Teaching ESL in Korea: A Survival Guide

So you applied for an ESL job in Korea. You’ve been accepted. You (hopefully) threw yourself a mini celebratory party when you heard the good news, and you deserve it! A lot of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears go into applying for an overseas job. But now you might be wondering, “What am I getting myself into?” I know that’s what happened to me after the glow of being accepted started to wear off.

So, I’ve compiled a little list of Dos and Don’ts for all you future ESL teachers out there. Maybe it will help you feel more prepared about coming here and help you get off to a smooth start.

DO: Learn to like Korean food. At least be able to force it down and pretend like you’re enjoying it. Sure, you could come here and bring your own lunch to school every day and endure the teachers’ endless amazement and curiosity over the fact that you don’t/can’t eat Korean food… but trust me, you will have a much easier time and be much more readily accepted into “the group” of your coworkers if you sit down and eat their country’s food with them. Food and mealtime is so, so important here.

DON’T: Sit there with the “ew” look on your face, pick over your food like you’re panning for gold, or bring your own food (barring allergy- or religion-based dietary restrictions; in that case, be prepared to firmly but kindly explain your situation multiple times to multiple people at your school).

Pro tip: In my experience, it is better to take some of everything that’s being offered in the cafeteria, even if you have no intention of eating it, than skip any one food item. You will be asked why you don’t like whatever it is you didn’t take. So, as wasteful as it is (and this may depend on your school’s food waste policy), I recommend taking a couple pieces of that mega-spicy/mega-sour/mega-unpleasant-for-whatever-reason side dish, swirl it around in your tray a little, and then dump it in your soup bowl at the end of the meal and no one will even notice that you didn’t actually eat it.

The highest compliment related to food that you, as a foreigner, can receive from a Korean is that you “eat well.” I find that eating with an air of non-pickyness, at a steady pace, helps. (Obviously this also includes not making faces of disgust when you come across something you don’t like – but that’s basic manners everywhere.) And learn how to use chopsticks. It isn’t hard, and if you can gain at least a basic skill level with them, you’ll receive much praise for it.

DO: Bring deodorant. Lots of deodorant. It’s expensive here, and you have limited options. Koreans simply don’t use deodorant – and before you go “Ewww,” it’s because they honestly don’t need it. Koreans (and some other Asians, such as Japanese people) have been blessed with a gene that ensures a complete lack of underarm odor, while most Westerners of European descent have an all-too-ample amount of it. (This is so unfair.) In my experience, they also seem to sweat less. Sooo… it’s probably best to stock up on a year’s(ish) supply of your favorite kind before you get here.

DON’T: Freak out if you forgot to pack yours or run out early on – you can find it here in the major cities; it’s just a little pricey and you may not be able to find your favorite brand.

Pro tip: Honestly, I don’t think you could bring too much deodorant here, though. You’re a stinky person living in a country of non-stinky people; you’re going to want to slather that stuff on as much as possible, because there’s no blaming that B.O. on anybody else.

DO: Enjoy the kids. Please, for the love of all things holy, do not apply for this job if you don’t have some interest in working with children. The majority of teaching positions here involve elementary school aged kids, with a few middle school and high school positions here and there. You will be interacting with children on a daily basis; they are, ideally, the main reason you are coming here as an ESL teacher – to educate children. If you’re not someone who can find daily enjoyment from interacting with kids, I think your chances of being miserable here are much higher.

DON’T: Expect the kids to be little angels all the time. They’re not. The elementary kids are really cute but they can be little horrors, and the middle school kids, while hilarious and fun, also might like sleeping more than listening to you. Be prepared.

Pro tip: Get to know them on a personal level as much as you can. No, you won’t be able to form a personal bond with every single kid – you won’t even learn all of their names. But the more students you can connect with, the more they will open up to you, trust you, respect you, and learn from you. The more comfortable they become with communicating in English with you, the better you are fulfilling your purpose as a Native English Teacher.

DO: Use Waygook.org… sparingly. Waygook.org is an online community for ESL teachers in Korea specifically. It has all the info you could possibly need about life in Korea, with message boards for current news, where the best bars, restaurants, haircut places, and music are, and best of all, thread after thread containing lesson plans, templates, PowerPoints, worksheets, and other teaching ideas and materials. It’s seriously a blessing for new teachers with little or no experience teaching ESL.

DON’T: Believe everything you read or use the “download-and-go” method. As awesome as some of it is, certain threads on Waygook.org can also be a pit of despair, where some very negative people share very, very negative opinions. These are obviously to be taken with a grain of salt, and actually it’s probably best to avoid them entirely because you will find yourself sucked into a Vortex of Horrible, Vast Bleakness that will make you question all your decisions about living here. DON’T GO THERE! It will suck out your soul!

Additionally, although there’s tons of great material on Waygook, you need to use a critical eye with 99% of it. You can’t just grab a PPT and go teach it. First of all, it’s more than likely got some crappy low-quality images, spelling errors, and/or walls of text in it. Second, how can you teach something another person made? Your teaching material has to be your own, so that you can own it when you’re teaching. Trust me, the kids will know right away when you start stumbling over someone else’s words.

Pro tip: Personally, I used some Waygook materials for the first couple weeks of teaching (there is a specific thread for EACH English textbook used here in Korea, which is awesome), but once I started getting the hang of things, I would just go on Waygook for some ideas, maybe borrow a slide here or part of a worksheet there, but mostly make my own. These days I rarely use Waygook at all except if I’m really stuck for ideas (or if I’m feeling brave and want to jump into the Vortex of Doom and read juicy malicious attacks from people who are entirely miserable with their lives here).

DO (this is the most important): Be ready to throw your preconceived notions about etiquette and interpersonal communications out the window. You can’t come to live and work here still wearing your Western Culture Spectacles. Take those things off, tuck them away for future use when you go back to your home country. Approach the people and culture here with a fresh slate. You may not agree with everything about Korean society, but you are here (voluntarily, I might add) as a guest, an ex-pat, a foreigner in their country – so be respectful and try your best to adapt to their way of doing things. If they see that you’re making an effort, even if it’s not perfect, they will welcome you.

DON’T: Give up too soon. You may find it difficult to adjust right away due to culture shock, homesickness, the lack of Pop-Tarts and cheese (oh man, what I wouldn’t give for some real cheese right now… I’m a Wisconsinite! I need my cheese!), the language barrier, maybe even difficult co-teachers or wild unruly children or one too many good ol’ Korean surprises. It’s okay. Give it a week. Give it a month. Focus on one day at a time, and remind yourself of the reasons why you applied for the job in the first place. Look for the good in every day. Hold onto the small things that make you smile, the small kindnesses other people offer you. I promise you, something good is there in each day. Collect those small goodnesses like little lanterns of warmth and light when your heart feels dark and cold.

Pro tip: I’ve also found that if you start off strong in terms of trying to eat all the food, follow the customs, go out of your way to greet everyone properly, spend time building relationships with your co-teachers, etc., you can ease off a bit after a few months. For example, initially I would always finish my entire tray of food in the cafeteria, even if something wasn’t my favorite. After I had established that I “eat Korean food well” and received compliments from multiple co-teachers and random other teachers in the cafeteria, I’ve now stopped forcing myself to finish things I don’t want, and no one has noticed, because the preconceived notion has been established.

Final thoughts: Generally, just expect the unexpected. Don’t stress out even if stressful things are happening to you. This post isn’t meant to discourage anyone from coming to work/live here, since clearly I love Korea; 95% of my posts are about how happy I am to be teaching here and how much I love the culture and the students. But I hope that some of these pieces of advice are helpful to at least one future ESL teacher out there who will be coming to Korea.

Good luck! 화이팅!


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