The year that I spent teaching English in Korea was one that I don’t think I will ever forget. Those twelve months shaped me in ways that I will never be able to fully explain, they molded my views about what I want my life to look like and what I definitely don’t want my life to look like.
Mostly, though, it challenged me. It challenged my views on the world, my ideas about what would make me happy. Living and working in Korea took me so far out of my comfort zone that I literally don’t even know where that zone starts and ends anymore.
I feel like I haven’t talked a lot about my time teaching English in Korea, but I get a lot of questions from readers about my experience and about getting a job in Korea, so I thought I would talk a little bit more about why living in Korea was one of the best things I ever did.
I Learned to Actually Like Kids
I used to be one of those people that literally made a sour face if a child was within a 100-meter radius of me. I judged parents who dared let their children cry in public or run around and bump into me (I now get so annoyed by those judgey, impatient people! Go figure…).
Then I taught English to three and four-year-olds. I dealt with hungry elementary school students and tired middle school students. I got to know actual kids and it turns out, I kind of like them. I mean, not all of them, obviously, but a lot of them.
I didn’t just like them though, I learned to understand them. I remembered what it was like to be a kid and a teenager and I also began to understand what it’s like to try to manage and work with kids of all different ages.
Now I actually understand how difficult working with and even just hanging out with children is. Kudos to anyone that continues to do so.
I Gained Compassion
Living in Korea was hard. Like really, really hard. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I didn’t speak the language when I first arrived. I couldn’t even read street signs or menus at restaurants. At first, people in our small town had very little patience for our inability to communicate quickly and easily with them.
It was the first time in my life where I was treated differently for the way that I look. I was treated differently from Luke and the other male teachers because I was a women. I was treated differently to the Korean teachers because I wasn’t Korean. I was treated differently at restaurants and bars and tourist attractions because I wasn’t from this country.
It was a massive wake-up call.
It made me have so much compassion for people all over the world who don’t have any choice in being different or being foreign. It made me feel so freaking lucky to know that I could leave and safely go back to a place where I wasn’t treated this way anymore, when I know so many people around the world do not have this luxury.
I Realized I’m Not a School Teacher
While I discovered that I like kids and I figured out that I could be quite a compassionate person, the actual job of being a teacher simply isn’t for me.
The more I talked to other teachers in Korea and as well as friends who are teachers in the US and UK, the more I realized how much I dislike the school structure in general.
I hated teaching to a test. I hated giving pop quizzes to six years olds. I hated making grades and memorization more important than overall child development and happiness.
I saw how much pressure my students were under and I realized that I was a massive contributor to that stress. They dreaded going to school. They dreaded coming to our academy afterward. The very worst thing for me was that they hated learning because of what it was tied to in their eyes: tests.
I’m not saying all teachers are like this or all schools all over the world are like this. This was just my experience in Korea, but it massively tainted my feelings about classroom learning.
I Learned that Money Isn’t Enough
I was making more money (relative to the cost of living) than I ever have before. I was going out to eat three or four times a week. I went on expensive nights out, took taxis everywhere, bought new clothes whenever I wanted, bought the expensive brands at the grocery store, and combined Luke and I were still saving more than $2,000 a month.
But I was miserable.
I hated the company I worked for. No amount of money, no binge weekends, no nice clothes could stop that sense of dread I felt on a Sunday night.
Korea taught me a truly valuable lesson about what makes me happy.
I’m Capable of Learning Another Language
I used to make that excuse to people that, “I’m just not good at languages.”
What a bunch of crap.
I learned that mostly, I’m just lazy. I want to SPEAK another language, but I don’t necessarily want to LEARN it if you get what I mean.
Luke and I studied for an hour for five days a week. I hated studying. I used to try to convince Luke that we didn’t have to study. But we did it. Each and every weekday morning we were there in our spare room studying flash cards and learning grammar.
By the time we left Korea a year later, we were able to not only read Korean, but we could understand a lot. We were fully conversational with random strangers, we got by in restaurants, taxis, even museums with Korean plaques.
I am fully capable of learning a language, I just have to work at it like everyone else.
I’m SO Much More Confident
I was out of my comfort zone A LOT in Korea. Like, every time I left the house.
At first, I absolutely hated it. I simply wanted to stay in my apartment and order McDonalds delivery online (yes, you can do this in Korea, no I never actually did it).
Constantly being in uncomfortable situations, navigating my way around unfamiliar cities in completely foreign languages, meeting new people and making new friends in a place where we knew absolutely no one. All of these things completely changed me.
I left the country knowing myself a lot better, liking myself a lot better, and completely confident that I could conquer any obstacle that stood in my way.
I Now Have a Job that I Love
After a year working for a boss that I hated in a work environment that drained every last ounce of life from me each day, I was more driven than ever to do something I love.
Luke and I left Korea more motivated than ever before to follow our passions. We had a glimpse into what our lives could look like if we simply kept taking jobs for the money or moving around the world without any real direction.
Since I left Korea two years ago, I’ve been working my tail off with freelance writing, copywriting work, this blog and several others. I’ve started making enough money to sustain a life here in Mexico.
I’m writing every single day and I’m actually being paid for it.
If you’d told me three or four years ago that I would finally get off my ass and start working towards living a life as a writer, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.
It all seemed too hard. It seemed impossible. I liked the idea that someday I might be a writer, but I had no idea how to get there.
Working in Korea made me realize that even if it wasn’t possible, I had to at least TRY. I had to see if I could do it. And if I failed, well, at least I knew. At least I wouldn’t be living my life in a job that didn’t bring me joy wondering if I was ever going to make it as a writer.
I still feel weird saying that to people, like it might not be true, like they might find out I’m some big fraud. But here I am, writing every day, making a living out of it. It’s pretty exciting.
Should You Teach English in Korea?
I can’t answer that questions definitively for you.
I had a love-hate relationship with my life in Korea. I loved my students, I loved my town, I loved my apartment, I loved traveling around Korea. I also loved that I could save tons of money and go traveling for an entire year after I quit my job.
But it’s really hard. Before moving to Korea I’d lived in New Zealand and Australia. I’d started over in four different cities in only three years. Korea was completely different to those experiences.
The work culture in Korea is unlike any work culture I’ve ever experienced. As a woman working for a Korean man I often felt ignored and like my opinion was less than those of my male colleagues.
The study culture is intense. The pressure put on students is heartbreaking. Most of my middle school students only get about three or four hours of sleep. High school students are at school until 10 o’clock at night. Our academy didn’t finish until 9:30pm.
They’re exhausted, overworked and completely undernourished. I hated being part of that.
BUT, many people have completely different experiences to mine. Many people get jobs at public schools rather than after school academies and they love it so much they stay for years. Many people work for universities or private academies and they love their work culture, love their bosses, love their colleagues. Many make even more money than I did.
I would never deter anyone from visiting Korea. It is such an incredibly country. I am so grateful for my year there and despite not loving every moment, I wouldn’t take it back for anything.
If you’re interested in learning more about teaching English in Korea, have a read of my more comprehensive post about whether teaching English in Korea is right for you.
My biggest advice is to do your research and not to accept the first job that you are offered unless it really feels right. There are so many schools and so many opportunities that you don’t have to feel forced into taking the first thing that you get.