There are a growing number of young people choosing to head to South Korea in order to gain amazing experience working abroad. We spoke to Bethan, originally from England, who now works in a small city called Jecheon, where she teaches English.
What has your experience been like teaching in Korea?
I’ve been teaching in Korea for almost three years now and it’s been such a fulfilling experience. Although it is all very normal to me now, I remember the anxiety-ridden first days, walking into the principal’s office and bowing deeply in greeting, trying to remember how to introduce myself in Korean. The struggle of eating chicken wings and slippery noodles with chopsticks at lunch time, and the lines of kindergarten children walking past me in the cafeteria, eyes wide, mouths agape, fingers pointing. Everything was totally different to what I was used to back home.
I look back on those times fondly now and it’s hard to remember what I found so different when I arrived. Despite inevitably feeling like a fish out of water sometimes, one of the greatest aspects of teaching in Korea for me has been the solid and supportive sense of community, which is such a huge part of Korean culture. From the moment you become a member of a workplace here you are a part of a team and I’ve been welcomed and included by all the Korean people I’ve met, despite the language barrier.
Not to mention, my students are fantastic. The majority of my students are so well behaved, respectful and excited about learning (although of course kids will always be kids!) The highlights of my days are when my happy, energetic students with wide grins will bound over to me to try and tell me about their weekend plans or a new TV show they’re watching in English – and with the help of body language, drawings and translation apps they’re very good at getting the point across!
Another wonderful aspect of working in a Korean public school is the work-life balance. I teach 22 hours per week and the rest of my time is spent planning lessons and creating materials, meaning I rarely take work home with me, and allowing me to put the time and energy into my lesson planning that the children deserve. It also allows me to spend time doing the things I love like travelling around Korea. My coworkers often joke that I’ve seen more of Korea than they have!
What does a day in the life of an English teacher in Korea look like?
I arrive at work at 8:30 and remove my shoes as I enter the school, replacing them with indoor slippers. All the staff and students have a shoe locker in the school entrance, as wearing outdoor shoes inside is against the rules (you’re also expected to do this in people’s homes, religious buildings and some cafes and restaurants.)
I usually teach four to six classes a day, and since I only work in Elementary schools, typically my teaching time is all in the morning before lunch. The students arrive at my English classroom for 40 minutes of English class, involving textbook work, speaking activities and games. The students here have a lot more responsibility for their environment, and students at the end of the day are expected to clean their classroom, which includes sweeping the floors, cleaning the desks, organising pens and bookshelves, and cleaning the blackboard (typically earning a small treat as a reward for doing so!)
The afternoon is usually my time to plan and prepare materials for future classes. Compared to my experiences in schools in the UK, this is a hugely life changing difference. I recall having around three hours a week to prepare materials back home, whilst here in Korea I have 13 (not including an hour lunch break).
Students leave school between 1:00 – 2:30PM depending on their age, while staff remain at school until 4:30. After school, staff will occasionally have a staff dinner which typically includes eating a lot of barbecued meat and drinking a lot of alcohol. This is a traditional part of Korean work culture and can be a great way to bond with coworkers if you enjoy drinking and socialising. If you’re brave enough, try the bundaegi (steamed silkworm pupae) to really impress your Korean friends!
However, if there is no work dinner, I’m able to leave work at 4:30 and do whatever I like! I love exploring my town during this time, relaxing at the local reservoir Uirimji, drinking tea in a local cafe, or eating dinner with friends (eating at restaurants in Korea tends to be cheaper than cooking at home!)
What are some of your favourite things about the area you live in?
I live in Jecheon, Chungcheongbuk-do, a small city in the middle of the country famous for herbal medicine. Most people who come to Korea want to live or travel in Seoul, the capital city, and while Seoul is an amazing place, I highly recommend spending time in the countryside. Travellers tend to stick to Seoul and I can’t blame them; there are more tourist attractions, more people will speak English, and the subway system makes it a little easier to get around. But, if you stay in Seoul, you are really missing out on so much that Korea has to offer. Jecheon is one hour from Seoul on the train and has so much to explore!
My area is surrounded by mountains and has an abundance of natural beauty. One of my favourite places to go is Uirimji Reservoir, which has gorgeous walkways dotted with Korean pagodas. You can ride the swan boats out on the lake in the summer, or visit the tiny amusement park to ride the infamous Viking ship. One of my favourite cafes there has incredible mountain views (as well as amazing food and cats!)
My favourite thing about my ‘Korean hometown’ is that it is big enough to have all the amenities you need (a cinema, hospitals, restaurants, cafes and shops), while maintaining the feeling of a countryside town. Unlike back home in England I notice the seasonal flowers changing from cherry blossoms, to azaleas, to camelias, to roses, to sunflowers and so on. But, as it’s a city, there are still plenty of things to do and great restaurants to go to. My favourite food to go for is Korean BBQ or Dakgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken). If you try your best to speak Korean or compliment the food, you may even get an extra dish or drink as ‘service’ (meaning ‘on the house’) in appreciation!
What are some key cultural differences you’ve noticed in Korea?
South Korea is generally a collectivist society and therefore you will notice while there that many things are meant to be done together. There are several restaurants that will only serve two or more people, and popular activities such as karaoke, photo booths and bars or drinking rooms are designed to be done as a group, so it’s best to explore Korea with friends!
Gestures of politeness differ between the U.K and Korea. If you hold the door open for somebody you’re unlikely to get a thank you, and may be standing there a while as more and more people pass through without giving you a second glance. Likewise if somebody bumps into you on the street there will be no apologies, and cutting into queues is a common occurrence. These instances are not Korean people being rude, it is just not a part of their culture. However, to show politeness and respect in Korea, you should always stand and greet coworkers, older family members or people of importance when they enter a room, face away from these people when you drink something, remain seated until they leave the table and not make eye contact when you speak with them. Bowing to others in greeting is also an important sign of respect. Also, to avoid being told off, refrain from talking on public transport.
Some other cultural differences include removing shoes when entering certain buildings, using chopsticks to eat and keeping shoulders covered (even in the hot and humid summer time). It’s also not unusual to see Koreans covered in long sleeves and sporting umbrellas in the summer to protect their skin from tanning and sun damage.
Do you have any advice for people visiting Korea?
My biggest piece of advice is to learn hangul, the Korean alphabet! Koreans use many loan words from English, so if you can read the alphabet it will be immensely helpful. Words such as coffee, bus, computer, cheese, shopping, chicken, hotel, cola and t-shirt to name but a few are loan words that can be helpful when reading menus and signs. To have the greatest experiences with Korean people, learn some basic Korean before you travel and try to use it, even if you get it wrong; as well as it being respectful to use the national language, people will be grateful for your efforts and will likely be much more kind and helpful.
If a restaurant is full of locals rather than tourists, the food is good! Try it! The non-English menus may be daunting but with a translation app like Google Translate or Papago, it will be fine (or if you’re really brave, just point at something random on the menu and give it a try!)
Finally, if you really need help, there are tourist information centres located in the most prolific tourist spots such as Hongdae or Myeongdong in Seoul. However, the best guide you can find will be social media! By searching on Instagram, TikTok, dedicated blogs or other online spaces you’ll be able to find the most up-to-date information on the best places to visit and the best foods to try.
You can follow Bethan’s adventures in Korea on her blog bethinkorea.com, or on Instagram (@bethinkoreax).
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