Wednesday, October 12, 2011

So You Wanna Teach English In Korea....

I've been getting a lot of people asking me about the process of becoming a teacher in Korea. There's a ton of resources online, but many sources contradict each other and the whole process can be overwhelming. It's one thing to apply for a job back home, but preparing yourself emotionally and physically to come here shouldn't be bogged down by the logistics of it all. Getting the job should be the easy part, leaving home is the one that people should struggle with.

So, for those of you wanting to go teach overseas (or just are curious about the process), I've compiled a guide on getting a job in Korea. This is all from personal experience, and so things may vary depending on where you apply or what country you go to. Comment below if this is helpful or (for my fellow WayGooks) if want something added. 

Before You Go...

Paperwork
This is the most crucial step in the application process and, most of the time, you can start it before applying to Recruiters (I'll discuss them later). It's a time consuming and convoluted process and, if you don't know about these documents from prior experience, it can be a headache getting everything right. Here's a list of what you'll need, how you obtain them, and some of the problems you might encounter along the way.
  • Passport (USA ONLY). This is kinda obvious. You need a passport to go abroad. If you don't have one, go to any post office in the USA and start the application process there. You can also go to the State Department's website here and start filling out all the paperwork. You'll need passport photos, which you can get at any Walgreens or photo studio. Once all of that is collected, find your nearest 'acceptance facility' and they'll help you out from there. Most of the time, your post office can submit your paperwork on your behalf. Fees will run you about $135, and a passport lasts for 10 years. A great investment.
  • Passport Photos. Everything you submit will require photos of yourself. This includes ID cards in the country you're visiting, Visa applications, and most schools want to see your face on your application. Get about 10 copies or so just to be on the safe side. 
  • School Transcripts. Yes...they are going to look at your grades. My co-teacher asked me why I got a D in Astronomy, and it's funny to explain that you were busy making money on ChaCha instead of paying attention in class. Your school will help you with that. Order 2 or more copies, and ensure that they are SEALED copies. If they are opened, you'll need an Apostille (which I will explain later) to ensure that they are valid. Photocopies are also not acceptable.
  • Diploma. When you are applying to Korea, they will ask for a photocopy of your Diploma with a Notary and an Apostille. I've heard of schools asking for the original, but the Korean Government doesn't require your actual diploma. For most universities, you can have an official diploma printed for $35 or so, so if you want to send one, you can. It'll still need to be notarized and Apostilled.
  • Letters of Reference. Like any job, you'll need some Letters of Reference. 2 is the standard minimum, but if you can get more that'll be advantageous. Try to get one from a professional source and one as a personal reference, and make sure you get multiple copies of each letter.
  • FBI Criminal Background Check. If there is anything that you should start early rather than later, it's this. Your CBC can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months, and you WILL NOT get a job until you have this document in hand. You can apply for your CBC here. Fingerprints are required, and most police stations will gladly do those for you. Also, when you are applying, try to have the FBI Apostille your CBC for you. This will save time. The CBC should come back with the FBI seal and signature. If it doesn't, make sure you fix it through the FBI before you proceed.
  • Proof of Residency. This isn't required, but highly encouraged. As a US citizen, you aren't required to pay Korean taxes. To get this tax break, you have to have the IRS validate that you are, indeed, a tax paying citizen of the USA. You can get Form 6616 (sounds ominous, right?) here. You can get up to 10 copies for $35, and you can have those copies validated for different countries (like Japan, Thailand, China, or wherever you want to work).
I mentioned that you'll need an 'Apostille' for the copy of your Diploma and your FBI CBC. When I first started this process, I had no clue exactly what an Apostille was. It's basically the international version of a Notary. If you think about it, this makes sense: just about anybody can notarize a document. Korea shouldn't have to recognize something that was validated by a bank teller or a secretary at the district office. 

That being said, I wish Apostilles were easier to obtain. To get an Apostille, you have to mail your documents to your state's secretary office. This can take days, and if you mess up the paperwork they will send your documents back and ask you to do the process all over again. To save time and the headache, I would recommend going in person. The secretaries there will help you fill out the paperwork, and they can make the photocopies themselves (which is to validate that this is a true copy of the original). Also, the FBI CBC can be Apostilled by the FBI themselves. Doing this will save you time and money.

Certification
Experience teaching isn't necessary, but jumping into a classroom with 38 Korean students should require some kind of battlefield experience. Nothing can prepare you except for experience, and getting thrown into the deep end forces you into sink or swim mode. I personally perform better under that pressure. Some people hate it...

Regardless of which you prefer, I would suggest getting your TEFL or TESOL certificate before applying. Both certificates are qualifications for teaching English as a foreign or second language. They are nearly identical, but check with your school first and see which they would prefer. Also, make sure you take the 100-hour or more course, as most schools won't recognize anything less than that.

If possible, take your certification in a formal class setting. I took my TEFL course online and, while the information was useful at times, I didn't learn anything substantial that'd help me be a better teacher. Having that class setting, you can talk with your peers and discuss what makes a great teacher. Networking is a plus as well.

Most TEFL online courses can be found for under $500. Mine was only $200, and the certificate is intentionally recognized. You also get a pay bump with most contracts, so the certificate pays for itself in a couple months.

Recruiters
Ok. You have your paperwork ready to go. You're fresh out of your TEFL course. Where do you go to get a job?

Some people (the really brave ones) will just leave for a country and try to find a job on the ground. While it's nice to get a feel for the country before accepting a job, you'll run into a slew of Visa problems and you run the risk of blowing all your money before hand. Also, your plane ride there isn't covered, and that $1000 is definitely nice your first month here.

The easiest way to find a job is to go through a recruiter. A recruiter basically works with a list of schools in their given region and matches them with a teacher. The schools pay the recruiter a bonus, the recruiter helps the applicant with the Visa process, and then you fly here and jump right into the classroom.

Another benefit with a recruiter is that, if you have a solid application, you can be selective with where you want to teach. Do you want to teach Elementary or High school? Hagwon or Public (we'll cover those)? If one falls through, the recruiter will help you find another school. They want the money and, if you choose the right recruiter, they genuinely care about you and want to help. They are the liaison between Korea and your home country, and so they are always trying to impress.

Choosing a recruiter is tough, as there are so many of them and none of them will tell you if they are one of the 'preferred' recruiters or not. There's a short whitelist in Korea that most schools hire from, and it is those recruiters that you want to work with.

I personally went with a group called Hands Korea and I give them my highest recommendation. I went through 3 schools that, through scheduling conflicts and other reasons, things just didn't work out with. Throughout that whole process, Hero and Joseph (the two guys I primarily worked with) kept in contact and helped me with my Visa application while I was in Thailand. Great guys, and they continue to stay in contact with all their recruits while we're in Korea. Oh, and they are on that 'whitelist' too.

If you are at any University in the USA, you can probably find a list of recruiters in the English department of your school. I know that GEPIK (the public school governing body in my area) likes to hire straight out of college, essentially bypassing recruiters. Look around and research. More importantly, trust your gut. If a recruiter seems shady or asks for something that you aren't comfortable with, stop! Common sense will get you where you need to go.

Hagwon vs Public
This is one of those pivotal choices that can define how good your time teaching English will be: whether to go teach at a Hagwon or Public school.

What is a Hagwon? Hagwons are the private academies in Korea, and 95% of the students here go to one after they are done at school. Hagwons usually operate from the early afternoon till 10 or 11pm, and teachers can expect to work those hours as well. Yea...6 year olds here are going to school from 7am to 10pm. Stop complaining about your 8am classes.

Because hagwons are owned privately, they are different everywhere you go. In general, you get paid more at hagwons than Public Schools, but you work much harder and the environment is (from what I hear) much more stressful. Class sizes are significantly smaller: public schools hover around 35, while hagwons have 20 or less. You also teach more lessons during the week than a public school teacher.

The most crucial different I found is the stability of the job and all that it entails. Because Public schools are regulated by the government, things like pay days, your apartment, airplane refunds, pension, health insurance, and everything associated with the job is guaranteed to you. If you have a problem with any of them, you will either be compensated or you can petition to the Board of Education. Most public teachers I talk to are very happy with their situations.

Hagwons can be great places to work, but you sacrifice a lot for those smaller classes and higher paychecks. Shop around. You're going to be here a year, so make sure it's worth it!

Interview Process
Yes, you are applying for a job. They will want to interview you to make sure you are a good candidate for the job. Most of the time this is done through Skype or some kind of video conferencing, although I had a couple interviews over the phone.

The best thing you can do to ace that interview and secure a job is to be honest and to be yourself. Be upfront about what you expect from the job, your previous experience, and what your fears are when you get there. Ask questions! You have a right to know what the job is like. Often, the interview process will be done with the Native English teacher that you are replacing, so ask him or her plenty of questions if you get the chance.

Remember: the fact that you got an interview in the first place means you're doing something right and that they are interested. Don't stress out too much. Sometimes a school won't hire you just because you're a boy or a girl or maybe your personality doesn't fit that environment. Don't worry! You'll get a school. There's a demand for teachers here.

Getting ready to go!


The Contract
Ok. You got a job offer. A contract just got sent to you. This is critical: READ YOUR CONTRACT! Know what you are expected to do by law. Read everything so that there are no surprises and that, if a school tries to change something, you can refer back to your contract and protect yourself.

There are nuances that might freak people out, like the housing deposit of $900 or the 22 'mandatory' teaching hours per week plus Saturday classes. If something doesn't look right, get in contact with your recruiter or school. Ask those questions and make sure everything is crystal clear before you sign.

Mailing your Documents
Once you read your contract cover to cover, your recruiter or school will request that you send all your Visa documents (that long list of documents I mentioned above) to Korea. This is standard practice, so don't panic that all this information is being sent to a foreign country.

The easiest way to send all of this is to go to a UPS or FedEx store and ship all the documents with a tracking number. This will give you an ease of mind and you can see exactly when your recruiter or school receives your paperwork.

Once your paperwork is recieved, it'll take a week or two for immigration to process everything. Your recruiter or school will notify you if there is any problems. If everything is fine and dandy, you'll receive a Visa Confirmation number via email. This number will allow you to go to the Korean Embassy in the United States (or your home country) and apply for an E-2 Teaching Visa.

Visa Process
In the United States, all E-2 Teaching Visas are issued by the Korean Consulate that resides over your region. There are many consulates, so find the closest one here. You can also find more details on the required documents for your Visa here. You will need your Visa Confirmation Number, so make sure you have that handy.

This process can take anywhere from 24 hours to 3 days, so plan accordingly. Some allow you to mail in your passport and apply that way, while others will want you to apply in person at the Consulate. If you can, I would recommend going in person. The clerks will help you with making sure your paperwork is in order and you won't run the risk of delaying your visa because of a problem with the Postal Service.

Once everything clears, they'll give you a shiny Visa sticker in your passport. This Visa will allow you to reside and travel in and out of Korea for 13 months. Congratulations! You can legally hop on a plane and start your job as soon as you're ready!

Packing
Oh yeah...it's getting real now. You have to pack a year's worth of stuff and fly to a foreign country to teach English. Are you scared yet?

Packing, for me, wasn't a big deal. I was just getting back from a trip to Thailand, and so I was basically packed and ready to go. I travel a lot, so I'm use to living out of a suitcase. For some teachers, this is where everything started to seem really daunting. How the hell do you stuff all your belongings into a suitcase?

Well remember...you are flying international. That lets you take up to 2 pieces of luggage at 50lbs a pop for free. There aren't any of those pesky baggage fees. I had to check in a 3rd because they didn't recognize my camera gear as a carry on, and that only cost me $100. Don't fret about not having enough room.

At the same time, you want to travel light. You can pick up most of what you need here, and if you forget something you can have Mom and Dad ship you some winter coats or pillows in that care package they intend on shipping you the first month you're away.

Here's a list of things that I brought (or that I wish I brought) in my luggage. Obviously, tailor this to your own personal needs.

  • Clothes...unless you like Korean fashion. Bring jeans, as they are expensive as hell here. Also, it'll get cold during the winter. Very cold. Bring that winter gear as well as some thermals.
  • Shoes. Also expensive as hell here. Converse is really popular here, so if you like those shoes you can pick up a pair for a reasonable price.
  • Toiletries. You can buy things like soap, razors, saline, and shampoo at the supermarket. They do not have stick deodorant, so bring a year's supply with you. Also, they don't have American-brand toothpaste like Crest or Arm and Hammer. I'm particular about that, so I also brought a ton with me.
  • A towel. Besides the obvious "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" reference, the towels here are small. Super small. Bring one really fluffy one with you.
  • Paperwork. Make sure you have your shot record with you. They take a blood test when you land, and proving to them that you do not have Hepatitis A can save you the headache.
  • Blank checks. This will help you when you want to transfer money between your Korean and American bank accounts.
  • Electronics. This is a tricky one. They use the European-style plugs, and everything is at 240V (where in America we use 120V). Most modern electronics are rated from 100-240V, and the easiest way to see if you can use something here is to look at the power adapter. Read that fine print under 'Input'. If it reads 100-240V, that means your plug is rated correctly and all you need is a plug adapter. You can pick up universal ones at most electronic or travel stores for under $20.
  • A camera. You want to capture those memories, right?
  • English books. They don't sell many books in English here, so unless you have an Amazon Kindle with you, finding books can be a chore. Keep these to a minimum though, as that is a lot of weight to carry with you. Seriously though...if you like to read, just pick up a Kindle. It's cheap and will be your best friend on those long days spent on the train between your house and Seoul.
  • American Candy. The candy in Korea is sub-par at best. Definitely bring some Resee's or your favorite candy with you, just in case you can't find it here.
  • A present for your co-teacher. In Korea, your co-teacher will be your liaison to everything for the first couple weeks or months. They will also probably become your best friend. Start things off on the right foot and bring a present for them...something distinctly American. If you can, try waiting till you can do duty free shopping in the airport. I had my present confiscated by customs in Korea and felt pretty silly when I came here.
  • Whatever you need to make your apartment feel like home. For me, I brought a small box of knick knacks and pictures of home as well as all the flags I've collected from my travels. It made my barren apartment come to life. You'll need that when the culture becomes overwhelming and you just want to feel like your'e home again.
  • Currency. Bring money with you! You might have to wait an entire month before you get paid, so bring about $500 with you to survive. If you can, order Korean Won from your local bank. That will give you the best exchange rate. You can also exchange it at the airports, but the rate isn't always the best.
  • Skype. Download Skype. It's the easiest way to call home.
  • A Korean Phrasebook.
Buying Your Plane Ticket
Your bags are packed. Your Visa is in hand. Now all you need to do is buy your plane ticket.

Your plane ride to Korea is reimbursed...not provided up front. That means that, on your first month's pay check, you'll get your plane money back. This is hard for some, as a one-way ticket can cost anywhere from $500-900. Think of it as you signing your contract: this is you letting your school know that you are serious about teaching.

As for finding a flight, I would suggest using Kayak. Kayak searches all the other travel sites for the best rate, and their user interface is easy to navigate. You want to fly into Incheon Airport in Seoul, and you want to buy a one-way ticket. Remember: you are getting reimbursed for an economy ticket. Choose the best flight out of convenience, and don't save money by having a bajillion layovers.

Make sure you print off  a couple copies of your itinerary, and leave one with your family at home just in case. You will also need to save your boarding pass to get reimbursed when you get here.

Also, it would help to confirm that you either have someone picking you up at the airport or that you know exactly where you are going. It's a 12 hour flight, and the last thing you want to do when you land is to be stranded at Incheon or get lost in a country that you don't understand.

Spend Time With Family
This is obvious. You won't see them for an entire year. Enjoy your time with them before you leave.

Congratulations! You're off and away!

If you have anything else you would like to add, or perhaps you are unsure about something teaching related, sound off on the comments below. Good luck, and 한국에 오신 것을 환영합니다.

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