This week we spoke to Matt Fennell about teaching TEFL in Korea.
Matt Fennell (PGCE, MA Education, TESOL-Certified) is an English teacher and tutor from Liverpool, England. He has been teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) for thirteen years. He taught in a secondary school in England for two years before moving to Korea to teach in schools and then to work as a university lecturer, ultimately becoming head of the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) department at Hanyang University.
He has trained both Korean and native English teachers for the Ministry of Education in South Korea and has published work for teacher training manuals throughout South Korea on leadership of after-school classes and supplementing school textbooks.
South Korea is an unusual destination for teaching – how did you end up there?
“To be honest - I wanted a change from teaching in the UK. I decided to look for TEFL and TESOL jobs online and saw opportunities to teach in Korea. In fact, it was quite a popular destination with a competitive compensation package in terms of pay, flights and accommodation. It was also an unusual choice, particularly for somebody from the UK. Most native English teachers in Korea come from the USA or Canada. Numbers of teachers from the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and NZ are lower - they tend to choose China or Japan, so it felt like more of an adventure.”
What qualifications do you need to work as a teacher in Korea?
“The minimum requirement is a completed BA (hons) degree. This is a requirement to be applicable for the visa which is issued to teachers of English from the seven countries officially recognised in Korea as ‘native’ English speaking countries: USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. So, yeah, you need a passport and a bachelor’s degree from one of these countries.”
What kind of teaching jobs do people usually take in South Korea?
“There are three kinds of teaching jobs in Korea.
The most popular is working as a private school teacher in a ‘hagwon’, a private school offering additional evening tuition in English. The focus here is generally on conversation lessons or exam preparation.
Another popular choice is the public school system. Most teachers in public schools go through the ‘EPIK’ (English Program in Korea), a government program to place native speakers in the school system.
Finally - teaching at university level. Most native speakers in universities teach in a general English department rather than focusing on subject work. However, some natives holding a PhD or equivalent qualification can become full-time university faculty, teaching a specific subject.”
What is life like? How is it different from home?
“Korea is just an awesome place to live. It is safe, clean, modern, but still holds onto its history and culture. The architecture you can see both inside and outside Seoul (the capital) is honestly fascinating. Korea is a relatively new economic powerhouse, and a lot of the key infrastructure is therefore quite new, particularly transport. Buses, the subway and high speed trains between cities are all modern, clean and affordable.
It’s also very easy to get around the big cities. There are many tourist information points and booths and most signposts are also in English. Outside Seoul things get a little more difficult - people may not speak English and restaurant menus may only be in Korean. This can lead to some challenges in communication. On the other hand, leaving the capital gives you the chance to experience a raw, real, authentic Korea. I love the energy in Korea on the whole, particularly in Seoul. It may not be the most beautiful town but the energy is unparalleled. At 5am in the morning you can go out for a drink and even order some kimchi chigae, (a popular national dish). Food and drink is available anytime. If you get the urge to go bowling or watch a movie in the middle of the night, you will be able to find somewhere. Seoul is always buzzing, dynamic and convenient. What’s more, it is in a state of constant development.”
What was something you found surprising about teaching in Korea?
“I could never get my head around the focus and importance placed upon education in Korea. Even at elementary school level the kids leave home at 8am in the morning before heading off to school 9am - 4pm. Then, in the evenings, they go directly to private academies to study English, Maths, Korean, Science etc. and don’t return home until 11pm!
Kids in other countries routinely head home after school for football, computer games or simply to hang out with their friends. Not in Korea. This ‘work hard’ methodology seems to get the results but the downside is the kids’ freedom and happiness - fifteen or sixteen years of studying for twelve hours per day is some serious hard graft for a child!”
Would you recommend teaching in Korea?
“100% yes. There are a lot of jobs available and most pay well considering the cost of living. A good employer will usually also offer an apartment. All in all, the job package is good and the country is awesome. It’s modern but with tradition and culture woven into the fabric of the country. And the superb modern transportation system can take you away from the cities, to see the extraordinary beauty of the parks and the mountains.
Teaching in Korea is an experience like nothing else.”