When you are looking to teach overseas, there are certain expectations that you have. I too had great expectations, (no pun intended) for living and teaching in South Korea, however my expectations did not always meet the reality of living abroad. Today I’m going to be rather blunt about some of the expectations, and realities of teaching in Korea. My goal is not to come off as a Negative Nancy, but to give you more of a well rounded view on what living in Korea was like for me.
*Disclaimer: everyone’s experience is different, and this is just a slice of a different angle of what mine was like.
Many people, myself included, use recruiting agencies when looking to teach abroad. The recruiting agency I used was a huge help! They aided me with everything from interview preparation, to reviewing all of my documentation before turning them in, to making sure I had all of my paperwork completed. Keep in mind, that it is the job of recruiting agencies to sell you a job. Let me break it to you: teaching abroad is not synonymous with a 365 vacation. Now, there is definitely room to travel, depending on how you handle your finances and schedule, but the reality is teaching in public schools in Korea is a 40 hour, 5 day a week job.
There are good and bad days to living abroad, just like there are in your home country. I want to emphasis, and break this myth that every day overseas is going to be cotton candy and rainbows. That’s simply not true, or realistic. Living in Korea entailed trying to learn a new language, being the only English speaking foreigner in my neighborhood for most of my time there, spending a lot of time alone with my thoughts because I could not speak Korean fluently, missing out on things back home, and being extremely homesick.
Some people going abroad to teach envision that it will be a snooze job, that they can easily coast through. Now, this may be true for some, but it was not true for me personally. Students are not always interested in learning English, especially middle and high school students. Elementary learners are typically more excited because they’re younger, and English is fairly new for them. By the time Korean students hit middle and high school, English is oftentimes just another subject they are forced to take in order to pass an exam to get to college. Of course this is not the case for all students! I had students at both middle schools I worked at who liked learning English, and would often come and talk to me. Keeping students engaged in class is imperative! I would include a game at the end of each lesson. These games incorporated what was learned that day, or in previous lessons, and the students really enjoyed them.
In Korean public schools, each foreign English teacher has at least one Korean co-teacher, (I had up to seven my last year!) It can be stressful working with several different teachers. Each person may have different teaching styles, and expectations for English class. As with students, all Korean- co teachers are not excited to teach, or to work with a foreigner. My main co-teacher for example, did not like teaching, or kids, and was a teacher because her mother thought it would be a good job, (holidays off, regular working hours, government job, etc.) She usually sat at the back of the classroom, and would chime in to translate here and there.
Contrary to what recruiting agencies, and EPIK orientation had told me, most of my co-teachers did not co-teach with me. I planned each class, and lead each class on my own. My Korean co-teachers had a separate English class where they taught grammar, and writing, and I taught listening and speaking. Having to take two English classes is also another reason why many upper level students aren’t enthusiastic about English. Having a less than stellar co-teacher(s) is something many don’t talk about, but it is a reality. You don’t get to chose your co-workers, so it literally can be like a roll of the dice.
Another thing to consider, is your physical health. You never know how your body will react to a different atmosphere, food, or stress until you’re there. For example, the air quality in South Korea is not that great, and is especially worse in spring when yellow dust is prevalent, (look it up, really nasty stuff). My body reacted horribly to this, and with every change from fall to winter, or winter to spring, I would get sinus infections. The yellow dust gave me the worst migraines I have ever had. Wearing a mask certainly helped a bit, and everyone would get air warning updates on their cell phones when the air was particularly horrid. Did what I could to manage, but the atmosphere, and the stress of being a foreigner really got to me.
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to come off as too negative. and will probably go more in depth on things I’ve touched on here later.