Mary is an English teacher from Canada. Having worked on both sides of the public/private divide, and in two of Korea’s most popular teaching destinations, Seoul and it's nearby commercial neighbour Incheon, she shares her experiences in an interview with Lindsey Coulter.

Korea is a major TEFL destination

Korea is a major TEFL destination.

You’ve been living and working in Korea for a little over a year now, what were your first impressions of the country?

Well, as is common with hagwon teachers, the second I arrived my new employers put me up alone in a hotel, just until my apartment was ready.  I walked in, looked around and just thought “oh, no. I made the wrong choice.”  It was really overwhelming.  There were so many lights everywhere, I couldn’t speak the language, couldn’t do anything, and I freaked out.  Eventually I assimilated and began to really enjoy it, but my first thought was instant regret.  

Wow, how long did it take for those feelings to fade?

About three weeks.  I didn’t have the benefit of a real orientation, but was fortunate to work at a large hagwon with roughly 30 other foreign teachers.  Making friends and connections helped immensely.  Quickly I learned where to go, what to do, helpful phrases, etc.  Now I love Korean culture; the people, the food, the mix of new and old, the language, it’s very interesting.  

Teach English in Incheon, Korea

Incheon is one of Asia's major cities for commerce, driving the need for English language skills.

Seems like you’ve become quite a fan.  People choose teaching English in Korea for lots of reasons: money, adventure, a change of pace.  What inspired you?

Korea has been in the back of my mind for a long time, since my first year in university.  Initially wanted to pursue medicine, but became interested in education instead.  I figured why not travel and teach to see if it’s something I really enjoy.  Of course, teaching in Canada and teaching in Korea are two very different things, but the essential part is being able to teach.

So you have experience teaching in both public and private schools.  At this point in the game which do you prefer?

Well, my first job was with a large hagwon franchise.  There was a lot of work and teachers were always busy.  However, there was definitely favoritism, planning was disorganized, and my class load was significantly heavier than my co-workers’.  I came in with genuine teaching goals and high hopes, but soon realized hagwons are a business, bottom line.  The parents, not the students, are the customers.  That dynamic was difficult, and I felt personally that there wasn’t a lot of support for teachers.

That seems to be a common thread in hagwon discussions.  Are there any upsides to the private circuit?

Definitely, my experiences there were wonderful in terms of relationships with both staff and students. Working with so many fellow foreigners with such a variety of personalities was great, and my co-teachers were very willing to help me learn Korean.  You also have a lot of one to one time with the kids and class sizes are fairly small.  As a result, many of my students spoke English well despite being quite young.  Also, many of the hagwon teachers were housed in the same building, which was great for creating a sense of community.

Teach English in Incheon, Korea

Incheon's space-age airport is quite simply THE best airport in the world!.

How do these experiences contrast against your new public school gig?

Public school class sizes are considerably larger, and it was a little overwhelming how many kids couldn’t communicate at all.  It’s sad, but after a while you focus your energy on the higher performing students, and some less motivated kids do get left behind.

Classroom management in the public school is a little easier. In a hagwon you teach alone, but in public you have a co-teacher so the kids are fairly disciplined.  Trying to plan games and activities that are fun for 30 kids is challenging, but I love the job.  In my opinion it’s miles better.

Did you earn a TEFL certification before you arrived in Korea?

Yes, I took a 100 hour classroom-based TEFL course in Canada.

In your opinion was it a worthwhile investment?

There were plenty of benefits.  It’s been a long time since I was a student, so it was helpful to brush up on grammar and learn classroom management.  Plus it made recruiting much easier and I got a job immediately.  I would recommend it for that reason alone as the market is becoming more competitive.

The course was also good for meeting people with the same goals and ambitions, and we were fortunate to have a great teacher.  Overall, it was fun and gave me a lot of ideas that I now implement in class.  You don’t necessarily have a guide book for becoming a teacher, but a TEFL is a good foundation.

Changing the subject a bit, you began your Korea experience living in Incheon but have now settled in Seoul.  Do you consider it trading up?

Incheon was a perfect starter city.  It’s very accessible to Seoul, the people are great and you can make friends easily.  I was fortunate to be in Bupyeong, the city center, but Incheon is very big and you never know where you’ll be placed.  It’s fun, but be prepared to go out of your way to find the interesting pockets.  Pollution was the biggest point of contention.  I lived very close to a major automotive plant, and apparently my neighborhood had the worst air in the city.  That contributed to my decision to leave, plus I wanted some place with a little more character.  

Did you find it in Seoul?

Yes, I love Seoul.  Love it. It’s easy for foreigners living in Seoul to fall into the partying rut, but I take walks, explore the neighborhoods, run along the Han River, check out flea markets, go to festivals, hit up trivia nights, try new restaurants, etc.  I’m always finding new things to do.  Living on the north end means I’m a maximum 30 minutes away from anywhere I really want to go.  

Have you gotten to travel outside the city much?

Yes.  So far I’ve explored Busan, some islands along the western coast and parts of Gangwon-do.  Living in Incheon sort of forces you to explore other parts of Korea, but many Seoul dwellers don’t see the point in going anywhere else.  They feel everything they want to do or see is here in the city.  

Teach English in Seoul, Korea

Seoul has a lot of appeal for foreigners.

Sounds like you disagree and are really diving into your experience.  Can you imagine settling in Korea for good?

Korea can be seductive, in many ways it feels like college again.  But I would have to consider things like raising a family, building a career, etc.  I think I would stay if I had a teaching degree or a university position, but regardless of how long you’re here you’ll always be a foreigner.  You have to decide whether or not you can call this place home.

So would you consider teaching elsewhere?

Maybe Japan, but the cultures are fairly similar and I might want something completely different.  Thailand and Africa have also been on my mind lately.

Well before you jet off to other adventures, what should prospective teachers know about life in Korea?

On a cultural level, understand that Koreans are quite welcoming.  If you even try to speak the language they are more willing to help.  However, this is also a very ageist and hierarchical society and you’ll most likely be asked about your age often.  It’s not rude, it’s just necessary to help them determine what to call you and where you fit in the social hierarchy.  This became very apparent when I learned to speak a little Korean and would forget to add the honorific suffixes.  In the hagwon we used casual language and there was never an issue, regardless of the age differences.  However, I spoke to my new public school coworkers in the same language and it was misconstrued as rude.

In terms of lifestyle, understand that people here, specifically foreigners, are very transient.  Folks are always coming and going, so make the effort to keep meeting people and building your community.  Also, learn the alphabet and basic phrases.  Get your visa, paperwork and copies all in order.  Be bold and open to new experiences. Take advantage of every opportunity, and if you’re a cooking fan, bring your own spices!

Check out Mary’s blog to learn more about her experiences in Korea.