Teaching English in Korea

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and teach English in Korea. Congratulations are in order. After all, Korea offers some of the best teaching positions in Asia, if not the world. Not only do most reputable positions offer their instructors free accommodations, airfare, and insurance, but you are also on the verge of an exciting, fulfilling adventure in Land of the Morning Calm. Korea is a big place, however, and if you’re like most would-be international educators a lot more questions remain. Foremost among these, doubtless, is the million won question: what is the best ESL program if you are teaching English in Korea? Like most good questions, there is no easy answer. Teaching English in Korea usually falls into one of two categories: Private School Jobs and Public School Programs. Here are our tips:

Many first-time teachers are attracted to hagwons, also known as private schools or “academies” in Korea. Not all hagwons teach English – some teach science, math, or really any subject under the sun – but the Korean government estimates that there are more than 3,000 English-language hagwons operating in the country. They come in all sizes, from small, single room operations to huge corporate chains that run multistory hagwons in throughout a number of cities. These private schools are particularly popular among first time teacher and, on paper, their motives are clear: as for-profit businesses, hagwons offer teachers attractive employment packages that include competitive salaries, flexible hours, and smaller class sizes in urban environments. Unlike the government, which is obligated to serve rural communities, hagwons are located exactly where aspiring expatriates want to be: in urban centers, right in the thick of the action. At the same time, private schools are private business and a competitive one at that. As such, private school teachers are often called upon to work longer working hours and receive less vacation time (because summer school classes are big seller for would-be students). Also, because they work for a private company, private schools in Korea are less well-monitored than their public school equivalents, meaning that contracts are not always followed to the letter.

By contrast, teachers who work for public schools in Korea have work directly for the Korean Ministry of Education. Along with this comes the all of the consistency, security – and, yes, bureaucracy – that goes hand in hand with a government program. In sum, although the class sizes are larger, public school jobs in Korea are stable, secure, and reliable. As government employees, teachers benefit from a well-written contract that spells out a teaching schedule that typically guarantees evenings and weekends off. Moreover, pay and benefits are consistent – although they vary by region, with rural regions paying more – and, more importantly, are all-but guaranteed. Vacations correspond to the summer and winter breaks in the Korean school year and are generally longer than at private schools.

The differences don’t stop there. Because the Korea public school calendar year begins in March, the best times to apply for a public school position is in late January or early February or, alternately, around their summer break in August and September. That doesn’t mean positions in public schools are not available at other times in the year, but because typical contracts are one year long there are more openings at these times. By contrast, because hagwons don’t follow this timeline they have what would be considered a rolling application process. Speaking of which, the application process for teaching English in Korea is the final crucial difference between the two. Although ESL recruiters can help you find a good private school job and streamline this process, their fractured nature can result in a lot of paperwork. Public schools, on the other hand, benefit from government centralization and each major program – SMOE, GEPIK, and EPIK – will make you eligible for any school in their system.

In the end, every English teacher has difference concerns and priorities. Make the decision that is right for you and you’ll be well on your way to a rewarding career abroad!