Teaching English in South Korea and other Asian markets continues to increase in popularity, especially for Americans due to Europe’s strict visa regulations. Before contemplating the different aspects of teaching English in Taiwan and South Korea, first consider the not-so-romantic facets of what this decision means by asking yourself what you hope to gain by teaching English in Asia.
Many people mistake teaching English abroad for a vacation or gap year before “entering the real world.” Disappointingly, travel influencers and YouTubers continue to perpetuate this narrative with glamorous social media posts. Sufficient opportunities to travel and explore exist, just remember playtime comes second, and moving to the opposite side of the world to rent a motorbike in Thailand during the Lunar New Year cannot provide escapism from general life stressors.
Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) sounds easier than it is. Handling a classroom of kids who speak a language you can’t understand, and who may not speak enough English to communicate effectively when problems arise, adds complexities. Most countries require a bachelor’s degree in any field plus a TEFL certification, neither of which adequately prepares prospective teachers. Parents devote hundreds of dollars per kid per month to English instruction, and they expect to see a return on that investment. That responsibility falls on you, the English teacher.
I taught English in South Korea for one year and in Taiwan for two years. My gratitude knows no end. I traveled to nine countries, learned valuable professional skills through supervising classrooms, and permitted new perspectives to enter my world through the people I met. Teaching English abroad can offer you tremendous personal and professional growth, but only by going in with the right motivation. Here, I’m sharing what I know now after teaching English in South Korea and Taiwan.
1. Don’t Let Hesitant Parents Dissuade You
A common struggle for young people thinking about moving abroad to teach English is how to convince their parents. I allowed my parents to dissuade me from spending a summer in Istanbul teaching English at a camp for school kids and still regret it. Watching my friends live what looked like the best two months of their lives through Instagram left me feeling envious.
I don’t fault my parents for their concerns as they felt uneasy and uneducated about the decision, but I wish I ignored their worries sooner. Reassure your parents that you will have full access to communication services (WhatsApp is popular) and compile some of your research to give them copies. Save your money, make the move, and don’t forget to send some postcards!
2. Practice Safe Solo Travel (Especially as a Woman)
Violent and petty crime rates remain low in Taiwan and South Korea, and I felt safer as a woman there than I do in America. However, be prepared for stares on the subway or getting denied a taxicab ride. While annoying to deal with, these occurrences can happen to foreigners anywhere in the world, usually resulting in a bit of an initial shock to someone who isn’t used to being an outsider.
Well-established expatriate communities exist in most major cities globally. Everybody inevitably runs into crises and veteran expatriates commonly extend their generosity and expertise to newbies. Ask considerately and take the advice given to you, especially if dealing with authorities.
I recommend the “Taipei Ladies” and “Expat Women in Korea” Facebook groups to all who identify as female. In my opinion, they offer more assistance than co-ed groups and more support for LGBT+ folks. Although these groups don’t allow posts for English teaching jobs in South Korea or Taiwan, you can find plenty of groups dedicated to English teachers hunting for jobs by utilizing the search functions within these groups.
3. Check a Variety of Places to Find English Teaching Jobs
Locating job opportunities for teaching English in Taiwan or South Korea depends on whether you want to teach in public schools or private businesses. Government programs that place teachers in public schools include EPIK, GEPIK, and SOME in South Korea and TFETP in Taiwan. Global prospects can be found online at Dave’s ESL Café.
I found my first ESL job through my university’s alumni network. An instructor put me in touch with a recent program graduate already working in South Korea. After preparing for an extensive interview process, I met with the program director via Skype and received a “we need you here in February” after about five minutes of verifying qualifications. Acquiring an E-2 visa for teaching English in South Korea took approximately two months as an American. Your employer should handle the visa application, you just need to arrange the specified documents.
To find work in Taiwan, I arrived in the country on a 90-day tourist stamp with documents already prepared. I found a job within three weeks using Tealit, a Taiwan-specific job board for ESL teachers. Processing my work permit took several weeks, but our world looks different in 2023 than it did in 2019. Check with your employer regarding proper documents.
Before accepting a visa, vet the school through Facebook groups, online message boards, or word of mouth. I worked with fantastic employers while teaching English in South Korea and Taiwan, but not everyone shares the same sentiment. The South Korean government requires foreign employees to obtain a letter of release from their current employer to change jobs, but employers are not under any legal obligation to release you from your work visa. This results in teachers pulling a “midnight run” by departing the country to break a terrible contract. The Taiwanese system offers more flexibility.
4. There are Big Differences Between Teaching in South Korea and Taiwan
After-school English academies are known as hagwons in South Korea and buxibans or “cram schools” in Taiwan. Kids attend regular school during the day followed by English lessons in the afternoon and evenings. These businesses establish their own curriculum and can be independently owned or be part of a larger chain of schools. Either way, business comes first. Keeping parents happy will always take precedence to keep the money coming in.
Teaching in South Korea
My working hours as an English teacher in South Korea fell between 3:00 PM and 10:00 PM with classes beginning at 5:00 PM. Most of my friends worked similar hours. I received a monthly salary of 2.5M Korean won, which was around USD 2,250 in 2017 (USD 1,850 in today’s dollars). In addition to a generous salary, you can expect employer contributions to a pension, a contract completion bonus of one month’s pay, housing, health insurance, paid vacation, and reimbursed airfare to and from South Korea. I saved upwards of USD 1,000 every month teaching in a small township 45 minutes from Seoul.
Teaching in Taiwan
As an English teacher in Taiwan, I taught between 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM with small breaks. As an hourly employee, I was paid only for teaching hours. Other than health insurance, buxibans don’t usually offer benefits. Living in the bustling capital city of Taipei, my income of 650 New Taiwan Dollars (USD 33) an hour granted me a comfortable lifestyle and the ability to save a couple hundred bucks each month.
You can find housing on Facebook groups or through Taiwanese websites such as Tealit and 591. I secured my first place, a room in a shared apartment with international students, in two weeks through Facebook and my studio through 591. Some landlords speak great English and gladly rent to foreigners while others decline.
5. Navigating English Barriers is Easier Than You Might Think
As they’re from industrialized countries with major international hubs, South Korean and Taiwanese folks value English education to advance their careers. Never presume anyone speaks English fluently, but cities such as Seoul or Busan in South Korea and Taipei in Taiwan offer more robust English services than less globalized cities or smaller towns. Additionally, many doctors study medicine in English-speaking countries and work at large hospitals even in less connected cities.
Google Translate works well enough to help navigate websites or in-person dilemmas. While the stress of banking, immigration, healthcare, renting, cab rides, or phone services can feel burdensome at times, remember that mutual patience and empathy lead to a resolution quicker. If you feel frustrated by someone’s lack of ability to address your concern in English, then try switching to their language… if you can.
Leading with “Do you speak English?” spoken in the local language yields better results than demanding English. My friends and I inadvertently turned ourselves into community celebrities in our host township of Dongtan, South Korea, for simply attempting to speak Korean. As only about two dozen English teachers resided in the town, we regularly got recognized. I can recall a few occurrences where overjoyed restaurant owners brought little freebies to our table as a “thank you” for our frequent visits and appreciation for our friendliness and enthusiasm. A server even expressed their gratitude for our encouragement of their kids who enjoyed practicing English by delivering a free round of beers!
Now, don’t expect free stuff just because you happen to exist, but certainly don’t undervalue just how much power lies within studying the basics of the local language and exuding warmth to your host community.
Tidbits about South Korea and Taiwan
You won’t find a lack of history or culture in either nation!
Nothing tastes better than Korean barbeque.
I found learning the basics of Korean much easier than Mandarin, which seemed nearly impossible.
Air pollution continues to be an issue in both countries, particularly for those with sensitive respiratory systems.
Both countries boast excellent transportation locally and on high-speed rails as an efficient and cost-effective means of travel.
Taiwan’s central location puts the island in close proximity to most major hubs, making travel all around Asia easier, cheaper, and quicker than traveling from South Korea.
Earthquakes and typhoons are quite common in Taiwan. We got hit with both in my second week there. The Floridian in me couldn’t care less about the typhoon, but I never experienced an earthquake jolting me out of my slumber until I moved to Taiwan. I never grew to tolerate earthquakes, even though they’re usually nothing more than a mild inconvenience.
Making the “Right” Decision
Teaching English in South Korea remains popular for English teachers wanting a high salary and more benefits whereas teaching English in Taiwan remains popular for those prioritizing a more relaxed lifestyle. I find it difficult to compare the two experiences as I view my time in both places as positive, but I preferred my city life in Taipei over the small-town life in Dongtan, even with the lower income.
All in all, achieving your goals requires two things: doing the scary thing and adapting! As long as you have enough due diligence, arrive prepared with the right expectations, and curate a positive mindset, teaching English in South Korea or Taiwan can grant you the abundance of passion, wisdom, and humility your soul yearns for. Happy teaching!
Interested in learning more about teaching abroad? Check out this article about teaching English in Japan.