In 2007, the summer after graduating from college, I decided to move to Korea. Known for having “ants in my pants” my decision to move to a foreign country did not shock anyone. My decision to move in order to teach English did. I had always felt the urge to explore and a deep desire to see the world. I was lucky that for study abroad I was able to participate in the Semester at Sea program in which I got to travel the globe. While this opportunity was enormous, I still envied my friends that got to live and really get to know one place and one culture. My choice to move to Korea was an easy one. I fell in love with Asia on my SAS journey and knew I wanted to go back. From there, while playing at the beach in Thailand is amazing, living in a rural village was a little more desolate than I had in mind. That left East Asia. China was a little dirty for my liking and Japan a little to expensive. That left the Republic of Korea.
Finding a job teaching in Korea was quite the easy task. All one needed to get a English teaching position was a college degree and that English be your first spoken language. To make the process even easier, numerous recruiting companies help place you according to your preferences while charging you nothing (the schools get charged one month of your salary)*. I enlisted the help of Gone2Korea to guide me through the process. Teachers have the choice of teaching in public or private schools. The former pays more and offers a better vacation plan but generally require a little experience in the teaching arena. Private institutions on the other hand, offer a larger foreign teacher staff (important for meeting people) and require less prior experience from their employees. Clearly, the private school system was for me. After a brief phone interview (schools want to hear your accent to make sure the like it) and submission of picture (again, the Koreans want to be sure of who they are hiring) and the job was mine.
Two weeks later I was on a plane to Seoul, a ticket fully paid for by my new school, ECC Mapo. Upon arrival, I was greeted at the airport and brought to my new apartment- again paid for by ECC. The salary for an English teacher is Korea isn’t to shabby. Depending on their specific qualifications teachers can make anywhere from $1800- 2400 USD per month. Add on top of this a month severance, pension plan and fully paid living expenses many people are able to save quite a bit.
For most teachers, money is the reason they find themselves in Korea. For me, it was more the experience, but the money certainly did not hurt. Canadians by far made up the large majority of expat teachers, with most of my friends hailing from the jolly green north. While everyone may have varying backgrounds the one common thread was that everyone was their to have the time of their lives. The year I spent in Korea did not disappoint.I had always assumed that the drinking, eating and social aspects of my experiences would be the highlights of my stay. My routine as an English teacher in Korea was easy. I had to be at the school by 10:40 AM, class at 11 and done by about 7PM (after kindergarden I taught a few older classes as well). This late start provided ample fuel for going out all night. Teachers who only taught older students didn’t begin teaching until around 2PM and were generally wrapped up by 9 PM. Dinner and a night out at the clubs were de rigueur- going home before 4 AM was seen as an early exit. The food was good, the friendships strong and the excitement never-ending. Life in Korea was, simply, awesome. My time there and the friends I made have become an important piece of my history. However, to my surprise, it was teaching that changed me forever.
Not such the fan of children before, I had assumed teaching would be my daily dread. I mainly taught kindergarten while I was there and these five-year-olds will forever have a place in my heart. The experience of teaching someone the skill of language is an accomplishment I’m not sure many can surpass. Everyone asks if I speak Korean and the straightforward answer is “no”. Undoubtedly, their next question is how I taught a language without speaking their language. Strangely, it’s pretty simple. If you start speaking to young children, eventually, they just begin to understand. Of course I had lesson plans and audio tapes but the majority of my teaching was simply done through speaking. To this day, I don’t know how these kids did it, but they were able to learn English without my knowing a stitch of Korean. Through speaking I was able to change each child’s life forever- giving them the base knowledge of English that would help them for the rest of their schooling and future careers. Together we laughed, we fought, we grew and became our own little family.
I grew to love each and every one of my students and know they loved me in return. I think about them often, about returning, about teaching. I know I will never be able to recreate my time in Seoul, nor do I want to. But I would give anything to see my students again and see the beautiful and smart young children I have no doubt they have all become. As much as I was able to teach my kiddies, they taught me a whole lot more.
*Regulations for forgeigners wanting to teach English in Korea have changed since I was there. Apostilled criminal background checks and a health statement are now required. Any recruiting company will guide you through the new process.