“When I stumbled upon the idea of teaching English in South Korea, I wasn’t entirely sold. Kids? Korea?
But the positive experiences I read about, my overwhelming desire to get out of town as quickly as possible and the potential dollar signs quickly swayed my opinion. Quickly I’d found a listing that looked good, done a Skype interview and suddenly found myself in the thick of the necessary paperwork. In what felt like a second blink of an eye, I was at my first day of work in rural South Korea at a small, private middle school. Suddenly, I was a teacher.
I have plenty of experience in a wide array of areas, and I wasn’t completely brand-spanking-new to ESL teaching; I’d also volunteered during University with ESL students and held a weekly conversation group. But I’d never been in front of a classroom, responsible for a group of 20 middle schoolers and their brains for the next year. I was thrown into work and forced to land on my feet, teaching myself to teach as I went. About three quarters into the year, I read a book about teaching theory which would have been a great idea for my first month. In time, I found my voice, my teaching style and my disciplinary methods and now consider myself proficient. I’m no professional. But I’ve come a long way.
While I was adapting to my new life as a teacher, I also had to adapt to life in the countryside. I had some warning that I was getting real rural, but the reality was a shock. I was the only foreigner in my school and the friends I initially met were a solid 20 kilometers and 45 minute bus ride away, “in town” as it has come to be called. There would be no quick runs to the coffee shop or spontaneous dinners in my future, unless you call a 1 hour warning spontaneous, which I eventually came to do. My front yard view featured multiple construction materials shops and strangely colored buildings, while the backyard rice paddies stretched as far as the eye can see. Cows, plots of land and hunched over grandmothers became the sure markers of home for me, as opposed to the neon lights of Seoul or a busy downstairs restaurant. I didn’t get the watered down, western-friendly sweet syrup version of Korea, I got a double espresso shot of culture. Bitter, but it’s grown on me.
So as time passed and I settled into my routine, it quickly became clear that my job was actually a great find. My coworkers are sweet, kind, helpful and welcoming. My in-class hours are significantly lower than some of my friends, though my planning time is much more because of the frequency with which I see my students. The school is small so I get to know my students that much better. I’m paid well and treated well, taken care of in my work and apartment. My contract is flexible and I’m able to negotiate for anything I need. Those in charge of me are clearly concerned with my well-being and making sure that I’m happy and comfortable, not seeking to wring me dry of my skills and then move onto the next native English teacher they can hire. I may be in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve really got it good.
Being in the countryside also helped me reach those financial goals of mine, as there are considerably fewer ways to throw money around. TeachingEnglish in Korea has helped me pay off my student loans and be free from payments, free to volunteer or work where my passion lies regardless of salary. I’ve also saved up enough to travel later and explore the world around me before worrying about sustaining myself. I had enough extra money to buy a nice camera, a couple unforgettable vacations and retain my peace of mind; in case of an emergency, I’m financially covered.
And on top of all of this, the opportunity to learn Korean has been one of the best perks of being an English teacher in South Korea. The Korean language is a serious challenge; it’s difficult, intricate, and overflowing with basic, necessary vocabulary. I haven’t reached the level I’d like to teach in well over a year of study and practice, but I’d have never gotten this far in a classroom. The immersion experience has jumpstarted my brain and helped me learn so much, so quickly and with passable pronunciation. As someone who is passionate about languages, I’m so glad I’ve had this humbling yet confidence-building experience. Every day I face a situation I can’t communicate in, yet I’m aware of just how far I’ve come.
So while living between rice paddies and construction sites has been an experience, it’s one I’m glad to have had and would gladly encourage others to pursue. You’ll need a lot of adjustment skills to live happily in the countryside, but it offers you so much in return. A real, authentic view of Korean culture, friendly people and beautiful sunsets will greet your hard work. Teaching will also challenge you to grow and perhaps you’ll decide that it’s not your cup of tea. But at the end of the year, (or two years or three years,) you’ll be better for it both on your resume and in your heart.
Sally is a writer, blogger and passionate go-live-abroad advocate. She currently teaches ESL in South Korea and previously studied abroad in Argentina and Austria. She likes photography, puppy cuddles and learning foreign languages. Check out her blog here: http://www.