Is it worth Teaching English in South Korea
You might be looking for motivation and ideas for a new place to visit or a place to go to where you can both have a great cultural experience and also make enough money to live on and to save for travelling more afterwards. TEFL (Teaching English as a foreign language) is one way of ETT (Earning to Travel) and hundreds of native English speakers from Canada, Australia, the UK, Ireland and USA choose Korea each year as a place to work and play. I myself spent two years teaching business English 1-to-1 in Seoul and below are my thoughts on if it is worth spending time in Korea.
The Work and the Country
It really depends on what you are looking for, if I am to be blatantly honest with you. I am sure that you will appreciate some honest advice on what Korea is and what it is not and what you can expect both positively and negatively, if you are yourself considering moving or visiting South Korea. Most travellers who visit Korea actually plan to stay a year to teach English so I will focus mainly on giving advice for those of you planning long stays. The same advice though should be useful for any of you planning to visit on short stop-overs.
What Korea is not - The simple truth is that if you want stunning beaches and great weather and the feeling of being in paradise, you are more likely to enjoy the islands in the southern parts of Thailand, visiting Bali or Australia. Korea does have some nice coastline but not really tropical in the way you will experience when visiting an islands such as Koh Samui in Thailand. Korea is also a country where you cannot expect people naturally to speak and reply to you in English or any other language aside from Korean. Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. The younger generation though are learning English (albeit American style) and in many parts of Seoul (the capital) you will find that a lot of younger people who be able to communicate with you.
What Korea is - Korea (and I say Korea rather than South Korea when I can because Koreans take great pride in their Korean culture and seek to be one island rather than divided as North and South) is a country which offers a unique cultural experience, some wonderful food, the weird wonderful and wacky, great technology and just an overall fascinating experience. You also will find that Korea offers a chance to make a lot more money than countries such as Thailand, as an English teacher. Koreans do work hard though and the number of paid holidays including during Christmas is limited.
Income from Teaching
The Job and the People
You will find that you are interacting with local Korean people on a daily basis both working in conjunction with the Korean teachers and with students who are Korean. I had the lucky experience to teach 1-to-1 in Direct English in the area of Gangnam and this meant that I got to teach people from aged 8 through to 70. Anyone who was willing to pay the per hour costs that the school charged for the students 30 minutes with a native Korean teacher, followed by the 30 minutes with an English native speaker. My students included an ex-Miss World, a TV news reader, a war reporter, an ex-Olympic athlete and people literally from all walks of life from Korean society.
Most teachers tend to teach children and whoever you teach, I have heard most teachers report positive experiences. The main problem you can be faced with is if you work for a school who do not pay you or perhaps hold onto your end of year bonus (you often get an extra month's pay if you complete the one year contract). My advice is to use the internet to search for reviews of any school or contractor you are applying to. Do a search of the term "review+school_name_here" and see what comes up in the internet search results.
The people themselves are certainly one of the reasons I would recommend this country as a place to spend a year. I am still in contact with many of the ex-students who work for various companies in Seoul and who I made good friendships with over the two years. Most people you come across will be very friendly and welcoming. I did experience one drunken guy getting angry because he assumed I was American due to my skin colour and he started shouting 'Go home Yankie' to me but that is the absolute worst that happened in 2 years and I met so many incredible people! Living in Korea for foreign teachers for the most part is quite a safe situation. I have rarely heard of any problems bar the one or two teachers who clearly could not handle their drink and were always going to find trouble following them. Most people going to Korea have a positive experience.
Deciding if it's for you
It is not all about working when you teach in Korea. There is a definite drinking and food culture in Korea and which many foreigners come to greatly appreciate and enjoy. There are literally food outlets every few metres in an area such as Gangnam where I lived, with street food stalls, small mama and papa style restaurants and larger eateries. Koreans love to drink and to sing and love their technology. I apologise for generalising but I just want to give you a picture of what to expect..
What to see and do while there
There is plenty to see and do in Korea and particularly if you end up living in the capital Seoul. The top things I would recommend are: Lotte World - I would not normally recommend a shopping mall as a main attraction but the mall for me gives a fascinating insight into Korean culture. Where else will you see a Disneyland style parade, ice staking rink, the mall itself and even a real shooting gallery.
More Korea attractions - include Seoul Tower and the National Museum of Korea.
Living in Seoul with an Italian wife, we used to also enjoy visiting what is known as Club Italia. Every Sunday everyone is welcome and as you can see from the image below, Italians, Koreans, Americans and people from a variety of countries meet up to enjoy the very best of Italian home cooking. Follow the link above to their Facebook group for instructions. It is a great way to meet people and a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon!