Monday, March 05, 2007

Getting a job in Korea

I've had several folks ask me about my time in Korea as they're considering a job. Each time, I spend a good long time writing an essay about the ins & outs of getting a good Korea-teaching job. Figure I might as well turn that into a formal essay and stick in up on the web. This essay will have three parts: Teaching in Korea, My Time in Korea, and Looking for a Job.

Teaching in Korea

Koreans want their children to learn English. More specifically, they want their children to earn high scores on English proficiency tests. Most specifically, they want their children to be in a class taught by a white person.

Yes, white. I'll talk more about racism later.

Korea is chock-full of hagwons-- private, individually-run "academies" where parents send their children to after-school classes. There are hagwons for every subject imaginable: taekwondo, piano, computers, math, Chinese orthography and-- of course-- English. Some hagwons focus specifically on English; others (as mine did) offer classes in a range of subjects including English. There are hagwons targeted specifically for adults, for high-school or middle-schoolers and, most popularly, for elementary age children.

If you get a job teaching English in Korea, unless you have some kind of TEFL certification, I can pretty much guarantee it'll be at a hagwon. When Koreans speaking English use the word "academy," incidentally, they mean hagwon.

Some hagwons are great, others are shady. There's very little government regulation, so you're on your own in making sure you get a job at a reputable place. There are ways to do this, as I'll discuss later.

My Time in Korea

I enjoyed my time in Korea quite a bit and would definitely recommend it. I paid off more than $5,000 in student loans and put a few thousand dollars aside in savings-- and this without even being conscientious about saving money. My salary for the year was roughly $18,000 (two million won) but that's with free housing and meals provided at work. I could easily have saved a lot more if I'd been frugal.

It was not a very difficult or challenging job-- very little time outside class was devoted to planning lessons, so I had quite a bit of free time to explore the country and enjoy myself. They don't expect you to know much about teaching, they just expect you to know English.

I was several months out of college; had been hoping for a job in Japan and nothing was coming through (mostly because I didn't know what avenues to take). In July, a friend suggested that I extend my job search to Korea. I figured, hey why not, checked out the postings on Dave's ESL Cafe and sent my resume to a handful of recruiters.

Within 24 hours a recruiter called and offered me a job. I was thrilled, signed the contract and faxed it, and was in Korea within a week.

In retrospect, I should have been a lot more cautious, but I got lucky and landed a job that I enjoyed immensely. I was in Suwon, just south of Seoul, and my apartment was quite literally across the street from a big old mountain perfect for hiking. Also short bus distance from a 19th century walled city that is simply spectacular. It took about half an hour to get to Seoul on the express bus, and so I would go up there on weekends to hang out. I loved living close to but not in Seoul.

I taught at a small, brand-new hagwon for elementary school students. The boss spoke no English, but the manager's English was quite good. They had never worked with an American before and were generally as clueless about me as I was about them, but they were very conscientious & caring and things worked out pretty well.

However, the contract wasn't followed to the letter. For one, it specified that I'd have my own one-bedroom apartment. Instead, I had a room in a two-bedroom apartment which I shared with my manager. His family lived in another city so he'd go see them on the weekends, and he was such a workaholic that I actually didn't see him all that often. The situation worked out pretty well, and I can't say I'm unhappy that I didn't get my own 1BR, but still-- it wasn't according to the contract.

Also, the contract promised health insurance. Every time I asked my boss about it (via the manager), my manager said that the boss was working on it. It eventually became apparent that they never intended to insure me; didn't understand why it was important. In retrospect, this is unacceptable and I should have kept demanding. However, whenever I was ill they took me to the doctor, paid for my appointments and for my medicines, and took good care of me. I'm confident that they would have taken responsibility for whatever health problems I did have... nevertheless, the contract stipulated that I would be insured and I wasn't actually insured. I wouldn't do this again.

The job was quite easy-- disappointingly easy, to be honest. It became quickly apparent that my main purpose was to attract students by attracting their parents. Knowing that their kids would be taught, in part, by an American made the parents more ready to send their kids to our school. I was given no training, very little structure, and basically a free hand to do whatever on earth I wanted to during classes. This was frustrating but also fun-- I got to develop my own curriculum and experiment however I saw fit. Some of my friends taught in much more structured programs where they had an exact curriculum to stick to; others had a similar lack of structure.

Interested as I am in second language acquisition I would have liked to have been in a program that was more structured and expected more of me. But I really can't complain about the job-- the kids were so so so so so much FUN!-- and the work was easy.

I'll say again, the kids were GREAT. I love working with elementary-age children, and it was such a blast to interact with them and such a thrill when I observed them making connections, figuring out how to use English in innovative ways, and generally have fun communicating in English. That alone made it worthwhile. Korean schoolchildren are notoriously overworked-- school all day and then after-school classes until the evening; THEN they've got homework both for school and for after-school classes-- so I tried to make classtime a chance for them to relax a little bit... but relax in English.

The contract offered me 10 days' vacation to be taken at my leisure; it turned out that there was no back-up for what to do with my classes while I was on vacation... the boss tried to make me take my vacation all in a chunk at the very end of my job-- in other words, just finish my job two weeks early. But I DID fight with that one, and ended up taking the vacation in little chunks-- basically take off a Monday to turn a weekend into a long weekend so that I could travel; that sort of thing. That gave me the chance to explore Korea quite a bit... a beautiful country, as I'm sure you recall.

Finding a Job

I'll tell you a bit about how to go about finding a job, but first there are a few caveats.

First, as I've mentioned, is racism. A lot of Koreans assume that all "real" Americans are white, and it'll be harder for non-white American to find a job than it was for me to do so. Of course the more reputable schools are aware that skin color has nothing to do with language ability, so your race will mostly eliminate jobs that would've been sketchy anyhow. It will also make your life in Korea a *little* more difficult than mine was-- there's a lot of migrant labor from India and Bangladesh and they sometimes get treated badly. If you can keep a thick skin I don't think the racism you encounter will make your life unpleasant-- and it'll do a lot of Koreans good to have that direct realization that a person can be American without being white. But be aware.

Second, the hagwon (private English-language school) business in Korea is almost totally unregulated. There are great jobs out there and there are sketchy jobs out there. There are ways, though, to ensure that you're being hired by an honest employer.

First, there's a lot of demand for English teachers. You can afford to be picky, and you can afford to turn down half-a-dozen offers before accepting the one that feels right.

Second, a lot of applications will ask for a photograph. This is fairly standard and shouldn't surprise you. If a hagwon doesn't ask for a photograph, you can be pretty certain it's on the up&up and that it's hiring on the basis of competence rather than appearance. But if they do ask for a photograph, don't be surprised, and don't assume that it's automatically a shady job.

Third, see the contract before making a commitment. Read the contract carefully, and make notes. Look specifically at
- kind of housing provided
- work week
- salary, or paid by the hour?
- overtime compensation
- required overtime?
- what are the hours? how far in advance will you be notified of scheduling? (usually, hagwons operate on a monthly basis and the schedule changes somewhat each month)
- how is the health insurance set up?
- vacation? Is it set or flexible?

Fourth, talk to another employee on the telephone before making a commitment. I took a risk and took a job at a hagwon that had never hired a foreigner before-- I was lucky, it was a great job. But in retrospect I would never again take a job without talking to another foreign employee there first.

Questions you want to ask:
1) Are you calling from work? Is anybody else listening to this conversation?
Believe it or not, a lot of employers will monitor an employee's conversation with an applicant. From an American perspective Koreans seem just generally nosy, so this doesn't automatically mean that the boss is being sketchy. It simply might never have occurred to him that you'd want to speak about the job in private. If the employee tells you that the conversation is being monitored, then take their phone number and ask when would be a good time to call them at home. You'll have to spend a few dollars on the phone card, but it's worth it.

2) How closely does your employer stick to the contract?
Contracts are still a new idea in Korean culture. They draw up contracts when hiring foreigners because they know we won't take a job without a contract. But many employers don't understand the contract as anything very important, and instead operate on a more traditional Korean patronage system-- the boss tells you what to do, you do what the boss says, and in turn the boss takes very good care of you. This isn't actually all that bad when you have a considerate boss. But it's very different from what we expect and frankly any company hiring Americans needs to stick exactly to the contract and needs to understand that this is the way you have to deal with Americans.

3) Go through the points of the contract and ask specifically-- "Did your contract say you'd be provided with a one-bedroom apartment?" "Were you provided with a one-bedroom apartment?" "Describe the apartment." "Is your vacation flexible as it says in the contract, or were you told when you could & couldn't take your vacation?" "Do you actually have health insurance?" and so on and so forth.

4) And finally, of course, ask if they like the job.

I hope this doesn't sound too paranoid-- as I've said, I had a wonderful time and most of my friends in Korea did as well. There are lots of great jobs out there, but I've heard a few horror stories as well. These are things you can do to ensure that you'll get one of the many good jobs.

I found my job through Dave's ESL Cafe <>, specifically the postings on the Korean Job Board <>. This is the most widely-used Korean job posting that I know of. If you use it-- and it's as good a place to start as any-- just browse through the job ads that have been put up in the past several weeks and email your resume/ application to any that look like they might be interesting. Then when you start hearing back from them (and you WILL!) you can start discerning which sound the most promising.

I can pretty much guarantee that you'll be hired by a professional recruiter. Most hagwons in Korea are operated independently and the owner won't necessarily know any English-- he's just the guy who started up the company and hired the teachers. So the owners go through recruiting companies that do all the legwork of recruiting Americans to teach. Most of those job postings you see at Dave's ESL Cafe are posted by recruiters on behalf of individual hagwons.

So, if you want, you can go directly to the recruiter! I'd start with <>. I don't have any personal experience with them, but am very very impressed by the mission statement and overall outlook-- they're staffed by folks who used to be ESL teachers in Korea and they do a LOT of work to make sure that they're only representing reputable employers. Regardless, you should take a look at their FAQ section-- they'll give a lot of details on what life as an ESL teacher in Korea is actually like.

As you apply you'll have to discern 1) whether you'd rather be in Seoul or not in Seoul; and 2) if not in Seoul, whether you'd rather be urban or rural. You'll find that work in Seoul is higher-paying but that life is more expensive (even with free lodging). Seoul (and big cities like Busan) has a lot of Western amenities-- the fast food, the shopping malls, and so on. In rural areas you'll be paid less but the cost of living, eating, going out & so on will be much lower. You'll also have to find Korean ways to entertain yourself, as the Western amenities will be more sparse.

Seoul has a number of megachurches that offer English-language services and even small groups. Busan probably has a few, too. I have one friend who lived several hours out of Seoul but took the bus in every single weekend just to go to church. Korea is absolutely jampacked with churches and if you're willing to join a local Korean-language church (which I did and HIGHLY recommend) you'll have tons and tons and tons to choose from, and there's no better way to learn a language than to *worship* in that language. I was a member of St. Paul's Orthodox Church in Incheon, and it was the one place where I could be the only white person and not feel like an outsider.

You'll find it challenging to learn Korean, though-- Koreans generally don't expect foreigners to study their language, and any attempt on your part will be met either by bafflement ("why did you say 'hello' in Korean?") or by over-the-top affirmation ("you said 'hello' in Korean! you're amazing! you can speak the language like a native! good job! hurrah!"). If you're in a big city and willing to spend the time and the money there are a few Korean-language courses you might enroll in. But if you're conscientious about it (and it helps to find another English-speaking friend who also wants to learn), there are plenty of opportunities to study & practice the language; you'll find it incredibly rewarding.

I hope you can gather that I loved working in Korea and really want others to have the same fantastic experience. Do be careful as you discern but don't be daunted. It's a great gig.


Blogger Elias said...

I'm currently teaching in Seoul and attend St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. You definitely summed up my experience too. Wishing you all the best on the OCMC application process!
-Elias Reeves

3:38 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home