Read on dear reader to Inspector McHammered of the Lard's discovery. Modestly edited, if only to spare you the tedium of Korean bureaucracy. After reading this please do let me know if you're still set on going to Korea. If you are I will send you the address of a certain Peter Anderson of Bergamo (who is also listed on this site) whom I strongly advise you to write to for advice on a selection of suitable pills to take with you in case of emergencies.
TEACHING ENGLISH IN KOREA, OPPORTUNITIES AND PITFALLS
AMERICAN CITIZEN SERVICES, U.S. EMBASSY, SEOUL
Over the last few years the U.S. Embassy has received many inquiries about teaching English in Korea. We have prepared this unofficial guidebook to give teachers basic information on the business of teaching English here so that they can be better informed before committing themselves to a particular job.
Unfortunately some American citizens come to Korea under contract, with promises of generous salaries, bonuses and other amenities, only to find themselves in tenuous situations, often lacking funds to return to the U.S. The Embassy, by regulation, cannot enter into any case, conduct an investigation, nor act as a lawyer in legal or contractual mishaps experienced by U.S. citizens. We can neither investigate nor certify employers. It is up to each individual to evaluate potential employers before signing a contract.
We hope this information will prove useful. If you have any problems please contact the American Citizen Services Branch at the U.S. Embassy, 82 Sejong Ro, Chongro Ku. Our telephone number for basic information is 397-4603 or 397-4604. Please press 0 at any time during the message to be connected to an ACS staff member. Our Fax number is 02-397-4621. Our office is open for walk-in service every weekday, except Wednesdays, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. The Embassy is closed on official American and Korean holidays.
Many Americans have enjoyed their teaching experiences in Korea; others have encountered problems. The key to happy and fruitful employment as a language instructor in Korea is to be employed by a reputable school and to negotiate a well-written contract before leaving the U.S. We advise anyone considering accepting an English teaching job in Korea to carefully review the terms of the contract regarding working and living conditions. It would also be useful to ask for references from persons familiar with the institution, especially American former employees.
TYPES OF ESL POSITIONS AVAILABLE IN KOREA
Most English teachers work in language institutes ("hakwon" in Korean). There are, however, positions available in several types of institutions:
- private foreign language institutes (hakwons)
- corporate in-house language programs
- university language institutes- university academic departments
- government/private research centers
- editing/public relations, advertising companies
- private teaching/informal classes
HAKWONS: Private language institutes are found all over Korea. Some institutes are well-known with many branches while others are small and short-lived. The ESL market in Korea is extremely competitive and many institutes fail. Most hakwons employ a number of instructors for conversation and occasionally for writing classes. The typical employee can expect to work 20 to 30 hours per week. The majority of classes are conducted early in the morning and in the evening, so many instructors have free time in the afternoons. Most classes have between 10 and 25 students. Pupils may be grade school or college students, or businessmen who are contemplating overseas assignments. Some of the better institutes will provide housing for instructors. The average salary is currently about 1.5 million won per month (US $ 1,850).
KORETTA/EPIK KOREAN GOVERNMENT PROGRAM: This fairly new, Korea-wide, government-sponsored program places native speakers in every school district in Korea and presents a unique opportunity for the adventurous to live far from tourist routes and population centers. While recruiting and training appear to be performed quite professionally, teachers' living and working experiences vary considerably. Some are welcomed with open arms and treated extremely well. Others, arriving in areas where the program has been forced upon reluctant, underfunded schools, are not wanted and this is made clear to them from the beginning. Housing, benefits, reliability of pay, and access to ombudsmen is steadily improving, but still has a long way to go.
PART-TIME EMPLOYMENT: Many full-time English teachers teach part-time as well, either at another institute or with privately-arranged classes. Extra-contractual private instruction is illegal; however many English teachers do take private students. Part-time instruction at a second institute is legal only with permission from the sponsoring institute and Korean immigration authorities. Private students pay more per hour, but some instructors have found it hard to maintain long-term private classes. One should arrange for private lesson fees to be paid prior to each class. The Embassy reminds teachers that they are personally responsible for any violations of Korean teaching and immigration law they might commit.CHANGING EMPLOYERS: Korean Immigration must approve changes in employment. This is accomplished through leaving Korea and entering under a new visa with a new sponsor. Changing one's employer while in Korea is quite difficult and requires written consent of the original sponsor. Even with such consent, many teachers have found it nearly impossible to effect such a change while in Korea, and some have even been arrested and deported for overstaying their original visas while still involved in trying to change employers within the country. Questions on this procedure should be directed to the nearest Immigration office or Korean consulate.
LEGAL WARNING! Some Americans have run into serious legal problems with Korean Immigration because they either work as English teachers while in Korea on tourist visas or they accept part-time employment or private classes without obtaining the proper permission. Violation of Korean immigration laws can result in severe penalties including imprisonment, fines of up to 100,000 won ($120) for each day of overstay, or deportation with a ban on re-entry for up to two years. It is your responsibility to understand local laws and to obey them.
If you violate Korean visa laws, the Embassy cannot assist you other than to provide you with a list of attorneys.
NATURE OF CONTRACTS IN KOREA: Foreign instructors in Korea occasionally have contract disputes with their employers. In the Korean context, a contract is simply a rough working agreement, subject to change depending upon the circumstances. Most Koreans do not view deviations from a contract as a breach of contract, and few Koreans would consider taking an employer to court over a contract dispute.
Instead, Koreans tend to view contracts as always being flexible and subject to further negotiation. Culturally, the written contract is not the real contract; the unwritten, oral agreement that one has with one's employer is the real contract. However, many employers will view a contract violation by a foreign worker as serious, and will renege on verbal promises if they feel they can. Any contract should be signed with these factors in mind.
BASIC FEATURES OF MOST TEACHING CONTRACTS: Contracts for teaching positions should include provisions for the following: salary, housing, tickets home, working hours, class size, severance pay, taxes, and medical insurance. If these items are not included, one should negotiate until they are. Information on these topics is given below. When in doubt, ask; get it in writing, and remember that only the Korean-language version of the contract is legally binding in Korea.
SALARY: Most contracts provide for either a set monthly salary, or for a salary based on the number of hours taught. In any event, a guaranteed monthly remuneration should be included in the contract. Payment dates, methods, and currency should be specified in advance.
HOUSING: Few contracts provide for housing in Seoul. This can be a serious problem as housing in Seoul is among the most expensive in the world. Housing options include key money (yearly deposit), monthly rent, shared housing, dormitories, lodging houses, and inns. If your institute does not provide housing, it should at least be able to help you in finding housing, and in negotiating the appropriate rent and utility payments. Teachers who have been promised housing might want to request photos, floorplans or furniture inventories in advance. Koreans have very different ideas of what 'western' and 'furnished' housing mean. 'Furnished' might only mean a linoleum floor and a 2-burner stove. 'Western' usually just means an apartment with an indoor bath. Koreans measure housing space in 'pyong'. One pyong is approximately 36 square feet. Pyong measurements usually include the front porch, utility room, etc. Monthly rents can run from U.S. $1500 to U.S. $4000 for a modest apartment.
KEY MONEY SYSTEM (CHUNSEE): Key money (chunsee) is a year's rent paid in advance; with no monthly rent payment. At the end of the contract period, the renter receives the chunsee back without interest. Chunsee can be risky because property ownership may change in the middle of the contract period, or the owner may simply decide that the foreigner is in no position to fight for the chunsee. One can reduce this risk by having the employer agree to pay the chunsee. Chunsee payments run from a minimum of 20 million won (US $ 24,000) for a studio in a less desirable part of town to 500 million won (US $ 650,000) for a small apartment in one of the richer neighborhoods.
Wolsee is a variation of chunsee. The renter pays a certain amount per month plus an initial deposit which he receives back when he moves out. The same caveats apply as with chunsee.
TICKETS HOME: Some institutes promise to provide tickets home upon completion of a contract or to reimburse teachers for the trip to Korea. One should be aware that sometimes this commitment is not honored. Consider requesting an open-ended round trip ticket in advance.
WORKING HOURS: Most institutes require foreign instructors to teach five to six hours per day, Monday through Friday, and some also ask instructors to teach Saturday morning as well. Universities will usually require 10 to 15 hours per week plus participation in student activities such as editing school newspapers. Research centers usually require 40 hours per week, with occasional uncompensated overtime. Saturday morning is a normal part of the Korean work week. Teachers may have to teach early morning or late evening classes to accommodate working students.
Most English teachers hired from the United States do not get their jobs directly through the institute where they work. Instead, they are recruited by a placement service. These services recruit on campus and in U.S. publications. The embassy has received complaints about a number of recruiters. Those considering working in Korea should deal with recruiters carefully: many of them do not know at which hagwon in which area of Korea the teacher will be placed; very few of them, to our knowledge, will accept responsibility for a placement that is contrary to the original terms of agreement or contract. Prospective teachers should keep all of the advice in this publication in mind when discussing employment terms with a recruiter.
DIFFERENT EXPECTATIONS: Many types of people teach English in Korea. Some are professionally trained with degrees in TESOL; some hold graduate degrees in other disciplines and teach in Korea because they want to experience another culture; some teach English while doing other things, such as research; some teach while looking for other jobs; some are merely seeking any kind of work to help pay school bills; some are just passing through.
Teachers have differing expectations. They bring their own unique perspectives to their jobs, as well as their own individual reactions to new circumstances. Some expect to be revered and are shocked when they are not; others expect to make a lot of money but later find they actually earn about what a unionized bus driver in Seoul does; some expect to receive a large Western-style house and are disappointed to find themselves living in a modest room. Some teachers have been dismayed to find that their rooms were not air conditioned, and that they would have to work on their birthdays. Having realistic expectations and a flexible attitude prior to starting employment as a teacher in Korea will help prepare you for the inevitable stress and possible disappointment you may encounter.
SHORT-TERM BCISTITUTES: The Korean ESL market is extremely competitive. There are over 100,000 institutes of all types in Korea, most of them small-scale, marginal operations. Due to the competitive nature of the ESL business in Korea, many institutes do not survive long. They open their doors, hire the first foreigner they can find, advertise, teach for a month or so, lose money and close. Most of these cannot and will not pay their teachers for work performed, or for contract-specified repatriation, leaving teachers broke and stranded.
FOREIGNERS ARE NOT KOREAN: Korean society in general makes a great distinction between one's inner circle of family, friends and business colleagues, and outsiders. One should always treat one's inner circle with complete respect and courtesy, while one treats strangers with indifference. Korea is not an egalitarian society; one is either of a higher or a lower status than other people. How do foreigners fit into this scheme? The simple answer is - they don't. Foreigners are completely off the scope.
In recent years, less than 10 percent of Koreans traveled abroad, most often on group tours with other Koreans, or on business trips. Even now, with outbound tourism high, most Korean travelers still visit only friends, relatives or Korean neighborhoods, or travel in groups of other Koreans. Thus, Korean society remains very inwardly focused. For most Koreans, foreigners exist only as stereotypes, and are not always liked. Living in Korea as a foreigner requires patience and fortitude. Many foreigners have found Koreans can be quite friendly and warm, but a foreigner will seldom be accepted as part of the inner circle; he will almost always be an outsider looking in.
SOCIAL STATUS OF TEACHERS: Teachers are usually treated with great respect in Korea. However, it is also important to exhibit the kind of personal qualities and behavior that help maintain that respect. A foreign teacher who does disrespectful things, such as dressing or behaving too casually or informally, or losing his temper with a boss he considers unreasonable, would be held in great disdain by most Koreans, and runs the risk of getting into serious trouble with both his employer and the Korean Immigration Office. In other words, one should always present a mature, discreet, dignified and respectful manner. As a foreigner in Korea you will be highly visible, and you may find living here to be like living in a fish bowl, with everyone around you watching what you do with great interest. Remember that Korean society is more conservative in many ways than American society, and abide by local norms.
THE ESL PROFESSION IS NOT CONSIDERED PROFESSIONAL BY SOME KOREANS: By and large, Koreans do not think teaching ESL is a professional occupation. In fact, many believe any native speaker will do. This of course is based partially on reality - many ESL instructors in Korea have not had any professional training.
KOREAN BOSSES: Korean society is extremely hierarchical. The boss is the boss; he is never questioned or criticized. The same mistreatment you may feel you have received from him is probably not limited to his foreign employees. He probably reneges on contracts and makes 'unreasonable' demands of his Korean employees, too. As a result, one should be careful in how one deals with one's employer. When discussing issues that might become difficult, one should make sure does not to lose one's temper, raise one's voice, or speak in less than respectful language.
LACK OF CLEAR COMMUNICATION: Neither Korean society nor language is very precise. Many things are left unsaid, but still are understood. Of course, foreigners often do not understand. It is important that one understands what is expected and what is required up front, and that any misunderstandings be solved early on. Otherwise problems may develop.
ADAPTING TO KOREA SOCIETY
(This section of advice was written by KOTESOL, the local English Teacher's association.)
CULTURE SHOCK: When first arriving in a country, one is usually excited and eager for new experiences. After a while, the newness wears off, and homesickness begins. Do not judge yourself too severely at this point. It happens to everyone. "I will never understand this place. I want some real food, some real friends, a real apartment. Why do Koreans do X?"
.............the feeling eventually comes that it is time to leave. With luck you will realize it before it affects your life too deeply. It is time to leave when you begin to be negative about the country and its people. When you no longer want to go to work; when you dislike your students; when you become irritated with everything and everyone and have angry discussions with others of like mind, it is time to go.
HOW THE EMBASSY CAN HELP
Just to reiterate, the Embassy, by regulation, cannot enter into any case, conduct any investigation, or act as a lawyer for any personal mishap or employment dispute experienced by a U.S. citizen. We cannot investigate, certify, or vouch for employers. It is up to each individual to evaluate an employer before signing a contract, and to use common sense when traveling this far, including keeping sufficient funds available to return home should the situation become untenable.
The Embassy can assist Americans in a variety of ways. The Embassy offers notary services, renews passports, assists with absentee voting registration, and stocks basic IRS tax forms. We can provide phone numbers of Korean government agencies you may have to deal with. If you find yourself in need of legal help, we can provide a list of attorneys; however, we are unable to recommend any specific lawyer from this list. In case of a financial emergency, we can receive and disburse funds sent to you from a source in the U.S., usually much faster than a bank or wire transfer. Finally, we encourage all U.S. citizens to register with the Embassy. Registration allows us to contact you in the event of a family emergency.
We hope that this handbook has been useful. If you have any further questions, please contact the American Citizen Services Unit. Good luck, and enjoy your stay in Korea.
Heres another site that has an irreverant poke at Korea, both North and South. Enjoy!