Sunny view of a temple in Busan, South Korea

A Guide to Teaching Abroad in South Korea

Want to teach English abroad in South Korea? Thinking about teaching English or other subjects abroad? Hear Laura’s first hand experience of moving to South Korea to be a teacher!

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So, you’re thinking about teaching abroad? Maybe you are unsure of where you want to go yet or you have set your mind on South Korea and want to find out a bit more information. In this blog, I will explain how I got into teaching abroad and how you can too. 

There is also some information about types of teaching jobs that you can apply to do in South Korea including working in an international school, applying for EPIK or working for a hagwon.  

Teaching Abroad

One of the easiest and most common gateways to moving abroad is teaching. For me, this was a given – I trained to be a primary school teacher and I had always loved the idea of teaching abroad one day. 

Depending on the country that you are going to, you have a few different options:

If you are already a qualified teacher, your options are more varied. Usually, the best option for qualified teachers is to teach in an International School. Not only will the school be looking for English-speaking teachers, you always usually get the added benefits of higher pay and more days off. However, they will usually ask for a few years of teaching experience and the competition can be quite high. 

If you are not a qualified teacher, fear not – this is not the end. There is actually a really easy and simple solution. You can take a TEFL course. One of the more common pathways of teaching abroad is to teach English as an additional language. To do this, you just need to speak fluent English (some specific countries or schools may specify that they would like to be from an English-speaking country), hold a TEFL qualification, and in some instances, they may require you to have a degree.

What is TEFL?  

TEFL stands for ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’. You can do a TEFL course to gain a TEFL certificate which is recognised internationally. There are different options available and you can gain an entry-level certificate in as little as one month, although some other qualifications may take up to six months. 

Where can I teach? 

This is the fun part. Once you have a teaching or a TEFL qualification, you can start thinking about where you would like to go. Of course, the first step is considering the possibilities. It is worth doing some research into which countries you could teach in. Things to consider may include: 

  • which languages you speak;
  • which countries you are able to teach in;
  • if you will require a work visa. 

Once you have narrowed it down to where you could POSSIBLY go, you can now start thinking about where you would LIKE to go. 

For me, I wanted to teach abroad as an opportunity to travel. I wasn’t worried about saving money but I knew I needed to make enough money to break even as I didn’t have any savings. I had never been outside of Europe until this point and I really wanted to explore Asia so that narrowed down my search.

You could narrow down your search by considering:

  • salary;
  • quality of life;
  • cost of living; 
  • which countries are safe for a solo traveller. 

Some of the common countries for teaching abroad include Thailand, South Korea, Italy, Vietnam, China, Spain, Japan and many more. 

For me, it came down to two options: Thailand or South Korea. I was offered a role in two different schools and they were both very tempting. The school in Thailand was based in Bangkok so I knew that it would be a fun lifestyle but I had to sign an initial two-year contract. The school in South Korea was based in a smaller city near to Busan which I didn’t know much about but I only had to sign a contract for one year so I knew that if I didn’t like it, it wouldn’t be long before I could come home.

Teaching in South Korea

In the end, I opted for South Korea. There are many benefits to living and working in South Korea, including: 

  • great quality of life 
  • great pay 
  • benefits including paid flights and accommodation
  • a great base to travel from  

If you are considering teaching in South Korea, there are three main options: 

  1. Work in an International School 
  2. Apply for EPIK 
  3. Apply to teach in a hagwon 
Laura visiting a temple in South Korea

Working in an International School 

Getting a job in an international school in South Korea is quite difficult. Korea has recently become a trending place to visit/move to and there are limited international schools. However, it is not impossible. If you have a teaching degree, try searching for international schools in Korea to see who is hiring. Often people who teach abroad are keen travellers who like to move around so you will find that jobs do come up fairly frequently. 

As previously mentioned, working in an international school usually has perks such as higher pay and more time off. However, with that comes more responsibility. If you take a job working in an international school, you will have your own class of students and you will be expected to do the planning, marking and assessment. 

Given that it is an international school, many of the children have come together from different countries around the world. While this certainly has advantages, you may face some language barriers and you may find that you will lose and gain students throughout the year. 

Here are some of the things that I really liked about teaching in an international school: 

  • You get to focus on the teaching – in international schools, you often have smaller class sizes. For me, at some points in the year, I had as little as 3 children in my class. This meant that I got to spend lots of time with the children 1-1 and make sure that I could help them as much as possible. It also hugely cut down the workload including marking and assessment, so I could actually enjoy teaching without the extra stress. 
  • The children have a great international mindset – the children were all so kind to one another regardless of race or religion and were so knowledgeable about the world and the people in it.  
  • You learn about different cultures – personally, I found it really interesting to teach children from different cultures and backgrounds and learn about them. 
  • Great accommodation. Plus, I had the added benefits of a car to get to and from work and all my accommodation and utilities were paid.
View of Busan city from a teacher's apartment in South Korea
Views from my apartment window. 

Applying for EPIK

EPIK stands for ‘English Programme in Korea’. Of course, this is specific to South Korea but you will find that there are similar programmes in other countries. This programme has been set up to bring English-speakers to Korea to teach English in the public schools. 

To apply for EPIK, you do not have to have any teaching experience but you do need to have a degree (in any subject).

If you do decide to apply for EPIK, you can pick the city where you would like to be placed. Although, be mindful that if you choose a popular city, such as Seoul, you are less likely to be given your first choice and more likely to be placed elsewhere. 

If you are accepted into EPIK, you will be placed in a location and a school and be given accommodation. You will attend the school and teach English lessons to Korean children in public schools. 

Advantages of working for EPIK: 

  • You do not need any previous teaching experience – during your first week, you will have an induction in Seoul. 
  • Lessons will usually be planned for you, although you may be asked to help with the planning. 
  • You meet a group of like-minded people who will all be placed nearby and may become your friends. 
  • You get to experience a public school and truly immerse yourself in Korean culture. 
  • You do not work weekends. 
  • You can take off national holidays, as well as paid vacation days. 
  • EPIK will help to organise everything for you. 
  • 50% of your insurance is paid by EPIK. 
  • Housing is paid for – you will just need to pay for your utilities.
Laura and her group of friends travelling and teaching English in South Korea
Friends from Epik. 

Working in a Hagwon 

Hagwons are private language schools in Korea. Children often attend hagwons before they start public school (similar to a nursery) and will be taught basic English through textbooks and online programmes. Many children also continue attending hagwons when they have started public school – public school ends after lunchtime and then they will travel to a hagwon for after school English classes. 

Before moving to South Korea, many people do not know about hagwons. While EPIK is a programme, hagwons are private, meaning that there are no specific rules or support. If you are moving to South Korea for the first time, it may be trickier to get support with moving and visa applications. 

Benefits of working in a hagwon: 

  • Flights may be paid for depending of contract agreement.
  • Negotiate salary – as it is private, you can negotiate your salary. The starting salary can be low but if you have experience teaching, you can negotiate a higher salary. 
  • Little planning.
  • No work to take home.

Drawbacks of working in a hagwon: 

  • Very little time off – while EPIK provide public holidays and vacation allowance, hagwons often only include 10 days off (5 days in summer and 5 days in winter) – these are planned by the school and you can not take any extra days off.
  • Hagwons do not allow sick days – when I took a job in a hagwon, I was told that I was not allowed to be off work with illness.
  • Long working days – hagwon hours depend on the school and age-range. For younger year groups, they are often during the day whereas lessons for older children tend to be into the evening as they are after-school classes. The teaching days for hagwon teachers can sometimes be very long and tiring. 
  • Varying support depending on school – you may be lucky and get a good hagwon with staff who are very supportive but remember that hagwons are private profit schools so they act as a business. Another downside of this is that the children are sometimes badly behaved as the staff do not want to sanction the children in case the parent decides to remove them from the school. 
  • Textbook working – the children predominantly work from textbooks or by watching videos. Although this is easy to plan and teach, it can be boring and repetitive. 
  • Although your housing is provided, you have to pay for it out of your agreed salary. 

The Lead Up to Moving 

Safe to say that the lead up to moving abroad was a bit of a blur – there were of course, an array of emotions. From excitement about moving abroad, to anxiety about getting a flight on your own or nerves about meeting everyone for the first time – there is a lot to think about. 

One thing that helped for me was that the school sorted the visa application – all I had to do was to send them a copy of my documents and then go and collect my Visa from the embassy when it was ready. 

Another great part of working in South Korea is that the accommodation is usually provided (and furnished) so all you have to do is turn up – this helps to remove some of the stress that comes with moving. 

Laura on her way to Busan, South Korea, with two suitcases and a backpack
Arriving at the airport with way too many clothes! 

Teaching in South Korea

There are so many places that you could go to teach and I imagine that they all have their own unique and wonderful experiences. Looking back, I am so glad that I chose South Korea. I had the most wonderful time, I made friends for life and I even managed to save a large chunk of money which I brought home with me. 

I’m sure that if I had chosen to work in the school in Bangkok, I would have felt the same way about there. 

My only regret is that shortly after I moved to South Korea, covid hit. Of course this did hinder my experience slightly. One of the main reasons that I decided to move back to the UK ultimately was that I was no longer able to travel outside of Korea and I felt like I had had enough time there to enjoy Korea. 

If you are thinking about teaching abroad, I would say GO FOR IT! You will make memories that will last a lifetime! I hope that this has given you some food for thought and will help you to make your decision. 

In my next blog, I will be writing about my experience living in South Korea. If you are interested in moving to South Korea specifically, make sure you check it out!

Laura in South Korea with a huge backpack!

Follow Laura on instagram @lauzexplores

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