People in Korea badly want to learn English, and as a result, thousands upon thousands of private schools called "hogwans" have popped up offering language courses for those who want to pay for them. A common feature for nearly every hogwan is native-speaking English teachers. They are usually intended to supplement the standard grammar education with instruction in conversation and pronunciation skills. They are also a huge marketing gimmick.
Basically, the demand for foreigners outweighs the supply and good salaries are available for marginally competent people. The average salary for a foreign teacher is about 1.9 million won which is approximately $1900 US a month. Combine this with the low cost of living and the fact that hogwan's usually pay for your housing and round-trip plane ticket, foreigners can save more money here than they could working for an American company twice as hard.
So why should I leave my country for Korea?
There are a number of reasons that foreigners come here, and I shall reiterate a few of them. The reason I came was for a vacation that would pay for itself. Intimately exploring Korean culture, eating Korean food, gaining valuable teaching experience and Korean language skills while making enough money to pay for it all seemed like a pretty sweet deal to me. My 3-month extravaganza is not a money-making venture, however, due to my short-term time commitment.
Many people come here just to change their lives for a while. Sick of the monotony of where they come from, they seek new experiences and adventures abroad. There are many such characters here in the foreign community who hop from country to country for sometimes up to 10 years. But most people only stay for 1 year which is the standard contract period before returning home.
There are those who come here strictly for the money. Not necessarily incompetent, they are opportunists who seize the chance to make lots of money for doing relatively little work. I know of one fellow who plans on working here for 10 more years before retiring back in Canada. These are not necessarily bad people, just here for a different reason.
Another very popular reason for coming to Korea is the women. Many western men find Korean women a little more palatable then their western counterparts. The common arguments are that Korean women "know how to be feminine," and that their isn't the typical conflicts involved in contemporary western relationships. Couple this with the attraction of exoticness and mutually intense interest in foreigners, many foreign men usually have a Korean girlfriend at least once during the duration of their stay. Not surprisingly, the converse situation does not hold because foreign women usually find Korean men too chauvinistic and not very attractive. Go figure.
How can I work if I have no teaching qualifications?.
Truly, the expectations of foreign teachers is very low in this country. The only requirements-- and this is merely to get a work visa-- are to be a native-English speaker and to have a 4-year degree. I have a degree in engineering which has absolutely nothing to do with teaching, yet I turned out to be a relatively competent teacher.
I say relative because the quality of foreign teachers is very low. If you merely express a desire to do a good job and appear hard-working, you will shine above the rest.
The primary purpose of foreign teachers is to help with speaking, listening, and pronunciation. This is usually accomplished by doing as much talking with the students as possible. However, hogwans usually give a completely free hand to the foreign teacher as to how they conduct their class. My personal curriculum can be read here. Its generally very very easy.
This sounds too good to be true. What's the catch?
There is a catch. There can be many pitfalls and hazards to working in Korea. These mostly manifest in the differences of business practices, the volatility of the hogwan business, and the ignorance of foreigners.
There are common accounts of foreigners getting ripped off by their hogwan owners. However, with a little know-how, these horror stories can be avoided. First off, business contracts in Korea are generally considered to be "working agreements". This means they are always up for negotiation or changes in the terms.
A Korean will never completely violate a contract. Instead, they will make subtle re-interpretations which will end up with them owing you a little less money. Foreign teachers usually have a good bargaining position, and the risk of losing one's job is very small. All that needs to be done is to stay on top of things and make sure your hogwan fulfills all of its obligations. If you let them, they will walk all over you. It's really not as hard as it sounds though.
Another reason foreigners sometimes get screwed is because new hogwans generally go out of business. When this happens, you will not get any money that was owed to you. The solution to this is to work for well-established hogwans and/or make sure that the hogwan owes you as little money as possible.
Another caveat is the amazing amount of illegal work going on here. It is illegal for foreigners to give private lessons and it is illegal to work without a workers visa, but an enormous amount of foreigners work this way anyway.
It is important to put this into a little perspective. First off, there are many laws in Korea that are the result of incompetent legislation. Subsequently, there are many laws that are ignored and unenforced. The high demand for English teachers and the government's inability to legally supply them has led to an explosion of illegal work. However, attempts to eradicate illegal workers are almost non-existent since doing so would benefit absolutely no one. It is very common for hogwans to illegally employ foreigners and treat them with the same courtesy and respect they would with their legal workers. Hogwans generally don't care.
Now I am not condoning criminal activity, but it is important to recognize that the sheer number of incompetent laws in this country makes nearly everyone a criminal to some degree. The key point to realize is that these laws are generally not enforced and the police don't care. If you decide for some reason to go the route of teaching with no work visa, as long as you don't go blatantly announcing your intentions to the police and the immigration office, you will probably have no trouble.
So how do I find a job in Korea?
I originally got interested in Korea from Acts of Gord and tried to get a job through Gord. However, he was a bit busy at the time, so I took the initiative and started looking on my own. I got lucky in that my job turned out to be okay and I was not forced into some compromising position.
To find a job working in Korea, I would suggest going through a recruiter since they generally will look out for you while you're here and make sure you aren't screwed over. Additionally, I would recommend that you find a Western recruiter since Koreans are Koreans and Korean recruiters are just as apt to take advantage of you as hogwan owners. Gord operates in the Seoul area, but I cannot vouch for his credibility, but he's probably a good start if you're interested in Seoul.
For the Pusan area, where I work, I would recommend you mail SK Recruiting which is a very credible American guy who is reasonably competent. Additionally, you can always browse the classifieds, but always check the black list and always ask for a second opinion from someone who knows. Don't believe everything a hogwan tells you.
A couple great sites about working in Korea include the US Embassy in Seoul and Pusanweb. Additionally, you can browse my diary if you're interested in cultural information and day-to-day life.