In addition to being asked why I chose South Korea as my live-overseas destinations, another question I’ve fielded very often since announcing my intention to move abroad is, “how did you do it?” There’s seemingly a million steps to uprooting yourself, so I’ll address specifically the steps I took to get to SK. I can’t say if these’ll apply to any other country, so do your due diligence and research wherever it is you’d like to land!
Step 1: Decide on Public or Private Academy Teaching
This consideration will vary on the country and on the teaching credential required. Many countries require you to have a state-level teaching certificate if you want to teach in their public schools; so I’d be SOL in that case. However, in South Korea, you can teach in public schools as an English class co-teacher alongside a Korean teacher as long as you have a bachelor’s (in pretty much any field) and a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL).
The way that many teachers-to-be go about landing such a job is through EPIK, the English Program in Korea, a nationwide teacher placement program that gets thousands of applicants in two yearly intakes (March and August). I applied for EPIK but didn’t get approved, so I began to look for jobs at private English language academies, called hagwons. The required credentials are the same for public schools and hagwons, but the teaching environment and employee experience vary wildly; I’ll save that for another post.
Some of the pros of EPIK include more paid vacation and sharing the teaching load with a co-teacher; some negatives are that you’ll be the only native English speaker at your school and that EPIK doesn’t tell you in advance where in Korea they’ll place you. Some find the latter to be part of the adventure, though! Pros of hagwon life include being able to pick exactly where you’ll live, getting slightly higher pay than public schoolers and having fellow native English speakers on staff to potentially befriend (not always the case; I’m the only native English speaker on my hagwon staff!). Cons include the fact that for a lot of hagwon owners, the academy is business first, education second, and you might be treated accordingly; and hagwon hours tend to be much later than public school, because kids come here after public school. That said, if you’re a night owl, a 2 to 10 p.m. schedule might suit you just fine, AND if you have fellow Westerners as coworkers, your social lives could align to your benefit.
Finally, a third option for those with teaching certificates is teaching at international schools or on U.S. military bases (if you’re American). International schools pay the best out of all of these options, though I’m unsure as to how well the military-base jobs pay.
Step 2: Build Teaching Cred
Once I decided upon teaching as my overseas career, I had to figure out how to attain the credentials I needed to get hired. My first and best resource for the information I needed was the International TEFL Academy’s (ITA) website. It’s a veritable font of wisdom when it comes to telling you what kind of background you need to teach all around the world and what it’s like to teach in your preferred destination. Head there and download their Country Chart, find the country(ies) you’re interested in and read away. For even more info, head to the site’s Resource Library.
For South Korea, I would need a certificate to supplement my bachelor’s degree. While I opted for ITA’s program, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for teaching in South Korea. It was one of the priciest programs out there, and while the education I received was good, I really hated the online system they used to deliver it. I felt like for the amount of money that institution rakes in, it could certainly invest in a more intuitive, state-of-the-art website within which students can learn. (Heck, switch to Teachable, guys!)
Alternately, I’ve heard good things about Korvia’s TEFL program, and since Korvia is South Korean government-certified as a teacher recruitment firm, I’d say it’s probably a legit program … AND it’s much cheaper than ITA’s. So that’s one option. I’ve heard of folks successfully snagging jobs in SK with TEFL certs they got via Groupon offers, so there’s that; personally, I wouldn’t go that route, but I’m just putting it out there.
Do keep in mind that there’s really no “officially accredited” TEFL program out there, except, maybe for the priciest-of-them-all, Cambridge University-affiliated CELTA program. Besides that one, be wary of programs that claim to be accredited, as there’s no official global accreditation organization for TEFL certificates. I guess that was one plus of ITA’s program, is that they’re well known enough to be considered as close to accredited as you can get.
The ITA program itself entailed a vigorous 10 weeks of online learning, with a teacher who was there to answer questions as well as offer extra lessons, group chats and homework grading. ITA also has Facebook groups specific to the country you’re interested in, where you can connect with others who are taking the TEFL course and working on moving abroad. I found it to be a pretty helpful resource, and I’ve even met friends through the South Korea forum!
Once the online coursework is done, the ITA program focuses on hands-on experience. I had to gain 20 hours of in-person experience that included shadowing or observing ESL (English as a second language) teachers and eventually teaching and/or tutoring my own ESL students. I ended up observing classes at a local church and a local community center, then leading an adult ESL class through the Dallas Public Library system. Teaching cred attained!
Step 2.5: Gather Official Documents
I call this Step 2.5, because I undertook it while I took my TEFL course and well before I started seeking a recruiter. This step is easily the most time-consuming, and, to some, the most agonizingly frustrating, so my biggest piece of advice is to leave a mega-crap-ton of time to gather your official documents.
What official documents? In order to process your visa, your future employer who’ll be sponsoring it needs your current passport (it should have more than a certain number months left before it expires, too), a resume, your official college transcripts, as well as a federal criminal background check and copies of your diploma(s). And those last two documents need to be “apostilled,” a term I’d never even heard of before starting this process. An apostille is an official seal similar to notarization, but from a higher-level official. For the diploma copies, you have to get them notarized first, then sent to your state capital for the apostille, which can take a couple weeks to process. I lucked out on this step, since my boyfriend was heading to Austin for a professional conference – he took my diploma copies with him and waited as they were processed! Easy-peasy!
For most, however, the FBI check is peak annoyance. First, you have to get your fingerprints taken on a special form that you bring to your local police department. Then you send it to the FBI with a check. Then you wait. And wait. Sometimes the wait can stretch for months, and, if your luck is really crappy, the FBI will return your application because your fingerprints didn’t come out legibly. Argh!
Behold the advent of the FBI channeler! This is a service that expedites the FBI check process; it may be a little pricier, but well worth it in my book; my background check took little more than a week. Then I used US Authentication Services for expediting my federal apostille, and that was a breeze, too! I say save yourself the headache and bypass going directly through the FBI.
Meantime, put in for your official college transcripts as early as you can, and make sure to order several; I got three, just in case (have I mentioned creating a “Teaching Abroad Documents” folder?! Do it.). It’s good to have extras of everything, in fact, in case you send all your docs to a recruiter and a job ends up falling through – recruiters do NOT send your documents back to you. Speaking of recruiters …
Step 3: Find a Recruiter. Several
The process of finding a recruiter can also be a headache, so my biggest pieces of advice here are to reach out to many and make sure all of the documents mentioned above are already in your possession. In fact, when you first reach out to a recruiter, you should definitely mention that you have all your documents in hand; it shows you’re serious and will be able to start the hiring process at a moment’s notice. Because once you find that job you want, things move FAST. I literally went from weeping about having zero prospects to being hired in a span of five days.
Google is your friend when it comes to finding a recruiter. So are sites like Dave’s ESL Café, ESLROK and ESL Teaching Online. Dave’s is a bit cluttery, being one of the most, if not the most, popular job boards for finding South Korean teaching jobs; the latter two are my favorites. But don’t forget Facebook! There’s a multitude of groups, open and closed, where recruiters post jobs.
When you find a gig or several gigs that you like, email the recruiter and express your interest in working with them. I found it futile to mention one specific job I wanted to apply for, because not one recruiter ever set me up to apply for it. Instead, if you list a few of your wants (student age range, preferred location, number of fellow foreign teachers), a recruiter will start emailing you some prospects. Hopefully …
I ran into quite a few recruiters who never replied, or replied with one batch of jobs that didn’t fit me, then disappeared. In a couple of cases, some recruiters did respond and seemed to take me on as a client, only to drop me inexplicably. WTH??
And then I had to deal with my own personal obstacles. It seems that, to some hagwons, the ideal English teacher is a blond, female Caucasian in her early to mid ‘20s, as she is seen as the prototypical American. Pair that with my having heard testimonials of black people being told directly by recruiters that such-and-such school wants only white people to apply, and you can imagine how hopeless it sometimes felt for me, as a 40-something black woman, to try to get some recruiter love. The aforementioned weeping wasn’t an exaggeration! But seeing as all recruiters request photos alongside resumes, it’s not like I could (or would) lie about my appearance or fudge my age. I just had to keep fingers and toes crossed and hope to find a match.
And eventually I did, via a recruiter I found in a Facebook group. She’d successfully placed other black teachers in jobs in Korea, so I sent her an email and held my breath. She came through and tirelessly worked to find me the job I have today, though not without some nudging come contract time.
But I’ve skipped ahead a bit! The last step to my get-a-job journey is …
Step 4: Interview and Negotiate Like a Boss
Once my recruiter sent me a promising listing, I asked to be submitted for consideration. The academy replied, and we set up a Skype interview, which is how most hagwon interviews go. Make sure to dress as if it’s any other professional job interview — neatly and modestly. South Korea is quite appearance-obsessed, so barring putting on a prom dress or tux, you really can’t dress too nicely for the interview.
As it turned out for me, after I agonized over my outfit and makeup, we ended up having technical difficulties, so the Skype turned into a phone interview. I had my multitudes of questions at the ready: What were my hours? How many hours would I actually teach? Where would my subsidized apartment be? What condition was it in? Did teachers get paid on time (a common issue with hagwons)? How many other native English-speaking teachers were there on staff? How many kids would be in each class, on average?
And there are a dozen other Qs you can ask, depending on what’s important to you. If you’re a seasoned teacher, for example, class size may not matter, but as a newb, I knew I didn’t want 20+ kids to lead. Happily, my classes don’t get bigger than 8 kids. Also, if you plan to be out and about, definitely ask what kind of amenities are nearby and/or in your city center.
Generally, the person who interviews you will either be the hagwon director (kind of rare) or the teacher you’re replacing (more common). If it’s the former, ask if you may contact a current or former teacher there to ask questions about the work environment; if the director gives you a hard time, that’s a red flag — back away! If the teacher you would be replacing is interviewing you at school, ask if you can contact him or her at home for more candid questions. Best-case scenario, you’re able to ask former teachers how their time at the hagwon was, but if not, current teachers are swell to talk to.
Once my interview was done, the waiting began. Well, not really. They hired me the same night! I was ecstatic, because my gut told me this was going to be a good place to work. Next up was receiving the contract and negotiating it.
Never, and I mean NEVER sign a contract without reading it! I would go so far as to say never sign one without negotiating something in it, because it’s a good test of how management will react.
I had a handful of things to add or adjust in my contract, but I didn’t get pushback from the academy, I got it from my recruiter. She insisted that it was a really good school and a fine contract and I’d be seen as picky for requesting changes; she even stated that considering my age and the difficulty in placing me, I should happily accept the contract as is. UGH! But I didn’t relent, though I did pick my top three must-have changes and pushed her to get ‘er done. And she did. And the hagwon made the changes with no fuss. Whew! So stand your ground on the things you really, really want added, struck or adjusted in a contract. And if there’re enough issues that it seems the whole damn thing needs a rewrite, then consider if that job is right for you.
I hope this novella has given you insight into how I made my way to South Korea. In the future, I just may pen a post with even more detailed pointers, because I know just how arduous it is to get going on this path. But if you start, I promise you, it’s worth the work! Good luck!