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Career Networking: What Would it be Like to Live and Work in South Korea?

The idea of living and working in a country other than the one you currently live in may be both exciting and overwhelming. Where do you start? How do you search for a job? What information should you include on your résumé or CV? How much should you expect the job to pay? How will you know whether the job will pay enough to cover your expenses when you don’t know how much things cost in that country?

This article is part of an occasional series of career networking articles constructed from interviews with employers who have advertised jobs with TESOL. The information in each article reflects one employer’s view of living and working as an ESOL teacher in a particular country. The views and opinions expressed in these articles are not indicative of all employers or all experiences. The employers’ views in this series are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of TESOL.

Career networking is a valuable benefit of TESOL membership. Although the information in this article reflects the view of only one employer, it may help you decide if South Korea is a potential destination for your next dream job. If you like what you hear, but would like to hear other opinions, come to TESOL’s Job MarketPlace, where you can network with recruiters and job seekers who can share their insights and help you get started.

WILS Language School, located in Seoul, South Korea, recruited teachers at the 2004 Job MarketPlace in Long Beach, California, in the United States. Jong-Jin Shin, president of WILS, agreed to share his thoughts with Alison O’Neill, TESOL’s career and student member services coordinator, answering questions about living and working in South Korea. Mr. Shin has worked in the private language school industry in South Korea since 1986. He provided the following insights:

What kind of information is normally included on a CV or résumé for a job in South Korea?

It is customary to include the sex of the applicant, because employers are required to maintain a 50/50 balance between male and female employees. Employers often ask for an applicant’s age and date of birth, his or her nationality and race (which is critical for the visa issuance process), and a photograph of the applicant as well. Applications typically include a personal statement, a teaching philosophy, and references, including contact information for former employers. As to the format, South Korean employers are flexible on this matter, but the most common format includes name, date of birth, address, nationality, education, and experience, in that order. Education and experience are the most important features. Only major, relevant experience should be included--not the details of every job the applicant has ever had.

Applicants should be aware that the South Korean government can only secure visas for English language teachers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

How are ESOL jobs in South Korea compensated, and how are salaries quoted?

Salaries are usually paid once per month, but the pay scale is based on an hourly rate.

What kinds of benefits are usually included with ESOL jobs in South Korea?

Teachers from outside South Korea are treated the same as Korean teachers, so they are provided with national health and dental insurance. Relocation expenses are often paid, and housing may be covered as well. Many employers may also provide key money, which is something like a security deposit for an apartment. Key money can be the equivalent of several months’ rent, so this benefit really helps teachers looking for their first apartments in Korea. Many jobs also provide 1 month’s pay as a severance bonus after 1 year of service.

What is the typical academic schedule in South Korea?

Teachers usually work 20 days per month. Each day includes about six teaching hours, usually in the afternoon. Children in Korea are extremely busy; they typically take piano lessons, study tae kwan do, take extra math classes, and may study Chinese as well as English. This means that English lessons often take place after their regular school day.

At WILS, classes begin every month, all year round, with no specific vacation period. The school is usually closed for 3 days for the New Year, 3 days for Thanksgiving, and on the Buddha’s birthday. The dates of holidays are based on the lunar calendar, therefore the exact dates fluctuate.

What about housing in South Korea?

The price of real estate is very high in Seoul. Seoul is also a crowded city, with about 11 million people in the metropolitan area. It is similar to New York in that apartments are typically high rises anywhere from 15-70 stories high. Also like New York, newcomers are sometimes surprised by the high rents and the small size of apartments.

What surprises people who are new to South Korea? What do they like or dislike?

One thing newcomers like about Korea is that there is a lot of opportunity to travel. You can be in China in 2 hours and most East Asian countries within 4 hours. Transportation is very good; it is inexpensive, fast, and clean. Airfare is inexpensive as well. Newcomers also find that many things are much less expensive than they are at home, especially food, clothing, entrance fees to almost anything, transportation, and, to a lesser extent, airfare, especially to Thailand, the Philippines, and other East Asian destinations.

Something that surprises people is the strong sense of “we” among the Korean people. The Korean population is very homogeneous, so they tend to think in terms of “we” and assume that others do as well. People typically say “our” almost to the exclusion of “my.” Some people even refer to their wives as “our wife” rather than “my wife.” A lack of friendliness is taken very badly, as anyone who doesn’t appear to share the Korean idea of unity is seen as selfish. But Koreans respond well to gestures of friendship. There is an expression that translates loosely to mean, “Give one to a Korean and get ten in return.” People tend to help friends in need. When the economy became poor, people stood in kilometer-long lines at banks to donate their gold.

Do you have any special advice for someone considering working as an ESOL professional in South Korea?

Teachers in South Korea really are revered. Ask any children what they want to be when they grow up and they respond, “a teacher,” usually the teacher they like best (e.g., “an English teacher,” “a science teacher”). Teaching is such a dignified profession that some children are surprised to learn that teachers are just regular people like everyone else. For this reason, and the importance placed upon education in general in Korea, students are usually well behaved.

Teachers are held to a very high standard in Korea. In fact, there is an expression, “Kun, Sah, Bu, Il, Che,” that translates to “King, Teacher, Father, one body” meaning that royalty, teachers, and parents have equally high status. This means that students are generally very well behaved and respectful toward teachers. Some people avoid stepping in a teacher’s shadow, because to do so would be disrespectful.

The other side of this equation is that teachers are expected to treat their profession not as a job, but as an honor. Parents of students, for example, have been surprised and disappointed to hear teachers complaining about matters of money. To them, this is akin to hearing a priest talk about his salary or indicate that he regards what he does “just as a job” and only does it for the money. Teachers may take money disputes to the administration of the school, but bringing it up before students or their parents is considered to be poor taste and reflects badly on the teacher.

On a more practical note, tattoos and piercings tend not to be well received. Students and parents consider these inappropriate for teachers. Similarly, very casual dress on teachers, especially the type of dress that is associated with student travelers (e.g., unkempt hair, sandals, baggy clothing) are not well received, because schools and students alike have had bad experiences with student travelers who took teaching jobs but in fact were just passing through the region for a short trip and moved on when they made enough money to get to their next destination.

It is a teacher’s market right now in Korea. The only thing people seem to dislike is leaving to go back home. Many people who live and teach in Korea, especially Seoul, say they find that their home cities and countries seem boring by comparison when they return. They really miss Korea when they leave.

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