The Hallyu fan’s guide to teaching in Korea

Above is an image from popular K-Drama Dream High. This is not an accurate reflection of South Korean high school.

This is a guest article from

In November, 2011 I had free tickets to the Asian Song Festival in Daegu. Sometime towards the end, after Miss A, B2ST, G.NA, and U-Kiss, but before the headline acts of Super Junior and Girls’ Generation, it started to rain heavily. The seating and stage were all outdoors, so the show was interrupted and everyone ran for cover in the ramps leading to the floor of the arena.

We were packed really tightly, and it was a little scary. But the rain didn’t last long. The ramps were still extremely crowded, and getting back to my seat was going to take some time, but I noticed a hallway leading off to my right. I figured it had to go somewhere, so I walked down it. It led past some back offices, and then out again onto the arena floor, where I was surprised to discover myself standing at the very front of the stage.


Super Junior advertising school uniform

There were empty first row seats, so I sat down in one of them. A short while later, Super Junior came on.

I have a friend who is obsessed with Super Junior. So I had to make some video evidence for her.  I made a short video  – Super Junior starting up Mr Simple, then my smiling face sitting in the front row, giving a big thumbs up, then back to Super Junior. And when I went home, I immediately uploaded the video to Facebook and tagged my friend.

She responded immediately, saying I was incredibly mean and lucky and that she hated me, and after that she didn’t speak to me for weeks. Which made me happy. Because I live in Korea, and she doesn’t.

Getting a job teaching English in Korea

For Hallyu fans, teaching English in Korea is probably something they have heard about, and may have even considered. I want to tell you about the reality of it.

Firstly, the most important question is, can you teach English in Korea? There are three essential, non-negotiable requirements:

  • You must be a citizen of a country whose “mother tongue” is English – specifically, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, USA, Canada, or New Zealand
  • You must have a Bachelor’s Degree
  • You must have a clean criminal record.

If you satisfy those requirements, and are really determined to do it, then it is almost certain that with enough perseverance you can find an English teaching job somewhere in Korea. However, if you want to be selective, additional qualifications are important. But first you need to understand about the two main types of English teaching jobs in Korea: public school jobs, and hagwons.

Public school jobs are what they sound like: you teach at an elementary, middle or high school as part of the faculty. These jobs look for candidates with good or English related degrees, TESOL qualifications, and teaching experience. Hagwons are private, for-profit after-school academies, and may be interested in those things, too, but many are more interested in candidates with a “promotable appearance”: ideally an attractive, thin, blue-eyed, blonde white girl in her twenties. The further you are from that “ideal”, the more difficult your chances with some hagwons. For these and other reasons, including vacation time and job security, public school jobs are generally considered preferable to hagwon jobs.

Actually getting a job teaching English in Korea is a frustrating, confusing and expensive process involving background checks, apostilled and notified copies of official documents, visas, and Skype interviews. I wrote an extensive guide to all this on my blog, so I’ll just direct you to that rather than trying to cover it all here, and save the rest of this for talking about the reality of teaching English in Korea for the Hallyu fan.

Should you teach English in Korea?

Can you answer “yes” to all these questions? Are you a person who likes to travel? Are you interested in exploring other cultures? Are you open to encountering a different way of life and embracing it? Do you have an enthusiasm for educating young minds? Do you like Korean food, TV shows, and pop songs?

snsd high school

SNSD also advertising school uniforms

Did you answer yes to all those questions? Of course you did. This website is called Beyond Hallyu, and the rest are a list of attractive qualities we would all like to believe we possess. Answering yes to all those questions does not remotely prepare you to be a teacher in Korea. And yet many people come here with precisely that mindset, and go home 12 months later embittered and hating Korea. For many people “embracing another culture” means visiting temples and buying cheap things at colourful markets. When they find out it also means going to work when you have a really bad flu, despite what it says in your contract about sick days, they are no longer so keen on cultural embracement.

Korean culture is extremely different from Western culture, to the point where many things Koreans do will seem baffling or illogical to Westerners. The differences between a collectivist and individualist society are huge, and can’t be easily summarized. Having watched K-dramas will give you some insight, but will never prepare you for it.

An example – have you ever wondered why, in Korean dramas, people often say, “I’ll go first”? You will understand that courtesy better when you have sat with Korean teachers in a school parking lot, the engine idling for fifteen minutes, while they complain and look out their rearview mirror, waiting for the principal to leave so they can go home. Korean schools regularly have group dinners, outside of your work hours, and you are expected to go to these “voluntary” social occasions. These things may sound minor, and they are – but they accumulate daily, and combined with the stresses of living in a foreign country, will cause even the most patient person to want to scream occasionally.

I don’t mean to suggest it is all horrible. Living in a highly Confucian society can be very educational, and can change the way you think about yourself. I love Korean culture, and after two and a half years here I think I am beginning to understand it – but only a little.


gu jun pyo

Stereotypical rich ‘English-speaking’ rich character, Gu Jun Pyo

For complex reasons, learning English is extremely important for Koreans – it is necessary for entry into a good university, and speaking it fluently conveys considerable social cache (you may have noticed in K-dramas that highly successful people are always shown at some point speaking “fluently” in English, although that English may be pretty laughable to native speakers).

For many people, including me when I first came, the actual teaching part was almost an afterthought; living in a foreign country was the thing which excited us. Unfortunately, many people also go home again having never changed that attitude, leaving behind them poorly educated students and a bunch of other people who think foreigners are lazy, rude, and only here to drink, make money, and sleep with the locals. Don’t be one of these people.

Because of the emphasis placed on English language ability, you have the ability to affect a child’s life profoundly. So you better take it seriously. I don’t mean this in some vague, teachers-are-important way: I mean it in an absolutely literal sense.

To show you what I mean: I teach elementary school. I have sixth graders who, when they go to middle school next year, will be tested on their English and assigned to leveled English classes. Some of them will be in Level 1 English, and some of them will be in Level 2 (there are a bunch more levels, too – we’re talking about the difference between “good” and “advanced”). Level 1 will be taught more English, and more quickly, making it extremely difficult for a student to move up to Level 1 from Level 2. By the time they finish high school, and take the national university test which decides whether they can go to a good or bad university, these accumulated differences will be huge.  And the difference between going to one of the top 3 universities in Korea, or any of the others, is the difference between a life of success and a life of struggle.

So it is not remotely implausible to say that if I can get a student’s ability up so that they can go into that higher class, I may have made a profound difference to the course of their life.

You have to take that seriously.  And not just come here to drink and travel around Asia in your vacation. It is not a working vacation; it is an important full-time job, probably more important than any you have had before. You need to remember that.

What about the students? They average pretty intelligent, and are more respectful than their peers in Western countries. But if you are imagining a sea of smiling faces, looking up at you with eager anticipation, you are mistaken. They are kids, and are almost certainly more interested in their phones and friends than they are in listening to you talk English. You can earn their respect and affection, but they won’t give it to you just for turning up.

Korea for the Hallyu fan

Having given you the reality, I will now also tell you about all the good stuff you will love. Korea is just as amazing a country as you imagine it to be. It is technologically advanced, yet still cheap. I wouldn’t say that being here is like living in a drama – I am still waiting for the chance to confess “Na… neo… saranghae…” to a beautiful Korean girl under moonlight – but it is a little like living on the set of a Korean drama. All those different types of places you see will become very familiar to you.

The public transport is amazing – you can go anywhere in the country on the weekend, without needing to book ahead. The food is good, and cheap.  And for the Hallyu fan, you will always be ahead of the curve. K-pop is inescapable, and if your students know you are interested they will give you the best education you could hope for. You will hear K-pop coming from every shop and discover new music before the rest of the world has time to catch up. (My favourite example of this – I remember last year having a discussion with some teachers about how amazed we were by the success of Gangnam Style. Which doesn’t sound like a very unusual conversation – except at the time what was amazing to us was that it had been viewed 30 million times on Youtube. We couldn’t believe it: 30 million times!)

Wonder Girls 'Like This'

Wonder Girls ‘Like This’

Speaking of Gangnam Style, I had a lot of associations with Gangnam long before that song came out. The park where he yells at the yoga girl’s backside was already familiar to me; I’ve had some good times there.  My bus to Seoul goes to Gangnam Bus Terminal.  I could have gone to Psy’s big free concert, but it was a weeknight and I was too lazy, so I just watched it on TV. You know what else? You know the shopping center where the Wonder Girls are dancing in Like This? Walking distance from my house.

OK, I’ll stop being irritating. But if you come to teach English in Korea, you too can be irritating to all your Hallyu friends back home, and possibly upload videos to Facebook that drive them so mad with jealousy that they stop talking to you. It’s a great feeling; I highly recommend it.

Thanks again to the Waegukin for taking the time to write this article for us. If you want read more from him, you can find him over at his blog discussing living and teaching in Korea.

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  • disqus_bb3F4Gak8P

    Thank you for this article. It was really interesting having an actual insiders view on teaching in Korea.

  • maryfairy

    If I may add, your bachelor degree has to be from a English speaking language university. It sounds like a given if you consider the citizenship required, but Canada (in my case) has 4 French language universities as well. You can be a native English speaker and be a citizen of those listed countries, but if your bachelor degree doesn’t come from an English speaking university from the countries above you are not eligible. That was sadly my case too.