Recruiters and ProgramsIf you're looking for a teaching job in Korea, you'll need to start by applying through a recruiter or program. For recruiters, I recommend Teach ESL Korea, Hands Korea, or Work n' Play. All offer public and private school jobs. For public school only there is Korvia. You can also apply directly to public schools via EPIK and TALK, which are government programs that place teachers throughout Korea (usually not in Seoul or Gyeonggi-do, the province surrounding Seoul).
Avoiding the negativity and finding the right jobWhen doing research on English teaching jobs in South Korea, the results can be overwhelming, and sometimes it seems like no one has anything nice to say. Here's some advice on how to avoid the negativity and get accurate information:
1) Rely on real people, not internet forums- When I started encountering lots of negative feedback on the internet about private and public schools alike, I frantically emailed my recruiter, worried about picking the wrong job. He emailed me back with a piece of logic I hadn't thought of before: positive experiences appear vastly outnumbered on the internet because foreigners who are having a great time in Korea (which is the majority of them) are too busy having adventures and enjoying their lives to post their complaints on a random internet forum. I'm not saying bad experiences don't happen, they do, but it is often blown out of proportion on the internet.
Although popular sites like Dave's ESL Cafe, Waygook.org, etc. can be helpful for many things, unless what you read applies directly to your potential employer or particular school, take the negativity with a grain of salt. These internet forums usually don't attract unbiased sources, but they certainly do attract naysayers and those who like to stir the pot. If you want general information about working and living in Korea, check out reputable and well known websites like EatYourKimchi, and do lots of research to find personal blogs from people living in your potential new hometown or city. Every other foreigner has a blog, and most likely you'll be able to find a contact who has worked at your school or in your area, or someone who can point you in the right direction.
You should also find contacts through people you know from home or through your recruiter. Seriously, if you tell people, even strangers, that you're looking for a teaching job in Korea, you'll quickly find that everyone and their mom knows someone or knows someone who knows someone, that is teaching in Korea. I can't stress this enough: the best hagwon or private school jobs usually come through word out mouth!
And don't be shy about contacting teachers just because you don't know them! Most foreigners here would be thrilled to share something about their experience with you. My contacts before coming here included a friend I hadn't seen in five years, my friend's cousin who I'd never met, and my friend's brother's friend from college (who I'd certainly never met). All were extremely helpful!
2) What are you looking for out of this experience? Although issues can occur with your job that are entirely out of your control, sometimes I wonder what percentage of people on those forums are truly unhappy because they didn't consider what they were signing up for? Even though you may not want to teach English as a permanent career, an interest in education, kids, or at least getting to know foreign cultures will make your experience much more pleasant. Remember: the majority of your time here will be spent teaching and in school. If your only interest in coming to South Korea is an apartment and a pay check, then you might be in for a long year.
Public vs. Private Schools- How to Decide
If you've done any internet research, you've probably noticed by now that hagwons, or private academies, don't always have the best reputation, and that many people prefer public school jobs. The biggest reason is that public schools are held accountable by the government and have standardized contracts, where as hagwons are private business that are unregulated and can pretty much do whatever they want...including going out of business. However, I'd like to be optimistic and say that where you choose to work should depend on your personality. Many people also work at hagwons that they enjoy.
Pros: standard contract, less teaching hours, more vacation (20-25 days)
Cons: usually only one foreign teacher, can't always choose location, longer application process
Neutral: Lesson planning
Native English teachers (NETs) at public schools are employed by GEPIK or EPIK. GEPIK hires mostly through the private recruiters I listed above, while one must apply directly to EPIK. These are government offices that provide the teaching contracts for public schools. NETs can also contact these offices if they have questions about, or problems with their schools. Among the other pros listed above, people tend to gravitate towards these jobs because the government technically ensures stability.
HOWEVER, these jobs are losing their stability. Already, most public schools in Seoul no longer receive funding for foreign teachers. I currently work for GEPIK and these jobs are also starting to get cut drastically. Unless schools are funded by local city halls, only rural schools will receive funding from GEPIK starting in 2014. While teachers can't be let go mid-contract, hundreds of contracts are not being renewed.
If you're interested it's still worth applying, but beware these jobs are becoming extremely competitive. You will need to get at least TEFL certified, and online certificate programs cost $300-$400. In the next couple of years, public school job numbers could continue to decline, or go on the rise again. It's hard to tell because it depends on each province, annual budget votes, and of course, politics. Currently however, they are very much on the decline. If you're planning to work in Korea for more than a year or two, be aware that renewal may not be possible.
You can also apply through EPIK or TALK, which serve all of Korea, but because of increasing competition you can no longer request a specific location...which means you can be placed anywhere...including the middle of nowhere. Generally, if you would like to be surrounded by other foreigners or expats at work, then public schools are definitely not for you. You will more than likely be the only foreigner at your school.
I put lesson planning in a neutral category because I think this definitely depends on the person. If you enjoy devising lesson plans and thinking of creative ways to teach then you will certainly enjoy working at a public school. Some public schools provide textbooks, but many expect you to come up with your own lessons for regular classes.
*Ask about after school classes and English Camps at public schools!!*
Most public school teachers also run 1-2 week "English Camps" during summer and winter breaks. Expectations for English Camps vary greatly by school (anywhere from 1 to 4 hours a day). Your interview is a good time to ask what kind of special programs are expected of you during breaks and throughout the year! While I get paid overtime and enjoy the challenge, I didn't know until I arrived at my school that I would be expected to teach special Fall and Spring after school courses until 8 p.m. twice a week for 5 weeks, which is highly unusual for public schools!
Pros: usually higher pay, more available, many foreign teachers, easier application process, can choose where you want to go!
Cons: non-standard or lack of contract, less vacation (7-10 days), more teaching hours
Neutral: lesson planning, the unusual work schedule
Due to slightly longer hours, overtime, and less vacation, hagwon teachers tend to get paid more than public school NETs. If you're coming to Korea to save money or pay-off student loans or debt, this may be something to seriously consider. In addition, you'll also enjoy the company of other foreign teachers, which certainly makes for a much easier transition! While I like my school, I live in a smaller city and definitely have to make the extra effort to meet people. As for lesson planning, it varies highly, some hagwons will have you strictly follow a textbooks, others will require you to come up with your own material. You should ask in the interview what is expected.
The best part though is that hagwons are everywhere, so you can choose where you want to go! So here's the tough part: how do you make sure it's a good school? I don't want to undermine those who've had bad experiences at hagwons because there certainly are problems that I've heard from teachers who work at them. Because they are run like businesses, their priorities are a bit different from public schools...namely money and customer retention, which can put additional stress on bosses and employees. There's no 100% fool proof way to ensure your hagwon is great, but here are some tips:
- I'll say it again: the best hagwon jobs often come through word of mouth! If you talk to someone living in Korea, they might know a friend who is leaving at the end of the month and needs someone to take their place at a job. Many schools use private recruiters but they also take private referrals!
- If you can't find a friend, or friend of a friend living in Korea to speak with, don't be afraid to ask to speak to a current NET at the school you are interviewing with! The employer should allow you to speak with someone who currently works at the school. If they won't, it's probably not a good sign.
- Prepare detailed questions to ask during the interview: "Is public transportation easily accessible from the school and my apartment?" "How long have the other foreign teachers been working there?" "How often will I be expected to work over time?" "How much time is given for class preparation?"
- Go with your gut and be patient. Although it's hard to give up a job that looks great on paper, if you speak with someone who rubs you the wrong way, or there's a clause in the contract that no one seems to able to clarify, then follow your instincts. I'd say this applies to both private and public schools.
- If you follow the above advice hopefully you won't need this, but there is a hagwon blacklist that you can check on the internet, for schools that are unusually atrocious. I also found this site which compiles hagwon reviews which should offer positive reviews as well.
While there is certainly less vacation time during the year with private schools, if you're planning to travel after you leave Korea, which most people do anyway, this doesn't have to be a big problem. There is also so much stuff to see locally in Korea! You can easily satisfy your need for a break with day or weekend trips. Having less vacation, or being in a more rural area like myself, really encourages you to get to know Korea and have an authentic living experience.
*The Classroom and Co-Teachers- Public vs. Private *
In hagwons you'll be physically in the classroom teaching about 28-30 hours a week, whereas you're only the classroom 22 hours a week with public schools. It's true that more teaching hours can be tiring, but there are other factors to consider. While public schools leave ample time for "desk warming", the technical term for sitting at your desk, some people get very bored by this and prefer more fast-paced hagwon schedules. Public school also classes tend to be much larger, 20-35 students, while hagwons usually have 10-15 students (less if it's a small academy).
Working at a public school also involves co-teaching with a Korean English teacher. Unfortunately there are no standard expectations or training sessions for Korean co-teachers. While some may be helpful, others may not.While in some public schools you'll be fully in charge of the classroom, in others you might be more of a side kick. Many NETs establish beneficial relationships with their co-teachers, but many teachers also prefer the independence that comes with working in a hagwon, where there are usually no co-teachers.