Molly Rose began her TEFL journey with an internship in Vietnam. When the Covid-19 global pandemic hit, Molly Rose had a choice to make. Would she move back home to the UK or will she continue her journey through Asia? Read this insider’s guide to find out what life is really like in South Korea during the pandemic. You will also discover tips to consider before moving to teach in South Korea and how to make the most of your time there.
Why Molly Rose Choose to Teach in South Korea
After going from my undergraduate straight to a master’s degree, I was itching to get out and travel. I knew I did not just want to pick up my backpack, but I wanted to really immerse myself in a culture. That’s when I decided to get a TEFL certificate and move to Vietnam. I had experience living and working abroad before but moving to the other side to work indefinitely was the next step. I spent almost two years in Vietnam and traveling around Asia, and along the way, you meet lots of people who made the same move. South Korea always cropped up in conversation – the mention of the incredible landscape, fun lifestyle, and welcoming people – it was always the plan to visit South Korea. When COVID hit, I left Vietnam, but knew my experience teaching in Asia wasn’t over and that’s when I decided to move to South Korea.
Preparing to Travel to Teach
My process of getting to South Korea was anything but straightforward, but that’s what you get when the world is in the midst of an international pandemic. However, there is so much information and support out there. It is key to get all of the documents in order to begin the process as once I did, it all happened very quickly. I had to order a new background check, send that along with my degree to get apostilled alongside the correct visa documents. I sent copies of my documents to South Korea, got sent a visa number, sent my documents to the embassy in London, and just played the waiting game. At the time I did this, you needed a letter confirming you didn’t have Covid symptoms from a doctor. I luckily missed the requirement to get a test by a few weeks. I received a phone call from them confirming my details and (no) symptoms, was told I would get my passport and visa in five days, so that day I booked a flight for six days’ time. And it all worked out.
First Impressions of South Korea
A few people around me were worried about me embarking on this journey in the midst of a pandemic. But being in Vietnam when it all happened, I felt comforted in the way that countries in east & southeast Asia were dealing with it all. The mandatory quarantine and robust system for entering the country, quickly put any doubts at ease. I knew I was in a country that was prepared and had good systems in place. Throughout quarantine, I had an app installed on my phone where I tracked any symptoms and temperature twice a day. I got to quarantine in my own apartment so I could really settle in and make the place my own. My school kitted out the kitchen with enough food to last me two weeks and the government also provided a care package including food and quarantine friendly trash bags, a thermometer, and extra masks.
How to Handle Culture Shock
Moving your life abroad can seem daunting but it is important to remember why you are doing it. Are you the type of person who likes to be well informed and have a clear idea of everything you are getting yourself into? Or (like me) do you like to do minimal research so you can just fully immerse yourself and learn as you go? I had the benefit of living and working in similar cultures previously, so I did not experience any culture shock. But I’ve been around people who have experienced cultural shock and it’s totally normal. Things that have always helped me adjust quickly are to establish my own routine, find things that I know bring me comfort, create a strong support system (both in-person and family and friends from home). The most important thing I have always told myself is to throw myself into and create my life and if it does not work for me, then I can leave and go home – so I might as well make the most of every new experience I can have.
Life and Living in South Korea
Since I’ve been in South Korea, there have been several restrictions due to Covid. In the beginning, it was take-out only in coffee shops and restaurants, but that has since changed. Depending on the number of cases, there have been restrictions on gathering in groups more than 5 and 10 pm curfew on bars and restaurants. But it doesn’t necessarily feel like restrictions as the world has been dealing with this for over a year, so it seems normal? It’s still totally easy to socialize and live your daily life and down the line, there will just be more opportunities for a boozy night out.
Plan Your Finances Ahead
When arriving in South Korea, there are few things to recommend from my own experience. You are a little restricted in what you can get until you get an ARC (Alien Registration Card) which confirms your residence. You need this to get a bank account and sim card. In the process of getting an ARC, you should be completely supported by your company to get this, but it will take a few weeks until you get it. So, you should make sure you have a bank card that will allow you to make international transactions and a sim card that will last you a month. I would also bring some cash with you for the same reason. Not all websites, food delivery apps, and stores accept international bank cards… and there does not seem to be rhyme or reason to it. Luckily, I had a few different ones, and some were accepted in some places and some weren’t. But as soon as you have your ARC, you will be golden.
Prepare to Adjust Your Routine
Being able to learn on the ground since I have been teaching in South Korea allows me to tell you some key insights which I learned in real-time. I am a morning person, and the rest of South Korea is not. That is an exaggeration of course, but I was shocked when I could not do my groceries before starting work at 10 am. My personal preference used to be getting all of my errands done in the morning, but you adjust quickly.
The majority of people I know prefer to order groceries online which is quick and, much like South Korea, very efficient – which may explain why they don’t need to be open earlier than 10 am. Also, bigger grocery stores are closed on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of every month, which when I first heard about this, I thought ‘two days a month? No problem’ but I have been caught out more than once. But what does it even matter when there are 7/11s and its counterparts -Nice 2 C U and GS25s around every corner? Beyond being your local convenience store, it’s not uncommon to buy food and drinks (aka ramen and soju) and spend your evening hanging out there with locals getting drunk.
A Foodie’s Paradise
Beyond the tales of my opinions of the grocery store brings me to food in South Korea. It is a foodie’s paradise – a great range of options from local delicacies to western. Korean BBQ, fried chicken, kimchi… you are never more than a stone’s throw away from these traditional Korean meals. However, if these don’t take your fancy, there is no problem. My friends would describe me as a picky eater to put it lightly… but I have always found options and it’s never been a problem. Everything I can buy in the UK; I can more or less get my hands on everything I want in my local supermarket plus Korean specialties.
Adventure Around South Korea
One of my favorite things about being in South Korea is nature. The country is 70% covered in mountains and has water surrounding it on three edges and an adventure is never too far away. Working in a private school, there isn’t a huge amount of time-off given, but luckily the country is small, and the transportation system is crazy efficient so you can really make the most of your time off. Since I’ve been here, I have been able to explore Busan, Seoul, Ulsan, Daegu, and a few others and have even more trips planned for the summer. The country is a great mix of traditional Korean culture, modern Western influence, and beautiful natural surroundings – and they all can appear in one corner, which is one of the best things about this country.
How to Make Friends While Teaching in South Korea
As I mentioned, something which helps your transition to a new world is creating your support system – you need to make friends! Having experience moving to Vietnam on an internship – you get a pre-packaged set of friends through this route. I was incredibly lucky and these people become your family away from home. When you move abroad, surrounding yourself with like-minded people is important so moving out to South Korea on your internship, keep in touch with people! Making friends requires effort and there are plenty of opportunities for you to do it.
Find Like-Minded People
You can make friends at work, join on trips, connect through your hobbies, and so on. For example, one way I’ve met people is through the yoga class I attend (all in Korean which is another adventure in itself) but I’ve met other ex-pats and locals. It can be challenging to put yourself out there to make friends but the people you meet in these environments become friends for life and it’s been one of my favorite aspects of all of my adventures. When I left to come to Korea, I was living with two very close friends that I had met in Vietnam through UKs second lockdown.
Teaching in South Korea
Now onto the actual reason you might be moving to South Korea… the teaching. A typical day doesn’t really exist in the teaching environment and you have to be prepared to be flexible and adaptable. To offer my anecdotal experience – I get to work and get my materials ready for the day, complete any administrative work which I need to get done (from marking books, writing reports, or creating content for lessons), and then I am off to teach for the rest of the day.
With my job, we create a lot of materials for the lessons which is unusual from what I’ve heard, and it is a lot of work, but I like it, I can be creative and adjust to the needs of the students. We are given freedom and trust in our lessons, so my other FT’s (foreign teachers) and I have created really strong bonds with my kids. I have small classes, each provided with specific syllabuses depending on the class – sometimes I teach phonics, sometimes I teach geography. I teach both kindergarten and elementary which is a common setup in South Korea. My kindergarten class is 80 minutes long – when I first heard this I was not happy and worried how I would complete a daily class of 80 minutes with six 5-year-olds – but it’s my favorite class and it goes so quickly. Kindergarten content varies from character building to science, so each day is an adventure.
The Emphasis on Education
There are a variety of different types of schools which you could work at while teaching in South Korea: public, private, hagwons, language schools. Each comes with its own schedules and parameters. Kids attend public school in the morning and then come to a language school in the afternoon for English-based lessons. Many of these kids then continue to attend piano and taekwondo classes. The emphasis on kid’s education culturally is different in South Korea from the UK and USA. This can add to a bit of culture shock and pressure when you see the expectations of some kids, but almost all the students I have experienced love the classes and are dedicated to learning.
I have friends that work in different environments in South Korea and the times you work can be different – for example, I have friends that work until 10 pm and do not start until mid-afternoon and friends that start work at 8 am. My hours are 10 am – 7 pm, and my actual teaching hours vary from day to day but average around five and the rest of the time I use to do admin work but if I keep on top of it… the spare time just becomes my own time, and I can do my own thing.
You Will Have Support
The important thing to remember is you are there to do your job and to do your job well. A recommendation would be to establish exactly what is expected of you at your school as this varies from school to school. This way you can plan accordingly and set your expectations and theirs. There are people who have had bad experiences at schools, but read your contract and make sure you understand. The good thing about South Korea is that you are protected, there is an organization called MOEL (Ministry of Employment and Labor) which provides good information for foreign teachers and gives support and protection.
Moving to South Korea is a life-changing experience, and I hope I have provided some information, comfort, and inspiration to come here. I can only talk from my own experience and everyone will have their own experience, but my overall recommendation is that South Korea provides a great backdrop for the next adventure of your life, it is exactly what you make of it.