways to do this:
- Go in person to the offices in D.C. I did this the first time because I wanted to visit friends in D.C. anyway, and it was the perfect excuse. If I remember correctly, the wait time was 2-3 days, and you can only pick it up at certain times. On the side of the site is all the contact info you need to visit the Office of Authentications. Call ahead just to make sure of the hours and where to go.
- Mail it to the State Department. This takes forever, and I wouldn’t recommend it.
- Use a channeler. I’m not sure how it works specifically for apostilles, but there are a ton of options if you Google it. More on channelers in the next option.
- In total this option can take around 14-16 weeks… I feel like it was a lot shorter when I got mine done, but the FBI has 14-16 weeks to get your background check back on its site, and even if you go to DC in person, that’s still a few days. If you mail it to the State Department, it could be another 8 weeks on top of that.
- Option 2: Use a channeler. I did this the 2nd time because I was rushing. I used Accurate Biometrics, but here’s a list of FBI approved channelers. It costs a lot more than doing everything the normal way, but it’s so much faster. I mailed everything in on Monday and got my background check with the apostille back by Friday!
- Option 1: All you need to know about the background check is here. The FBI actually does quite a nice job of laying it all out. Basically, you’ll submit:
2 letters of recommendation (preferably from professors)
Photocopy of Passport Information
E-2 Health Statement
- Your recruiter should have sent you a copy of it in one of your emails.
- All you need to do is schedule an appointment with your doctor, who can fill it out right then and there.
4 Official Passport Photos
- Don’t wear white to get your photos done because they won’t do them… *cough*
- Also you might as well get a bunch of passport photos now (more than 4) because you’ll probably need them in some shape or form in the near future, especially if you’re planning on visiting different countries in Asia while you’re here.
2. If Needed, Take a TEFL Course.
Okay, you probably shouldn’t have waited this long to take an actual TEFL course, and I thinkkk Korea changed to not wanting online TEFL degrees. However, if you’ve found you can take an online course, and you need or just want a TEFL degree, then be prepared to take a 120-hour TEFL course.
3. Phone Interview.
You’ll most likely have a phone interview with your province’s coordinator as the final step to getting the job. Just be honest, genuine, and earnest. Show your flexibility and adaptability to new culture and environments.
They’re basically looking to make sure you’re a) not a psychopath and b) you’re not going to up and quit 6 months into your contract. Also, keep in mind you might not get an official interview time, it’ll be a broad time frame. (I told them I was available after 8 p.m., and instead of them setting up a specific time, I got a call from a +82 number while on the treadmill…)
4. Make a Short Video.
You’re going to have to make a brief video introducing yourself. This way they get a feel of what you look like and how you sound. You’ll never be able to find mine because I deleted it right after I came to Korea. There’s a reason I don’t vlog…
5. MORE DOCUMENTS.
Fun times, right? You need more documents. You’re going to cringe at the trees you’ve killed and cry at the number of times you’ll want to slap your printer, but just know this is the worst of it.
You’re not only going to need to send in some documents, but you’ll probably need two copies of each. You’ll send this to Korean immigration, and when they’ve received it, they’ll send the official contract in the mail. And yes, the shipping costs will make you want to tear your hair out.
Canadia Connection was a little more straightforward than Adventure Teaching, so it was actually a lot easier to get all this paperwork done. I didn’t have to send them paperwork to make a profile. Instead, I sent CC all the paperwork from #1, which was a lot cheaper than having to send paperwork all the way to Korea, and they sent me back the contract.
The Visa Phase
1. Look up your Korean Consulate.
Google your state and the Korean Consulate. The NYC Korean Consulate was insanely confusing to navigate. I did a lot of outside googling to figure out what I needed, and I made a plan to physically go to NYC to hand everything in rather than mail.
2. Gather the Necessary Documents.
I know, I know. More paperwork. There’s lists everywhere of things you need and don’t need, but here’s what I brought with me to the consulate.
- my contract (signed, sealed, delivered)
- my notice of appointment (NOA)
- e-2 visa application
- passport sized photo
- consulate checklist (which I didn’t need…)
- my passport
- $20 in cash only
*Things I didn’t need: a VIN (since my NOA replaced that) or a sealed transcript
*MAKE SURE: Make copies of your NOA and your contract just in case.
3. Tell Your Agency You’ve Got Your Visa.
Two days after I went up to NYC, I had my visa in my hand. Let your agency know so you can start preparing to go.
**NOTE: My 2nd time getting to Suncheon was a pretty chaotic, and I wound up going to Fukuoka in Japan to get my visa. It is possible if you want to travel before your contract!
1. Book Your Flight.
If your agency recommends you a place to book your flight with, just don’t do it. Use Expedia or Kiwi and find a flight from your hometown to Incheon. For your sanity, don’t use American Airlines or United Economy because that flight is going to be tight and uncomfortable. If you can score Asiana or Korean Air for a reasonable price, go for it.
2. Ask for Your Post-Flight Itinerary.
I asked for mine just so I had a general outline of what to expect. Some may differ, but I essentially had to take a bus down to Jeonju and then a taxi from the bus terminal to a guesthouse, and then a taxi to the provincial office the next morning.
**There are two orientation periods, in February and August. If you’re accepted around those dates, then you’ll actually go to the orientation locations and they’ll take care of you from there. I’ve never gotten one, and I’m not bitter about it. *cough*
I’m not going to tell you how to pack your bag, but you should probably take out half of whatever it is you’re thinking about bringing. Usually, you’ll be allowed two checked bags, a carry-on, and a personal bag. You. Do. Not. Need. More. Than. That. I swear you don’t. Korea has a lot of foreign products for not too much more than if you bought them from home. It’s not some isolated third world country. Here’s what you don’t need:
- The majority of your shoes. chances are you’re going to be changing into slippers in your school, so you do NOT need fancy flats, riding boots (which are a pain to take on and off quickly), or even heels. I’d bring a good pair of black flats, ankle high snow boots for winter, running sneakers, casual sneakers, and sandals. Again, you can also just get these all in Korea!
- Toiletries. You’re going to be fairly close to either a Home Plus, a Lotte Mart, or an E-mart. They have tampons, pads, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoos, conditioners, razors, shaving creams, lotions, and all the Western branded stuff you’re used to. Save the space.
- Clothes that will fit after you lose ten pounds. Just don’t do that to yourself. Save the space.
- Books. Take those books out. right. now.
I do recommend bringing your own fluoride toothpaste, though. I haven’t heard anything great about Korean toothpaste, and I’ve met a lot of people who have had dental problems after a few months here. When I went home for the first time, my dentist told me that while my teeth were in good shape, they did have some signs that cavities could be on their way if I wasn’t a bit more careful. So I packed a bunch of fluoride toothpaste and mouthwash. Cross fingers, but I’m still cavity-free.
4. Figure out your airport to guesthouse/home situation.
My company recommended using a limousine bus from the airport to Jeonju. Which is fine if you’re new. If you can, though, get on the metro to either the train station (Yongsan or Seoul Station) or the bus terminal (Express Bus Terminal or Nambu Bus Terminal).
It’s cheaper and faster. The metro is insanely easy to use even with a bunch of suitcases, and if your Korean is half decent, you’ll be fine.
5. Things to do before you go to Korea:
- Download the Seoul Subway app and Google Translate app
- Learn Hangul. Learn Hangul. LEARN HANGUL.
- Seriously, you better be familiar with Hangul.
- Learn about the culture. You can start here in my Korea section.
Tips for Adapting
1. Adapt this Motto.
Just roll with it.
Don’t try and plan. Don’t try and figure out what exactly you’re going to be doing, what kind of school(s) you’ll have, what will happen when you first get to Korea… It’s all so different for every person, you’ll tear your hair out trying to figure out what to do. I didn’t even know what city I’d be living in until I was in the car with my co-teacher and she asked me why I was teaching in Namwon. I had to ask her what Namwon was…
2. Medical Check-Up
As soon as you meet your co-teacher or within the first few days, you’ll get a medical check-up. This should go without saying, but don’t do drugs, even marijuana. If it shows up, you’ll be shipped straight back to the US. And yes you have to pee in a cup, get blood taken, and get chest X-rays. It was a little jarring mixed with jetlag.
3. Alien Registration Card (ARC)
After you get your medical check-up results (might be a few days), have your co-teacher take you to get your ARC at the immigration office. While you won’t get your card right away, you will get your ARC numbers. You also need passport photos, but you can usually get them done there if you forget.
4. Bank Set-Up.
After you get your ARC numbers, get your bank set-up. Your co-teacher 100% should help you with this, and if she/he doesn’t, pester them until they do because you need it to get paid. I didn’t need my official ARC, just the numbers.
If you can, set-up a Citibank account both in Korea and the US. It’s easy to transfer your money for free and online very easily, and it’ll make your life so much easier.
5. Your Apartment
You have your apartment. Yay! Peruse your contract to make sure you have everything it says you should have (yes, you definitely should have a bed), and then get to work cleaning it and making it feel like home.
Buy plants, hang up photos, and more. I bought things off the Arrival Store when I was coming because I wanted it there as soon as I arrived, but if you’re G-Market savvy or up to shopping around, you can get everything in town.
6. Phone Plan
If you’re unsure about how long you’ll stay, I’d recommend getting a prepaid plan. You can get a tourist SIM card to tide you over until you get your ARC. To cancel a phone plan before the contract is up, you basically have to pay for all of the remaining months (at least I did), so only get a 2-year plan if you know you’re staying for a while.
Again, your co-teacher should be able to help you with this!
7. Your First Day
You probably won’t know what’s happening on your first day, so definitely make a Powerpoint describing yourself and a worksheet to get to know your kids (i.e. favorites, birthdays, etc)
Life as a Teacher
1. This is it. You’re an official teacher!
Important to note:
- While elementary school is most likely, it is not a guarantee. You could teach elementary, middle, or high school and not know until you arrive.
- Curriculum vs. Free Class vs. After School. You also won’t know what you’ll be teaching until you talk to your co-teacher. It could be a mix, straight curriculum, or all after school/free classes.
- You won’t always have a co-teacher with you. In some schools, you may be the extra foreign teacher who simply comes in to provide a different experience. In other schools, you might be responsible for teaching curriculum and are, in fact, helping unload some of the burden off your co-teacher. For example, in my middle schools, I taught a small speaking section in each chapter with my co-teacher. In my elementary schools, I coordinated with my co-teacher to teach certain sections or whole chapters with the homeroom teacher to ensure discipline. You never know.
2. Lesson Planning.
I had no idea what I was doing until the new school year, a few months after I got to Korea. Make sure you have a teacher’s version of every book you need to teach and sit down with your co-teacher to make sure you understand where the kids are at and what you’re responsible for.
- Each lesson should be broken up into at least 4 parts, sometimes 7. You can split the chapters with your co-teacher so that you teach even, and s/he teaches odd numbers, or you can coordinate so that you’re each teaching in order.
- There are specific vocabulary words and phrases for each chapter, make sure you know what they are.
- Lessons should typically be 20 minutes of book work and 20 minutes of an activity you create to help reinforce the vocabulary. Middle school for me is typically 10 minutes book work and 35 minutes of an activity.
3. Useful Resources:
- waygook.org– great for ideas for specific lessons, free lessons, and just expat life in Korea in general
- greatschools.org– great for free worksheets
- mrprintables.com– has cute craft ideas
- naver dictionary– for translating anything into Korean that might need clarification
- boggles world esl– also good for free worksheets
- kahoot!– if your kids have smartphones or tablets, this is a super fun way of reviewing, and they get really into it.
Are you a teacher in Korea? How’d you get here? Any tips for those not from the US?