Teaching English abroad has become a viable way of seeing the world and immersing oneself in a new foreign culture. Hundreds of recruiting agencies and even more sites exist to make that a possibility for you. While they do provide necessary information and assistance, I find first-hand experience to be a bit more valuable. Granted, everyone’s experiences are unique, meaning that it’d be unwise to base your decision-making on a single opinion. I’ve now taught in Turkey and South Korea, so those are the places that I can offer insight to here. However, it should be noted before proceeding that I based my decision-making on no one’s opinion and no one’s help and kind of flopped like a fish out of water on my own until I got lucky. Sometimes, that’s the best way.
Job Search and Contract
Walking the streets of Istanbul, one can see small English language schools on every block. All you have to do is walk in and you’re pretty much guaranteed a job. It’s not a requirement to be a native speaker or have a college degree, either, things that are essential in Korea. I decided to teach in Turkey after I’d already left the country, so I just did a simple Google search and applied to whichever jobs suited my fancy. After a couple of weeks, I got a response from a private international preschool and was hired after a brief 10 minute phone interview. My new boss basically said, “Right. See you in a week.”
The process for Korea is much more tedious and time consuming. There are several program options to choose from in Korea: TALK, EPIK, or private hagwon. TALK is best for people who also want to study Korean (part school, part teaching). EPIK is working for the public schools, and hagwons are private language academies. Whichever you choose, you will need to sign a contract. Read this contract carefully, especially if you are agreeing to work at a hagwon, as it is not uncommon for Koreans to “bend” the contract to suit their needs. For example: during my interview, I was promised five days of vacation in the summer and five in winter. I think, to most people, five days would be interpreted as five working days plus four weekend days, right? Wrong. And I wasn’t informed this until a few days before the vacation, which they only told us of a few days in advance anyway. EPIK teachers are given several weeks of vacation per year, but work more hours during the week- fair trade? You be the judge.
Korea’s immigration procedure is a pain in the ass only because of the amount of paperwork required. You must get a plethora of documents apostilled and send them to persons a,b, and c before finally obtaining your working visa three to four months later. However, you’ll at least get assistance and directions from your employer/whoever is in charge of your visa
Korea was a pain in the ass. Turkey, however, was an absolute nightmare. Most people work illegally without a proper work permit, but everyone who stays beyond their three-moth tourist visa is required to get a residence permit. There are so many ins and outs to this, and the whole fake bureaucracy is essentially run on bribery. Due to the complete incompetence, idiocy, and laziness of the person that was “hired” to help me obtain my residency, I was in the country illegally for several months- something that is pretty terrifying.
Upon coming to Korea, I was taken to my free apartment. Granted, it is a studio and pretty old- and the dangerous amount of mold on the wall had been dishonestly concealed by strategically placed furniture- but I only pay utilities, which are fairly cheap. I know a lot of people who have much nicer and more modern apartments than I do, so I think I just got unlucky with this one. On the rare occasion that you are not given an apartment, you are definitely given a small housing allowance to find your own. Rent is really cheap in Korea, at least where I live in Jeju: a one bedroom will probably put you out $250 a month, a ridiculously cheap price in my opinion.
I was not so fortunate in Istanbul. Although I met one person who was provided with an apartment, most people I knew had to find and pay for their own places. Unfortunately, wages for teachers in Turkey are much lower and rent is much higher. J and I paid $430 for a pretty crappy, furnished two bedroom place in the semi-ghetto. We did have a balcony, although it was enclosed by prison-like bars (which still didn’t prevent our neighbor from hurling raw potatoes at our window).
As far as airfare goes, Korea will pretty much trump any other country. I’ve never heard or read of anyone not receiving return airfare from their home country (although there are rumors going round that this may change soon) as long as the agreed upon contract is completed. With the EPIK program, you are given a set amount of money to book your own flight, so you can obviously choose your destination. With hagwons, there aren’t really any rules, so it varies on an individual basis. My boss agreed to book my flight from London instead of from Seoul, but only because both potential flights were unbelievably cheap and around the same cost. EPIK is typically better for this, depending on where you are going.
By contrast, I’ve never heard of such a policy existing in Turkey. My school in Istanbul did not offer to pay for me to come and certainly did not pay for me to leave, which was fine as I was hitchhiking to the UK anyway.
Salary per month
28-30 teaching hours, no commute, health insurance, pension, basically four days of personal vacation a year plus national holidays, minus tax= $2, 121.00 . This varies per person/per place/per program and by experience. After completion of the contract, you are given a severance bonus and, if you’re American, you get your pension back matched.
40+ hours, 1.5 hour commute each way with no transportation allowance, no health insurance, no pension, no tax, paid summers off, two paid weeks off for Christmas, paid week off for mid-winter break, cash-in-hand= $1,150.00 . If you find a cheaper apartment or live with people and don’t have to transfer money back for student loans/credit card debt, this is plenty to get by on in Turkey.
I’ve had a few tumultuous times in both countries; I’ve also had some exceptional times in both countries. After a year in Korea, I can confidently say that I much preferred my job in Turkey for the children and the creative freedom, but that isn’t always the case. I worked at a school with young, bright eyed children who wanted nothing more than to be creative, energetic, and loveable. I loved their hugs and doting affection. I did have to work as a team with others, but we planned well together. Other people I knew in Turkey absolutely hated their jobs and said the students were the worst and most disrespectful they’ve ever had. Once, a middle school boy tried to run and slide through J’s legs to escape the classroom, only to be caught by his shirt collar and slapped around by a Turkish teacher. Hit or miss on that front, I suppose. Another thing that I loved about working at a small school in Turkey was getting unlimited access to hot beverages and Turkish snacks as well as two full meals at school. The food was (almost always) nutritious and always incredibly delicious. I miss that. The big public schools also provide lunch for the teachers, but it’s in a massive cafeteria that you wait for with screaming children.
Coming to Korea, I was guaranteed (by people who’d already taught there) the most polite and manageable students in the world. I was not prepared for what I’ve experienced: absolute robots, which is what pretty much all students over the age of nine are programmed and beat down to be, and heathens. I have far more rude, poorly behaved children than angels, although the few angels that I do have are simply lovely. This almost positively has to do with the fact that I’m teaching on Jeju Island and in a smaller town. From what I hear, that doesn’t exist in the prestigious and competitive city life. Again, hit or miss- I missed. I also do not get fed at my afternoon and evening job, with the exception of cake when it’s someone’s birthday. In the EPIK program, the teachers get to eat what the kids get in a style identical to the Turkish public schools.
Co-worker & Boss Relations
When it comes to work, Koreans believe in quantity over quality. I find this to be mind-boggling and a waste of time. Because of this, I gave up on any type of relationship other than exchanging greetings a long time ago. I’m OK with this. Other people have a different relationship with their bosses and are actually “friends” with their Korean co-workers. Every one (and every place) is different. The Korean business mentality is very set and you pretty much just have to accept it and move on without forgetting to stand up for yourself (politely) when necessary- Koreans cannot handle confrontation of any kind. Communication is difficult and decisions and methods are often incomprehensible. One that particular irks me is the obsessive emphasis on textbooks and standardized tests, which I think is a massive flaw in their language learning strategy. Again, you just have to accept this and move on, or get a new job. Or don’t come. You choose.
On the contrary, I was friends with all of my co-workers in Turkey and was very friendly with my boss. In fact, my boss definitely wanted to be good friends with all of us and frequently shared details of her personal life with us. Sometimes, this was a little much- separation of church and state. I definitely felt much more relaxed and comfortable in that environment, though.
In both places, (almost) all my co-workers seemed to thrive on gossip and talking behind people’s backs. I can’t deal with that. I don’t participate in that. Does that happen in all workplaces?
Well, there you go. That’s my short (and hopefully helpful) 411 on being an ESL teacher in Korea and Turkey. There have been lots of ups and downs, but the experiences have been worth it. Have anything else to add? Tell me and other readers about it below. If you have more specific questions, feel free to shoot me a message using the contact form. I promise to respond promptly and with slightly less cynicism.