Teaching English with EPIK in Korea

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At first, teaching and living in Korea is terrifying. Stepping off that plane onto a land where little is familiar very quickly tears you out of that warm, padded comfort zone that we try so hard to preserve. Standing in front of a class of forty Korean kids, few of whom can speak English well, will fill you with emotions you didn't know existed; most of them frightening.

Some wonder why anyone would be crazy enough to put themselves through an experience like that. Wiser men and women, however, will know that behind these initial fears awaits a prize only won by those who are willing to stretch themselves beyond their perceived limitations, a prize not attainable to those who choose the easy option.

The prize itself is not one identifiable object but a feeling, a state of mind, a way of being, that you achieve when you immerse yourself in unfamiliarity and difficulty, only to emerge realizing that the limitations we place on ourselves are nothing more than cultural limitations, easily removed. This new state of mind brings with it feelings of accomplishment, pride and confidence

After those initial feelings of fear you begin to realize that, although Korea is unequivocally different to The West, these differences are what make Korea such an incredible place to live. Korean people, for example, give far less personal space to each others, making Westerners feel suffocated at first. Sadly, it is our fear of each other that has forced us to enlarge our personal space over the years. Koreans, on the other hand, are far more trusting, close, and generally warm to one another.

Koreans lean on each other on buses, and people standing on public transport sometimes hand their bags to perfect strangers so as to ease their load. I've even seen a mother give her infant to a seated man she didn't know for the duration of her journey. Many Korean people I've met were only too willing to befriend me or help me in some way, sometimes being overwhelmingly generous. Many of these actions are alien to us in The West, yet they are treasured norms in a society where those around you should be catered to before you serve yourself.

Teaching English, despite how nerve wracking it can be at first, is an immensely rewarding profession. As time goes by you stop seeing your students as a blanket of Korean faces and start noticing their unique and often humorous personalities. The more you treasure their individuality and care for their educational success the more the students will warm to you and show their true colors. If you allow them to express their sense of humor and curiosity during class your days will feel truly fulfilling. Don't misunderstand me, there are times when teaching can be very difficult, sometimes leaving you feeling drained, but as you improve as a teacher and get to know your students better, you find that those challenging days become less and less.

The major challenge for any prospective teacher is deciding which employer would offer the greatest job satisfaction. Fortunately jobs are abundant for English teachers in Korea. The problem is that the market also houses many untrustworthy employers, especially in the private academy sector, known as hagwons. There are many reputable hagwons out there too, just be sure to do your homework before coming over here. Universities are a very good option for those who wish to teach older students.

My personal recommendation for those wishing to teach children is EPIK (English Program In Korea). It is a government run organization that places native English speakers in public schools. The salary is excellent; they also pay for your accommodation, flights, and contribute towards your health insurance. You will also attend a 10-day orientation, during which you will meet many like minded people.

If you do decide to teach in Korea, just remember not to take yourself too seriously. Korea is a wonderful place, full of incredibly warm people, but if you plan on hanging onto Western values and ideals for the entire time then you may be in for a rough ride. If, however, you can temporarily suspend those ideas you will open yourself up to a world that is both unique and strangely charming.

For more information on living and teaching in Korea visit Strange Lands blog.

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