Where and when did you teach English abroad?
I taught ESL in Seoul, Korea, with my partner for a year. I’d taught ESL in France in 2006-2007 through a program organized by the French embassy, and my fellow ESL teachers there suggested Korea as a possible next destination. I knew from my immersion experience in France that I wanted another chance to live in a foreign culture, but I wanted to take it a step further by choosing a culture where I wouldn’t be able speak or read the language right away.
How did you conduct your search? How did you select your program/country and/or find an employer abroad?
Getting connected with an ESL position in Korea was surprisingly easy. There were a number of big agencies that were recruiting teachers from all around the world. Footprints Recruiting is a Canadian agency with a great reputation (I’d heard about them through my ESL teacher friends in France). In the end, Footprints was unable to place me in the city itself and the job would’ve required me to live in a teacher residence dorm room. I ended up connecting with another smaller agency. My partner and I submitted our resumes and reference letters, and within a week they’d found us positions teaching young kiddies at a posh school, Laurus Little School, in the Gangnam area of Seoul.
Describe the application process.
Our agency guided us through the process for getting work visas. The Korean embassy had recently put in place a very thorough visa application process, so we had tons of forms to fill out and the delay was much more than we (and our agency) had expected. If I remember correctly it took three months or so to get the visas. We ended up heading to Korea two weeks late, and we arrived in Seoul two days in to the school year. Once we arrived at Incheon airport, things were pretty straightforward. We were met at the airport by two representatives who brought us in to the city to meet with the vice principal of our school. We met her outside our future apartment, which our school had found for us in the Haebangchon neighborhood near the foreigner center of Itaewon. Our apartment turned out to be a beautiful, huge three-bedroom apartment with a balcony, washer/dryer and comfy beds with brand new mattresses. From what I’ve heard from other ESL teachers, we lucked out on our spacious living arrangement.
How did you deal with the cultural divide?
Despite my past experience with ESL teaching, I remember feeling disoriented and overwhelmed in the first couple of weeks. The jet lag, new language, pollution and creepy seafood swimming in the tanks in front of the fish restaurants – it all added up to feeling way out of my comfort zone. And although Seoul is full of ESL teachers from around the world, there was still some xenophobia on the part of some the Korean people we met. We also discovered the off-putting phenomenon of “saving face” through the actions of the administration of our school.
Did you participate in any extra-curricular activities? If so, how did they differ from those in your home country?
It may have been because I was there with my partner, but at first it was tough to connect with other teachers outside of school. The breakthrough moment was when I got involved with the Seoul Players, a theater company for expats based in my neighborhood. They put on shows throughout the year, including 24-hour theater and a “night of a thousand plays.” I found a yoga class at a gym close by, and I started venturing off on my own self-guided walking tours of the city (thanks, Lonely Planet!). I took Korean-language classes put on for free by the Korean government, and I learned to read the signs in the subways and grocery stores. Once you decide to throw yourself out there, there are tons of resources online for ESL teachers; Dave's ESL Café is one of the best. The key seemed to be to jump in with both feet.
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
One of the best perks of teaching ESL in Korea is that the standard seems to be for the school to cover the costs of the flights and rent for their teachers. This means that it’s possible to arrive in Korea with very little to your name, and, assuming that paychecks start arriving on time, surviving financially is pretty easy. What was your return like? When I came home from Korea, I was ready to be back – to have that familiarity of language and family and old friends. But within a few months I was thinking about my next ESL teaching destination. South East Asia was on the top of the list – I’ve heard good things about Vietnam and Indonesia, for teaching and living. And I still regularly have pangs of longing for Korea, despite the struggle in my first few months in Seoul.
What are your future plans for travel and career?
I have to admit that now I’ve hit a place in my life where I’d find it harder to give up my community in Halifax and start fresh, but the dream to head off on another international immersion adventure is still bobbing around in my mind. For the moment though, I travel regularly, backpacking in Europe and South America, with plans for Eastern Europe and Africa in the next few years. And back in Halifax I remember my time in Korea with frequent outings for Kimchi Stew and Korean Barbeque.
There’s no question that Sarah has been bitten by the travel bug! Although she is very attached to her home base in Canada, she has many plans for future international travel. We’d recommend that she maximize the personal and professional value of her short-term international excursions by participating in one- to two-week volunteer programs in the countries she visits. And if Sarah and her partner do choose to travel abroad to teach again, we’d suggest that they consider going to a South American country – perhaps Argentina or Chile – in order to broaden the cultural scope of their international teaching experiences. As seasoned international travelers and experienced English teachers, the two of them would have no trouble finding good positions.
- Teaching English As a Stepping Stone to Your International Career will give ideas on how to parlay your English teaching experience into further international opportunities.
- Marketing Your International Experience to Employers is a good touchstone article for anyone with international experience who is looking for a job either at home or abroad.
- International Volunteer Opportunities Resource List is a great place to start searching for short- or long-term volunteer trips to broaden your international experience.