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Teaching ESL in South Korea as a Young Minnesota Woman

A beautiful South Korea sunset.
A beautiful South Korea sunset.

Today we welcome Natalie Patton, who will recount for us her journey to start teaching English in South Korea.

Take it away, Natalie!

Once it happens, it happens. There is no going back. Even if you wanted to, even if all you desired was complete normalcy within a small radius of what is homelike and comfortable, it cannot be done, because once you’ve been bitten, you will be changed forever.

It happened to me. The travel bug: it bit me hard!

And I’ve truly never been the same since.

Natalie with delicious South Korean food.
Natalie with delicious Korean food.

My name is Natalie, and Minnesota, USA is the small corner of earth that I call my home. This past spring I graduated from university at the age of 22, eager to try to live in the world that I had been attempting to analyze and contemplate through class discussion and term papers for four years.

My oldest and best friend on the planet found herself in a similar circumstance as I did. Both of us were dying to see more of the world, but mountainous dollar signs of debt were awaiting us, and we were too squirmy from “the bite” to stay close to home. And so, one sunny, summer afternoon, we decided to go to South Korea to teach English for a year.

So, here I sit in Daegu, South Korea. My friend and I have been here for 2 months now, teaching for a hagwon (private school) approximately 30 hours a week. I sing songs, practice dialogue, listen and repeat, learn the days of the week, and count to fifty with close to 500 elementary students a week. For most of the moments that comprise my week, I love it.

Natalie's South Korean students, dressed up!
Natalie’s South Korean students, dressed up!

I did not major in teaching, and in fact my TESL experience was extremely limited when I boarded that Korean Air flight two months ago. After a steep learning curve, i.e. being walked into a classroom, and my boss (who speaks no English) motioning the go-ahead to begin teaching, I think I’ve done a pretty good job building the skill of teaching English.

South Korea was a logical choice for my friend and I, because both of us had traveled a bit, but neither had yet seen Asia. The more research we did, the more we learned that South Korea’s lower cost of living and reasonable salaries made living, traveling, paying loans, and saving a possibility for us.

Since the majority of schools will pay for a teacher’s airfare to and from one’s home country, I was able to make this move with limited funds sitting in my bank account at home. The search to find a teaching job that would accept two teachers with shared housing proved to be a waiting game that demanded great patience and persistence.

Beautiful hills in South Korea.
Beautiful hills in South Korea.

I scoured English teachers’ blogs to glean as much information as possible regarding normal work hours, salary, typical contracts, and city locations.

With the help of friends and friends of friends who had previously been English teachers in Korea and surrounding areas, my friend and I finally accepted a job. Many recruiters that were eager to help us dropped us quickly after they discovered that we were picky and would not take any old job and contract that came along. In the end, this served us well. We found our stellar recruiter at

Visiting a beautiful temple in South Korea.
Visiting a beautiful temple in South Korea.

Traveling around South Korea has been much easier that I expected. Korea is extremely foreigner-friendly, with signs in English, bus stops written in English and Korean, and (thanks to all the foreign English teachers here), many Koreans speaking varying levels of English.

Seoul is one of the most commonly visited cities in South Korea, making it one of the leading global cities travelers can navigate using the English signs throughout. There are many hotels in Seoul that are foreigner-friendly, making it a very comfortable stay for those who aren’t familiar with the Korean language.

Korea is made up of a maze of large hills ranging to substantial mountains which make hiking and exploring the outdoors easily accessible to any interested explorer. Since Koreans also appreciate hiking, one might classify the mountain trails on the weekend as similar to rush hour traffic, yet any experience trail hiking with Koreans is well worth it, let me assure you! Some of my favorite hikes thus far are Hamji Mountain, located a ten minute walk from my flat, Palgongsong Mountain, a popular attraction in Daegu area, and Naeyeonsan in Pohang, a city located on the east coast of Korea.

Now it must be known that I am truly enjoying Korean cuisine, namely bibimbop, kimchi, and kimbab. Korean people are, perhaps you’ve heard, some of the healthiest people in the world, and it’s possible that their great health stems from their lack of consumption of dairy products. No “3 a-day” for these people! But this has presented a problem for my stomach. The problem? I really enjoy cheese.

That is why, when one of my co-teachers proposed a trip to Costco, I nearly jumped over my desk in my enthusiasm to take such a trip, because Costco… sells… cheese. As we wandered the aisles together, my fingers lingered over things like Starbucks coffee, Kellogg’s cereal, and Skippy peanut butter: all items that are available for purchasing if you don’t mind kissing a small portion of your paycheck goodbye.

One of the lovely hill hikes near Natalie.
One of the lovely hill hikes near Natalie.

The Costco experience in Daegu, South Korea was almost identical to Minnesota Costco shopping, except for one small thing. As we rounded a final corner in the superstore, I noticed an incredible addition to Korean’s Costco: shot glass size samples of sake, Japanese rice wine.

We may have circled around a few times which brings me to another of my favorite things about Korea: the incredibly convenient and reliable public transportation as a means to make our way home.

I never anticipated being able to find absolutely everything, and I mean everything, here in South Korea. The Costco experience reminded me that, while I often feel very far from home, most of the comforts of home are not too hard to come by. I think it’s important to not recreate a little American home while I am here, but sometimes it’s nice to have the option to consume some cheese and crackers.

Natalie and her teaching traveling buddy!
Natalie and her teaching traveling buddy!

Traveling can be about different things for different people, but I travel because I want to learn from the people I meet and the things I encounter. Ultimately I desire change within myself. One of my favorite authors, Esther de Waal, writes about transformation, which I think nicely sums up the sense of traveling.

She says that it is in the letting go of control and the old certainties, with a hopeful expectation, that something new and worthwhile might settle into the fabric of one’s bones and one’s way of seeing the world.

I approached this traveling and teaching experience with this hopeful expectation for something new to settle in me. Giving up control and challenging current beliefs is often uncomfortable, but I believe change often comes through uncomfortable things.

So for those who are contemplating a traveling and teaching adventure, I would say, just do it. Fear and uncertainty will always be within us, so just quiet that voice inside and leap. All you have to do is carpe diem: seize the day! My hope for you is that you will be “bit” by the travel bug as I was, and that you’ll be changed forever, in a great way. Cheers!

Many thanks, Natalie! Readers, to follow Natalie P. and her friend on their adventures, check out their blog at:


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Thursday 6th of March 2014

I am 67 years old, but very youthful. Do you think I have a chance of being hired?


Sunday 25th of May 2014

South Korea has a forced retirement age of 65. Beyond that, it's only possible to work part-time, which would not qualify you for a work visa (work visas must be tied to a full-time position).

You would need to have already acquired residency to legally work as a part-time teacher. Residency is acquired through Korean ethnicity, marriage, or a "point system" based on age, education, job, and Korean language fluency.

If you are interested in teaching and traveling, I'd recommend SE Asia as it is more flexible when it comes to visa and work requirements.

BTW - I'm not affiliated with this blog - I just stumbled across it. I've been working in SK for 3+ years. I'm also a Minnesotan :)


Thursday 18th of October 2012

Hey Susan, Natalie here - great question about living, traveling and saving to pay off loans. Before I even got to Korea, I made some really clear, realistic goals for saving to pay off my loans, have enough money for a travel budget as well as covering my living costs of my daily life in Korea. If you teach abroad in places like Korea, Japan or China so many of your normal expenses (i.e. housing, gas, transportation, insurance) are either much lower or completely covered by your employer.

I'd encourage you to sit down and look at teaching jobs. What's the minimum salary you need to make? Sit with your finances and be realistic about how much you need to put toward your student loans and how much there will be left over.

Traveling, teaching, saving and paying off loans is very, very possible! It just takes some intentional strategy. Anything I missed that you are still curious about?


Wednesday 17th of October 2012

I love reading this because I, too, have student debt and traveling seems all but impossible. I would love to know how these two manage to send money back to the USA to pay their loans because that is the problem that I face! Thanks for the great post!

Lillie of

Wednesday 17th of October 2012

Great question! I'll email Natalie to make sure she sees this!


Wednesday 17th of October 2012

all but possible*


Friday 7th of January 2011

Wow what an awesome adventure! That Korean food in your picture looks delicious! My tummy is jealous!


Monday 27th of December 2010

I love this!! I happen to know this amazing Natalie, and I have to say that those South Korean classrooms are soooo lucky to have her. And, after reading this, how can you not feel inspired to go do something similar? Wow. Go Natalie!

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