Interview with an ESL teacher in South Korea

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As some of you know, I’ve been teaching English in Japan for 6 months now. Teaching English abroad is a popular post-college choice for many grads and I believe many more people should learn about the opportunities that are out there.

I recently had the opportunity to interview my cousin and friend, Travis Lueth, who is an ESL teacher in Seoul, South Korea. We discussed how he found the job, his average work day, salary, living in Seoul, and silk worms.

If you’d like to follow or ask Travis a question about his life in Seoul, you can find him at twitter.com/thegoodship

Austin: Can you tell me a little about your school?

Travis: I teach at a private school called Hogwans here in Seoul, South Korea. Personally, I teach about 3rd to 6th graders or 8, 9, and 10 year olds.

A: How did you find the job?

T: Last year when I was about to graduate in December a good friend of mine, Joshua, was looking at his job prospects and ended up getting a job in Korea. At the time I thought he was crazy, but about 5-6 months later when I was looking at the end of my lease without any job prospects it became a real option for me.

A: How long have you been in Korea?

T: I will have been in Korea for 5 months this week. It’s been an interesting 5 months. I was woefully and mentally unprepared for what I was getting myself into it.

A: Is this your first time abroad?

T: Yeah, besides a few brief trips to Canada I have never traveled outside the United States before coming here.

A: What’s your average day like?

T: I get up around 10 and eat breakfast. Hop on the subway around noon. I have about a 20 minute subway commute in each direction which is fine because the subways here are dirt cheap at 900 won in each direction which is about 85 cents a ride. Other people have just a 5 minute walk.

I get to school and have about a  half hour for planning and prep. I teach for about 8 hours with different schedules depending on the day. My school teaches in 40 minute blocks, but most schools teach in 1 hour blocks.

I get off at about 9 or 10 at each night and either meet friends for food/drinks or I come back here for dinner.

A: Are you in the heart of Seoul?

T: Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world. The heart of Seoul is about 30-40 minutes from where I am. There’s a ton of restaurants, shopping, movie theaters, and night life nearby.

A: Does your job require Korean language skills?

T: I came to Korea with absolutely zero understanding of the language. I didn’t know how to say hello, please, thank you. When I was doing my interview with the school I told them I didn’t know Korean and they were fine with that.

I think a lot of the schools would actually prefer that you don’t know Korean because when the students are in class, that’s the whole reason you’re here. They want you to speak English with the students and not have a 20 minute side discussion in Korean with them.

A: What’s it like getting around without any Korean?

T: The English here is strange. It’s prevalent. A lot of the young people understand and probably speak English. But a lot of them won’t speak English to you. You kind of have to force them into it by saying “I really need your help, I don’t know the Korean”. They’ll at least help you.

It’s interesting, they’ve formed their own dialect of English. Like the word change. They won’t understand if I say change , but if I say “change – e” they’ll understand it.

A: What’s your salary?

T: I earn 2.2 million won per month. Which is about $1,700-$2,000 USD per month.

It doesn’t seem like a lot but my apartment is paid for and I don’t have a car. Food here is also dirt cheap. I could eat for a week on probably less than $10. And it costs me less than $2 a day to commute.

A: What’s the hardest thing financially about Korea?

T: Not just blowing your entire paycheck. It’s hard to not go out with your friends 5 nights a week and drop 100,000 won on drinks and food and not to go to the shopping districts and buy stuff for you and your girlfriend. That’s the fastest way to throw away your money.

A: How’s the public trans in Korea?

T: The public trans system is excellent. There’s 11 or 12 different subway lines in Seoul, they have a great bus system, and there’s no time during the day where you don’t see a bus or two on the street. They have a regular train system, a high speed train system, and a bus system. To take a bus an hour south of here is $12 round trip.

A: How is the process of sending money home?

T: The company sets you up with a bank account. You fill out a form with name and bank information and they do the conversion for you. The exchange rate is good for me so I’m lucky.

A: Who would you recommend your job to?

T: I would definitely recommend this to anyone who is just about to get out of college and doesn’t have a lot tying them down. I have a girlfriend back in America and Skypes made it easier. But the jobs good for people who are really looking to do something different and people who can easily meet other people the kind of person who isn’t afraid to talk to another foreign and strike up a conversation.

A: How many foreigners work at your company?

T: My company has 3 schools and there are about 10 foreigners. I’m the only foreigner at my school. Luckily, I already had a couple friends when I got here but when people usually get here the people in their company are the people they end up hanging out with.

A: What’s the biggest surprise about Korea?

T: The lack of diversity. I spent my entire life in America. I never really thought of America being diverse. But here I can wake up in the morning, walk around, be at work all day, and go home, and not have seen another foreigner the entire time I was out. The first couple of weeks it was kind of mind blowing.

A: What do you enjoy the most about Korea?

T: The food here is something I didn’t know a lot about, but I have tried so many things. 99.9% of the stuff here is absolutely delicious and I’ll miss it when I leave.

A: What’s it like working for a private company?

T: Lucikly for me I have had a very positive experience with my school and company. The big warning I have to put out there is that when you come here your company owns you. My company canceled winter vacation a week before it was supposed to start. They can change your schedulel at any time. The person who lived here before me had to move to another part of town. They paid for it, but he still had to do whatever his company said.

You really need to do your research on the schools like CDI and Avalon because with those the experience is based solely on where you’re at because the location managers have total control of the schools.

A: What are some resources for people who are interested in teaching in Korea?

T: Check out CDI (ChungDahm Institute) and Korea4Expats.com and Dave’s ESL Cafe are excellent resources for people who are interested in teaching abroad. I reference those sites once a week to figure stuff out.

Thanks again to Travis for the interview! Find him at twitter.com/thegoodship to follow his Korean adventures or ask him more questions about life in Korea.

Have you had any experience teaching English in Korea? Have any questions about teaching in Korea? If so, leave your comments below to further the discussion!
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