Teach English in South Korea – Interview with Julio Moreno

Teach English Abroad

Julio Moreno Teach English in Korea

How long have you been teaching English in South Korea?

I first arrived in South Korea on November 1st, 2009. Many people who have been in Korea long-term tend to count by the amount of “contracts” they’ve had as they are usually a year long. So by this count, I’m in the middle of my 4th contract/year and should be done with it by the end of February, 2014.

Why did you choose to Teach English Abroad and Why Korea?

Coming out of college, I wasn’t quite ready to get into the grind of a 9-5. Let me honest, I was bored to death with the classes I was taking! I studied aerospace engineering in college and while I did enjoy science in principle, I didn’t, and still don’t see myself getting into that industry.

Older friends of mine who graduated before me told me to “enjoy my college life,” and that they were the “best years of my life.” They really painted working as an aerospace engineer as kind of a downer. If eating ramen and being broke were the best years, I didn’t want to see what was next. That life might have been great for them, but it wasn’t for me. I wanted to explore the world and visit far away lands, things I couldn’t afford to do whilst in college. When I found out that I could actually make money by living and teaching abroad, I didn’t need any convincing. That was like getting paid to do something I loved!

As far as Korea goes, I actually get asked this question a lot, and it is especially embarrassing to tell the truth if a Korean person is the one asking.

I had always been fascinated with China and Chinese culture. China was my first choice by far, but the pay wasn’t good enough. I had student loans and credit card debt that totaled 45,000 USD at the end of my five-year (scenic route) college career, and couldn’t afford to settle for a so-so wage.

I next looked at Japan, but every online source told me that it was too expensive to live there and that the pay was just enough to get by (misleading info I must say), but not enough to save or pay off any debt. Also, the JET program, which many said was the way you should apply to teaching in Japan, takes months and has a very tough application process (or so I’m told). I needed a job quickly as I blew the rest of my savings after college on trips to the east coast, Yellowstone, and Mexico. I wasn’t the wisest with money, and I got desperate.

As I looked for more and more information, Korea had the most jobs, the least requirements, and the best pay, so I started applying there. I don’t regret my choice at all, as I found out, Korea is one of the most under-rated countries in the world. I simply love living here.

The teaching part of it was an easy choice though. I spent most of my college years working as a tutor, so I kind of understood what was expected of me. I didn’t know it then, but I now think education might be my calling.

Teaching English Korea


How did you find your first teaching position and what is the best way to land a job? 

Gosh, this was so long ago, I actually had to go back to my email records to find out!

I originally looked on Craigslist and do NOT recommend it. I had a terrible experience with the first recruiter that contacted me (Audrey Perez, if she is still recruiting, avoid her!) She asked for me to get all of my documents ready and had me send them to her before she even looked for a job. She then offered a couple of positions in rural areas of South Korea. These are the kinds of jobs that are difficult to fill because nobody wants them. When I kindly declined, and asked to be put in a city (any city, I wasn’t THAT picky my first year), she refused and stopped looking. She then dragged her feet for months when I asked for my documents to be returned.

After about five weeks of getting all of my documents replaced (as I wasn’t hopeful she would ever return them), I decided to post my resume on Dave’s ESL Café (which is probably the best resource for aspiring English teachers in South Korea) and hoped recruiters would call me. I got a call within hours, an interview that same night, and an immediate offer for employment in the city of Daejeon by the end of the day. I got a visa within a week, and was flown to Korea the following week after that. BOOM! My life changed that quickly! It was real, I was moving to Korea.

I have since been here longer (and am hopefully a bit wiser) and gotten a feel for how things work in South Korea. In the future, I would most likely not go through a recruiter if possible. Recruiters get paid a commission per teacher, regardless of how good or bad the teacher or the school is. They do not have your, nor the school’s best interest in mind. I would recommend for you to speak to the school’s director personally, if possible, to get a good feel for the job and the person who will be signing your checks. In a country where you don’t speak the language and don’t really know the laws, that relationship between you and the boss is extremely beneficial.

Sometimes however, recruiters are that necessary evil as many employers don’t want to go through the trouble of explaining things to you (such was what documents to get ready). If you do talk to a recruiter, play hardball. Let them know that you are serious about teaching in Korea, but that you are looking for a good job, not just any job. Make a list of the jobs you are offered and their benefits to better choose the best one for you.

Do you have a TEFL or CELTA certification and is certification necessary to find employment in Korea?

I do not have either, nor are they necessary to secure a job in Korea. You can think of these certifications as single classes in college. While a single class in college might teach you something, skipping it won’t be the end of the world considering all of the other things you learn. TEFL or CELTA will definitely give you a bit more bargaining power as many places do ask if you have them. However, any place that REQUIRES it will most likely require other things such as a specific majors (English / Linguistics) or a master’s degree in those majors. I have never seen a job that I really wanted which I could have gotten if I just had a TEFL or CELTA certificate.

However, with that said, times are changing. The current political and socio-economic situation in Korea is changing for the worse for both employees and employers. Jobs are getting harder to come by as many private English academies (known as ‘hagwons’) are closing down due to government policies that are squeezing their profits in an effort to make education more affordable to families. But what does this mean to you?

This means that there are increasingly less good jobs in Korea. In the past, if you waited and were patient, you could snag up a great job with great hours and pay. These days whoever, jobs are starting to all look similar as schools are cutting back.

**Get to the point Julio!**

So… you don’t need CELTA or TEFL, but I predict that in the future, it will be a small thing that will set you apart in a more competitive English teaching market in South Korea. For that reason, I too plan on getting certified sooner rather than later.

What is Korea like to live in?

In one word: Incredible! Korea is an awesome place to live in and experience (here is a guide if you’re interested), if you are willing to give it a fair chance. People have very different experiences in this country though. You might have noticed this phenomenon at work. No matter how good a job might be, someone will definitely be the designated complainer ready to whine at every minor inconvenience. Life is just like that… so let me give you some insight.

Let’s start with the people. Korean people are often very curious about foreigners. The smaller the city you live in, the more you will be stared at for being foreign. In the smaller cities and some of the towns, you might even be asked to have your picture taken with a person, just because you are different. Personally, this doesn’t bother me at all and quite frankly, you shouldn’t be bothered by it either. Korea is historically a very homogeneous society with non Chinese/Japanese foreigners being still relatively new for a country with 5000 years of history. No negative feelings are (usually) held against foreigners, despite how some of us have behaved here in the past.

The people are (usually) extremely kind to foreigners. My very first day in Korea, I asked a man outside of the airport how to get to Daejeon (the city where I was hired). He didn’t speak English, but went out of his way to find someone who did. I could hardly expect the same in countries like China or Italy, both of which were less than hospitable to me. Other perks have included getting additional food at restaurants (just to try it), discount prices (theme parks and special events), and even free items, simply for being foreign. I can’t think of any other country with such hospitality.

Keep in mind, life is very different depending on where you live. I currently live in Seoul, where I have been for over 2.5 years. I also lived a year in the smaller city of Daejeon my first year here (population 1.5 million, compared with around 20 million in Seoul). I have made this argument many times before and I’ll say it again: life is infinitely better in Seoul than anywhere else in Korea, but not everyone feels this way. I have met expats in Daegu, Daejeon, Mokpo, and even Jeju Island (deemed ‘Korea’s Hawaii’) who wish they lived in Seoul. Seoul is simply the cultural capital of the country and has a bunch of activities going on at any given time. If you are into history, museums, palaces, festivals (especially of the food variety), night life, variety of foreign foods, you name it, it is in Seoul.

While that does speak for the majority, not everyone feels this way. For some reason, Busan city is also extremely popular. Busan is a beach city on the southern part of Korea and the second largest city (3.5 million). Because of its beaches and beach culture, many people love Busan and would move there if they could find a job. Jobs in Busan however, tend to be harder to come by or pay less as it is quite popular.

People in the more rural areas of Seoul seem to be the least happy, especially if they are city people. While the rural life seems fun at first, 12 months is a bit much.

Personally, I love World Heritage Sites and places of historical significance and Korea is an ideal place for this. Along with its 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, there are so many places to fill in years of exploration. Although I am on my fourth year here, I am still visiting new places on an almost weekly basis.

I think I’ve rambled enough, but I just have to throw this in, the food is DIVINE!

Korean Food - Tuna Kimbap

What city are you in?

As I mentioned above, I currently live in the capital city of Seoul. In the past, I lived in Daejeon, which is located in the very center of the country. Daejeon is a good place if you want to explore the rest of the country as it is very centralized, but in my opinion, Seoul is supreme in terms of quality of life.

What is your cost of living there?

I think this might be the biggest perk of working in Korea. Rent is paid for by the employer, unless you want to choose your own apartment, in which you will likely get a stipend, and you have to pay the rest. Internet runs me about 25 USD a month, which is pretty good considering it is the fastest in the world. In the US, I paid 3 times as much for slower speeds.

Electricity and gas varies widely person to person. Most homes in Korea have floor heating, which can cost as much as 100 USD a month in the winter, and as little as 5 USD in the summer. Let’s call it an average of about 40 USD a month for gas. Electricity has a similar effect as air conditioners can get costly in the summer months. Again, as much as 100 USD in the summer, and as little as 20 in the winter. About an average of about 45 USD a month sounds about right.

Cell phones are another expense, which are also superior and cheaper than their American counterparts. When you buy a phone here, you don’t have to pay it up front. You can distribute the cost of the phone over the months of your contract. I had a pay as you go phone my first year in Korea which cost me about 200 USD for the year (30 for the phone). Nowadays though, every foreigner has a smart phone and the pay as you go ones are going the way of the dinosaur. I bought an iphone4 my 2nd year for 200 USD, which was distributed among the 24 months of my contract (around an additional 9 USD a month for the phone). The cell phone plan was, and still is 30 USD a month with unlimited 3G data.

Beyond those, I only have food and entertainment to worry about. I rarely cook anymore since I work long hours (read: I’m lazy as hell). So, I buy most of my meals. You can get a good Korean meal for about 5 USD or less.

All in all, my total expenses total to about 700 USD a month (give or take) without limiting myself. If I went out more often, it would be about 1000 USD and if I limited myself a lot, around 500 USD a month. Note that I don’t really have any guilty pleasures besides traveling.

Is it possible to save much money teaching English in Korea?

On months when I don’t travel abroad, I save well over 60% of my paycheck and pay down my debt. On months when I do travel, that goes down to about 20-30%. Over the past 4 years, I have managed to travel outside of the country about 3-4 times a year and am on pace to pay off my entire debt (45,000 USD) by the end of this contract. So to answer your question, a resounding YES!

I have some friends who have managed to save more than me as I try to be frugal, but do go out of town about twice a month. However, I also have friends who get paid the same as me and don’t seem to save anything. This completely baffles me as I couldn’t spend my entire paycheck any given month if I tried.

My first year in Korea though, I managed to only save 7,000 USD and blew it all on four months of being in the US and traveling to Mexico, so my savings of 45,000 USD have actually come in the last 3 years alone. This amounted to 45% of my entire take home check (after paying utilities, pension, medical care, and other fees). I know that was a lot of numbers… maybe now you can tell that I studied engineering :).

Do you recommend Korea for other English teachers? 

YES! I would say that overall, students are pretty easy to teach. Teachers in general are respected in Korean culture and education is very highly valued. The combination of the two leads to usually well behaved students who want to learn.

However, I teach kindergarten and elementary school, which maxes out at 6th grade. Middle school kids are a whole other story, but I guess that is true in any country.

Personally, I like teaching the young kids the best. Currently, I teach Korean pre-school in the morning, and it is the best age level I have ever taught. They are just so loving and willing to learn.

I highly recommend Korea as a place to teach. In fact, for people who have never been, I would say it should definitely be on your short list of places to teach, or even just visit.

Korean Festival

What would be the single best advice you could give a new English teacher in Korea?

Adapt. Try your best to adapt to this new country and culture. Yes, you might disagree with some things. Yes, some things will frustrate you. Yes, you could probably do some things better in some occasions. However, it is not your country and you are a guest here. I am sure you wouldn’t like someone coming to your home and telling you how you are running things incorrectly, regardless of how correct they may be.

I feel like the old grandpa who sits on his porch trying to ‘lecture the youngins,’ but I have seen it year in and year out. The people who are the happiest in Korea are those who try their hardest to adapt to Korean culture. Those who are the unhappiest are those who spend most of their time trying to criticize how ‘this would never happen in Canada / America / Zimbabwe!’ Look, there are good things and bad things about every country. If yours was a paradise, you probably wouldn’t be here right?

The best ways to adapt is to make an effort to make some Korean friends and to learn the Korean language. I am not suggesting that you master Korean, as any language is difficult to learn, especially if you are busy with a day job, but at least learn to read. Trust me, it will make life a lot easier.

About Julio Moreno

Julio decided to make the most of his college education by ignoring his degree and following his passion of exploring the world, much to his mother’s chagrin. What was supposed to be a single year of working and exploring South Korea has turned into the four best years of his life. His passion for travel has only gotten more intense since living in Asia, probably because he finally has a full-time job to support his full-time addiction. Follow his quest to explore and evaluate all of the world’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites on his blog. You can also follow him on Facebook, or the necessary evil that is Twitter if you want to hear about his ramblings about life as an expat in South Korea.