When and where did you teach abroad? Did you go with a program?
I taught abroad for a year in a city called Gwangju (located near the south-western part of Korea, approximately 250 km south of Seoul). After that contract ended, I moved to Seoul where I lived and worked for a full 10 years. I relied on personal contacts to land the positions, rather than going through a program.
What made you want to teach English abroad?
Ever since university, I’d always known I wanted to live in Asia. Three years after graduating I finally settled on a destination: South Korea. I chose South Korea over Japan simply because the host institutions covered teachers’ flight costs. (Apparently Japan used to do the same, but they stopped a few years before I began planning my trip.) Experiencing a new culture and interacting with locals was the most important motivation for me to go to South Korea.
How did you conduct your search? How did you select your program/country and/or find an employer?
I had a friend from university who was already living there who helped me land a job. (I found out later that he actually received a $1,000 recruitment fee for suggesting me!)
Describe the application process. What made you successful?
Applications can be frustrating and discouraging, especially if it’s your first time going through the process. When you’re deciding on a host school, I suggest trying to find out the working conditions beforehand, or try contacting a friend or acquaintance that lives in the area to see what advice they have. Being a university graduate definitely helped me land my job – having a degree is one of the top requirements for an English teacher in Asia.
What was the biggest surprise about your teaching experience abroad?
Having taught abroad for many years, and in over 10 English academies, I’ve had many surprises along the way. One of my first big surprises was the amount of hours some students (in particular middle and high school students) are required to study. Because the students spend so much time concentrating on their studies, they are usually too busy to attend after school programs or participate in extra-curricular activities. These sorts of activities still exist; they’re just not as prevalent as they are in Western schools.
Did you participate in extra-curricular activities?
I’ve been playing music all my life, and Seoul has a very vibrant music scene. So after my first year-long contract ended and I moved to Seoul, I became very involved in the music scene, with varying levels of participation and success. I feel I could write a whole article on the differences between the Korean music scene and the North American one!
What made your experience abroad a success?
I’ve been lucky to avoid some of the struggles I’ve heard of other teachers having, such as directors being unable to pay their teachers, schools going bankrupt without warning, poor housing conditions and unsympathetic directors. That’s not to say I haven’t had setbacks, but I’ve always been able to stay afloat – so that feels like a big success.
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
As I mentioned earlier, my return flight and housing were paid for, so it wasn’t difficult to maintain a healthy budget. When I first arrived I had to wait six weeks before getting paid because I arrived mid-month when all the payment systems work on a monthly basis. However, the director (who I became good friends with) gave me an advance to assist me in my living conditions, considering I needed additional funds to furnish my home.
How did you deal with the cultural divide during your time teaching English abroad?
I embraced it, so I never felt alienated or lonely. Many times I was technically alone, of course, but I never considered solitude to be a hindrance in a foreign location.
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture?
What I learned over the course of my years abroad is that the most important factor when dealing with different cultures and languages is that there has to be a basic mutual understanding between the two people who are trying to communicate. It’s tough to overcome language barriers at first, but once you’re sure that your message has been conveyed and understood, it will feel like you’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Know what you are getting into before you accept the position. If you know someone in the area who can scout out your potential workplace for you, make use of that. And ask about the conditions of your living space before you step on the plane. If you don’t know anyone in the area you’re planning on working in, ask for a future co-worker’s e-mail. You could even ask for an ex-employee’s contact information in order to ask why they left. Make sure you get the information you need, but try not to bombard your potential employer with heaps of questions, as you don’t want to appear intrusive or annoying. Simply ask if they pay on time, if paid vacations are offered, what the living conditions are like, etc. If the turnover rate for Korean teachers is high, that may not be a good sign. However any school or academy where a foreign teacher has been working for over two years could be a good bet.
Do you have advice on how to handle a cross-cultural classroom?
The best advice for teaching cross-cultural would be the same as teaching local students: have patience. When you are teaching young students with limited English ability, the atmosphere can be very trying at times. Just remain focused. Also remember that foreign students will often be interested in hearing stories about your home country (holidays such as Halloween and Christmas, long summer vacations, etc.)
What did you miss most about home?
I missed the fresh, open air spaces at home. And my family was, of course, always at the top of my list of things I missed. But even though I missed home, I appreciated the 24-hour convenience, amazing public transportation, cheap high quality Internet availability, Korean food, etc.
Do you have any final observations on your experience?
Some of the best years of my life so far were spent in Korea. There were so many highlights and it’s comforting to know that South Korea is always there waiting for me.
Describe an experience from your time abroad that made a particularly strong impression on you.
It’s not a teaching experience, but one major highlight was getting to play in a band in front of 3,000 screaming Koreans. I was the only foreigner in the band – and in the stadium, from what I could tell – and afterwards I was asked for autographs and photos while locals spoke to me in broken English with their thumbs up, saying “good job!”
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching experience – after all, I’d never intended to stay for 10 years. I knew that I enjoyed teaching and my experience abroad really solidified that feeling. No country is without its faults, so I’d be lying to say Korea is perfect, but a positive outlook makes a world of difference when you’re facing challenges abroad. For the moment I’m in Canada, but I’d definitely consider going abroad to teach again in the future.
There is no doubt that Gary enjoyed his 10 years teaching English in South Korea. In terms of lifestyle, he maximized the value of his time abroad, and has built a strong connection with his host culture. Unless one is planning on building a career in teaching abroad, the long-term career value of such an experience does go down after the first few years abroad. Unless you plan on making a career out of teaching abroad, we recommend limiting your term to two years. This amount of time allows you to fully immerse yourself in a foreign culture, develop excellent cross-cultural communication and adaptation skills, and prove to potential employers that you are capable and cross-culturally sensitive. Gary, however, had many other objectives for staying in South Korea long-term, and we applaud him for pursuing those.
- Marketing Your International Experience to Employers is a great article for those returning from a cross-cultural experience abroad.
- Also consider reading the Job Hunting When You Return section to start thinking about how best to frame your skills and experiences when applying for jobs at home.