Ever since I was little, I’ve had a proclivity to adventure. I always knew I wanted to make the most of my life, which is why nearly three years ago, I made the decision to leave my exciting life drawing hearts in latte foam for minimum wage in the States behind and move abroad.
I was freshly back from a year studying in France, and couldn’t wait to finish my degree so I could continue exploring the world. The only problem standing in my way was that I was nearly flat broke and buried deep enough under a mountain of student debt that it seemed likely a Balrog would emerge.
Thus, I knew if I wanted to travel, I had to find something that would pay me to come there, and pay me well.
Short of becoming a personal escort, there didn’t seem to be too many high-paying options for someone of my experience and education level.
Even though a good chunk of my heart was still (and will always remain) in France, there was no way I could (responsibly) return to Europe anytime soon. Programs such as the TAPIF in France or the Auxiliares de Conversación in Spain pay only a few hundred euros a month, which is enough to pay rent and maybe eat a couple meals a week.
I wanted more.
The good people of the Internet quickly pointed me towards Korea as a place where I could work decent hours and be able to put a good bit of my revenue towards student loans.
I’ll be honest: I had watched a couple of Korean dramas. I occasionally listened to K-Pop. God help me, I’d even been to a Korean restaurant three times before. It seemed like a fit. But beyond the pop culture and food aspect, Korea itself fascinated me. Tons of people go to China or Japan but tiny Korea, sandwiched between the two, remained unexplored and slightly mysterious in my mind. It seemed rawer, more real. I could go and not be just another tourist, but one of the few.
When I looked up what public schools in Korea had to offer, it seemed too good to be true: paid flights, paid apartment, a two-thousand dollar a month stipend in a country where cost of living is much lower than my native States, pension, health insurance, and a settlement allowance (and a hefty bonus upon completion of my contract) were all given in return for teaching kids about irregular past tense verbs for twenty-two hours every week.
I was hooked. I applied to EPIK (English Program in Korea) during the spring of my senior year of university.
On paper, it seemed easy enough. All you need is a bachelor’s degree (in anything) from one of seven English speaking countries (Canada, USA, South Africa, Australia, Britain, New Zealand, or Ireland), a clean background check, and a TESOL/TEFL certificate if your major wasn’t education.
However, the application process itself was, to put it colloquially, kind of a bitch.
In addition to a standard application form (which is long and arduous and requires a picture) you need to submit:
- Two letters of recommendation (from a professor or past employer. Not your mom.)
- An apostilled background check (an FBI background check, if you’re American.) You normally have to send it in via post to to get the apostille.
- An apostilled copy of your degree (I got mine apostilled at a local notary’s office)
- Original sealed transcripts
- A copy of your TESL/TEFL/TESOL certificate
- A copy of your passport
- An example lesson plan
It can take weeks, if not months, to get all of these documents together, especially the background check. Take my learned-the-hard-way advice and send for that particular piece of paper early (though not too early, as it’s only valid for six months). The majority of teachers are hired for the fall term (the school year in Korea begins in March and goes until the end of December), so you need to have everything ready by May or so.
There are a lot of recruiters you can use to help facilitate your application process. I used Korvia at the recommendation of a stranger I met on Reddit. (Hi, Michael!) Recruiters, along with strangers on Reddit, are very helpful humans. They make sure all that your metaphorical ducks are in a row so you can swim your way on over to a successful career teaching abroad. And best of all, their help comes free.
Let me repeat/rephrase that.
A recruiter should not ask you for money.
They get recompensed by the school that they match you with, so, reasonably enough, they’re going to do everything they can to make sure your application is in top form. The ones who ask you to pay them are double dippin’ from the honey pot, if you catch my drift.
You can request which province you’d like with EPIK (though not in certain cities, like Seoul or Busan, which have their own separate programs) , or if you’re daring/lazy/stupid like I am, leave that section blank and let the gods of Korea decide for you. (I ended up in a tiny countryside town that even most Koreans haven’t heard of. There were fewer than two dozen foreigners, it was extremely traditional, and I loved every minute of my two years there.) But be warned: even if you request a specific location, it is in no way guaranteed. This brings me to the biggest part of the Korean adventure: they do not tell you where you are going to live until you arrive in Korea. Apparently, a few years ago people were getting mad over their placements and not coming, so in order to fix it, they began blindly assigning locations.
I got my job offer three weeks before I was supposed to move to Korea. It was a crazy busy time in my life. I sold all my furniture from my shoddy (generous word here) college apartment, got my visa, packed (you can find my guide to packing here!) and said goodbye to my family before boarding a one-way plane to Korea with $800 to my name and a hope for the best. I knew the province I would be in in (they do tell you that before you go, when you receive the job offer) but I didn’t know which city.
It was my first experience with what I like to call “Korean surprise.” That’s when information is withheld until the last possible minute, before pop! you get surprised.
Every new EPIK teacher is required to do an orientation, which includes a crash course in teaching, lesson-planing, and Korean. On the last day of orientation, you present a mini-lesson to your classmates and receive feedback from the grown-ups running the program. After all of our classes were finished with, they announced our locations.
I, and one other girl (Hi, Amber!) both got Namwon (남원), a tiny, quirky kind of place where few other foreigners lived. Our coteachers picked us up from orientation individually and drove us to our new apartments.
Some new teachers are expected to start the day that they move to their new cities. I was pretty lucky. My school let me start on the following Monday (even though I arrived in town on a Thursday!), which gave me plenty of time to get things settled.
I learned that I would be teaching at two schools: one middle school and one elementary school.
This is something that wasn’t particularly clear to me before arriving in Korea. You can teach at multiple schools. In fact, if you’re out in the countryside, you’re likely to. Some of my friends even taught at five school – one for every day of the week!
However, this is made a little sweeter by the fact that a small allowance is given for working at multiple schools. If you work at two, you receive an extra 100,000 won (about $90) per month, and if you work at three or more, that number jumps to 150,000 won (about $140). This may not seem like a lot, but throughout the year that puts you at an extra $1,080 – $1,680, which is more than my first (albeit super crappy) car cost.
If nothing else, it’s a solid investment towards your student loans.
Or, if you’re lucky enough not to have any, to buy a super crappy car.
Additionally, you can rack in some extra dough from living in the countryside. During my two years living in Namwon, I earned an extra 150,000 (~$140) per month as part of the rural allowance. Cost of living is also much lower in the countryside than say, Seoul, but if you’re not a complete homebody, living in a rural area means you’ll also probably travel more on weekends, just for something to do.
As I mentioned, I’ve been here for three years now and I absolutely love it. Moving to Korea was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and (drum-roll, please) my student loans will be paid for in full by this spring.
In addition to EPIK, there are tons of other ways to teach English in Korea. To find out more, click here.
Are you thinking about moving to Korea? Have any more questions? Let me know in the comments below!