Why I Loved Teaching English in Korea... And Why I Left



If you’ve been following this blog, you probably already know that my round the world travels began in 2015 when I quit my jobs, packed up my life in North Carolina, and moved to the big city of Seoul, South Korea.  

For over a year I’d talked about teaching abroad.

I took a TEFL course after graduating college, and I’d started considering where I wanted to go… but even to me, the thought of actually DOING it seemed absurd. So absurd that even I kind of doubted that I ever actually would… until I did. Twice. 

Teaching in Seoul was a great experience and Korea was an amazing, highly underrated country.

Here’s why I loved it… and why I left.

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Throughout my time in Korea, I taught literally hundreds of students ranging from Western age 4 to 14. I wasn’t properly prepared, trained, OR certified to do so, but I quickly found myself teaching MUCH more than just English.

I basically taught everything, but IN English… basics like the ABC’s and phonics to subjects like science, debate, social studies, art, and even cooking. Though some of these posed a real challenge for me at first, they also made me get creative and put my teaching ability to the test. 

I really enjoyed teaching and living in South Korea. I was able to learn about a new country, got involved with local organizations like Teach North Korean Refugees, and learned a little bit (but not nearly enough) of the language. I discovered a passion for education, language, culture, (food), and a deep love for the innocence, hope, and joy that comes with spending time around children.

Unfortunately, for all the positive aspects of this experience, there were several negative ones too.

 

The education system in Korea is extremely intense and competitive. From a very young age many kids are involved in numerous extracurricular activities. They go from their regular elementary school to academy after academy, and, when they finally come home, they study even more, sometimes with an in-home tutor.

As a teacher at one of these private academies, called hagwons, I found myself going through multiple textbooks a month with my kindergarten students, giving scantron tests to seven year olds, and memorizing speeches with kids who, months earlier, didn’t even know the English alphabet. At school and at home, many of them never have time to just play and be kids.

In a parent teacher meeting at my third (and last) school, I had a mother tell me that, lately, her child didn’t want to study at home… that he seemed to be getting burnt out on phonics. This came as a surprise to me because this kid loved phonics at school…. Every day he would literally choose to practice writing new vocabulary words over having playtime with his friends. 

After spending hours at school (then going to whatever afterschool classes and extra-curricular activities he was involved in), I can only imagine that, once he got home, he wasn’t too keen on studying anymore. After all, he was only 6… and already learning about the silent k in “kn” and that “ph” actually makes an f sound.

A few minutes after trying to reassure her… since she seemed concerned… she then expressed that she felt he wasn’t learning enough in comparison to a kid in their neighborhood. This competition between parents is not an uncommon occurrence.  

Parents are highly concerned with their kid’s success… and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what some of them fail to understand is that more textbooks don’t necessarily mean more learning. Unfortunately, in my experience, the administration at many hagwons will cater to these parents and allow them to call the shots…. Making it feel more like you’re working at a business than a school. If the parents want more books, then you’ll find yourself cramming more material into your already rushed lessons.

The heavy emphasis on fast, textbook learning is stressful on teachers and students, and, overall, it isn’t doing anyone any favors. In my experience, kids who may have been incredibly book smart lacked skills like creativity, critical thinking, and were unable to work as a part of a team. They were afraid of making mistakes… a harsh reality that likely comes from not getting nearly enough time to play, explore, and just be kids.



I worked at three different schools during my time in Korea, and while the overall job was pretty similar, each one’s administration and organization was exponentially worse than the last. The expectations became higher, the pay and resources become lower, and my stress level absolutely sky rocketed.

At my final school I took a significant cut to my salary. I initially didn’t mind because the working hours were (seemingly) much shorter. I quickly found out that less working hours doesn’t necessarily mean less work.

Though I was supposed to be out by 5 pm every day, I found myself staying anywhere from one to two hours later, just so I had time to finish correcting books, writing comments, and preparing for the next day. This happened multiple times a week, but was never considered overtime, and I was never compensated for it, since it wasn’t technically “teaching hours,” (just the time it takes to prepare for teaching, which, in my opinion is almost more important… but, anyway, I digress)…

I was doing a lot more. Making a lot less. And dealing with a lot more bullshit.

This school was the most unorganized by far. The constantly changing administration had zero clue what they were doing, and frequently sprung things on teachers with little to no notice. They didn’t take into consideration the time or effort that went into doing the job and doing it well, and were constantly raising their expectations and our work load.

Though my students were tough to handle at times, they were nothing compared to the stress I felt working under such a disorganized and inexperienced administration.

 

“Comparison is the thief of joy” is a pretty adequate quote explanation of the situation I found myself in here…. because even though the school and its management were an absolute mess, I still really loved teaching and all the little monster students in my class… (even the one little bundle of energy and enthusiasm who couldn’t sit still, colored on the walls, and plugged the sink, intentionally flooding the hallway a few times).

If I hadn’t had my previous schools to compare it to, I probably could have stuck it out here… but, I DID have those comparisons… and I knew that this school was seriously ripping teachers off, and taking advantage of the ones who didn’t know any better.

 

Despite the negative circumstances I left under, I still love Korea - it was my first overseas home away from home, and the place where I met the love of my life. I loved teaching, and will never forget my students or the close connections I made.

Moving there and documenting the travels that followed allowed me to rediscover my love of writing, and uncover new hobbies like photography and video. Due to my draining, toxic work situation, I found myself with little time or energy to dedicate to these personal passions… so finally, after having two different directors, and three different co-teachers in a three-month span, I decided enough was enough and put in my notice. 

After roughly three years of teaching in Korea, it was time to move on…

 

I took a few weeks to detox in Vietnam, took advantage of some pretty big partnerships while I was still in Asia, then made a quick stop through Thailand before returning home.

I decided that it’s time to pour more of my time and energy into fulfilling my own goals and less fulfilling every unrealistic whim of ungrateful, parent-pleasing, hagwon bosses. It’s time to be closer to my family and friends… and to be around for the things that are important.

 I loved Korea, but it was time to leave.

It’s time to begin new adventures and take on new challenges… So that’s what I’m going to do.

 

So, what’s next??

Well, stay tuned, y’all… cause I’m moving to Europe!


*Disclaimer - My perspective of teaching in Korea and my decision to leave was entirely dependent on my personal views of education, and the experiences I had in my work environments. Other individuals may have vastly different views depending on their experience and the type of schools they worked in.

For example, teaching in the EPIK program is very different from teaching at a hagwon, and each hagwon varies greatly. Other factors like the neighborhood you live in, the status of your housing, and personal relationships with coworkers and other staff also come into play.

I have both lived, and heard my fair share of horror stories when it comes to teaching in Korea, but still believe there are plenty of great companies to work for.

For legal reasons, I’ve chosen to not fully disclose any names or specific situations I dealt with, but if you are considering teaching in Seoul and have any questions or concerns about the interview process, contracts, or specific schools, feel free to contact me for the full, unedited scoop.