Daegi Elementary School, South Korea

April 6, 2018, by Jackie Thompson

Where in the World Will Your Degree Take You? Maybe South Korea?

By Ben Wolff, BSc Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, 2016

After finishing my A Levels, I went straight onto a degree in psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the university. And now I’m teaching English at an elementary school in rural South Korea!

Why I decided to work abroad

The main reason I decided to work abroad was because I didn’t feel ready to start a career or continue my studies. I didn’t take a gap year before university so I also wanted to travel and experience more of the world. Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) offered that opportunity with options in lots of countries. Korea appealed to me because it was offered stability and good wages relative to other countries throughout Asia, Europe, and South America.

As with most TEFL jobs, prior knowledge of the language wasn’t needed. I’ve learnt the basics of Korean and I’m still trying to improve. Living in a rural town can sometimes be challenging, but almost every problem can be solved with good miming and Google translate. The Korean characters (Hangul) are actually really easy to learn and read!

I teach four to 12 year olds between 9am and 5pm at a small elementary school of around 70 students. I teach 20 hours of lessons with my role ranging from teaching assistant to fully unsupervised teaching. However, every school operates differently; some teachers lead every single lesson, some teach overtime for extra pay. In rural areas with small schools it’s not uncommon to teach at two nearby schools.

Applying for teaching in Korea

In Korea, it is possible to apply directly to individual schools, but most teachers use recruiting agencies to negotiate the language barriers. To apply to public schools, you must go through the nationwide English Program in Korea (EPIK) or individual provincial programs. After being accepted, they can place you anywhere within the province. I applied to two provinces and was offered jobs in two towns. In many areas, it is not competitive if you can show you are competent and reliable, however with the huge metropolitan cities a few years of teaching experience is often preferred. First-time teachers are almost always placed in elementary schools.

The E-2 work visa for Korea involved me having various documents notarised as well as sending off university transcripts, a couple of references, and various identification. The whole process took a few weeks and was quite expensive. Other countries have far fewer requirements than Korea to obtain a working visa.

A sense of adventure

Working abroad has truly opened my eyes to the different opportunities that are out there if you are willing to look for them. The opportunity to travel to the rest of eastern Asia and meet like-minded people with a similar sense of adventure are definite pluses. The experiences gained working abroad can be turned into fantastic additions to any CV, and by leaving your comfort zone you may form new ideas about life and career goals. I never would’ve travelled as much had I not taken the leap and now I’ve gained a desire for more adventure.

After Korea, more travelling

After I finish my time in Korea I will continue to travel, perhaps exploring more work abroad through volunteering programmes. I would like to eventually gain a postgraduate degree and am currently looking into studying in Europe. The individual environments of teaching abroad can change drastically and I have been lucky with a great school this time around. In the future, if I see another good opportunity I would be willing to teach again.

Overcoming challenges

Being so far from home can be difficult at times, especially when you realise how many things you will be missing out on in friends’ and families’ lives. I can also go a few days without having a proper conversation in English which can sometimes be draining. Fortunately, I have made some great friends and work at an extremely hospitable school where I can relax and enjoy my lessons and interactions with the teachers and student

Overcoming the challenges of interacting with non-English speaking adults and children has provided invaluable life skills in communication (and patience!) which future employers will like. Showing experience in, and the ability to, adapt to foreign environments can also prove extremely beneficial when separating yourself from other applicants.

With any work abroad (and specifically teaching), the key to enjoying your time lies in having an open mind and embracing all the cultural changes and challenges you may face.

If you’re interested in working abroad after your studies, check out our working abroad pages and use Passport Career, a subscription-only service available free to University of Nottingham students and graduates.

Posted in Alumni StoriesChoosing Your Career