Where do you want to teach?
Part One: Korea vs. Japan vs. China vs. Taiwan vs. Hong Kong
This is a tough question that requires a lot of research on your part. Different people love each of these countries for various reasons. Here are some things you might want to consider:
- Pay vs. Cost of Living: Yes, I love teaching...but do I love teaching enough to do it for free? Perhaps not. When it comes down to it, many of us come abroad to make some money, and that is a valid consideration when deciding where you want to teach. My advice would be to not only look at the pay, but also at the provided perks with each program and the cost of living in the country. Sure, when you look at a breakdown, many jobs in Japan and Korea offer the same salary. However, almost all jobs in Korea come with a free, furnished apartment, health care coverage, and full paid for return-flights for the teacher. I have done a lot of research on this, and I can honestly say that in almost all cases, Korea is the best deal in Asia. Cost of living is relatively low (and traveling within the country is extremely reasonable), so you end up being able to save (and/or spend, haha) more money than you would in other countries.
- Weather: Koreans are fond of telling everyone that Korea has four distinct seasons...and it is true. Seoul has winter (6 months of windy, arctic tundra), spring (1 month of beautiful, flower-scented stunning weather that makes you forget every bad thought you've ever had about this country, and 1 month full of overcast skies and toxic yellow dust), summer (3 months of rainforest), and autumn (1 gorgeous month of crystal clear blue skies and the most beautiful foliage you've ever seen). There is definitely a variety and it gets both very cold in winter and very hot in summer. Japan's climate is going to depend largely upon where you're placed, as will the weather in China. Hong Kong and Taiwan, however, have much more tropical, temperate climates where it stays a lot warmer (and humid) through much of the year. You choose what is right for you.
- English-friendliness: By this I mean two different things- both how much do they want you (number of jobs) and how easy is it to function in their society (are there English signs on things, are translation services available, etc). Korea has been completely swept up in English-mania and they hire thousands upon thousands of teachers each year to staff their public schools, private academies, and universities. They hire every month of the year. Korea is also exceptionally English-speaker friendly when it comes to signs for transportation, information about various cultural events, and things of that nature. If you find yourself in a tight spot, call 02-1330 and you'll be directed to a multi-lingual help line that can assist you with anything from calling the bank to let them know that an ATM ate your card (been there) to finding out where the heck the bus is that you swore was supposed to stop at Jamsil Station (done that). They are wonderful. I found getting around Japan (Osaka, Nara and Kyoto) significantly more difficult than Korea simply because they were far less likely to romanize the Japanese on their signs. You'd be hard pressed to find a station sign in Seoul that isn't at least romanized so that you're able to read it.
- Language: Living and working as an English teacher, the truth is that you really don't have to learn the local language at all. However your life will be made immensely easier (and often more pleasant) if you take the time to learn a little of the language. The Korean alphabet is exceptionally easy to learn (especially when compared to other east Asian languages) and being able to read not only impresses your co-workers, but also makes your life a lot simpler.
Part Two: Public School vs. Private School (Academy/Hagwon)
Okay, so you chose Korea (because it is obviously the best, haha). Now you have to figure out perhaps the most important question you'll face...do you want to teach at a public school or private school. As you probably already know by now, I chose a public school. Why? Because I truly believe that it is the best deal out there. Here is a comparison sheet between public and private schools, offered by my recruiter. If you'd like to see an example of a public school contract, click here. These are a few of the major differences between public and private placements.
All public school teachers are mandated by EPIK to attend an orientation program. This program attempts to provide teachers with a quick introduction to Korea, teaching, the English curriculum, and general cultural awareness. Perhaps the most useful thing about orientation is that it gives you an opportunity to network with other NSETs and develop friendships that will serve you through the rest of your time in Korea.
Hagwons differ as to whether or not an orientation is provided. Many provide in-school observations for a day or two before you are asked to teach on your own.
Public school teachers work only Monday-Friday, and generally only from about 8:30am-4:40pm.
Hagwons usually provide after-school services, so work hours usually begin and end later in the day. Some also require weekend hours; that is something that would have to be part of your contract discussions.
- Class Size
Public school classes generally have between 25 and 35 students in them. You will see over 600 students a week.
Hagwon class sizes are almost always smaller, most ranging from 8-15 students. You have significantly fewer students over the course of a week, allowing you to build stronger relationships and really get to know them.
If you work at a public school, chances are extremely high that you will be the only native English speaker in the building. Your coworkers will all be Korean, with varying levels of English ability (from "absolutely none" to "totally fluent").
One of the great benefits of hagwons is the fact that you work with multiple native speakers.
- Co-teachers (or lack thereof)
Public schools are required by law to provide Korean English teachers to co-teach with NSETs. Sometimes this works really well, other times not so much. A lot depends on the way your school is run and what kind of community has been fostered between teachers.
Hagwon classes are taught almost exclusively by yourself, without a Korean co-teacher.
- Teaching hours
At public schools, NSETs are expected to teach 22 "teaching hours" (40-50 minutes depending on school and age level) each week. The rest of your day is used for planning. For example, I teach from 9:00am-12:10pm each day (four 40-minute classes with 10-minute breaks between each) and then eat lunch. Two days a week I have a fifth period class that ends at 1:30pm. The balance of each day is for me to use as I see fit...planning, preparing...Facebook stalking, Gchatting.
Hagwon teachers are paid for the hours they actually teach, any planning outside of class is usually on your own time (and dime). The number of hours you're expected to teach each week varies by hagwon and contract.
- Curriculum/In-country Support/Creativity Allowed
Public schools have national textbook adoption for the elementary level, which makes it really easy to collaborate and share materials with other NSETs. The English curriculum is set by the Ministry of Education, however there is a fair amount of flexibility when it comes to actually planning and implementing the lessons. As the students get older, teachers have even more flexibility with lesson planning and are often encouraged to create their own engaging activities.
Hagwon teachers are usually encouraged to adhere much more strictly to the textbook provided. This varies by academy, of course, but many have little room for creativity.
- Vacation Days
Public school teachers receive 21 days of paid vacation each year, so just over four weeks.
Hagwon vacation days vary by contract, but are usually 8-10 days only. Hagwon teachers' busiest days are when public schools are on vacation, so keep this in mind if you and a friend or partner are planning on both coming over to teach.
- Sick Days
Public schools give 15 sick days.
Hagwons often only give around 3 sick days and you are very strongly encouraged NOT to take them.
Pay depends on a lot of things, including experience and degrees earned. Many people automatically assume that hagwons pay more, but this is not always the case. As a certified teacher in the US with two years of experience, I definitely got paid more to work at a public school than I would have for the same amount of teaching hours at a hagwon. The SMOE Pay Scale can be found here.
- Provided Perks
As I mentioned before, one of the great benefits of teaching in Korea is that there are many perks. Public schools usually offer round-trip airfare, a settlement bonus, health care coverage, pension, exemption from taxes, free furnished apartments, etc. Some of these also apply to hagwons.
- Job Security
Jobs working at public schools are very secure. Rarely are teachers fired for anything less than gross misconduct and schools don't close.
Hagwons are, above all, a business. If business isn't good, hagwons will be forced to close, leaving teachers without a job and only a few days before they are asked to leave the country. If students have a negative reaction to a teacher (their beliefs, teaching style, etc), their parents may exert pressure on the hagwon director, forcing them to fire the NSET.
Part Three: Seoul vs. Everywhere Else
I never thought I'd want to live in a big city, but I've really loved living in Seoul. There is a great foreigner community here, access to just about anything you miss from home, and many cultural events. It is also extremely easy to get out of the city and explore the rest of the peninsula. Other mid-size/large cities to consider are Busan, Daegu, Ulsan, Gyeongju, Jeonju, Daejeon and Incheon. The other option is to teach in a country school. This is for brave souls who don't mind being the only waygook (foreigner) as far as the eye can see. There are a lot of benefits to each, so this is a pretty personal decision.
What age do you want to teach?
- Pre-school / Kindergarten Aged: Hagwon
- Elementary Aged: Hagwon, Public School
- Middle School Aged: Public School, Hagwon
- High School Aged: Public School, Hagwon
- Adult: University, Hagwon
Do you want to use a recruiter or not?
This is another one that is completely up to you. Personally, I liked using a recruiter because I had someone helping me keep track of the asstons of paperwork necessary to apply. I used Footprints Recruiting, and had a really pleasant experience with them. Another agency I have heard only positive things about is Korvia Consulting. One great benefit to Korvia is that they keep in touch with you after you've arrived and throw fun get-togethers where you can meet other teachers, which Footprints did not. Work-n-Play also has a great site (and they sponsor fun activities for people regardless of recruiter once you arrive). Another thing I liked about going through a recruiter was simply that there was someone to meet me at the airport and make sure I got to orientation alright. Recruiters hire for both public and private placements. THEY SHOULD ALWAYS BE FREE TO THE APPLICANT. IF A RECRUITER ASKS YOU FOR MONEY, FIND SOMEONE NEW. However, don't feel pressured to go through a recruiter. I know plenty of people who applied directly through websites for a specific hagwon or EPIK and did just fine on their own.
If you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll do my best to answer them myself or find someone who can!