…as a married couple.
We had toyed with the idea of moving abroad to teach for a couple of years, but have always known that there was no point in making any serious plans until we had both finished with uni. Back in the summer after graduation when Jod was becoming really disheartened with applying to dozens of jobs every week for months on end and never even getting an interview, we started to talk about the idea more and more. All the reasons described in our previous post became more and more important to us until we couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Once we had made the decision and told our parents (which, by the way, was one of the most unpleasant things I’ve ever done), we started to get serious about the job hunt. There are two main routes to ESL employment in Korea; the EPIK program and Hagwons. EPIK (English program in Korea) is a scheme run by the Korean government to get native English speakers teaching in public schools around the country to improve the fluency of students. These jobs typically come with quite low teaching hours (around 22 each week), 8.30-4.30ish schedules and decent holidays, but the program is very competitive and successful applicants don’t know where they’ll be teaching until they arrive. Less and less teachers are hired each year even though more are applying, but the pay is good and there is a lot of support offered in terms of a 10 day induction and the chance to meet other people on the program. We initially applied to EPIK through Korvia, a recruiter that came highly recommended online. Honestly we didn’t feel like we were given any support or guidance with the application process and we were rejected as soon as we submitted our initial documents, without even the chance for an interview.
This was a bit of a blow, but we didn’t let it dishearten us too much as we knew we had the option of finding a job at a Hagwon. Hagwons are sometimes described as “private academies” and typically offer kindergarten provision during the morning and after-school English lessons during the afternoon and evening for children from elementary right up to high school age. The most common hagwon jobs involve either teaching around 9am-6pm for mainly kindergarten or 2pm-10pm for older children. If that seems pretty late for children to be having lessons it’s because it is, but Koreans are serious about education, and many children study until late at night, every night. Some of the benefits of hagwon jobs include better pay, the chance to work with more English speaking teachers (in an EPIK job you’re usually the only native English speaker at your school) and the opportunity to choose exactly where you’re going to be teaching. Negatives include the fact that you’re kind of at the mercy of the parents who are paying huge fees to send their children to these academies and that you may be expected to teach many more hours a week (typically 30) with less support, and sometimes on weekends. There are lots of horror stories online about hagwon teachers being paid late or not at all, or hagwons closing unexpectedly and the teachers being deported without notice. Generally, however, if you work with a reputable recruiter and do your research, you should be able to find a decent gig. Our task was complicated slightly by the fact that we’re a couple who wanted to teach at the same school, so we had to apply for specific couple jobs which don’t come up as much as jobs for singles. This is because the individual hagwons actually own the apartments where their teachers live, so if they don’t happen to own an apartment big enough for two, they aren’t going to hire you both.
After our bad experience with Korvia we were a bit wary about working with a recruiter so we initially applied for a few jobs ourselves directly through Dave’s ESL Café job board. We had three or four interviews but we weren’t very excited about the schools; we either didn’t gel with the interviewer or saw red flags that made us pull back. During one interview the principal literally said “Oh. You’re not American?” as soon as we started talking, and then cut the interview short. A lot of hagwons are based on US or Canadian curriculums and so the schools are looking for teachers from those countries to help provide some cultural context for their students. It’s kind of understandable, but also a shame for us.
After a while I sent a message to Amanda, one of the Teacher Representatives at Teach ESL Korea, to try and increase our chances of success. Although they’re a recruiter, they work in a different way to the others. Rather than sending applicants a list of schools looking for teachers, they build a detailed profile of each candidate and then make these available for the schools to view. If a school thinks that a particular candidate would be a good match for their vacancy then they ask Teach ESL Korea to arrange an interview. That’s how we were put in touch with Julice (our recruiter), Rachel and her fiancé James, who offered us an interview to take over their jobs next year. We started reading up on the school they teach at, Songwon Elementary, and quickly learned that we were being offered a really amazing opportunity. Not a public school but also not a hagwon, Songwon is a private school in the truest sense of the word with all the advantages of both kinds of school, seemingly without many of the disadvantages. We would be able to work “normal” hours, together, have decent holidays and a great salary. Not only all that but Songwon is actually one of the most prestigious schools in Gwangju and is serious about providing its students with a fantastic education (one of their alumni went on to become the first South Korean astronaut!)… it almost seemed too good to be true. We went into the interview with a really positive attitude and just tried to be ourselves and really show our enthusiasm for both teaching and Korean culture. Luckily we gelled with Rachel and James straight away, bonding over food and travel, and we came away feeling hopeful but also very aware that there would be a lot of competition for these jobs.
As luck would have it, Rachel also works part time as a recruiter for Teach ESL Korea so she was able to give us a lot of support and help us maximise our chances by suggesting we make some introduction videos to help convince other teachers at the school why we should be hired. There followed a frantic evening where we learned that neither of us has any kind of future in broadcast journalism, but somehow we managed to cobble together a few minutes of footage that we sent off to Amanda, Julice and Rachel with fingers crossed. We knew there were two other couples being considered for the position and that we would have to wait around a week to hear back.
Trying to be practical and not put all our eggs in one basket, we continued applying for other, more “typical” hagwon jobs. After a few days we interviewed with a Kindergarten we were really keen on. The location was near Seoul and the principal spoke perfect English, was really easy to talk to and was enthusiastic when we described how we would like to teach. We had a second interview and also each sent a short video lesson so that they could get an idea of what we would be like in the classroom. We were thrilled when they offered us a job, but both really had our hearts set on Songwon Elementary and the community in Gwangju that Rachel and James had spoken about in our interview. I sent an email just to find out if the school was any closer to deciding, explaining that we had received another offer but were still very keen and after a few tense minutes waiting to hear back we received the good news – they wanted to offer us the job! Obviously we just about bit their hands off and the rest is history!
It’s still around three months before we start teaching but we’re already so excited and have even made plans to pop down to Gwangju and visit the school for the day when we’re on holiday in Seoul at Christmas. As far as the application went, I can’t recommend the team at Teach ESL Korea enough. The whole process was clearly explained to us, there was fantastic communication the whole way through (despite there being three different time zones involved!) and everyone has been so friendly and helpful. If anyone out there is considering applying to teach ESL in either Korea or China, I would definitely recommend them. I’m also pretty confident that if we had worked with them on our EPIK applications we would have had a much greater chance at being accepted, but in a way I’m glad we didn’t because then we wouldn’t have got the job at Songwon.
That’s it for tonight…we’re currently knee-deep in visa application paperwork, so wish us luck with the next stage of the process!