Jake is an ESL instructor in Seoul, Korea. They have been teaching for about two years.
Should You Go?
Moving to another country and taking on a job you have never have done before can be daunting. The very idea may induce some stress. However, you are reading this, so you’re at least willing to consider the change. Still, you should ask yourself: should I go?
There are several things to consider. Each person is different, and each life is full of various pitfalls, hangups, and obligations. These can come in the form of finances, family, pets, significant others, and personal goals. No guide can answer all these questions for each individual. Weighing these against coming is a personal and intimate endeavor. What this guide can do is start to point you in the right direction. It can help you narrow down these questions and weigh them for your personal life.
The simplest way to do this is a pro/con list. By giving you some of the major benefits of going to Korea to be an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor, you will be able to weigh them against your personal situation. This isn’t to say there won’t be hardships and drawbacks from coming. As I said, it is a major decision. It will affect every part of your current and future life. Now let’s get started.
If I were to list the pros in any kind of order, money will most likely come out on top every time. This is usually the first question on everyone’s mind when they first learn about being able to live and teach in Korea. It is one of the biggest driving factors for most ESL instructors across Asia, especially Korea.
So how much can you make? This question has been asked countless times in many forms. You have, no doubt, searched for this online before, and probably have a pretty good idea of what the answer is. But what you make isn’t the whole picture! You have to weight what you will make versus what you will save. Let’s look at a scenario.
A fresh, first-year ESL instructor signs that contract and lands in Seoul. It is a basic, low-end salary of 2.1 million Won per month. Let’s see how that breaks down.
- Income 2,100,000 won
- Tax (15% per year/12): 26,250
- Pension (4.5% per month): 94,500
- Health Insurance: 60,000
1,919,250 won is left. Great! you’re still a millionaire! But still, that’s a hefty chunk missing and you haven’t even eaten yet.
- Food: 600,000 (estimate based on 20,000 a day for a month)
- Utilities: 157,784 (average)
- Transportation: 50,000
- Misc. and entertainment: 400,000
These expenses vary from person to person and season to season, but in my experience and through interviews with other ESL instructors, it’s fairly accurate.
Now you’re left with 1,311,466 won. This is about 1,146 USD or 1,495 CAD.
You read that right: you’re LEFT with over a thousand dollars. A thousand dollars every month!
Your salary is strengthened by the benefit of free housing. Most ESL instructors will be placed in an apartment rent-free. This will be included in your contract and is standard. You do not have to take any position that doesn’t offer this. Also, most contracts include an “end of contract bonus.” Once you finish one year of teaching, your employer will give you a bonus equal to one month’s salary. Also, the 4.5% taken for pension each month is matched by your employer to equal 9%. This can be withdrawn when you decide to leave Korea. It is like another end of contract bonus for when you leave. This can boost your savings for the year by about 4,000 USD or CAD.
Now for the fun part. I want you to compare this with two things. First, your current take-home pay and what you’re left with after your expenses. Second, I want you to compare this to making around $36,000 a year in the US or Canada. Most people with this salary still can’t save this much. This is usually due to three things: housing, vehicle expenses, and health insurance (Canada can ignore that last one).
Potential Expenses, Earnings, and Savings
Misc. and entertainment
(or about $1,146 USD)
This is where things can vary so much from person to person. What I’ll do here is work with some broad factors. But first, we will look at the lifestyle in Korea.
Chances are, you’ll be working in a major city. More than likely it will be Seoul, the nation’s capital, and one of the largest cities on the planet. This means city life. Big city life. Are you a city person or a country person? I’ve seen both here, and it seems that usually isn’t a factor in whether someone likes it here or not. What can really determine a foreigner’s enjoyability here is the love of change and different things.
Although Korea is very Westernized with all the modern conveniences, you will be exposed to and surrounded by: a foreign and difficult language, different food, a new writing system, different products in stores, different customs, a lack of conveniences like Amazon or knowing where everything is, and a whole swath of other things you may never have thought about before you left.
Some people hate this and come to hate Korea and teaching because of it. Some people embrace it and love it. This group usually has a great time here. This is personality-driven, but is also usually decided before someone comes. Some people decide to look down on and scoff at Korea before they get on the plane. Upon arriving, they lock themselves into a bubble of familiarity and spend a great deal of time ridiculing the country the moved to. Really, the choice is yours.
One of the great things about coming to Korea is experiencing all the new things. It is also a great place for younger people and single people. I’m not suggesting it is an ideal place for dating, although that happens of course. However, there is plenty to do for active people. Here are a few examples: Nightlife, shopping, tourist activities, ease of travel on vacation, ease of transportation, expat groups and meetups, and sports. Even if you have these options in your current city, you will be exposed to a whole new set, along with the pay and new social circle.
It’s strange. We’ve hardly even discussed teaching, the very thing you’ll spend the bulk of your waking hours doing. Let’s talk about it a bit now.
Most ESL instructors in Korea have never taught before. Some have done a TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), but that still doesn’t prepare you for a full time job of standing in front of a dozen or so 5 year olds. The truth is, only doing it will. It can be terrifying at first, but there are plenty of people in Korea right now who jumped in and do it every day.
I won’t sugar-coat it. Sometimes it can be stressful. Sometimes it can be exhausting. Sometimes it can seem pointless. There is another side to this coin. Sometimes it can be fun. Sometimes it can be a good growing experience. Sometimes you see the fruits of your labor and it can be very rewarding.
I can’t recommend doing this if you hate kids. That’s the bottom line. Most first time ESL instructors are surrounded by children all day. They sometimes scream, cry, throw things, and make your job harder. But if you like kids, you get to experience them becoming attached to you. They will hug you, laugh with you, and smile when they see you.
The actual job will vary from hagwon to hagwon. Some will offer more in-class support by way of teaching materials, co-teacher help, and training. This can vary tremendously. I will discuss this more later when choosing an academy. But for now, just realize that you will be spending your days in front of a group of children trying to get them to speak English. Sometimes it is easier than it sounds. Sometimes it is much more difficult. I will say this: most teachers get very comfortable in the position. They find a rhythm and flow. The days get shorter and after a few months, it can become second nature.
Well, Should You?
As I mentioned, this is a personal question. This is just to give you an idea of what to expect. Now take a moment to reflect. Weigh this new life against your current life. Is it worth moving? Leaving your family and friends? Maybe you have a job you’ll have to quit. Maybe you’ll have to relocate a pet. Maybe you have a bad job and you're in debt. I can never know. What I do know is that I and plenty of others have gone to Korea to teach and have had one of the most fulfilling experiences in their lives. I also know that some have gone and were miserable. At the end of the day, the only person who can make the decision is you. And the person responsible for the decision is you. Maybe you’ll regret going. Maybe you’ll regret not going.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 Jake Jebrone