What It’s Like To Be an English Teacher in Korea

Before coming to Korea, my experience teaching was limited to being a summer camp counsellor and teaching violin and piano. I’d never taught in a classroom setting. I’d never worked with 5-year-olds. And, I definitely felt like I had no idea what I was doing as I stepped off the plane and into my first class less than 3 days later.

Still, I quickly realized that learning how to teach is done mostly through time and experience, with a little intuition. I’m still currently taking my TEFL course, and although learning teaching strategies and theories have definitely been somewhat helpful, I’ve noticed that what I’m learning about in my course, I’ve also already learned while on the job.

I have noticed that when you teach in a new country, your intuitions about teaching can be thrown out of whack because of cultural and educational differences.

For example, I would like to play games and make art projects all day with my kindergarteners, but, in Korea, you are expected to complete between workbook pages or else parents will complain—at least at the school where I’m working.

With my older elementary classes, I would like to do more lecture/discussion-based classes with lots of group work, but I’ve found that Korean kids are so used to doing the workbook pages by that age that they struggle with other, more interactive, ways of learning.

Not to mention that when I first started teaching, I had a lot of trouble with discipline and class management. This is probably because at summer camp, I was used to just having fun all the time and letting the kids run around. Although summer camp and school are obviously completely different environments, here in Korea my kindergarten kids are expected to sit perfectly in their seats, raise their hands to talk and speak English all the time. With only short 10-minute breaks and no recess, you can imagine that even just keeping them sitting like that is a HUGE challenge.

It’s become pretty clear to me that as a teacher, I’ve been constantly learning too. Every class is so different that sometimes I feel like I’m a great teacher in one class and a horrible one in the next. I’ve been lucky that so far, teaching has been the sort of job where I arrive in the morning super tired, but as soon as I’m in the classroom with my kindergarteners, I suddenly have lots of energy and feel satisfied with what I’m doing. The more comfortable and confident I’ve become as a teacher, the more fun I’ve been able to have.

The Goldfish class at Halloween!

Here are some truths I’d like to share if you’re interested in becoming a teacher in Korea:

  1. Don’t do what I did and decide to do this 7 weeks before you leave. Or… do.
    My first flight on the way to Seoul!

    I didn’t decide until the beginning of July that I was going to do this, and it was definitely stressful to get my visa and everything else done. My flight wasn’t even booked until 6 days before I left! While I did arrive later than I was supposed to because of visa complications, I have no regrets about deciding to do this so last minute. Whether you want to plan it out half a year in advance or two months before like I did, things will fall into place and you’ll get here eventually either way. It’s more about the amount of mental preparation that you might need to give yourself before leaving.

  2. You will feel like you have no idea what you’re doing.
    What my students do on the weekends…

    As I mentioned earlier, the education system in Korea is completely different than what I experienced growing up. But, you adjust. You learn, and you make some big mistakes and some small mistakes. Once, I started teaching the wrong lesson in one of my classes until one of my students said something. I’ve also said “shit” in front of my sixth graders. Shit happens—literally. The kids forgive you, and you can forgive yourself.

  3. Teaching is completely different from being a musician, which is sort of amazing.
    Gotta say that I laughed pretty hard when I saw this conductor on his phone during a dress rehearsal for a show at the Suwon fortress.

    To say that I was burnt out from being a musician is an understatement. At the end of my undergrad in April, I was tired of school and of the music scene in general. I wanted to do something completely different. And being a foreign English teacher definitely is! It’s been so refreshing to enter a totally different and new field. No longer do I obsess over orchestra rehearsals or self-deprecate about my musical abilities around my friends. Of course, teachers have their own things they talk constantly about (their kids, obviously), but it’s been a nice change of pace for sure.

  4. News alert: You can be a musician, and ALSO do something cool for a year. 
    At the Changdeokgung Palace during Chuseok!

    So many of my musician friends have expressed a desire to travel, but it can be challenging when we can’t stop practicing for long stretches of time. I have a heavier work schedule than most other teachers I’ve met, but some teachers only work from 3 pm to 9 pm, for example, or 9 am to 4 pm. Depending on your work schedule, I think it’s definitely possible to continue practicing 2 to 3 hours a day, and have a teaching job where you can save good money for grad school, etc.

  5. No vacation time, but you get the dollah dollah bills.

    I’ve got tickets for PyeongChang 2018!

    If you want to have lots of paid (or even unpaid) vacation time where you can backpack around Southeast Asia, Korea is probably not the best place for you. You can, however, save a lot of money, depending on your expenses. From what I’ve read, probably more than most English teachers in Asia with this level of teaching experience. Because of that, I’ve been able to afford to go to Thailand for Christmas break and buy tickets for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

  6. Sometimes you feel the love. And when you do, teaching is as much of a high as performing your favourite Brahms Sonata.
    Spent at least 5 hours on these handmade butterfly wings for Halloween. I do it for the kids!

    Although I’m an English teacher, I get to teach some of my favourite topics from when I was growing up, like history, social studies and the environment. Sharing my passion with kids aged 5 to 14 makes me hope that (maybe!) they’ll be passionate about it too. Getting constant hugs and “I love you, Claire Teacher!”s every day from my kindergarteners, and seeing their smiling faces every morning when I see them, is definitely enough to get you out of bed every morning.


Stay tuned for a post on my overnight camping trip in Seoraksan National Park, and more Breaking the Silence stories!


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