On teaching English in Korea, real jobs, and being ‘qualified’

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Between a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Brian’s post on the same, there’s some new fuel to the fire about Native English Speaking Teachers in the Hermit Kingdom. Hat tips to I’m no Picasso and the Marmot’s Hole for their posts as well. From the original article:

Out of college, out of money and out of luck in a lackluster economy with millions of people out of work, Jeremy Salzman felt trapped after college graduation, facing a certain loss of freedom and an uncertain stretch under the watchful eyes of his parents.


Between a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Brian’s post on the same, there’s some new fuel to the fire about Native English Speaking Teachers in the Hermit Kingdom. Hat tips to I’m no Picasso and the Marmot’s Hole for their posts as well. From the original article:

Out of college, out of money and out of luck in a lackluster economy with millions of people out of work, Jeremy Salzman felt trapped after college graduation, facing a certain loss of freedom and an uncertain stretch under the watchful eyes of his parents.

So when the newly-minted graduate of the University of Michigan had to choose between returning to Atlanta to look for a job or signing on for a hitch as an English teacher in South Korea, it was a no-brainer.

He’s now teaching kids in a private school 7,000 miles away, with no professors or parents to answer to, no homework, and maybe best of all, no rules and no curfew.

Like tens of thousands of young Americans with degrees, but few job prospects, Salzman, 23, took off for South Korea to teach. The only requirements — no criminal record and a bachelor’s degree in anything.

And the school paid his airfare, is putting him up in a small apartment and will buy him a ticket home when his contract ends.

Sounds like a good gig to me! Oh, wait, I’m already doing it too. Seriously, though, leaving the country might be a decent way to escape the recession that’s gripped the country.

So far, he’s having the time of his life, and also, he feels, providing invaluable help to youngsters there. He works at least eight hours daily, then parties by night, often into the wee hours, with other expatriates, most from the U.S. or Canada, but some from Britain, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand.

He goes to a gym daily, swills SoJu, a stiff vodka-like drink, fills up on Korean barbeque and sees “amazing” sights.

“I am not an English major, and people in America would not want me to teach their kids English…what I am good at and enjoy doing is helping kids become successful at something.”

He adds: “I came to live out a once in a lifetime experience that I won’t have the opportunity to do again when I have a real job.”

My dear readers, define for me – what exactly is a “real job”? I am presently closer to 30 than I am 20, and have spent virtually every weekday doing a job for money since the day I graduated college. 50 years ago, a ‘real job’ was the job you might start once graduating school, keep for 30 years, then retire with a gold watch on your wrist. These days? I dare say a ‘real job’ is where you do some kind of work for money. Fair?

Kind sir, tell the world why “people in America would not want me to teach their kids English”?

Another perspective not quoted on Brian’s post:

Stephen Gronsbell, 26, of east Cobb, who has a bachelor’s in psychology from UGA and a BS in history education from Kennesaw State, took a job in Seoul because he couldn’t find a gig back home.

“The beginning teacher salary in Cobb County is around $39,000 and I am being paid 2.2 million won ($1,900) per month,” Gronsbell says. “It is not as much pay, but when you figure everything else out, things look different. I was provided round-trip airfare and free housing in a furnished one-bedroom apartment about 10 minutes walking distance from my school. Income tax is only about 3 percent of my salary.”

While I won’t dare to say this person is a ‘qualified’ teacher, having a piece of paper stating your degree in History Education might put you a level above the average college graduate. Assuming the figures quoted are correct, that’s a heck of a pay cut.

Since the term ‘qualified’ has yet to receive a proper definition by the Korean government, let’s separate three possible definitions:

  • Eligible: you are legally able to receive a visa to teach English – a Bachelor’s degree in any subject, from one of the seven native-English-speaking countries Korea recognizes.
  • Experienced: you meet the criteria for eligibility, PLUS you have EFL / ESL experience or English teaching experience in Korea. This usually – but not necessarily – puts you a step above the random person that just stepped off the plane.
  • Certified: you have a CELTA, DELTA, or another piece of paper to further your ESL career. If you’ve been licensed by your state or country as a teacher, you automatically fall into this category. Whether you learned something from obtaining the certification or not, having the piece of paper can definitely help your career options – and your salary.

The last part has less to do with teaching and more to do with being a recent college graduate:

“I certainly miss hanging out with him,” says Jeremy’s dad, Martin Salzman, 55, an Atlanta lawyer. He says his son doesn’t really know what he’s going to do when he comes home but “I don’t think he ever wants to be a teacher.”

Jeremy’s mom, Beth, says she’s proud of him but that he “needed to clear his head.”

Jeremy knows it’ll be weird when he returns but doesn’t miss much, except deli food.

“I would love to eat a turkey sandwich from Publix about now,” he says.

In Europe, a number of young adults take what’s called a ‘gap year‘ – a break from studying to travel, explore, volunteer, or otherwise become independent for a set length of time. It’s a bit uncommon for Americans, but it’s becoming more common all the time. It’s a great chance to get away and experiment before settling down into – dare I say it? – adulthood. While it’s usually a year in length, the experiences often contribute to one’s worldview and future lifestyle. As that great philosopher, Ferris Bueller, once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”

If you remember only one thing from this post, remember this: coming to teach in Korea might be a decent job for you. Might. If you’re 22 or 23 and just graduated college, I’m sorry, this is probably not the right opportunity for you. This is a job, after all, not playtime with kids. If you are a certified teacher that can’t find a job in your hometown, don’t expect to find the same type of school as you might find in a classroom elsewhere or the same interest in quality education. You won’t spend the same amount of time preparing for class, most likely because it’s not expected. The expectations for teachers are low enough, and thus far most foreign English teachers have met them. It’s kind of like winning at limbo while the bar is still at chest height, though.

Fine, then: the locals have set the standards low to become an English teacher in Korea. As a result, the foreigners have taken advantage of the low standards and sometimes treat it like a vacation. There’s enough blame to go around. If you come to Korea to teach English, treat it like the real job it is. Your apartment and plane ticket may be provided gratis, but it’s still a real job. Take it seriously. How?

  • Show up. Go to work, prepared, ready, and able to do your job. That means not being drunk, dirty, smelly, unshaved / unshowered, or inappropriately dressed. Working with adults? Unless you’re given a clear sign that jeans and t-shirts are acceptable, go for khakis or slacks and a dress shirt.
  • Know what you’re doing. The standard of knowledge for your job relies on the grade and level you’re teaching, so know what you need to know. With first graders you’re unlikely to need much beyond basic words and sentences, but if an adult student asks you the difference between a countable noun and an uncountable noun, explain it or find out, and then explain it. This is English, after all – the language you’ve spoken for 20+ years, right?
  • Be prepared for class. That means figuring out your lesson plans, having the books / materials you need, having the tape or CD cued up, and so on. Stay organized and this takes seconds.
  • Recognize there’s a large difference between using a language and teaching a language. Being good at the former does NOT make you good at the latter. If you have a difficult time explaining subject-verb agreement, would you hire yourself as a teacher? I highly doubt I’d hire a plumber who didn’t know how to use a monkey wrench.
  • Read Roboseyo’s Open Letter to New Teachers in Korea. Plenty of good advice from another teacher who has been in Korea longer than I have.
  • Live life, but accept that things are different here. Have fun, go out on dates, take the KTX, go to festivals, have a few drinks, and enjoy life. You won’t always be twentysomething with few responsibilities. At the same time, accept that this isn’t [your home country here].

Creative Commons License © Chris Backe – 2010

This post was originally published on my blog, Chris in South Korea. If you are reading this on another website and there is no linkback or credit given, you are reading an UNAUTHORIZED FEED.



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