As people who have been in your shoes and those of hundreds we’ve helped go to Korea, we’re familiar with the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of life abroad. Though it may not come as a shock to some of you, the adventure of this experience doesn’t come without its fair share of frustrating and uncomfortable situations. If you have researched teaching English in South Korea or talked to people who’ve been there, you’ve probably heard a handful of horror stories that make you a little weary about your decision to be an ESL teacher. The ESL industry in Korea can be full of difficult encounters and conflicts between foreigners and their employers that can taint and even ruin many teachers’ experiences. We aren’t going to hide the negative details from you or try to sugar coat the challenges that come with teaching abroad but we hope that by being up front with the nitty grittys, you’ll believe us when we say that the good aspects of life and work in Korea far outweigh the challenging ones.
Adventure Teaching exists to help you avoid making the mistakes that countless teachers have made in the past while choosing teaching positions, navigating relationships with employers and surviving the transition into Korean culture. We want to give you a realistic view of what to expect as an ESL teacher so you have the confidence not only in your decision but in our expertise and ability to support you throughout the process. We hope this page gives you the tools to make a well-informed decision and help kick start your preparations so you can step into your position with your best foot forward. This experience can change the course of your life, it certainly changed ours and we want our experience and knowledge to equip you with the most accurate picture of this unforgettable opportunity.
WHAT OTHERS WON’T TELL YOU
Throughout the duration of your time in Korea, we want you to feel supported and well taken care of. Our company is committed to being a resource to you as much as we are to finding you a position that best suits your needs. We will be available to advise and direct you through any questions or concerns you might have as you live out your Korean experience.
Whether or not you take the time to tackle some of the reading material we’ve provided, there are some things you should keep in mind while preparing to live and work abroad. We highly recommend you invest some time reading up on South Korean people, culture and customs before you arrive. Not only will it help you adapt to the way of life but it can greatly relieve some natural frustration and confusion that comes with immersing yourself in a new culture. Brushing up on some do’s and don’ts will be one of your greatest assets when starting at your work place, exploring the city and interacting with Korean people. Adaptation and flexibility will be two life skills at the forefront of your daily life as you venture into this new environment. As western as Korea may appear, it is without a doubt a country rife with ancient culture, age old tradition and beautiful people set in their ways. Many foreigners arrive with an expectation to maintain their own cultural and social standards, and in many ways they can. However, you are moving to and working in a foreign environment and cannot expect things to function the way they do in your home country. Having the ability to bend and flex within Korean culture might be challenging at first but will grow into a skill that will not only compensate for your lack of experience and training as an ESL teacher but your inability to fully identify with Korean people.
Because of its vulnerable geographic position, the Korean peninsula and the Korean people have been overthrown, taken over, ruled and protected, both willingly and unwillingly, by larger, more powerful foreign countries for the past several centuries. They are indeed a nation striving for independence, identity and international power. Against the backdrop of a tumultuous 5000 year history, modern Korean culture is infiltrated with a sense of insecurity as it is with a growing sense of confidence. Today’s generation, though preoccupied with Western idealism, has begun to propel South Korean culture in more adaptable and inviting directions. Although there is an apparent skepticism towards foreigners, expats are a important piece of their international progress and have been placed in high regard within the education system.
It’s hard to believe that the South Korean government has only had sovereign rule of the nation since 1950. It seems that the evolution of Korean culture is still trying to catch up to the impressive industrial advancements the country has taken in the past 60 years. This is quite evident in the country’s growing appetite for establishing an identity, on both a national and international scale, and can often alienate as well as idolize foreigners. This makes for a plethora of mixed reactions and responses to their visiting population and misunderstanding inevitable.
Expect the unexpected as well as some cultural frustration. It’s a natural and necessary process in the circle of life and one that is seemingly impossible to avoid while living abroad. With an open mind and ability to appreciate their rich heritage, you will find both Korean people and their culture to be some of the most enriching in the world and a means to further your understanding of the greater picture you are a part of.
Understanding the difference between South Korean and Western philosophical perspectives will play a big role in understanding Korean Culture as well as other East Asian cultures shaped by the same ideals. Western philosophy derives mostly from Greco-Roman tradition, where as Confucian philosophical and religious themes are prevalent in South Korean society. Confucianism emphasizes four major virtues: Sincerity, Benevolence, Filial Piety and Propriety.
Sincerity stresses the importance of being truthful, straightforward and faithful to ones commitments and promises. Those committed to these ideals must be sure to fulfill their role in the community and not pass it off to others. They must also be virtuous in their heart and in their outward actions. The element of Benevolence is to be concerned with the welfare of others. Those in accordance should not do anything to anyone that they would not want done to themselves and they must always be ready to help another person in need. Filial piety calls all children to obey, love and respect their parents and elders, submitting to the supreme will of their elders. They should seek a life that will bring their parents happiness, comfort, and a good reputation. And lastly, Propriety is the obligation to conduct oneself according to a certain set of rules (these were specified by 300 greater rules and 3,000 lesser rules of ceremony during Confucius’s time). These rules covered etiquette, customs and a specific moral code and a person must follow this code diligently.
Confucian ideals are based upon virtue, sincerity, respect and tradition, whereas Western philosophies stand upon deductive reasoning. The contrast between these two different approaches to life are surprisingly noticeable today and are often the root of frustration between Westerners and Koreans when living and working together. While Westerners value independence, confidence, individual thought and often resist convention, Koreans emphasize remaining under the umbrella of hierarchy, respecting all tradition and responsibility that is passed down from their ancient culture, rarely questioning why things are done the way they are. Western ideals view asking the “how” and “why” questions of the world not only as a strength but as an essential aspect of maturation whereas such things could be conceived as disrespectful in Korean culture. It’s for this reason that many Koreans have a difficulty explaining their reasoning behind doing what they do, and assume it should just be understood and accepted because it is the “Korean way.” Sincerity and tradition typically take the back seat to reason in Western society and most expats in Korea have a hard time settling for the unexplainable and often disconnected patterns of the Korean way.
Aligning yourself within the constellation of Confucian ideals is both taught and expected from all Korea people from an early age. Families generally function as a unit, everyone assuming their generational role according to their age and ability. Though men are the head of the household, they are subject to their superiors at work and to the government. Women’s roles are more defined: caring for their children and maintaining their household are at the forefront of expectation and hope for the majority of women. Grandparents often support their children financially and are typically actively involved in raising their grandchildren until they are in need of care themselves. Each generation has specific and necessary roles within their family and society, bringing much meaning and value to each stage of life.
THINGS TO EXPECT AT WORK
There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to stepping into a new work place, let alone into a foreign country. Your work environment in Korea will undoubtedly be unlike any other you’ve experienced before, putting your life and interpersonal skills to the test while giving you diverse and exciting ways to challenge yourself both professionally and personally. There are a number of expectations that you will be challenged by as an English teacher, probably things you have never experienced before, and these situations will challenge you immensely. These situations will often force you to let go of convention, think outside the box and use up as much inner initiative you can muster. Rising to the challenge of your position as an English teacher means constantly setting higher standards for yourself, making personal goals and being intentional about exhausting your abilities and resources. Many teachers resort to simply doing the bare minimum when they lack direction and accountability from their employer, somehow using the cultural disconnect as an excuse to be unmotivated and disengaged and are rarely fulfilled in their workplace. We want this experience to be enriching and give you skills that will benefit you further along in life. Hard work matched with genuine interest in your students will make all the difference between simply getting bye and truly making this a meaningful experience. Here are some important aspects of working in Korea that are important to be aware of and will help you work cooperatively and effectiely with your colleagues.
1. Mistrust and Disrespect
2. Saving Face
3. Little Faith in the Teacher
4. Employers who Negotiate Hard.
7. Mothers Run the School
8. Importance of Social Status
9. Education and Business
10. Student Work Ethic
11. Upon Arrival
12. Expect to Work
13. Attitude is Everything!
1. At times, the employer and the employees will experience times of cultural mistrust and disrespect.
This is a common occurrence when any two cultures interact, especially on a business level. Frame of reference, perspective and good ol’ fashion miscommunication can create mistrust and disrespect in any work place, but add some cultural differences in there and business exchanges can become a little more personal. Lack of understanding the culture creates natural confusion and compounds the sometimes daunting language barrier. The Korean method of saving face and using hints of dishonesty to cover over their mistakes seems to greatly add to foreigners mistrust.
Response: It’s as important to stand your ground as it is to remain respectful and cooperate when it comes to remedying conflict. Korean culture expresses that it is unacceptable for Koreans to express anger or intense emotion in the work place, as these are signs of “weakness,” so calm and composed responses when conflict arises could translate as signs of strength and confidence.
2. Saving Face
“Saving face” in Korea is usually more important than conveying honesty and trust, despite that being an ancient value they expect out of you. To Koreans, blunders and mistakes are considered as a sign of weakness and should be covered up in order to protect their reputation and the reputation of the school. Unfortunately, being honest and direct about addressing mistakes and fixing them for the success and longevity of their business does not take precedent. It is important to keep in mind the “Korean way” and their Confucian mindset when dealing with such circumstances. Speaking your mind or “saying it how it is” could be seen as disrespectful and provoking.
Response: Remaining calm and trying to understand is the best way to deal with these circumstances. Often challenging their “saving face” tactic will likely result in more blatant excuses and dishonesty. In this case unfortunately, it is better to allow someone to save face and politely express your disappointment as the result of their actions and encourage them to avoid similar circumstances in the future. Though this may be aggravating and impede on your own set of values, saving face is a deeply rooted practice and isn’t something that we can change.
3. A Rocky History = Little Faith in the Foreign Teacher
The history between Korean employers and foreign English teachers has been tainted by reoccurring unfortunate and avoidable circumstances. Blame shifting, disorganization and irresponsibility can cause a lot of finger pointing by both the employer and the teacher. From an unbiased standpoint, both parties have a hand in contributing to the strain and damage done to both their relationship and the work environment surrounding it. Thoughtless recruiters who place their teachers in inappropriate or uncomfortable situations can also be to blame.
“A little drip can make a big ripple” – this has unfortunately been the case with both foreign teachers and the US Army in South Korea. In a homogeneous Confucian society, negative and skeptical news travels fast; and although most teachers and soldiers are respectful and dedicated to their duties, the few that haven’t been considerate or respectful have done irreversible damage to the foreign community living in Korea. It’s important to know that there will naturally be some tension, skepticism and down right inappropriate interactions with Koreans, in particular the older generation, which is understandable in light of some of the disgraceful things that have happened in the past.
Although the Confucian fundamentals are not practiced stringently by all Koreans, their ideals and etiquette are widely upheld throughout society. Some foreigners have little regard for these and other rich and important aspects of Korean culture, and have end up opposed these ideals in disrespectful and culturally-abhorrent ways. This behavior isn’t acceptable in Western culture and is certainly insulting and offensive to Korean people. Rebellious expats state their perceived supremacy by discrimination, not abiding the law, and excusing themselves from social and cultural reverence. Poor work ethic and frivolous attitudes are other attributes that have damaged the harmony between expats and their host country. It is likely that every negative encounter a foreigner recounts with his or her Korean employer, the same employer probably has an equal opinion about the foreigner. There are some drastic mistakes that have made lasting impressions on many Korean employers that inevitably makes them weary about their Western co-parts. Many teachers have abandoned their jobs without notice which is detrimental to not only their students education but costly and a loss hard to recover from. Although some jobs are unsuitable and teachers shouldn’t remain working in such an environment, they should always to their best to leave with integrity and warning. As a recruiter, this is a situation that we want to work with you to remedy or worse case, change.
Response: Respect, cultural sensitivity and consideration are really the only response to these situations, even if it is frustrating and unreasonable at times. Ultimately we are only in control of and responsible for our own actions and cannot change the behaviors or perceptions of others. As a foreigner in Korea, you represent a lot more than just yourself, you represent your country and all Western people in general. It’s inevitable that you will both offend and be offended by your Korean employer throughout your time abroad, but such things can be excused and recognized as cultural misunderstandings. Just remember: you bring with you 20 some odd years of ingrained patterns of thought, understanding and lifestyle, and it is important to bring those to the table in your work place and in your adventures. If you are unsatisfied with your working conditions or feel you are being treated unfairly, address these things in a professional and mature manner. We are more than willing to do what we can to help you approach and navigate these situations with you. Recklessly addressing difficult situations and/or abandoning your contract without notice not only jeopardizes your finances and ability to return to Korea in the future but it’s very destructive to your students education, employers business, and your recruiters reputation.
It will take some insight, self evaluation and welcomed change to broaden your scope for other cultures – but rest assured, Korea is a great place to start expanding your worldview!
4. Most Korean employers negotiate hard
Korean business owners and employers drive a hard bargain. If they think they can get more bang for their buck, you can be certain they will give it their best shot. Negotiations may require a little gusto and a lot of cooperation in order to satisfy your employer and get what you deserve.
Response: As a foreign English teacher, you are an essential aspect of your school’s English program which can be used to your advantage in many cases. While negotiations should be done respectfully, don’t be afraid to stand your ground and be up-front about your needs. Your employer may seem at times aggressive and unreasonable, trying to get away with as much as you will give them for the amount they are willing to pay, so it is important to be assertive and patient while discussing or re-evaluating contracts. Fellow teachers and expats with more experience than you will be a great asset in helping you discern whether or not your situation is something that should be confronted or simply let go of. We are also more than happy to advise you through these situations.
5. Expect disorganization at your school
A common complaint among most ESL teachers in Korea is the disorganization in the work place. Of course, there are a few schools and ESL programs that have established effective systems of functioning, but the majority of schools are still trying to develop, shape and direct the course of their programs, making for a disorganized and often chaotic way of doing things. Most school directors or program coordinators are spread thin, are short staffed, and lack much needed resources, which is as much a result of business owners trying to get their money’s worth as it is poor management. It is frustrating and can make for seemingly unavoidable stress and conflict between colleagues.
Response: Being able to adapt to the ebb and flow of your employers management skills will help counter some inevitable frustration, even though it may not seem like the most natural or professional response. Unfortunately, being an “employee” will have you doing somewhat needless and ineffective tasks at times. It is often better to follow suit and observe the way things are being done before getting your hands dirty too soon and over-stepping a boundary. Most directors have several years of experience and there is usually underlying meaning behind the madness… whether you ever understand (or are even told) the meaning is a whole different matter. And remember: it is likely that you have little if no experience in this field. Our suggestion? Compensate your lack of training with positivity and flexibility! Take comfort in knowing that it isn’t your responsibility to develop or direct your school’s English department… simply buckle in and try to enjoy the ride.
6. Your Korean employer and their “need to know basis”
Informing, updating and including foreign teachers in significant events and details surrounding their position won’t exactly be the strong suit of your Korean employer. Important information about changes in the schedule, planned or spontaneous events, even alterations in curriculum, tend to be shared the day of – if not long after it should have been! Information isn’t typically shared in a clear and concise manner, and planned events or set dates tend to be much more lenient in Korea than what you’re used to at home. It’s not uncommon to be informed that parents or directors will be observing your class just as your students are filing into your classroom, nor is it uncommon to find out that your students are on a field trip simply by no one showing up for class.
Response: Asking plenty of questions and seeking out information will keep you a little more up to speed on daily and weekly happenings. Planning out your work week in advance to accommodate spontaneous changes or shifts in the schedule will help your lessons be more useful and effective. Try to clear up calendar details, including Korean holidays and personal vacations, in a meeting with your employer/superior and be in ongoing communication with them about any changes. But our best advice? Don’t take this stuff personally. As much as you can, just write it off as a “cultural difference” and don’t take it to heart. It can be easy to get sensitive about this kind of behavior, but trust us, it’s just a cultural norm in Korea!
7. Employers are concerned about keeping parents happy
The ESL industry is as much concerned about making money as it is concerned about successfully educating students. Because most English schools are private enterprises (called Hagwons), Korean directors need to keep their “customers” happy in order to make a profit; in this case the customers are the Korean mothers with high expectations and competitive spirits. They want results, professionalism and of course, their money’s worth. There are thousands of Hagwon’s competing for the enrollment of Korean children, and if Mom + Dad do not get what they want, they will go somewhere else. Most employers will bend over backwards to keep their student’s parents satisfied, often compromising the values of their program and its teachers.
Response: As a native English speaker, you are a necessary part of a lucrative business and a big reason why most children attend the school they do. Being proud to represent the program you are a part of will go along way in assuring skeptical and apprehensive parents. Treating parents with respect and regard isn’t only professional but positively contributes to the success and prosperity of the school, and ultimately your students. Having a thorough understanding of situations that involve parents is imperative before voicing a negative opinion or growing defensive. School directors and coordinators have a greater scope for Korean business and ESL politics than you do, and they’ll also understand the mindset of Korean parents more readily than you will. Cooperation and efforts to meet parents in their expectations will help make your work more enjoyable.
8. Social Status – it plays a bigger role than you could ever imagine.
Korea has a long history filled with Confucian dynasties, the bedrock of which is still very evident in Korea – and most other east Asian countries for that matter. “Chuseok” and “Lunar New Year,” two of the most important Korean Holidays, are devoted to showing respect to elders, paying homage to ancestors and practicing age old Korean traditions. Rituals of bowing to elders is one of many ways that younger generations show much needed respect and gratitude to older generations. Such signs of humility and respect are also displayed in daily exchanges between young and old in small head bows, hand gestures, in the giving and receiving of items, etc. In Korean culture, if a person is older or has a “higher title” (ie. an employer) they are deserving of respect from all those “under” them (ie. students). Conversely, in Western culture respect is usually earned, not granted on the basis of age or position. You can probably already imagine the problems that can and will arise from these differing perspectives. Although many Koreans are adopting new ways of interacting, generational status and social status has created a very evident “from the top down” leadership style. Managers, directors and those in leadership have a sense of authority over their employees derived from their title. With over 50 million people in Korea, the national job market is extremely competitive and employees work very long hours and go to great lengths to win favor with their employer. This is quite the opposite style of climbing the career ladder that Westerners are used to and it’s easy to see why we can become frustrated in this type of environment. This hierarchical concept of respect is contrary to what we have been raised in, and foreigners will often go to great lengths to protect their rights. Western countries have laws and regulations that mandate working hours, restrict employers from taking advantage of their employees, and emphasize equality and cooperation. Managers are usually the ones trying to keep their employees happy and motivated by offering compliments, incentives and even bonuses. Such Western norms can make expat teachers feel undervalued and unappreciated in their South Korean workplace, motivating them to stand up for their rights and boundaries more than normal. Korean employers get frustrated with their foreign employees from time to time because of this, and tend to compare the foreign worker with their Korean co-workers. Korean employees seldom resist or set boundaries with their employers whereas foreigners will outwardly defend their time and their boundaries with little if no hesitation; needless to say, in the eyes of a Korean, this is easily interpreted as selfish and childish.
Response: Balance is key! It is important to work towards finding a balance between YOUR culture and THEIR culture. It takes a little cooperation and adjustment on both sides to work through these situations. It isn’t uncommon to feel like you’re the only one bending your cultural rules, so it is important to establish boundaries that are appropriate for you and not your boss. You must be willing to reason with them, yet be prepared to exercise some assertiveness. If you’re asked to do something unexpected on short notice, or something that is simply unmanageable, coming up with an excuse or reason why you cannot do it will be more helpful than just refusing to do it. For example: if you are leaving work on Thursday evening and your boss tells you that you need to come to work on Saturday for a demonstration class, an appropriate response would be to tell them the plans you have already made and your willingness to do it in the future if you are given more notice. If a request or comment from your employer makes you feel uncomfortable or taken advantage of, you should approach them to discuss it and address a better form of communication. From an employer’s perspective, you are getting paid a significantly higher salary than all of the Korean staff around you with less responsibilities and obligations. Showing that you are willing to do additional things to help out will be beneficial in keeping a good rapport with your Korean colleagues and developing relationships with them. Often foreigners seem completely unwilling to do anything beyond the dotted line of their contract which leads employers to be more forceful and hard nosed about the foreign teacher’s involvement – a little give and take on your part will go a long way.
9. Show Me the Money!
Most after-school programs (Hagwons) and Kindergartens are private enterprises started just like any other businesses: to make a profit. Therefore, for school owners, money is a constant concern. Their institutes are not sponsored by the government’s education system; they’re funded by student paid tuition. In order to keep their Hagwon running, they must balance both the financial and educational pressures as well as compete against hundreds of other programs. This tends to make the line between profit and education very blurry. With that said, the most successful Kindergartens and Hagwons are typically the ones that have a decent curriculum and educational philosophy.
Response: To your Korean co-workers, the Hagwon’s success as a business is just as important as its success as an educational center. Unfortunately, these muti-layered motives play a large role in the independent educator’s evaluation of effective teaching. This can be very frustrating to Westerners who want to be valued for the quality of their teaching rather than for the quantity. As their employee, its your responsibility to fill the position they ask of you, and do the best you can to fulfill it whether you believe it is the right way or not. In many cases this will require you to exhaust the resources you have been given and challenge yourself to constantly find new and effective ways to teach. Initiative and creativity along with some elbow grease will undoubtedly make your job more rewarding and impact your students in a more positive way.
10. Korean Students are Pushed to their Limit — no really, IT WILL SHOCK YOU.
It isn’t hard to see the expectation and pressure put on Korean youth to strive for academic excellence. Though it’s obvious in every educational system, it’s hard for Western thinkers to understand and find value in this sort of educational philosophy. As mentioned before, the Korean job market is extremely competitive. Many college graduates have a hard time finding decent jobs or careers in Korea unless they stick out above the rest; for this reason, Korean parents are always looking for a way to give their children a competitive advantage. This translates simply into more education. From an early age, children start attending English academies, after-school classes, and specialty programs. There they study a variety of subjects like math, science, reading, dance, martial arts, sports and of course English. Because South Koreans hold international business in high regard, and because English is an international business language, English is integrated into almost all educational systems and often takes just as much precedent as learning the Korean language.
Response: Remember that you aren’t going to change Korean society or their approach to education. Like all aspects of Korean life, their way of education comes from their deeply rooted culture. Creating a less stressful learning environment for your students will help them manage some anxiety they might have. Adding interactive elements like games and physical movement might help your students focus, relax and enjoy learning a little bit more. You may not be able to impact the philosophy behind Korean education but you will be able to change the experience and development of your students by giving them a more encouraging and positive environment to learn in.
11. You’ve arrived…
As you’ve probably gathered, things don’t always go exactly as planned when you’re living and working aboard. Language barriers, cultural differences and everything in between contribute to many unexpected and surprising circumstances in Korea. From the second you step off the plane, these things will be overwhelmingly apparent. Small glitches can seem like big problems after a long trip to a new and unknown place. Practical and unavoidable circumstances are often the cause of these situations yet they are difficult to predict and the explanation often comes after the experience. These experiences can be even more overwhelming if you are just arriving in the country.
Response: The transition you are embarking on can seem daunting at times, but believe us when we say that everything isn’t as impossible it may seem when you first arrive. Culture shock is a very real thing and can make you feel disoriented and confused, not to mention second guess your decision to move to Korea. Take a deep breath and know that things will calm down once you are a bit more adjusted. Also – do what you can to prepare yourself BEFORE you even depart. Wrap your mind around as much of the culture as you can, without having actually experienced it. Learn the basics of the language – hello, thank you, etc. Do your research about what to expect upon arrival – our recommendation? Spend an hour on The Arrival Store’s website: www.thearrivalstore.com. They are a must-see for anyone preparing for an arrival to Korea.
12. Expect to Work
Teaching English overseas is often most appealing because of the adventure and travel opportunities. The working aspect is an after-thought for most. It may seem automatic to expect to work, but we want to reiterate that a good work ethic, diligence, and investment are essential and expected. Like any job you would find at home, teaching takes initiative, careful attention and continuous effort – not to mention it can be exhausting! You have the power and responsibility to positively influence the lives of your students and that is something that shouldn’t be over looked or disregarded no matter what your motives for teaching abroad are.
Response: Simply knowing and mentally preparing yourself for the reality that you are going to work hard upon your arrival should help! You are being paid very well for your services and are a major asset to your employer. Pride yourself in your work, and remember that teaching is an important responsibility and you have the power to really make a difference in young lives.
13. Attitude Is Everything
It sounds very cliché, we know, but its true. If you adopt a positive and flexible attitude, your experience is going to be much more enjoyable – not to mention that you’ll be more influential in your work place. It is easy to get negative and critical at times and that’s okay, but letting yourself adopt that attitude can poison your mind and those you are working with.
Response: Remain flexible (we’ll never get tired of reminding you). Don’t let yourself fall into the pessimistic spiral like so many expats. Take the opinions of others with a grain of salt and be sure to steer clear of those who’ve started to slide down the slippery slope of complaining and complacency. Exercising, getting outdoors, traveling around Korea on the weekends, and other things you can do stimulate and rejuvenate your mind and body will really help your overall perspective!