ESL Teaching Guide - South Korea

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The JEL Institute, Sanbon - Beth Frankham - September, 2003

JEL has a lot to offer people considering coming to teach English as a foreign language in South Korea.

It is located in a beautiful city, right below Suri mountain. It is situated close to the shops and a subway station. It is a well established school with over 500 students enrolled and more than a dozen foreign teachers from Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K.

JEL offers an excellent salary range, particularly for first-time teachers with little, or no experience. The school provides you with a paid return flight, accommodation and a bonus upon completing a one-year contract. You are assigned your own classroom and are allowed breaks between classes. JEL has a set curriculum and their supplementary resources are quite good.

JEL was re-furbished in January 2003. There are now two decent sized staff rooms, classrooms that are air-conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter, a kitchen, tea and coffee facilities and a computer room for the kids. Teachers are allowed to dress casually at work and they are able to access the Internet and Email during break times.

During my year at JEL, I never had any issues with my salary. I was always paid on time and I always received my overtime pay. My apartment was big. It was clean, furnished and located close to the school. I had many opportunities to travel outside of Korea, because JEL contracts usually include reasonable vacation allowances. Korea also has a lot of national holidays throughout the year.

JEL offers English classes to children aged between 4 and 15. The children come mostly from affluent families. They are generally well behaved and are very studious. There are Korean teachers available to help with both translation and discipline if necessary.

Sanbon has a great selection of restaurants, PC rooms, DVD rooms, singing rooms, shops, department stores and fast-food outlets. It also has a big, new cinema that shows foreign films. There are bowling alleys, health clubs, parks and an international doctor's surgery too.

If Sanbon doesn't have enough to satisfy your mood, then the capital city of Seoul is only 45 minutes by train from Sanbon. In my opinion, Seoul has the best night life in the world! You can see internationally renowned DJ's in some very classy nightclubs. If you prefer theater or live music, you have a diverse choice of shows to see every week. Seoul really is the city that never sleeps...if you want to go out at three in the morning, there is always somewhere open. For the shopaholics, some parts of Seoul even offer 24 hour shopping malls!!

However, there are a number of negative factors that should be considered before joining the workforce at JEL.

Some of the Korean staff at JEL are difficult to communicate with. There is a high expectation for the foreign teachers to understand and abide by Korean rules, without an appreciation that foreigners often make mistakes, simply because they do not know they are doing anything wrong. A lot of conflicts occur at JEL between the teachers and the Director because you can never be sure that your conversations are being translated correctly. One of the Korean supervisors lacks good social skills and have a tendency to upset the other members of staff.

There is also a tendency to throw the teachers "in to the deep end" without proper guidance from a more experienced teacher. There is no appraisal system in place which seems commonplace throughout South Korea. My interpretation is that Koreans in senior positions are quick to criticize, but they do not know how to praise you directly when you do something right.

Although it is true that you are provided with your own classroom, you are not allowed to make any final decisions regarding the layout of the classroom. The Director does not appreciate the fact that it is the teacher who understands how to create a sensible working environment. The Director of JEL also has a tendency to change the school curriculum, because it is the "latest trend". He does not discuss the issue with the teachers who are best placed to give advice on what styles of teaching or teaching materials do and do not work well in the classroom.

You should be aware that in Korean "hagwons", 'the parent is always right'! Although you are working in a school, you must not forget that it is also a business. The parents are paying a lot of money for their children to attend. If a mistake is made or a child is struggling, the fault will always be that of the foreign teacher. You will find that your classes are watched on a daily basis and that you will be given feedback (most likely negative) on your teaching style.

It is also wise to understand that a "contract" does not carry the same weight in Korea as it does in the Western world. A Korean Director will always find a way to manipulate the wording, if necessary, into a way that suits his needs. (For example, do not believe that you may take vacation whenever you like just because it says you can in your contract.) However, it would be advisable to have in writing that once you are given an apartment to live in you will not be moved on the whim of the Director. It is hard enough coping with the cultural differences of living in a foreign country without having the stress of an unsettled home life.

There are many extra unpaid responsibilities that a JEL teacher is expected to perform. These duties are not made clear before coming to work at JEL. The Korean staff seem to be oblivious to how many hours it takes to prepare test papers and write report cards. The BIG TESTS were an area of contention during my time at JEL and will probably continue to be... Teachers are also expected to create supplements for classes in their own time.

For the most part, I enjoyed my time as a teacher at JEL. I heard horror stories about other schools that make JEL look like paradise! My best piece of advice is be sure to research all the "hagwons" that offer you teaching positions. If the school has a decent number of foreign teachers in their second or third contracts, then they are obviously doing something right!!

Suggested Reading

Lonely Planet Korea
Moon Handbooks South Korea
Insight Guide Korea (Insight Guides)
Korea (Culture Shock!)
Lonely Planet Seoul (Seoul, 4th Ed)

Graham - June 2002

The food is similar to Japanese food; sushi and noodles, but the bread is great! The cost of living can be very low if you resist buying techno goods and live frugally, it's possible to save 80% of your income if your school provides accommodation.

English is not widely spoken, and if you accept a post in the provinces be aware that you may be the only Westerner in the area. English books, novels etc, are difficult to come by outside of the 3 big cities, however classics (Dickens, the Bronte's etc are available). The transport system is very good and inexpensive. Scenically a bit disappointing after Thailand. A small country, so most of it is within 4/5 hours travel. The average salary is W2,000,000 - possibly more in Seoul. Some things to be aware of: there are unethical schools who will renege on contracts- check the school's credentials thoroughly. - First Stop for Your Second Language Needs
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