Where and when did you teach English abroad?
I taught in Yeosu, South Korea for a full year. I didn’t go abroad with a specific program; I was approached by an independent recruiter working for the school that I ended up teaching at.
What made you want to teach English abroad?
After completing my BA in English, I wanted to do something different before I decided what my next step would be. My mother actually suggested that I teach overseas before making any final decisions about what step to take next with my education. I thought this was a great idea, and I enrolled in the Global TESOL College program [ TESOL Online (Teachers Of English To Speakers Of Other Languages)] right away. I’d graduated in August, and by November I’d become qualified and started looking for a job abroad.
How did you conduct your search? How did you select your program/country and/or find an employer abroad?
After I finished my TESOL qualifications, I began hunting for jobs on Dave's ESL Café, SeriousTeachers, and through various recruiting sites like Footprints Recruiting. After uploading my resume to the Serious Teachers site, I was approached by an independent recruiter looking for a teacher to work at a South Korean school. I’d always been really interested in Korean culture; and through my research I learned that South Korea really provides the best package when it comes to teaching overseas. Housing and airfare are provided, there is great medical coverage (which I used on more than one occasion), you get a settlement allowance, and if you work in a public school, the hours are pretty great, as well!
Describe the application process. What made you successful?
The process went fairly quickly. I have a strong resume and cover letter, and I think that really made me stand out. It also helped that my degree was in English, specifically, and that I had experience tutoring students. The most arduous part of the application process was getting the visa and getting everything notarized. It takes longer than you would expect, especially with all the documents being sent back and forth.
What was the biggest surprise about your teaching experience abroad?
How much the kids love their teachers! I taught fourth grade through sixth grade and I swear; it’s the only time that I’ve ever felt like a rock star! My students would get so excited every time they saw me, and if they were with their parents, they would want their parents to meet me. It didn’t just stop at the students, though, the public, in general, were also usually quite interested in the foreign teachers. It might have just been because I was in a smaller city, but there were numerous times where I had babies thrust in my arms so that the mother or grandmother could take a picture of me holding the baby.
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities while abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
There were plenty of activities to take part in, both in and outside the school. Volleyball is huge in Korea. Every Wednesday at school the teachers would get together to play volleyball against each other… and they took the game VERY seriously! I’m terrible at volleyball, so they usually aimed for me when they were serving from the other side… but they were good-natured about it! They took it seriously, but they also played just to have fun.
Outside of school, several of the teachers and I would often go out for dinner and drinks, and even to noraebang, which is a karaoke room! We had a lot of fun together, and it was great to be able to socialize with the other teachers that I was working with.
What made your experience abroad a success?
I approached everything with an open mind and enthusiasm! If you go in closed-minded, not expecting to like anything, you won’t! The best way to make the most out of everything is to put yourself out there and just go for it!
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
I was working full-time in retail before I left for Korea, so that definitely helped in terms of saving some money to head overseas. My parents also lent me the money for my plane ticket, which was promptly paid back by the South Korean school. Most schools don’t provide you with airfare; they reimburse it once you get your alien registration card and bank account. The initial settlement allowance also helped with supplying my apartment with the necessary furnishings. Staying on budget was fairly easy. I sent half of my paycheck home every month, which was easy to do, since it is so inexpensive to live in South Korea.
Do you have a story from your workplace that gave you particular insight into your host culture?
The school that I worked in was great; they were always trying to involve me in cultural events around the city that I lived in so that I could learn more about Korea. They involved me in festivals and explained the cultural significance of the events that they were including me in. They made me feel as much a part of Korean culture as possible.
How did you deal with the cultural divide during your time teaching abroad?
By trying to be as open-minded as possible. Of course, there were things that I did not understand or that I found confusing or annoying… but I always took a step back and reminded myself that while I would not have done things like that personally, different cultures have different ways of doing things. You just have to remind yourself that you’re dealing with a different culture, and to think of it that way, instead of getting upset about something you don’t understand.
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture while you were abroad?
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. People will realize that you’re just learning and that you’re trying really hard, and they will want to help you, just like they will want you to help them with their English skills. Be fearless, be open to advice and criticism, and be willing to throw yourself into the process of trying to communicate.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Simply to keep an open mind. If you approach everything with resistance, you’ll have a terrible time. The place that you will be traveling to will be different from what you are used to, embrace it, throw yourself into the mix, have fun, and enjoy yourself… because you will learn so much more. Also, pack light, but remember to bring some of your favorite comforts from home. I brought my favorite spices and seasonings with me, and they sure came in handy!
Do you have advice on how to handle a cross-cultural classroom?
Make it as fun as possible. If you’re having fun, then your students will have fun. No one enjoys being bored, whether they are the teacher or the students. Incorporate games, music, arts and crafts, and other fun and challenging activities into your classroom, and not only will your students thank you for it, but you will proudly notice all of the different learning styles that you have activated in your students.
What did you miss most about home?
My family and friends, but the use of Skype and Facebook makes it so easy to keep in contact nowadays! Sometimes, as a foreign teacher, you have a lot of downtime in your office; this was the perfect time for keeping in contact with people back home. Email, Skype, chatting on Facebook, blogging… they were all important ways for me to keep in touch with the people I love.
Do you have any final observations on your experience?
Teaching overseas is one of the greatest experiences you can have. You learn so much, and you get to have the satisfaction of watching your students develop and grow. It is such a rewarding and unique experience that you will never forget.
Describe an experience from your time abroad that made a particularly strong impression on you.
The experiences that made the strongest impressions on me were the ones where I truly got to interact with my students outside of the classroom. Students in Korea are in charge of cleaning the schools in the afternoon, and there was always the same team of students who cleaned my office. We would teach each other new words in our respective languages, and show each other tricks and talents that we had. I got to really know my students through little interactions like this, and it made all the difference.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I plan to return to South Korea with my husband next year. I’m so excited at the prospect of getting to teach English in Korea again! I am currently working in my education degree, and will be finishing it up next spring. My husband and I plan to spend at least a few years working and living in Korea, experiencing the culture and the people together. I look forward to sharing all of my favorite things about Korea with my husband, and creating new memories and experiences there.
South Koreans can be so welcoming! Tara shows just how exciting it can be to live an experience teaching abroad. People who have taught English in Korea almost all express the same enthusiasm and love for the country. Here are a few links for those who want to teach English abroad and also for those who want to travel with their loved ones. (Note: you must log in to MyWorldAbroad to access the links below.)
- Teach English Abroad provides readers with all the basics of teaching English abroad. One of the most popular articles in this section is Teaching English As a Stepping Stone to Your International Career. Check it out!
- Spousal Employment & Freelancing Abroad is an important section for any “trailing spouse,” and it deals with how to find work when your significant other is posted abroad.
- Career Planning and Family Considerations is a short article that helps couples overcome some of the basic professional hurdles that sometimes accompany a “family move” abroad.
- Special Concerns for Couples and Families see this article for advice related to the more personal side of moving abroad as a couple or family.