5 Pitfalls to be Aware of Before Teaching in South Korea

by Jessica Foley

While traveling abroad is without a doubt one of the best experiences a person could ever have, teaching abroad is an even better way to expand one’s horizons and really dive deeper into a foreign culture. International teachers have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a completely foreign place, while also giving back to the community in which they live. South Korea is one of the most popular destinations to teach English abroad, because of the plethora of teaching job opportunities, cheap cost of living, and easy access to travel throughout Asia; however, there are some common pitfalls international teachers should be aware of before jumping right in.

Jessica with Jeju Island's famous haenyo (female diver) representing a matriarchal structure who have dominated the society since the 17th century.
Jessica with Jeju Island's famous haenyo (female diver) representing a matriarchal structure who have dominated the society since the 17th century.

Pitfall #1: Having expectations that Korean schools will be similar to your home country.

Generally, there are two chief teaching job opportunities available in South Korea: placements at hagwons (private schools) or positions in the public school system. While public schools usually meet the expectations of foreign teachers, hagwons are a different story. These private institutions are not so much schools, as they are businesses. Many international teachers enter the situation assuming that these hagwons are glorified after-school tutoring sites, but that is not the case. The priority of hagwons is to satisfy the customer (parents), not necessarily to serve the students best interests.

If you are going into a hagwon teaching job in South Korea with some teaching experience under your belt, try not to be thrown off by being a piece in this business machine. Try to make contact with current or past teachers to get an idea of how to navigate your particular school. 

Pitfall #2: Trusting any recruiter you find online.

The common way to find teaching jobs in South Korea is to go through a recruiter; however, there is a certain risk associated with some recruiters. Before jumping into a relationship with the first recruiter you find online, do a little research and ask around. There are plenty of websites that will point you in the right direction, but don’t be afraid to shop around a bit, or choose a vetted program or TEFL course program. Once a recruiter finds you a job, his or her job isn’t over. The responsibility remains on the recruiter to ensure that your contract is respected and fulfilled.

Be careful of individual recruiters who may disappear if the employer decides to hoodwink you. Popular, big-name recruiters are a better way to go for international teaching jobs, if a teach abroad program is not for you. 

Pitfall #3: Jumping into the first housing situation that falls into your lap.

Your housing situation will depend on your employer, or whether or not the teach abroad program you choose includes accommodation. Finding housing can be complicated if you don’t know where to look, especially in bigger cities like Seoul or Daegu. Some employers may provide some guidance in finding housing in the area, which is an excellent way to get an idea of what’s available. If your employer gives you the flexibility to look for your own housing, start with a website like Craigslist.

Before committing to any housing situation, be sure to ask around, know the area, and do a thorough inspection of the apartment or house. If your work situation places you in a big city, you will have some options. Depending on your preferences, you can either live in an area heavily populated by foreigners, or completely immerse yourself in a neighborhood inhabited by locals. 

Pitfall #4: Pension scams.

Many teaching jobs in South Korea have contracts that include a pension, which is to be paid out to you upon completion of your contract. Keep track of this from the get-go. Your paycheck should demonstrate this monthly deduction. Check to ensure that the proper amount is being withheld; this deduction should begin your second month of employment. If you notice a discrepancy, contact the National Pension Service (NPS) to inquire about your registration. Employers may lie to the NPS about the salary amount so that they pay less into your pension. 

At the end of your contract, your pension will be paid out to you, but the timeline on this can vary. Stay on top it, because you have earned it! If you need more information, the NPS website is available in English.

Pitfall #5: After-hours tutoring.

This is probably one of the most talked about issues amongst English-speaking foreigners teaching in South Korea. An E-2 visa is strictly for the purpose of teaching a language, most often teaching English in South Korea, and if you have looked into it, you know that it is an extensive application process. The visa process also includes many restrictions, such as private tutoring. Despite the illegality, Korean parents will pay a pretty penny for private tutoring by international teachers. However, if you are caught teaching on the side without the knowledge of your employer, you could be subject to hefty fines and deportation. Depending on the reputation of your school, it is possible to be “hunted” down by desperate parents seeking you out as a resource.

Be wary of these despondent appeals because it could cost you, but teaching English on the side will pay out big time. Private tutoring is universally regarded as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation in South Korea. 

Despite some negative aspects, there are more than enough positives aspects to outweigh any weariness of obtaining a teaching job in South Korea. Teaching abroad in any country is incredible, and South Korea is no exception. 

Whatever your reason for considering a teaching in South Korea, whether it be to gain teaching experience or simply to pay off some debt, know that your experience teaching abroad completely depends on what you put into it.

So if you’re on your way to teach at the Land of the Morning Calm, pour yourself an ice-cold glass of Cass – Gunbae!