10 Realities about Teaching ESL in Korea

Whether you have applied for an ESL job independently or went through an agency, moving to a new country completely foreign to you is going to require patience. Especially, if it’s your first time and don’t know the language and customs. Korea will require a lot of patience and flexibility on your part, especially in the work place.

woking in korea reality

Let’s look at what facts that almost all ESL teachers have and will experience while working in South Korea:

1. The Language Barrier

At first you will find yourself lost among the strange symbols known as Hangeul that is the written form of the Korean language. Before Hangeul, Korea was written in Chinese. It’s true they do not require you to know any Korean when applying or working in the country, and you could probably go by fine without it. However, it’s fun to learn a new language and you could opt for classes, language exchange or go online just to get familiar with the symbols. Watching those TV dramas help a lot too.+

korean leanr

2. The Cultural Barrier

Even harder than language is the work culture factor. Learning the language is far easier than culture. Korean culture is based on longstanding principles based on Confucianism. These principles and customs also transcend into the work place. Being respectful to your superiors will usually include not making jokes or fun of your employer and boss. You are also entitled to do as they ask and say in the office and how you conduct yourself. Complying only makes it easier.

working in korea realities


3. You’re Not Actually a Teacher

This is an important factor. These ESL teaching jobs are limited to conversational practice. You will be working as a conversational ESL teacher only. Even though the staff, students and contracts refer to you as a teacher, you are actually  not. Actual teachers who have studied education and with a licence to do so obtain a whole other visa, and they contribute to the school’s actual curriculum.

ESL conversational teachers on the E2 visas, simply conduct the speaking part of the curriculum set by the Korean teaching staff of the school. The whole point of these ESL jobs is for foreigners to interact with Koreans so they not intimidated when they need to do actual socialising or business.


4. But we’re all humans. Why would you need to bring a foreigner in?

You’ll realise that the Korean teacher and staff can all speak English well, and can actually teach the students better. So why don’t they do the conversation with the kids? This where the whole ‘cultural’ aspect comes in.

That time me and my co-worker had to dress up for Halloween. I was a witch and he was a trash can with old food in.

Over time, you will be realised that as the foreigner you will be treated as an outsider, especially in the office. However welcoming the school is and Korean society can be, you are still ‘othered’ in a way. This has a lot to do with social-cultural and historical factors in how Korea has dealt with outsiders and how they perceive foreigners through the years. This is more prevalent in smaller academies and in small towns. Hopefully this will change. Hopefully.

Read more on my experiences living in South Korea

5. The Work is Repetitive

Contracts are usually for 1 year and for a good reason. As you have no say in the curriculum, you will most likely be teaching from the same conversation textbooks and materials every term and year. The set work books do change over a few years. This is why many ESL teachers look for a new job for a change of scenery after the year is over.


6. You Cannot Move Up…or Down

Please note that you cannot most likely move up a position in the school. What you are doing in your first year, you will most likely be doing forever…should you stay. You can progress if you choose to pursue ESL and language professionally and with the right qualification you can then work for a university. That’s a whole different path and visa.


7. Be Nice. Your Attitude Affects Everything

There might be things or customs you don’t like about the Korean office that perhaps conflicts with your own opinion. It’s best to just adjust and please everyone. This will only benefit you in the long run. You might love living in Korea and enjoy all the benefits that come with the lifestyle, but on the flip-side you don’t like the job. To ensure you can smoothly finish your contract and move on to another school with better offers, maintain a good reputation and do as expected. To transfer to find another job while in Korea, will require a reference from you previous employer.

working in korea like me

Read about what documents you need to apply to work in Korea

8. Getting Sick is a Problem

Most contracts allow 3 days sick leave. A proper and regular school will allow you to take a sick day, however there are some schools who won’t accept it. A professional established a accredited academy will allow you to take your sick day. However, there are cheap and seedy academies who will not allow you to be sick, fail to comply and this could potentially affect your reputation and good standing.


9. Taking Holidays

Many ESL foreign teachers opt for public schools as they cannot easily break these rules. However, everybody gets 2 weeks in total paid vacation and the public holidays. Also, if you are the only teacher at the school you will only be likely to take off one week at a time. Your vacation time must also be pre-approved by your employer according to the conditions of the contract. At some academies they don’t allow you to take your 2 weeks off and make you work the whole year through and pay you the vacation money at the end the contract. I was at an academy that didn’t allow me to take vacation, but that was fine as travelling was not a priority for that year anyway.



10. It’s Up to You to Make it Work

Very few countries offer foreigners well paid work before moving abroad. The ESL industry is not a perfect one, and its constantly changing to help protect both employee and employer. Taking an ESL job in Korea is a safe option, as they pay well and offer free housing. I personally found it great for saving up money and travel. No matter how you apply, it will always be a risk. How you handle to the situations to meet your end goals will be entirely up to you. I think it’s always just to make best with what you have and learn. I’ve worked in a variety of academies with all the pros and cons. Overall, the system in Korea is safe and reliable for foreigners. Your working year in Korea might be a challenge, but if you are willing to overlook the downsides and stay focused, you are sure to find the benefits of living in Korea undoubtedly outweigh it all. At the end of the day it’s good, honest hard work, good money and it takes commitment in the long run. Overall, if you want to experience working in ESL abroad I think Korea is a great option, especially for first-timers.


Read about my top 10 arrival tips on coming to South Korea

This post focused strictly on the working aspect of ESL Korea. To know what it’s like to live and more on my personal experiences in the country be sure to read my other posts!