Today we have a fascinating account from an Irish lass who is teaching in South Korea. Take it away, Elizabeth!
Hi! My name’s Elizabeth O’Hagan. I’m 24 years old, and from Belfast, Northern Ireland… and I’ve recently just moved to Jeju, South Korea!
In my final year of university, I found myself thinking, “What next?” I had always wanted to travel, and over the years had visited many countries, mostly in Europe. However, at this stage in my life I was ready for a real change of scene: for something completely different. I wanted to experience this “culture shock” people talked about.
Unfortunately, like a lot of people in my position, I had finished university with a mountain of debt and wouldn’t just be able to take off into the sunset. When a friend suggested teaching English as a foreign language it seemed the ideal solution.
This way I would be seeing the world AND making some money. Perfect! Whilst I had never before considered teaching as a career, I figured it was something I could certainly turn my hand to. And, hey, kids weren’t so bad, so why not!
I always knew I wanted to live and work in Asia. My fascination with this part of the world began while I was still in school. The food, the people, the style: everything about Asian culture captivated me, and I knew one day I would have to go and see it for myself. This was my opportunity!
Originally, my plan was to work in Japan, as it was the Asian country I knew most about. I had a job lined up for after I finished university with the now infamous Nova Corporation, which went bankrupt a mere month before I was due to depart! Whilst I was devastated at the time, as time passed I was relieved I hadn’t gone only to be potentially stranded with no job or home.
After this time the Japanese market for English teachers became completely saturated by the thousands of ex Nova teachers now seeking work, and many big companies stopped hiring from overseas.
Supply was definitely outweighing demand. Whilst at the time I was hell-bent on Japan, eventually I started considering other options. So when I heard of an old friend from university having spent a great year teaching English in South Korea I began to research a bit more about this mysterious country I knew very little about.
After speaking with some people who had visited, and after researching on the Internet, South Korea started to appeal more and more. With its rich, colourful culture steeped in history, it would definitely have the “something different” I was looking for, and combined with the extremely handsome package that was offered (return flights from your own country, free housing, a generous salary, combined with a low cost of living) South Korea sounded awesome! Plus, this way it meant I could also save money: something that may not have been so possible in Japan.
At this stage, I started looking on the Internet, on various websites and forums advertising for English teachers in South Korea. I discovered the 2 main means of teaching in SK was either through the public school system, or through a private school (hagwon).
While there are pros and cons of each, in the end the regular working hours and generous holidays were enough to swing the public sector route. Thus, my application to EPIK (English Programme in Korea) began.
I had previously posted my CV/resume onto tefl.com and was delighted to receive an email from Reach to Teach Recruiting saying they would like to assist me with my application. I’d looked on the EPIK website and it seemed a rather daunting task, so to have someone’s help would be great.
I must say, the application process was long and arduous. Submitting various applications… making relevant changes… gathering legal documents… references… This all took time, so my advice to anyone considering it is START EARLY.
When you consider all the documents you have to gather and submit, it can also be a very expensive process, so also make sure you definitely want to do it! However, I knew this was what I wanted, and thus figured all the effort would be worth it in the end. I also discovered that having a TEFL qualification puts you in a higher salary scale, which was just as well as I was in the middle of completing a 120hr combined TEFL course with i-to-i.
While it is by no means necessary to have a TEFL qualification for South Korea I would definitely recommend it, especially for those like myself with no teaching experience. It just helps to start “thinking like a teacher,” which can be half the battle!
With EPIK, you can request a particular area or city you would like to be placed. I had always visualized myself working in a big city, so I chose Busan as my first option, with other metropolitan cities and Jeju Island as my other choices.
When I was told that all the metropolitan city positions (along with Jeju) had already been filled, I was pretty gutted. I was then asked if I would accept a more rural position if it was available, and while I had never imagined myself living in a provincial area I did accept. I just wanted to come to Korea.
Further disappointment ensued when I was informed that ALL of the positions had now been filled and I would be put on a waitlist. When I initially heard this I honestly thought it was all over. However, the lovely Gillian from Reach to Teach who had assisted my application from the very beginning assured me that everything would be ok, and right enough, 3 weeks later I received a phone call from her at 4.30am (ha, I will never forget it!) offering me a position with EPIK for Jeju Island.
To say I was delighted was an understatement. Especially as Jeju is one of the most sought after placements on EPIK, I could not believe my luck. This was now the 3rd of August, and I was to leave for Korea on the 17th August. As we say in Belfast I was “up to high doe” (somewhat stressed) but giddy with excitement for those 2 weeks, getting everything organized.
My stress was not helped by the fact that my visa only arrived the morning I was actually leaving! But it is all part of the adventure. :) As soon as I touched down in Seoul, all the stress and headache of the heavy admin that was needed for my application melted away. I was in Korea at last!
It’s been 3 months now, and I must say it’s going great. I’ve met a lot of cool people, the food is excellent, and the Korean people are probably the most warm and hospitable people I have ever met.
The teaching was quite challenging at first, but I’ve definitely got the hang of it and am actually quite enjoying it! I’m definitely glad I chose the public school system as well. Already I’ve been taken on many field trips with the students, seeing local places of interest, and experiencing true school life. Also the lunches are great! A real taste of Korean home cooking: much different to school dinners back home!
To anyone considering teaching English in Korea I say go for it! If it’s a new experience you’re after, then you really can’t get any better than this. Also, being in Korea makes it a lot easier to visit other Asian countries. This winter I am fulfilling a life ambition and visiting Japan, a trip that I simply could not have afforded if I stayed at home… so thumbs up all round! :)
So my advice to anyone thinking about applying to EPIK is this: start early. EPIK are said to work on a first come first served basis, so make sure to have your application in as early as possible. As I previously mentioned, getting all the relevant documents signed, legalized, etc. can be lengthy as well as expensive, so make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
Also… be patient. My application in total took approximately 6/7 months, with only really 2 weeks of “definite” notice. While this is not typical, it could happen to you, so just be prepared for the unexpected, which is kind of a good attitude to have for coming to Korea in general, actually. All you truly need is an open mind and a sense of adventure, so if this sounds like you, then do it!!
Best of luck!!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is National Board Certified Teacher from Boston who has been a full-time public school educator since 2003. She launched Teaching Traveling in 2010 to share expert global education resources, and additionally runs Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog, and DrawingsOf.com for educational cartoons. Do stay in touch via subscribing to her monthly newsletter, and following on social media with the links below!