By Tory Thorkelson
Where do you teach?
A private University in Seoul, South Korea. According to the Complete University Guide, “[there are 43 national and almost 180 private universities and universities” so we are in the majority in terms of educating future Koreans.
How long have you been there?
In Korea, almost 22 years and at my university for almost 20 years. However, I switched departments and jobs in 2006. I was teaching mostly required Freshmen English Conversation classes at first, but soon moved on to teaching classes like Introduction to Acting, Presentation Skills, Academic and Business Writing, Tourism English and the (Hi)Story of English (based on the video series of the same name). See my other EFL magazine article for details on some of the above courses and how I teach them.
Why did you choose South Korea?
I had been teaching in Japan in the JET program for 3 years and liked Asia so, after I completed my M.Ed. in Canada, I wanted to return but could not get a decent job offer while staying in Canada (see: https://hanyang.academia.edu/ToryThorkelson for an article about how the JET and EPIK programs in Japan and Korea compare). A good friend was in Korea at the time and recommended I come here instead. He even suggested a few good schools and so I applied and got hired by a well-known Hagwon or private institute for adults in central Seoul. If you are interested in reading more about the conditions, expectations and a list of the top Hagwon franchises in Korea, look here: www.gone2korea.com/private-language-schools-korea/.
What cultural difficulties did you have to deal with?
On the one hand, I found Koreans easier to communicate with than the Japanese, as they were seemingly more open about their feelings and intentions than the Japanese I dealt with. Most of my students really wanted to learn about English and North American culture and there was a relatively high level of respect for teachers and that certainly made my job easier. Once I moved to university, I was able to develop and teach a whole variety of courses – thanks to some very supportive bosses and enthusiastic students.
On the other hand, things like Korean time (the acceptance that being late for things is OK) and the idea that things should get done on schedule even if they were less than perfect were hard to get used to. The concepts of ‘contracts’ and ‘holidays’ were also a bit different. Employers may interpret the written contracts in their favor rather than yours when it suits them and, although things have improved a lot in this area, the lack of shared information often means that instructors are not always aware of what is expected of them with the obvious outcome that problems ensue on all levels. See below for a very good overview of the issues that Canadians in Korea may face and advice from a Canadian and Korean perspective from the Canadian government’s website.
Would you recommend the country or city?
If you are looking for a place to live and work for a few years to pay off some student loans and maybe travel a bit during and after your typical one year contract ends, then yes I think Korea would be a good place if you are looking at a Hagwon and don’t mind teaching kids. As with this site’s list, Korea tends to be listed in the top 10 for teaching English abroad (https://www.goabroad.com/articles/teach-abroad/best-place-teach-abroad-2018).
However, unless you have a Masters and 2 years prior teaching experience at the University or College level, it is pretty difficult to get a job teaching at a University. Salaries have stagnated and, with the falling birthrate, jobs are being cut in many cases. See this article for more details on the ins and outs of teaching at a university in Korea (https://www.eflmagazine.com/teaching-in-korean-universities/ )
What do you wish you knew before you came to Korea?
- Learning the alphabet is easy, but learning all of the complexities of verb tenses, formal and informal and formal levels of language is quite challenging.
- NEVER say you dislike Kimchee…it is equivalent to a personal attack on Korea and Koreans.
- Libel laws are quite harsh so do not say or share gossip about other people online or off – it can get you in deep trouble.
- If you take larger sizes of shoes or clothes like I do, be prepared and bring extras (or shop online).
- Expect the unexpected in almost everything. Cheetos are sweet, Pizza has corn and other unusual toppings, and taxi drivers will give you the third degree on occasion.
- Drinking and smoking are a big part of the culture as are dinners and meetings after work almost every day. If you skip these or do not partake at least on occasion, it can negatively affect your relationships with co-workers.
- While a few non-Koreans I know have done it successfully, it is quite hard to get out of English teaching. If you are an English speaker in Korea, you are assumed to be an English teacher/instructor/professor with all the positives and negatives that entails.
- Even the non-spicy foods are often spicy and pastries and breads often have unusual fillings so beware (Shoo cream, anyone?!).
- While making friends may pose a challenge at times, once you do make friends with the locals they can be some of the closest and most sincere friendships you will ever experience anywhere.
- Chopsticks are not the same here and it will take some getting used to if you have experienced using chopsticks anywhere else and then tried to do so here, too. (See: https://quartzy.qz.com/1127828/theres-a-reason-chopsticks-look-different-depending-on-the-cuisine/ ) for details and some history of chopsticks in Asia.