Today’s article is a guest post from Danielle Koffler, who has taught English in northeastern Thailand, worked in eco-tourism on an island in Thailand, and backpacked solo around Asia. She is currently teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Danielle is also the author of Wake Up and Dance, and today she shares her experiences teaching English in Thailand and South Korea.
During my last few months in university, I was desperately trying to figure out what to do with myself after graduation. The idea of getting a “real” job right off the bat and getting sucked into the “real world” scared me. I wasn’t done exploring yet. My friend’s brother had been teaching English in Japan and he thought he could get me a job. Unfortunately at the same time he was trying to hook me up with a job, there was a massive surplus of experienced English teachers in Japan. So I switched my focus to Thailand.
The summer after graduation I worked two jobs until a school buddy said he might know of a teaching position available in northeastern Thailand. It was posted on www.idealist.org, a great website for volunteer and job opportunities worldwide. I applied for the job and found out I got it three weeks before I needed to leave. My plane ticket was not paid for, neither were my accommodations; but my salary covered the costs of a nice apartment, delicious Thai food and a little shopping.
A couple years later, I find myself teaching English again, but this time in Seoul, South Korea, which is a very different environment from Thailand. Thailand is a very relaxed place to work, so much so that the laid-back work ethic was almost stressful for me. I found myself constantly saying “Yes I would love to eat some yummy Thai food for the fourth time today, but can’t we get some things done first? Please?!” Korea is the opposite. It’s the second hardest working country in the world. It’s not just adults that work late into the night here, many young children here stay at various after school programs until after dark.
I came to Korea with my boyfriend to save money and live abroad at the same time. To get here, we found a couple of recruiters online and told them we wanted to teach in Seoul and live together. When we were offered a job to our liking, we did a phone interview with the school. A word to the wise, recruiters have been known to lie, so make sure you speak with or email a foreigner who is already teaching at your prospective school. Recruiters are paid by the schools to find you; some will lie to get you to accept. Unfortunately, we were lied to about our start date, which was inconvenient because we had already quit our jobs.
The costs of getting to Korea were significantly lower than to get to Thailand. We didn’t have to pay for our plane tickets here, but we did have to pay for our background checks, passport pictures, visa fees, and apostilles for various documents. All of the little things we had to pay for before leaving for Korea we made back quickly while working here. An average salary as an English teacher in Korea is somewhere around 2,000USD. Teachers also get their flights to Korea and home paid for, plus severance at the end of their contract. My salary in Thailand was 300USD and nothing extra was paid for. Quite a difference.
English teaching jobs in Thailand and Korea are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Thailand has a chill and happy attitude, which as I said earlier can make you go crazy if you want to feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of the day. In contrast, as a teacher in Korea you are worked hard and kept busy, and paid handsomely for it.
That being said, crazy directors and poor communication within the schools in Korea are certainly not unheard of. You never know what you are really going to get, so you must be ready to take anything that comes at you. It is important to ask as many questions as you can before you sign a contract. It should also be mentioned that even if you are in a good situation, things can change quickly here. Be prepared for anything.
Because I wasn’t busy in Thailand and I worked in an area where the foreign population was very small, I had a lot of time to learn about the culture. I was given thirty hours of free Thai language tutoring at the local university and I learned loads about Thai cuisine. The downside was that it was incredibly lonely sometimes. I am definitely not lonely in Seoul. I don’t have a problem finding people I can communicate and be friends with. Unlike my situation in Thailand, I am too busy in Korea to have energy at the end of the day or on the weekends to try learning the language and Korean cuisine hasn’t impressed me that much yet. I do love living in Seoul though. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world and I am happy to be able to save money for future travels here.
The past few years traveling and teaching has taught be how to roll with the punches and how to find my patience reserves in the toughest of times. The most interesting moments for me are when I learn about little cultural tidbits I wouldn’t find out about at home. Like that Koreans say that they are one year older than they are because they believe you are already one year old when you come out of the womb. Or that in Thailand if you eat the last piece of food on a plate shared with many people, you will find a handsome boyfriend or beautiful girlfriend; but in Nepal if you eat the last piece you will have a baby girl, not a boy. I collect these facts instead of souvenirs.
If you are looking to travel and need a way to pay for it, I highly recommend teaching English. You can make enough money to live off of, or even save while educating yourself about the actual real world. You don’t have to stop learning after university. Become a lifelong learner. Work and travel abroad and learn about how the rest of the world lives.
Danielle, a Los Angeles native, has been passionate about travel since she went around the world on Semester at Sea in 2006. In the last three years, she has taught English in northeastern Thailand, worked in eco-tourism on an island in Thailand, and backpacked solo around Asia. She is currently teaching English in Seoul, South Korea while planning her future adventures. Keep up with her via her blog, Wake Up and Dance.