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The Good, Bad, And Ugly of Teaching in Korea

Is teaching abroad right for me? What’s it REALLY like? Should I take the leap? I once pondered the same things. Teaching abroad had been in the back of my mind for years as a possible option. One thing led to another and I found myself volunteering at an English school in Santa Marta, Colombia. Much to my surprise, I LOVED teaching children and adults. That experience was my catalyst to sign up for a TEFL certification and ultimately move to Busan, South Korea to teach English.

It can seem like a big step to fly across the world and commit a year of your life to teaching. What if you HATE it?!

Before you dive right in, take a minute to digest what you’re actually getting yourself into. A lot of sources talk about the wonderful parts of teaching abroad (there are a lot), but few reveal the terrible experiences and situations you may find yourself in.

There are things I WISH I knew and understood before taking the leap.

I will go over the amazing things about teaching abroad (some things you probably already knew, some maybe not) and the bad stuff (the shit your recruiter and TEFL advisor won’t tell you).

I am going to assume you will end up teaching abroad in the country of your dreams. I hope this prepares you for the good, bad, and the ugly parts of teaching abroad! *cheers*

Disclaimer: I am teaching abroad at a private school (hagwon) in South Korea. My pros and cons of teaching abroad reflect my personal experiences. This does not reflect the experience of other teachers in South Korea. It also does not reflect the experiences of other teachers at my hagwon. It is my personal experience and opinion.

This post is sponsored by Worldpackers and may contain affiliate links. If you use my links, I get a small percentage without costing you a thing. Thank you for using my links and supporting my blog! xoxo

The Best Parts of Teaching Abroad

Quick look:

  1. Free place to live + free flight (FREE STUFF!!!)
  2. Support from your school, recruiter, and TEFL Academy
  3. You can save a lot of money $$$
  4. Easy to make friends
  5. The teaching abroad/ESL teacher community is wonderful!
  6. The kids
  7. A sustainable way to travel
  8. Live like a local (exposed to new food + culture + language)
  9. Travel on the weekends + holidays
  10. Personal growth and development
Culture Village - Busan, South Korea | Pros and Cons to Teaching Abroad
Gamcheon Cultural Village – Busan, South Korea

Pro: Free Stuff

You Get a Free Place to Live

The greatest (and sometimes the worst) part of teaching abroad is being given an apartment upon arrival. I stepped off the plane in Busan, South Korea and immediately headed to my new “home away from home.” I didn’t have to search on Airbnb or book.com for a cheap and affordable place with good wifi — it just falls into your lap.

Here’s a sneak peak into my apartment:

I will note that sometimes the WORST part about teaching abroad is the apartment (lol). I lucked out and got a pretty spacious, clean studio apartment. Others are not so fortunate. If you do not like your apartment, have a nasty mold issue, or your school moved you into a box; you’re not stuck stuck. But, you’re pretty stuck. There are tons of threads on the expat Facebook groups of teachers sharing their apartment horror stories (mostly unlivable mold situations). Some teachers opt to get their own place. For more information about finding your own place or housing in Korea, check out the link below.

For me, I’m just grateful to be living rent-free for the first time in awhile. It may only be a studio apartment, but I love having my own space.

Related articles: FAQ Teaching in Korea

Pro: Free Flight

My school (and many hagwons in Korea) book AND PAY FOR your flight. I personally hate booking flights. I dread dealing with the administrative work of being a traveler (lol). So, having everything booked for me was a godsend.

Note: if your school doesn’t offer a covered flight, you can negotiate your contract.

Backpack and luggage for teaching in South Korea
My luggage packed for my flight to Korea!

Pro: Support from your recruiter and school

If you’re terrified to move abroad or have never traveled outside your country, teaching abroad is a great way to “get your feet wet.” Teaching abroad is like riding a bike with training wheels.

First, your TEFL academy (if you pick a good one) helps you with finding the right recruiter and answers all of your questions. Next, Your recruiter prepares you for your interviews, holds your hand through the visa process, and sends you tips for adjusting to Korea. Then, your school picks you up from the airport, takes you to your apartment, and shows you where everything is. It’s a “comfy” introduction to working abroad. You get help every step of the way. Not to say there aren’t hiccups along the way, but at least you have a network of co-teachers and staff to help you get settled and navigate your new home and country.

Pro: The Money *throws money in the air*

Depending on what country or region you choose, you can save some serious cash money. There are many people who save thousands of dollars while teaching in Korea for a year. The average teaching salary in Korea (starting off) is around $2,000/month with a rent-free apartment.

Okay, but how much money have YOU saved? I’ve found it easy to save around $750/month while living comfortably. But, I’ve had friends save NOTHING and friends who’ve saved $10,000 in a year.

teaching in South Korea - cost of living
Monthly Budget in Korea

If you choose to teach abroad in Mexico, saving might not be as easy. Teachers make around $500/month and often teach online or tutor as supplementary income.

Pro: Co-Teachers = Instant BFFs

Okay, I’m exaggerating. Not ALL your co-teachers will want to be your best friend. But, it’s pretty easy to make friends once you arrive at your school. I have 10 other foreign teachers sitting next to me in the teacher’s room free to hang out with on the weekends.

At some schools (public schools and small hagwons), you may be the only foreign teacher. But, there will be other foreigners in your surrounding areas AND tons of locals who want to be your friend.

Nervous about making friends? I cover how to make friends while teaching abroad HERE!

hiking adventure in Busan, South Korea
Weekend hike with my partner and two co-teachers

Pro: The Teaching Abroad Community

Once you become an ESL teacher, you are locked into a subculture of expats. You instantly join a family of thousands of others in your exact same situation. Feeling lonely or nervous or angry at your employer? There are hundreds of ESL teachers who feel the exact same way. It’s comforting.

I’ve met SO MANY other teachers on Instagram, Facebook, and in real life who’ve made this experience special. It feels warm and fuzzy to be a part of an inspiring group of humans living out their dreams.

The biggest and inspiring community I’ve gained throughout this experience is from my TEFL Academy. Want to study for your TEFL certification with an accredited company that has a network of thousands of ESL teachers around the world? A TEFL course with private FB groups where you can chat with other teachers (future and past) in the same region of the world. The International TEFL Academy (ITA) is the TEFL course for you if you value support, guidance, and community. Already got your TEFL? Follow @inteflacademy for story takeovers from teachers all over the world. (They aren’t paying me to say this, I love them. haha)

Pro: The kids are awesome.

This is the best part of teaching abroad BY FAR. You’ll get attached to the kids and it will be a rewarding, beautiful experience. Regardless of whether you love kids or want to be a teacher for the rest of your life or not, I promise you will enjoy it. Kids will sneakily change your life. They will test your patience and question your sanity. But, they are perfect.

I came into the situation with little experience with kids. I’m an only child and have never babysat before, I’ve never really been around kids. I figured they just weren’t for me. Six months later, I cried at my kids’ kindergarten graduation. They’ve taken over my emotions and turned me into “Courtney Teacher” who loves children. I never imagined myself a teacher or “kid-person,” but here I am buying Elsa stickers and my students’ favorite candy during my free time.

teaching in South Korea - my student is coloring a stocking for Christmas
Mia coloring her Christmas stocking

Pro: Sustainable Travel

Slow, long-term travel is better for the environment. I’m assuming part of the reason you want to teach abroad is because the “abroad” part. If you choose to teach abroad instead of “vacation style” travel, you are helping the environment. *pat yourself on the back*

Always opt for biking, walking, and/or the subway/train when possible.

Pro: Get to Know and Love one City or Country

I say hello every day to the lady selling fresh vegetables outside of my apartment building. The lady at the Kimbap restaurant knows my order. My partner and I are friends with the gym staff and personal trainers. We have a favorite vegan restaurant that we go to a couple of times a month. I’ve gotten to know the subway system and know my way around Busan.

Teaching abroad forces you to fall slowly in love (or hate lol) with one city and country. You learn the ins and outs of a foreign city and its people. You get to discover the local treasures, learn a new language (potentially), work with locals, and ultimately live like a local. You can’t obtain that in a week’s vacations or even a long-term trip.

There is something special about immersing yourself into a job abroad.

Pro: Travel on the weekends + holidays

When you’re not teaching, you could be exploring a whole new country and surrounding countries. It’s easy to get wrapped into expat culture and you’ll find yourself partying at the same bars weekend after weekend. Although there is nothing wrong with drinking and making friends with other expats, don’t forget to explore! Get to know and explore the country you are living in, not just the local expat-filled Irish pubs.

I recommend asking for your break/holiday schedule and get an idea of where you want to travel during your winter and summer vacation BEFOREHAND. Create a bucket list of every possible place you’d like to go. Research possible weekend trips, yearly festivals, and special holidays. Make a calendar and plan ahead! I can’t stress this enough.

Once you get to Korea (or wherever), ask locals (your Korean co-teachers) what to do and see on the weekends as well!

street food in Daegu, South Korea
Eating a potato tornado in Daegu, South Korea

Pro: Personal Growth and Development

This may be your first time living alone or having your own apartment. It may be your first full-time job. It may be your first time outside your country. Maybe you’ve traveled all around the world. Regardless, culture shock happens and it shakes you. Living abroad forces you to grow and learn at a high-speed rate. You figure out early on what you value and want out of life. You get to spend quality time with yourself and meet parts of yourself you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Whether you decide to teach abroad or not, don’t skip the travel part. Don’t skip the part of living in a foreign place and not being able to read any street signs.

The patience and confidence gained after navigating a foreign city is priceless and necessary.

What other options are out there? There are PLENTY of options to travel for free and make money if you don’t think teaching is for you. Check out 12 Ways to Travel for Free!

The Worst Parts About Teaching Abroad

What are the bad parts of teaching abroad? There are SO many things I expected, but didn’t REALLY expect. Know what I mean? I knew there would be challenges and I knew I may be unhappy at times. But, I didn’t expect to have multiple breakdowns AT WORK. So, here are the bad things I wish I knew about BEFORE signing my contract:

  1. The pressure (from your boss + parents + director)
  2. THE KIDS (yes, they are both a pro AND a con)
  3. 40+ hours, (unpaid) overtime, and bringing work home
  4. The administrative tasks
  5. The first month SUCKS (culture shock, loneliness, homesickness, etc)
  6. “Hagwon Horror Stories” + Midnight Runs (moldy apartments, missed paychecks, fraudulent contracts, and more!)

Note: I share these things not to deter you from teaching abroad, but to go into the situation more prepared.

Related Article: How to Get Hired in South Korea (includes questions to ask in the interview process to pick a good company)

Con: The Pressure

Teaching abroad is oftentimes glamorized. But, the reality is #teacherlife is overwhelming, tearful, stressful, and quite frankly, soul-sucking. You give your time, heart, soul, body, BLOOD to your job. And return? “You’re not working hard enough” or “the parents are unhappy.”

You may have a boss (fire breathing dragon) watching your every move. If you make one mistake or forget to cross a T, you may be reprimanded. Your boss may throw loads of work at you and never say thank you. After 6 months of working at a hagwon, I’m not really sure what recognition looks like. I’ve never heard the words “great job” and I can count on one hand the times I’ve heard “thank you.”

The parents will never be happy. You may not give enough worksheets or send enough things home or assign enough homework or assign TOO much homework.

And don’t get me started on the pressure from the director and all the other strangers peering into your classroom. Everyone’s speaking in Korea. They could be talking about you or about the chicken they ate for lunch. You’ll never know. (lol)

The pressure is real. It will hit you like a ton of bricks and leave the questioning your worth and sanity. You need to come into the situation with thick skin, ready to work for ass off. Or, you could be placed in a wonderful school and think I’m a crazy person on the internet. May the odds be in your favor.

Pros and Cons to teaching in South Korea
Two weeks into your hagwon job thinking “what the eff did I get myself into”

Con: The Kids.

Teaching is not for everyone. I think teaching is one of the hardest and underpaid jobs in the world. Regardless of whether you teach in the states or in Korea, all kids are the same. They take all of your energy and some days, all of your sanity.

Your student may have a raging temper tantrum mid-class. A student may pee his pants and wet the floor underneath him. You may have to stop your lesson to tend to a bloody nose or a kid crawling under his desk. You may decide to wear lipstick one day and your student calls you a “scary vampire teacher.” They may write “I hate Courtney Teacher” 15 times in their workbook. (lol) Your students may ignore your existence, pick their nose and talk to their friends the entire time. When you tell a student to sit down, they may laugh in your face and run away from you. (Note: these are all real situations that I’ve witnessed in my first six months of teaching.)

You might want to quit after a week, but trust me, it gets easier… or does it? (lol) It takes a while to get into the flow of teacher life. Sometimes it takes the kids a bit to warm up to their new teacher, you have to gain their trust. You will eventually learn what classroom management tactics work the best for you and your kids.

After six months, I have go-to songs, games, and activities. It took about three months for me to get used to the curriculum and get into my teacher groove.

Con: Administrative Work (+ the extra shit you aren’t paid for)

Thought you were done doing admin work after quitting your 9-5, THINK AGAIN. Think you’ll just be able to teach and go home? THINK AGAIN.

There are various tasks that teachers must do in addition to prepping for their classes.

Here are a few examples of various teacher tasks:

  • Report cards
  • Phone teaching (after school, sometimes late at night)
  • Writing syllabus (some schools provide them for their teachers, PICK THOSE SCHOOLS)
  • Open classes (where parents come to watch a rehearsed class, you must prep for this)
  • Graduation (unpaid on the weekend, you may have to write a speech or create and direct a play)
  • Monthly birthday parties (you may have to prep a dance for your kids to preform)
  • After school events
  • Working on Saturdays (CHECK YOUR CONTRACT!)

My biggest piece of advice I can give to you is to ask loads of questions in your interview and read your contract thoroughly. Ask what tasks are required outside of the classroom. Some schools are chill, barely have any admin work, others will flood you with (unnecessary) busy work. The crazy thing is both of those schools will pay you the exact same salary. Pick a school who cares about their employees and gives their teachers time to prep for classes. You want to work for a school who cares about the student’s learning and their teacher’s mental health.

If a school requires you to teach 30 hours or more a week: they do not care about your well-being. DO NOT WORK FOR THESE SCHOOLS!

Pros and Cons to teaching in South Korea
Teachers trying to breathe through the bullshit. (photo credit: Vivian Shih for NPR)

Con: Overtime and Bringing Work Home

I was told by a coworker during of my first week to NOT bring my work home. I thought, “oh, of course not.” A month in, I sat in my apartment writing paragraph long report cards for 6 year-olds until 9pm thinking what the hell did I sign up. (lol) I realized early on if I wanted to stay afloat, I would have to bring work home once in awhile (or stay at the school until 8pm).

The funny thing is that the harder you work, the more respect you gain at work. It’s as if your boss wants you to work 12 hour days as well. Korean culture is working until you die, then drinking to celebrate that you didn’t actually die.

Con: “Hagwon Horror stories” and Midnight Runs

Pros and Cons to Teaching in South Korea
The Midnight Run: The Act of Running For Your Life (lol)

Midnight runs are real. “Hagwon horror story” is an actual term. Google it. There are ebooks on Amazon recounting the horrible stories of teaching in Korea at a hagwon. There are hundreds of memes making fun of the fact that hagwon teachers are overworked and under-appreciated. I had an idea of what the work culture would be like in Korea before I got here, but to be honest, it’s way worse.

Some (actual) quotes from the LOFT: Legal Office for Foreign Teachers FB groups:

  • “I was fired in less than two weeks of starting my job”
  • “My employer is trying to use scare tactics in order to force employees into signing a statement that waives our rights”
  • “My friend was fired last week with 30 days. No warnings were received, no official ground for termination were given, and no letter of dismissal was delivered.”
  • “My employer is not providing me with breaks”
  • “My boss told me I can’t take a break during my 8 hour day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays”
  • “I was given a bad apartment. The entire building has mold, everything was dirty and broken.”
  • “My employer fired me and wants me out tomorrow, I’ll be having surgery in hour hours from now.”
  • “My apartment developed a mold problem and my landlord is saying it’s my fault.”

Before coming to Korea, I thought the people doing midnight runs were probably young, homesick Americans. That might be the case for some, but majority of people who do midnight runs are placed at terrible schools and treated like shit. If you find yourself at a place like this, know that you are not enslaved to your job and you can escape if you please. You only live once. Don’t give your soul to a job that you hate. It’s not worth it.

If you’re willing to take the gamble (not all hagwons and public schools are bad), then by all means, go for it! Korea is one of the most high paying countries and a lot of teachers love it. My advice: if you’re willing to sacrifice your pay and free stuff, I’d recommend teaching in a more relaxed country like Vietnam or Colombia.

Update: My Midnight Run: Escaping South Korea (yes, it happened.)

Who is teaching Abroad for?

If you want to be a teacher and are passionate about pursuing the teacher life, I would recommend teaching abroad. That’s not to say everyone who is teaching in Korea wants to be a teacher. There are plenty of people (like myself) who have other passions and desires for the future. If you are in a limbo state in the your life or want a change, I think it could be a good way to make money and have a cool experience. ALSO, if you have absolutely no money and just graduated from college, that’s also a great time to teach abroad. If you enjoy working a lot of hours (overtime), putting your HEART AND SOUL into a job, working with kids, have never traveled outside the US– you may love teaching abroad.

Summary: Teaching abroad can be for anyone, BUT it’s especially perfect for…

  • Those who want to be teachers (or anyone who wants to see if teaching is a good fit before diving into grad school $$$)
  • If you’re in a state of limbo in your life or want a change
  • If you just graduated college and are “broke as a joke” (not sure what to do next, up for traveling)

Note: there is a whole culture of “teaching abroad lifers.” A (very large) group of people who moved to South Korea (or wherever) and stayed. I work with an older Canadian man who moved to Korea in the 90s and never found a reason to leave. You can choose to teach abroad and start a life somewhere other than where you’re from. It’s an option.

Skills needed: patience, flexibility, hardworking, adaptable, good communicator, time management, problem solving skills, and critical thinking skills

Pros and Cons to Teaching in South Korea - my students in Busan, South smiling on graduation day
My favorites <3

Final Thoughts (READ!!!!)

Never ever listen to anyone on the internet or really any. Don’t listen to your crazy aunt who says it’s dangerous to travel. Don’t listen to your mom or your dad. You are an adult and it’s your job to live a fulfilling, magical life. If you feel a pull to teach abroad, DO THE DAMN THING. And don’t think twice. If you’re having doubts and think you’d rather just backpack the world, backpack the f*cking world.

Sign up for your TEFL. Or, buy a one-way ticket to [insert dream country]. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after 6 years of traveling: don’t hesitate. You know what you want. So, do it.

Thinking of teaching in Korea? Here are some resources for you:

Thinking about teaching online instead?

Here are some resources for you:

I want to live abroad. What are my other options besides teaching?

If your main goal is to travel, know that teaching abroad is not your only option. You can also Au Pair in Europe, Housesit, or Work in Australia using a working holiday visa!

For even more options, head over to 12 Ways to Travel the World for Free!


Thanks for reading, xoxo! As always if you have questions or want to chat about teaching abroad/travel/life, DM @courtneytheexplorer or e-mail me at hello@courtneytheexplorer.com! <3 Cheers to you and your future!

Save for later:

The terrible parts about teaching in South Korea - what no one talks about! The reality of teaching abroad (the parents, the overtime, the extra work, the terrible apartments, horrible bosses, and more!)
Why you should teach abroad - the best parts: the kids, traveling, saving money, and more!
Pros and Cons to teaching abroad, find out if it's right for you!

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