Photo: Kim Hyun U/Shutterstock

8 Uncomfortable Truths About Teaching English in South Korea

by Meg Cale May 1, 2015

1. English schools contribute to classist education.

South Korea’s international schools were originally created to educate the children of foreign expats but now have become for-profit providers of elite global education to the South Korean aristocracy. With a $30,000 per year elementary school tuition, Chadwick International is inaccessible to most expat families. According to the Korean Ministry of Education, 78% of students attending the six major international schools in Korea were Korean nationals, despite a law limiting the enrolment to 30-50%. To put this in perspective, the average tuition for a college student studying abroad is about half that price per year.

The more cost-effective alternative is sending a student to an English kindergarten that is not an international school. English kindergartens charge about $10,000 a year for tuition alone, which is still far beyond the means of the average Korean household which earns about $18,000 in disposable income per year according to OECD’s Better Life Index.

2. South Korean students are the least happy and most pressured among developed countries.

This is according to a study conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs using data collected for the National Survey of Children and Youth and research conducted by UNICEF in 2013. The report disclosed that 60% of Korean students said they were unhappy with their life, compared to 29% in the countries surveyed by UNICEF.

The study also found that Korean students had the highest level of schoolwork-related pressure and stress of any developed country. This could be attributed to the tendency for Korean students to attend school between 10 and 14 hours a day, or the extremely high-stakes testing Korea is known for internationally.

3. High-stakes testing has been blamed for a rise in youth suicide.

In the last 60 years, South Korea’s economy has gone from underdeveloped to being lauded as one of the four Asian “Tiger Economies.” Some claim the jump to being the 14th-strongest economy in the world can be attributed to the introduction of a highly-regimented national testing system that emphasizes competition. On the flipside, South Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among all 70 OECD countries. Many Korean people believe these statistics are connected, and the South Korean government has been forced to implement a 10 pm curfew for the 75% of students attending after school lessons in preparation for the 8-hour national college entrance exam.

4. Korean “Tiger Moms” play a major role in the classroom.

Julia F, a foreign kindergarten teacher who asked to remain anonymous, has been teaching and doing private lessons in South Korea for two years. “In terms of academics, the parents’ focus isn’t on the mastery of material,” she said. “While there are a series of standardized tests to assess levels and progress for my 3-6 year old students, the parents seem to feel that quantity is king. The more homework pages, more subjects, and more time the students spend in class the ‘better’ they are.”

Another foreign teacher, Becca S, who has been teaching ESL in South Korea for five years, believes “The school owners do whatever the parents want them to do for fear that the child will be pulled out of school and will cost the business money.”

This level of power leaves many foreign teachers at the mercy of a school administration that will change major portions of the school structure at the whims of demanding parents.

5. Financial incentives attract many foreign teachers.

In Western countries, the image of the young traveler is seen as a right of passage. It is viewed as an opportunity to become a better person and learn about the world. Many people in Western countries see it as a sign of privilege and prestige.

People from developing countries in contrast are stereotyped as forced travelers. They are believed to be only traveling out of economic necessity.

In a study conducted by Francis Collins at the University of Auckland, it was determined that western ESL teachers were just as driven by economic motives as foreigners from developing countries. In fact, most Western teachers cited high levels of student debt and unemployment as a main factor in choosing to teach ESL in Korea.

People teach ESL in Korea for a variety of reasons. While taking a job for the financial incentive is not altogether a negative, foreign teachers must be prepared to work with some people who make it very clear that their passion for education is not the motivating factor behind their job.

6. Many schools prefer white teachers.

According to the 2010 World Values Survey, 1 in 3 Koreans would not want a neighbor of a different race. Advertisements for teaching positions on Facebook and Craigslist blatantly list being white as a requirement for the job. There is a persistent stereotype that white native speakers of English are more articulate and qualified than people of color. The racist hiring practices are perpetuated by the cultural custom of including a photograph on your resume and work applications.

Racism isn’t only impacting foreign teachers. A first year foreign kindergarten teacher, Sara H* detailed her experiences when an Indian student joined her all-Korean school. She was required to document his behavior daily and report his actions to his parents despite having no instances of developmentally-inappropriate behavior or disciplinary problems. She went as far as to say that another teacher insisted on using air freshener all over the classroom because she claimed the child “smelled of curry.”

7. Foreign teachers are controlled by their contracts.

Most foreign teachers in South Korea are on an E2 visa that is owned by their employer. Most contracts include housing for the teacher. Should the teacher stop working with the school, their visa and housing will be revoked. To find independent housing in Korea is very difficult because many realtors require “Key Money” or a very large deposit of $10,000 or more.

The Korean legal system places favor with citizens, but has some protections in place for foreign residents. Stories of apartments being searched while a teacher is not home and video cameras being placed in private residences are not uncommon on legal forums for foreign teachers. Unfortunately, the legal system can be difficult and expensive to navigate for a person who is not fluent in Korean.

8. Foreign teachers are selected based on their nationality, not necessarily their experience.

To get a teaching position in Korea you have to be a native speaker from an English-speaking country and have a bachelor’s degree in any area of study. Foreign teachers must have a clean background check and not have any major health concerns. No other qualifications are mandatory. Foreign teachers with no previous experience will make double the salary that Korean teachers with ample experience and a master’s degree in education will make.

Korean teachers in public schools are required to pass rigorous civil service tests that foreign teachers bypass. Foreign teachers have housing, airfare, and bonus pay systems included in their contracts. Equivalents are not offered to most Korean teachers.

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