Teaching English Overseas - Korea & Taiwan
by Louis Frohman
(Washington, DC, USA)
I am an American and spent five years teaching English overseas, first in South Korea, and later in Taiwan. I first moved overseas to teach ESL in 2002 and did so with the assistance of a local Korean recruiter who worked independently in Portland, OR (USA) to connect prospective teachers with hiring schools. Regarding the use of recruiters to find placement, this is a convenient method for those who are moving abroad for the first time and may be uncertain as to how to find a job. My recruiter arranged for me to work for a school called ECC located in Seoul.
The school paid for my flight to Korea, provided at no charge a room in an apartment shared with other foreign teachers who also worked at the school. I worked six days a week, approximately 35 hours each week and was paid a standard monthly wage, 1.8 million won. I received holiday bonuses, 1 week paid vacation and my flight home would be paid for at the conclusion of my one year contract. I only taught grade school children and worked only in the afternoons and evenings.
However, my relationship with my employers was never very good and after five months, my contract was terminated. The school was willing to pay for my flight home but instead I opted to find another job and remain in S. Korea. Within a few days, I found another job offering the same benefits as the previous with greater pay and I only had to work five days a week rather than six. At this school, I primarily taught kindergarten and younger grade school children. I worked mornings and afternoon.
At either school, its a wonder the students learned at all because I was not a very good teacher and was given no training. I learned from the other teachers. I had fun with the children and the parents were satisfied with whatever progress was made. Overall, the experience at the second school was significantly better. What distinguished the two? I can name two factors; First, adjusting to Korean culture was a significant challenge for me and demanded a willingness on my part to adapt which I eventually accepted and learned to do. Second, working six days a week leaves little or no time to experience anything other than work and without some time for leisure. Ones purpose becomes to earn money rather than to enjoy life.
Perhaps these points are obvious and could apply anywhere but they were realizations that I arrived at while learning to make my life abroad a success. In the year and a half that I lived in S. Korea, I traveled extensively, visiting every province. I hiked in many of the national and provincial parks and visited numerous temples. There is fantastic scenic beauty outside the cities and there are many charming small towns in rural areas. I had a wonderful experience living in S. Korea and delighted in the connection I made with the culture.
I left S. Korea in late 2003 and after traveling in SE Asia for a period, I
relocated to Taiwan to live and teach ESL. I lived in Yong-he City, in Taipei County but just across the river from Taipei City and accessible by MRT. I remained in Yong-he and taught at the same school for three years with one break in the middle.
The school I worked for had a well planned curriculum with carefully selected materials. I was provided with teaching instruction and observed regularly until I reached the point where my teaching was effective. I taught children of all ages.
My teaching experience was more rewarding in Taiwan since I was not simply a babysitter but charged with being an instructor from whom good results were expected. My experience in Taiwan was of course different from the life I lead in S. Korea. Comparisons are difficult because I had changed greatly over the year and a half that I lived in S. Korea and so I was better equipped for life abroad when I arrived in Taiwan.
The working arrangement in Taiwan is different from the arrangement in S. Korea. Taiwanese schools generally do not pay as high a monthly salary and do not provide housing for the teachers. Also, flights to and from the country are not reimbursed. This is not necessary as there are many more ex-pats interested in living and working in Taiwan and so there is no need for such perks.
That being said, these changes create a different dynamic between the teachers and the schools. In Korea, the relationship between the schools and the teachers is rather paternalistic as the schools are responsible for taking care of so many fundamentals. In Taiwan, ex-pats are required to be more self sufficient, frankly more adult, which leaves one feeling as if they really live in the country rather than simply passing through on a one year tour.
This sense is reinforced culturally as the Taiwanese seem generally more open to the idea of westerners moving to Taiwan, learning the language and becoming part of the culture. In general, Korean culture is less open to westerners and has lower expectations for how attached or involved ex-pats will become in Korean culture. This is not a criticism but just my subjective observation.
My time in Taiwan was rich with experience. I traveled extensively and studied Mandarin Chinese. I learned a great deal about Taiwanese culture as well as Chinese culture and history. My life in Korea required struggle and I believe it was that struggle which defined my time there and separates that experience from anything else I have done.
My life in Taiwan did not require that struggle but it did demand a new level of maturity. In retrospect, though elements of heaven and hell may be found in both teaching or living experiences, the challenges I with which I was rewarded were worth anything which may have been sacrificed in the process. My decision to leave Taiwan after three years was not due to any dissatisfaction with the experience which overall was wonderful. Instead, it was simply time for me to move on to the next stage in my life.