Katie and Ben are world travelers and travel bloggers who have also had the opportunity to teach abroad in South Korea. Read about their experience teaching through EPIK!
1. Where are you from?
We’re both originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Although we haven’t lived there for a few years now, we still will always call it home.
2. What made you decide to teach abroad?
I (Katie) was a high school English teacher in Miami through Teach For America, and I loved connecting with students and watching them grow. I heard of other teachers who had gone overseas, and I just couldn’t get that idea out of my head. Eventually, I convinced my darling husband, Ben, (who was an engineer!) to try out teaching, and we started researching different programs like crazy. Once we started, there was no going back!
3. Which program did you work with?
We looked into International schools, as well as English programs throughout much of Asia before choosing to apply for EPIK (English Program in Korea), which is run through the South Korean government and places native English speakers in public schools.
4. What country did you choose?
We ended up in the ROK (Republic of Korea)! People always ask us why we chose Korea, and there are actually many reasons. We even wrote an entire article about why we chose Korea over other countries and what makes it such a great place to teach English.
One of the major reasons many people choose to teach in Korea is for the great money-making opportunities. We EACH saved more than $22,000 USD while teaching English for one year (more than $44,000 USD between the 2 of us). We wrote an article that breaks down exactly how we saved that much money and how you can too!
5. Was teaching abroad your first experience in South Korea?
Neither of us had stepped foot in South Korea before packing our bags and moving there. And Ben had never even been to Asia before, so it was a totally new experience for us.
6. What grades did you teach?
We both taught in elementary schools (which is the most common placement in Korea right now). And we both taught grades 3 – 6. So our kids were ranging in age from 9 to 12.
7. Had you worked with children in education before teaching abroad?
We both worked as camp counselors during our summers in college, and I taught high school English after graduating from university, so we had a bit of experience working with kids. Though teaching English in South Korea was definitely new in many ways!
8. What surprised you most about the education system in Korea?
The education system in South Korea differs in many ways from the education system we grew up with in the US. Tests are even more important than in the States, and a student’s future is pretty much determined by a final exam during their high school years.
Also, many children go to private school (called hagwons) after they are done with their regular public schooling. So oftentimes, kids are at school from 8 in the morning until 10 or later at night. Students whose family can’t afford this additional private education can often fall very behind and are set apart from their more affluent peers, which is difficult to see.
Another thing that is interesting is that teachers cannot stay at the same school for more than 5 years. So after that time is up, they have to move to another school – even sometimes moving cities.
Teachers in Korea get a lot of respect, which I saw was a contrast from where I was teaching in the United States. Classroom management is not a very big part of the job, because students just respect teachers (for the most part).
9. What were your favorite/least favorite parts of the job?
Getting to know my students and watch their English grow was super rewarding. I was able to be creative with my lessons and had great co-teachers that I was able to work with. During the summer and winter breaks, we were able to plan English Camps with crafts and games, which was super fun for us and the students.
And just in general, working in a school was such a unique way to experience Korea. As a teacher, you eat lunch in the cafeteria among other teachers and students and get to eat really good Korean food each day! (Much better than in US lunchrooms) There are also many “bonding” events among the staff, like volleyball tournaments, dinners and hikes.
One aspect I disliked about teaching in Korea is that repetition is a very common technique when teaching a new language. The focus is often on saying the sentence perfectly rather than having an actual conversation. Sometimes student rely on memorizing a phrase without actually know what it means just so they can pass. I found this to be very frustrating because I would rather work on conversation before working on grammar and making sure each sentence is perfect. That mentality can really paralyze you when you’re trying to learn a new language.
Another big part of the job that can be frustrating is “desk warming” time. Teachers must be in school from 8 am until 4 pm, even if they are done prepping their lessons for the rest of the week. Sometimes you’ll see teachers shopping online or napping or watching movies because they have to be in school, but have nothing to do.
10. How has teaching abroad helped you in what you’re doing now?
Teaching overseas really opened our eyes to how we interact with others whose first language is not English. We travel pretty often, so we come in contact with people all the time who are not native English speakers, and having taught the language helps us in those conversations. Also, the experience just taught us a lot about getting out of our comfort zones. An experience like that will change you.
Plus, Ben still teaches English to Chinese students over video chat, so his time teaching in South Korea helped a lot with this!
11. What advice would you give a prospective teacher abroad?
DO IT! Teaching overseas (no matter where you go!) will be an experience you remember forever. You really get to delve into a culture in a way you wouldn’t if you were just traveling, and you’ll grow so much as a person by getting out of your comfort zone.
Thank you so much, Katie! (and Ben!)
Check out Katie and Ben’s blog, Two Wandering Soles for more!
We’ve written tons of articles that can help anyone who is curious about teaching overseas (especially in Korea)
Why You Should Choose Korea for Teaching English
What We Wished We Would Have Known About Teaching English in Korea
How To Save $22,000 In One Year Teaching English in Korea
Money-Saving Tips for Living in South Korea
Ultimate Packing List When You Move to South Korea
Video tour of a Korean Apartment
South Korea Bucket List Experiences
Plus many more articles on South Korea here!
Lastly, if you’re curious about teaching and want to get a taste of what it’s like, we’d recommend looking into VIPKID. It’s is a program that allows you to teach English via video chat with students in China. You don’t need to have any prior teaching experience, and it’s a great way to see if you would enjoy being in a classroom. Plus, you can make really good money! If you want to know more about VIPKID and how to apply, we wrote an entire article that walks you through the process.
If you are a volunteer, language assistant, or English teacher abroad and would like to participate in an interview, let me know via the contact tab!
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