Sarah in Gwangju, South Korea

Hi there! My name is Sarah and I’m an English teacher in Gwangju, South Korea. My husband and I both made a huge life change by moving here in to work at an elementary school in February 2018. We may have only been here around ten weeks but we absolutely love it and are already talking about extending our planned two year stay into five years…

Our job is a little different to many in South Korea as we don’t work in a public school (a job you typically get through the EPIK program) or an after school academy (hagwon). Our employer, Songwon Elementary, is a private, fee-paying school, so we’re lucky enough to get a lot of benefits and a good amount of free time. Read on to find out what being an English teacher in Korea entails, as well as how we make the most of being in a completely new culture outside of work.

The Job

I think we have such an amazing job and I love our school and all the little munchkins we’re lucky enough to teach. In my previous job I worked as an administration manager for a health care company, and I was under a massive amount of stress that was really affecting my mood. I was working long hours each week, with barely any time or energy left over to spend time with my husband. My schedule couldn’t be more different now, especially as we are the only native teachers at our school so we spend pretty much all of our time together!

My working day starts at 8am when we arrive at school after walking through our neighborhood. I enjoy a coffee in my classroom and get ready for the day. First up is my “morning class”; a group of 10 third and fourth graders of mixed ability. I teach these guys four mornings a week for 50 minutes, and it’s an elective based on teaching English through science. We do a lot of experiments and games as well as teaching vocabulary and quizzes to check their understanding of the material. The textbook we’re using for this semester comes with a teacher’s guide so the lessons are really easy to plan, but I can also add in any extra activities or materials that I think would be of benefit to the kids.

Next come the regular lessons. Our school has six 40 minute lessons a day, four in the morning then two in the afternoon, and we usually teach 2 or 3 of these. We teach each class alone (with no co-teacher) and there are between 10-15 students in each class. I’ve found in general that Korean students are very well behaved compared to their UK counterparts and most lessons are really enjoyable.

I had a little experience of teaching before we arrived but it was pretty much completely new to my husband. We’ve both found it very quick to adjust to the new role as we’re given a lot of support from the Korean teachers in the department and we have a lot of flexibility to make our lessons fun and interactive, so long as we make sure the kids cover enough of the textbook by certain points in the year. Whenever we’re not teaching we can sit in our classrooms and relax, do any marking or prep for upcoming lessons. We heard that the previous native teachers used to practice yoga in their classrooms sometimes too!

In addition to teaching, the job role also involves grading English diaries, essays and tests, setting test questions, taking part in “open classes” – where the parents come and watch you teach – and taking part in things like sports day and science experience day. One thing we don’t do is set homework as the kids here get more than enough already, and this means less marking for us which can only be a good thing! We check each student’s work as we navigate around the classroom each lesson, so we can still make sure that everyone is making progress.

One of my favorite parts of the day is lunch time! We eat in the cafeteria with our students and the other teachers and so far it’s been a fantastic opportunity for us to try a ton of new foods that we would probably have never ordered ourselves. Also, I still feel like a celebrity every time I walk in and a ton of cut little kids shout “Sarah teacher!” with big smiles on their faces.

We’re contracted to stay at school until 4.30pm each day, but the last lesson finishes at 3.10pm so again we spend the extra time doing any prep, trying to improve our Korean or generally messing around on the internet. I’ve heard of this being referred to as “desk warming” a lot as a lot of people seem to think it’s pointless being at school when you aren’t actually teaching but I choose to view it as a benefit to the job as it gives us time to relax, study, blog or anything else we want to do – while getting paid!

Outside Work

Although I absolutely love teaching I have to admit that a huge part about what makes Korea so great is the culture and the expat life in general. It’s an amazing change for us to be able to send over half of our wages home each month to pay off debts and still feel like we’re living an amazing life without worrying about money. Part of being an English teacher in Korea is that the rent on your apartment is paid by your school, so your living costs are far lower. Our school also pays for our internet, and our gas and electric bill is usually only around ten pounds each month. Eating out, drinking and shopping for locally produced clothes and cosmetics is so cheap here compared to the UK and for that reason we spend A LOT of our free time socializing and having fun in a way we simply couldn’t afford to back home.

So far we’ve been with friends to our very first baseball game, spent a long and relaxed afternoon at a jimjillbang (naked Korean spa/sauna), eaten more BBQ than I care to remember and danced until after 5am in a club called Coyote Ugly – complete with girls dancing on the bar!

Another favorite activity is to pick up a few beers and a bottle of soju (kind of like Korean vodka that’s less than a quid for a bottle) and all relax on a patio right outside a convenience store. It’s perfectly legal and even encouraged to drink socially out on the streets in Korea and watching the sun go down with a gentle buzz while surrounded by friends is a pretty great budget evening option.

As well as all the drunken shenanigans, we’ve also been trying to learn Korean by taking classes on Tuesday nights at the local International Centre. This has been a great chance for us to make connections with other people who arrived in the city at a similar time as well as helping us feel more rooted within our community as we can now communicate better with local shopkeepers and our Korean friends.

The scenery here is pretty breathtaking and as well as beautiful parks and reservoirs complete with perfect picnic spots, there are just a TON of mountains here. We’ve been hiking a couple of times by ourselves but we’ve also joined a hiking group and go out for full days with them around the country one day a month. One of the teachers at our school invited us along and we have the best time with everyone getting some exercise, checking out breathtaking vistas, eating, drinking and making friends. If you come to Korea I would definitely recommend getting out of the densely populated cities every once in a while and exploring the gorgeous countryside whenever you can.

In terms of meeting people, I actually met some of my best friends here after a brief exchange about baked beans over Instagram (thanks, Laura!) so definitely check in with local hashtags to find other expats in your area if you’re feeling lonely. You never know what wonderful friendships might develop as the result of a quick comment! Other places to meet people are the local expat bar and by searching for “cultural exchanges” online you should be able to meet some Korean friends in your city too.

Another great aspect of living in Korea is its proximity to so many other places that we’d love to visit in time. We’re planning to spend a few days in Laos in August as well as hopefully visiting Hong Kong and Shenzhen in January and squeezing in a long weekend in Tokyo at some point. There’s so many other places in Korea we still need to visit too, though. Soon we’ll be spending Children’s Day weekend in Busan and we also have two trips up to Seoul planned when family are visiting. It definitely feels non-stop sometimes, but in the best possible way!

Thanks for having me, tefl.org, and if you have any questions about teaching, Korea or just want to follow along on our adventures then check out my blog www.blairahsarah.com or find me on instagram @blairahsarah

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