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South Korea choice destination for university graduates

As many of Trent’s undergraduates find themselves getting closer to the point of having to answer the question “What are you going to do with that?” they may want to consider following in the footsteps of the thousands of young North Americans who, over the last decade, have looked to East Asia as a chance to pay down some of their debts while getting some much needed life and work experience.

Korea has been especially popular given its relatively high wages and low cost of living. ESL teachers make around $20-25,000 a year, almost tax free, with contracts that include having their airfare and apartments paid for by their employer.

“Over my 6 years in Korea I paid off my student loans, did a lot of travelling and had a lot of fun. It’s a lot more competitive for jobs now, especially the good ones, but I would still recommend it to anyone” says Andrew Johnston, a Brock University Graduate (BA English) from London, Ontario, “I think a lot of people come here not knowing what to expect and are surprised by how much there is to do and how affordable it is to do it. I don’t know if I’m ever going back home, I mean what’s to do there? The job situation sucks and I feel great here (in Busan, Korea’s 2nd largest city, renowned for its beaches).”

For most prospective ESL teachers this journey starts at “Dave’s ESL Café” (named after its founder, Californian Dave Sperling) a long-running website dedicated to both recruiters and teachers. In addition to job postings from all the across the globe, the site also offers important information for teachers on every subject from planning lessons to acclimating to new cultures.

While it should be obvious, the latter is essential. Though in the minority, it isn’t uncommon for new teachers to give up, collect their next pay (which is doled out in monthly sums) and take off home in the middle of the night (known as ‘runners’ by Ex-patriate ESL teachers) and it’s something that many get tempted to do, especially in their first two months.

“Prospective teachers should prepare for inappropriate questions being asked. Also prepare for invasion of personal space ie. Dongshim (a game where children touch their middle and index fingers together (like a ‘gun’) and jab each other in the butt), the touching of men’s hairy arms. Prepare to go into unknown situations at a moments notice and at the whim of management even if it doesn’t make sense or no one wants to do it” says Francie Heginbotham, an Ohio native and Ohio State graduate (History and Geography) who taught in both public and private schools on and off for about 14 years before returning to the States to get her teaching certificate.

“Be prepared for a different way of doing things, so do your homework on how to be respectful of the country you intend to work in and be sure you can handle the adjustment and the time away from home” says Glen Riley, a Winnipeg, Manitoba native who got a BFA in Photography and post-graduate degree in Project Management Studies from University of Manitoba and Mount Royal College respectively. Riley has been in South Korea for more than 10 years (and continuing), with an additional two years of ESL teaching in Vancouver under his belt.

For those who survive the first few months though, the rewards go way beyond the money, continues Riley-“Experiencing a new culture, living in Asia, opportunities to travel, learning history, the eating”.

Johnston- “Booze is cheap at corner stores and there’s no such thing as ‘last call’-” (South Korea has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption per capita in the world), “that’s one of the best parts of Korea, but there’s a lot of people who don’t handle it really well and go way too far with it”.

For Heginbotham, the personal rewards were a bit more ‘teacherly’, “the children’s smiles, that’s the best part” she says.

While Johnston mentions that the job market is getting more competitive (a lot more preference is going to majors in English, Psychology and Early Childhood Education) he is quick to emphasize that it’s still pretty easy for someone looking to teach in Korea to get a job there.

“Pretty much any B.A. is accepted, but if you don’t have a major in one of those three fields you should probably get some sort of certification, either TEFL or CELTA is usually enough,” he adds.

These types of certificates can be obtained through private schools like One World ESL Education in Peterborough run by Wendy McConkey (MA, TESL [Teaching English as a Second Language]).

This school offers a 2-TEFL certificate for $950 (the average price tends to be $1000, give or take).

Many public schools, generally regarded as some of the better jobs for teaching English in Korea, are requiring them, and as such many people who already have some experience are taking breaks to add a TEFL or CELTA certificate to their resume.

“The best thing to do is try and get your certificate before you come over and then just go to Dave’s (ESL Café) and start responding to ads under the ‘Jobs’ section,” Johnston continues, “you’ll probably start getting phone interviews with schools (usually late at night) within the first few weeks you start looking- but be ready because once you get hired, they’re going to want you to get your VISA started, it’ll take a trip to the embassy in Toronto and the whole process can seem like it happens all at once, the first time I got hired there I was landing in Seoul three weeks later.”

Dave’s ESL Café can be found at

One World ESL Education can be reached at or by phone at (705) 755-0378.

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