Is Korea the worst place to teach English?

Google “don’t teach” and what comes up on auto-complete?  “Don’t teach in South Korea” meaning that it’s a pretty widely searched for statement.  Although this is not evidence of anything it’s not difficult to find horror stories on the net relating to teaching in Korea.  So is teaching in Korea really so bad?
At the start of this blog it’s probably best to say that I’ve never taught English in Koreaand to also add that I’m sure there are plenty of people teaching in Korea who are having or have had a really great time there.  However, the shocking regularity of unsavory stories about the EFL world in Koreahas always made me wonder just what the attraction of teaching there is.

The first time Korea popped onto my radar was while I was teaching in Japan and I read a US government warning to avoid teaching in Korea.  The warning has since been removed but it was up for a fairly long time ( a couple of years at least) and reads as follows:

Due to the growing number and seriousness of problems experienced by American citizens teaching English in Korea, we counsel against  taking such employment, even at reputable colleges or universities, except upon receipt of a favorable written referral from a current American citizen employee.  We receive several complaints daily  from Americans who came to Korea to teach English.

Despite contracts promising good salaries, furnished apartments and other amenities, many teachers find they actually receive  much less than they were promised; some do not even receive  benefits required by Korean law, such as health insurance and severance pay. Teachers’ complaints range from simple contract violations through non-payment of salary for months at a time, to dramatic incidents of severe sexual harassment, intimidation, threats of arrest/deportation, and physical assault.

Now this is a pretty spectacular message for anyone in the EFL world.  We all know about dodgy schools that illegally employ uncertified English teachers, and we sometimes hear stories of schools conning teachers or teachers leaving early, or behaving in an inappropriate or even illegal way.  These things do happen from time to time.  However this is something quite different.  This isn’t just a warning about some schools but the US government were pretty much saying “just say no kids!”   Not even in the hallowed halls of universities were foreign teachers safe from being ripped off. 

I started to notice a pattern when I went to daveeslcafe job hunting in 2003 and found something quite odd. Not only did Dave have a separate section for ‘Korea Jobs’ (distinct from the Asian jobs section) but there was also a separate section called something like “complaints about Korea”.  Now things have changed in the 10 years since I started teaching and there is a separate section for Chinese jobs as well now but the Korea complaints section under the guise of “Korean job discussion“.  click the link though and you’ll find several stickied threads with some very telling titles (see picture).  It is also relatively easy to find some horror stories if you scroll down a bit further, like this oneSo many complaints and enough job offers to warrant a separate section…clearly something was going wrong! 

Yet it seems like there is a almost a perfect mirror of this situation among Koreans themselves.  That is to say that while Koreans are getting a bad rap for their treatment of foreigners, the Korea press seems to take great delight in bashing foreigners.  While I suppose foreigner bashing sells papers in any country, it seems to be somewhat more pronounced in Korea

So rather than sympathy for foreign English teachers who are being exploited and abused by Koreans (to the extent that the US government tells people not to go there) many people seem to hold a massively negative view of the English teachers themselves.  The most shocking manifestation of this phenomena can be seen in this story about a Korean man who spends his free time tracking (stalking?) English teachers.  The chap in question believes he is protecting Korea from dodgy foreigners, though how he manages to spot the dodgy ones is anyone’s guess though he claims he has this ability.  Some believe that the group’s activities lead to the compulsory HIV testing of foreigners working in Korea.

I’ve always felt when reading these stories the best thing for both parties would be to just stop seeing each other.  Korea’s relationship with its English teachers seems to be like a failed marriage that continues “for the sake of the kids”.  If some Koreans abuse English teachers and believe that they are all lazy sexual predators, the best thing to do would be for teachers to stop going.  Of course, the problem is that what tends to happen is that the ‘good’ teachers will find work elsewhere in Asia and the very worst teachers who can’t manage to get work anywhere else may drift to Korea where teachers are in short supply (that’s not to say teachers in Korea are all ‘the very worst’).  These are just the kind of people that the Koreans seem to be worried about and yet they are creating the perfect conditions for them.

Luckily help seems to be at hand!  Engbots!  The article notes that “ unlike human teachers robots don’t need salaries or benefits.” which is perfect as by all accounts the some Koreans don’t like providing them. (edit: check comments -Mike tells me the Engbots thing is a bit of a myth.) 

As noted at the start I have never taught in Korea, so if you feel some of the information here is wrong or misleading please get in touch or comment and I’ll make every effort to change it.

20 thoughts on “Is Korea the worst place to teach English?

  1. This is quite an interesting post. Oddly I don't have much to add to it…Thanks for sharing for your thoughts. I guess I would say that the people that are happy are not online complaining about it! I'd also say that the \”native speaker\” experiment in SK has largely been unsuccessful but that there are lots of success stories. Cheers, Mike Ps- I have to say that the robot story is mostly untrue and that robots have not really been used in classes (and are, in my view, more of a publicity play by the robotics industry.)


  2. I think for qualified, dedicated teachers Korea is a great place to work. I've been here 3 years now, and due to hard work, professionalism and getting necessary qualifications, I've gone from working in a horrible small city hakwon where I was treated with very little respect to a prestigious high school in one of the finest areas of Korea, where I'm treated like a professional.At the end of the day, if you turn up in a country with no qualifications, no teaching experience and are only motivated to drink as much soju as possible while paying off your student loan you're not going to be treated like a professional teacher, because you aren't one. When I worked in the scuba diving industry it was exactly the same, if you had little experience or qualifications you had to take the crappy jobs that treated you badly and work your way up the food chain by being good at your job. That is just life. For me, the problem in Korea is too many foreign 'teachers' coming here expecting to be treated like something they're not, something I was also guilty off when I first arrived. Whether that's Korea's fault for hiring them in the first place is, for me, besides the point.With regards to racism in Korea there are extremists in every country, in the U.K we have a political party that actually holds a parliamentary seat whose sole policy is that all foreigners should be removed from the country, and people actually vote for them. I think most of the foreigners here whining about racism are those fresh out of university with young, fresh ideas on what the world is like, but posses very little practical experience living and understanding other cultures around the world.Unfortunately, as you point out, a vicious circle has been created where by young inexperienced teachers are being brought to Korea, who then complain and complain (even though many stay for 2 or more years), which in turn puts off more experienced teachers coming to Korea. I think such teachers should just count themselves lucky Korea will pay them $2500+ for doing a job they are not qualified to do, as that wouldn't happen in our home countries.Alex


  3. I can speak from experience. I've worked four jobs, and I got robbed by three. I did a good job, worked hard, and earned praise from my students, coworkers, and employers. There is just something about the Korean mindset that if they are above you or have power over you then they can dispose of you as they will. You do not stand a chance in the Korean system. If you are not here and are thinking about coming, then stay away. I am stuck here because I married a Korean and have young children. Aside from my kids, Korea has been the biggest mistake of my life. I would never say that I regret my children, but if I did not have them, I would be so far out of here.Things for me are different now because I own my own visa, and I won't play around anymore. At the first sign of problems, I handle the situation by preparing beforehand.


  4. Who paid you to write this? Whilst you speak well — in a way that is politically correct and \”common sense\” oriented– you obviously have few friends or a very narrow point of view. I have known many qualified teachers who have had their senses offended several time over in that country. Of course you have a good point about coming qualified, but I have seen the most qualified (an the least qualified) do very good jobs in Korea and get screwed regardless. The post following, where-in the gentleman speaks of the 'mindset' of Koreans hit it on the head. It is a psychological phenomena that is a direct product of the Confucian meritocracy.


  5. As a current teacher who is very qualified to teach I consider Korea to be a symbiotic predator. The desire to learn English and western culture is to get ahead and not for cultural exchange, which is the reason a lot of westerners come here to teach. I find that Koreans want me to be open about English and western culture, but they are very closed and secretive about their culture and language. My Korean teacher tells me my Korean accent is good and understandable, but Koreans refuse to speak Korean with me and laugh at me. I experience being ignored by bank tellers, sales clerks, etc. all the time – because they don't want to deal with a foreigner. I still am ignored even after I start speaking Korean. To make the situation worse I am blonde, tall and of Russian ancestry even though I am American. In Korea if someone (mostly middle aged males) asks you if you are Russian they are asking you if you are a prostitute. I get the \”You ruskie\” all the time. I've learned to say in low Korean (not polite) that I am not a prostitute. I suffer the subway plague all the time. I've even been asked to move so the empty seat (sometime seats) can be utilized. The best Koreans to befriend are ones who are expats themselves, have lived overseas for years, or are married to foreigners. The best places to work in Korea is for the public schools (the government), an international school or a foreign owned hagwon. If you work, in a strictly Korean work environment you will be treated as a mentally challenged child regardless of your qualifications, age or experience. Koreans under-utilize NETs as well as misuse them. There is a lot of envy from your Korean co-workers, because of the hiring package you receive versus their contract. I have found it best not to let my Korean co-workers/neighbors/most Koreans know my fluency of Korean, my interest in Korean history and literature nor my interest in Confucian based cultures. It's best that way. Especially with the 20-40 age groups – they despise you for it. Get to know your students and the really old people – the ones that remember \”good GIs\” from the Korean War. My first year in Korea was a miserable hell, but it's gotten better because of the rules I mentioned above. My travels in Japan have given me a much better view of the East and eventually I will find myself in that country. Hopefully I won't be as ruefully disappointed as I have been with Korea. Oh and it does earn you brownie points if your grandfather fought in the Korean War like mine – the old men don't stare as much when they discover that fact.


  6. Koreans are the most arrogant and dishonest in Asia. If your not Korean your scum and they feel no obligation to treat you fairly.


  7. Korea has a separate page in Dave's ESL because Korea by far, is the largest market in the world for ESL education. They are crazy for learning English that is not found anywhere else in the world. As a consequence, Korea has the largest number of ESL teachers in the world. English learning is popular in other countries in Asia also, but not much as Korea. If you have that many teachers, then you're also going to have that many problems or complainers. Korea is a very popular destination amongst ESL teachers because they pay the most, and it's easier to set up for first time teachers because Korean schools provide free apartments with the contracts.


  8. Hi, Thanks for the comment! That's really interesting. Could you send me a source to for \”Korea has the largest number of ESL teachers in the world\”? Cheers?


  9. I'm also married to a Korean with kids. I speak fluent Korean and know the culture really well. I've lived here 4 years. While it's true that if you're single and have lots of expat friends or Korean friends who've traveled, you can have an ok time here and make ok money. But there's no career making here, no future, and no integrating into the society. Koreans' ethnic nationalism means that as far as Koreans are concerned, Korea is for Koreans…period. I admit that I'm very embittered towards this place and towards Koreans in general, and I know some people have really good experiences here. But I would advise 99% of people considering coming to Korea to go elsewhere. You will almost certainly save yourself a lot of trouble and you will definitely have more fun. I can't wait to get the hell out of this shit hole in 3 months.


  10. I have taught in Korea, and I can tell you that there are real problems, and foreign teachers do get cheated out of money. My own experience hasn't been 100% bliss. On the other hand, I can tell you that I have had a number of really positive experiences, both in and out of the classroom. I made a few really good Korean friends when I was in the country, and these people were able to help me. When I left Korea it was never with the sense of \”I HATE KOREA\” or \”KOREANS ARE EVIL,\” but rather that the attitudes of a loud, well-organised prejudiced and pushy minority of Koreans are creating major problems, for Koreans as well as foreigners. It may explain the complex application process for teaching jobs and the E-2 visa. and the cutbacks in state schools jobs. Reflecting on the EFL situation in Korea, I can't help feeling that the Koreans are deeply-conflicted about the subject. I get the impression that \”English Education\” is not viewed entirely rationally. Perhaps this is why I, an experienced teacher, was told by a recruiter yesterday that I could not get a job in Seoul or the province that surrounds it. Why? I am from the U.K. not North America. They want a North American teacher only! And I am too old! They want young teachers under 30 at least. In 2013, I did get a job in a public school. The school was nice but it was in a really dull rural area. I ended up going to Seoul or Busan at the weekends. It was in Seoul that I met a retired G.I. who adored Korea. He was commiserating with a very young man who had been in the country for just one month. His private school boss had just fired him. Why? The children didn't understand his accent. I did understand him. But his voice was very soft and muffed. When I speak foreigners understand, because I have learned to speak very clearly and to slow down. I also know a lot about teaching. But that's not what schools necessarily want. They want an American with good looks, fresh out of university, with no training or experience whatsoever. Many of these schools don't want to give teachers training or guidance. It is by no means certain that they have enough teaching resources for their foreign staff. They want enthusiasm, not experience. (If teachers fail in this environment, it is assumed they are BAD teachers). And Korean parents must be paying millions of dollars for this.


  11. I have some Korean friends and still stay in touch with some Korean students; I have some Korean students, now, and am not in Korea any longer–but I sadly admit, this is right on the money. My advice is to carry oneself with understanding in mind , love in the heart and Zen in the behavior–and despite these truths, you will still find nice people there. And fair ones–but you have to prove to be exceptional, and then it brings out the best in Koreans–out of shame–because sometimes the duplicity is not malice or neglect, on their part–it is social conditioning.


  12. You are really a \”the glass is half full kind of guy,\” for which I commend you–but don't drink that water too deeply; you'll choke on it. You could be a lot more honest, is my point. By the way–you speak English well.


  13. Stop generalizing and placing all foreigners in the same stereotypical category. There are plenty of experienced and more than qualified people who STILL get treated like dookie. Alex, it seems you still have a looooooooooooooooot of growing up to do. You're quite the arrogant one, know it all. On one extreme there is the self entitled whiney brat you talk about but on the other end is the \”I arrived\” korean brownnoser. You seem to be the latter.


  14. I have taught in Korea in public schools and in hagwons. I have also taught in other countries. You should know…You can AVOID most problems teachers have by asking the right questions.


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