This month TeacherPort hears from Karen Mac Hale, an English language teacher from Ireland who is currently teaching in Gumi, South Korea. Karen has some fantastic info and tips to share about her time in Korea so far, so let’s get right into it!
Hi Karen! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
안녕하세요(Annyeonghaseyo)/Hello! If you are thinking of coming to Korea to teach, read on! I grew up in Tralee, a small town on the South West coast of Ireland. I studied Archaeology at the University of Southampton in England which really was brilliant and I still have a huge interest in the subject although it wasn’t the career for me.
I spent time after university travelling and working in a wide variety of jobs in England, America, Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia. Before teaching in Korea, I worked for a magazine printing company for 7 years and really enjoyed my job but unfortunately the company folded. So, with three months notice of redundancy, I had time to think about what I would do with my future and I wanted a change. My commute to work was by bike and on one particularly wet English summer’s day, arriving at work like a drowned rat I decided that I wanted to leave England and its frequent rain! A friend of mine had taught English in Japan so I got some information from her about the CELTA course and I thought ‘Yes, I think I could teach English and enjoy it’. I signed up to the most intense, but also the most enjoyable course (CELTA) I have ever done and that was the beginning of my teaching career.
Hanging out on some rock in Korea!
The first climb of the 2014 season with my climbing club. We had a ceremony to bless the rock and keep climbers safe for the season. We did some climbing, it was SO cold. It started snowing so we retreated to the warmth of a restaurant for good food and beer! A very social and friendly bunch.
How did you end up teaching in South Korea and what does your teaching job entail?
I knew I wanted to start my teaching career somewhere in Asia and somewhere I had not already visited. I wanted to be in a country with four seasons, mountains and some good rock climbing. Korea ticked all of these boxes so I started applying for jobs. Another appealing thing was that Korea paid well and offered good benefits – housing, a return flight, low cost of living and an annual bonus. I wasn’t fussy about where I lived as long as it wasn’t a huge city. It took a little longer than expected to get a job but once I got one it was a very quick process! I signed a contract, two of the craziest weeks of my life ensued – suddenly I was in Korea and it has been worth it. I have since learned that last minute decision making is not unusual in Korea! I arrived in Korea on a tourist visa at my boss’s request and he then paid for me to go to Japan to get my working visa. It was quicker than getting it at the embassy at home and a definite perk for me, as I had a four day expenses paid trip to Fukuoka in Japan!
I work in a small private language school (a hagwon). I am the only foreign teacher and I work with two Korean teachers. My director speaks very good English and can teach if needed, which is great for the odd day off and we all take advantage of that occasionally. As the school is an independent academy I have a huge amount of freedom with how I teach. I have to follow a curriculum but I can teach the content in any way I like, which is great as I find the books frustrate me sometimes. They can be a little boring, both for me and the kids, so it’s great to have the freedom to liven classes up with songs, games and activities. As long as the workbooks are complete, the kids are happy and speaking English in my class I can fashion the classes how I choose. I teach elementary and middle school students and work from 2-9pm Monday to Friday and most Saturdays 9am-1pm. I teach between 4 and 6 classes a day.
The view from my apartment – I am very pleased with this when I can see it!
What are the best things about working in Gumi?
Gumi is located very centrally in Korea, 30 minutes north of Daegu, which is the third largest city in the country. It’s famous for being the birth place of ‘Park Chung Hee’ – The South Korean President from 1963-1979 and for being an ‘industrial city’ – there are four industrial areas with a large amount of factories including Samsung and LG. Luckily, I don’t live near these areas. There are so many positives …. here are a few ….
I am an outdoors type of person so a lot of my positives revolve around the outdoors. I live in an area called Hyeong-Gok Dong and it has everything I need.
Hiking: My area is in a valley surrounded by mountains on three sides which is perfect for me. Within a 10 minute walk from my apartment I can be on a mountain trail, without an apartment block in sight for most of the time. Geumosan (997m), the highest mountain in the area is close by and I have a great view of it most days.
Cycling: There are large networks of cycling trails in Korea which follow rivers. Gumi is right in the middle of the Seoul to Busan trail. This means safe, traffic free cycling with great views. You can even get yourself a ‘cycle passport’ and every 30-50KM there is a little booth, like a telephone box with a stamp for the passport so once you have completed the section you can prove it. Complete the book and you get a medal! It’s also fun to cycle around the outskirts of the city, through the farms and rice paddies. This is easily done in the morning before work.
Winter sports: Korea has possibly the cheapest season passes in the world. Last year it was $240 for women/$360 for men – no idea why guys pay more, but even still it’s cheap. These are early bird prices so you have to buy your pass in October; this is for the High1 Ski Resort. High1 runs a bus service from many major towns; you get picked up near your apartment at a crazy early hour (mine was 4.30am), driven to the resort and dropped back to the same place. If you pay for your kit hire at the resort with a Korean bank card you get a 35% discount!! You can snowboard/ski from about 9am to 3.30pm and the bus back departs at 4.30pm or do some night runs and stay in a motel in a town nearby (the condos at the resort are really expensive) and get the bus back the next day. It is a 4 hour journey each way from Gumi but you can sleep on the bus and as Koreans tend to sleep on public transport; it’s quiet. The bus is included in the season pass price. The website is in Korean but if you want to do this your co-workers would help you. I snowboarded every weekend between mid December and the beginning of March! It was awesome and didn’t cost a lot.
Restaurants: There are so many on every street. The choice is incredible, the service quick and friendly and they are open all hours. Tipping is not a done thing and prices are very reasonable. Come with an open mind and try everything once!
Markets: Street markets selling seasonal fresh produce that is so much cheaper than the supermarkets. Make sure you check them out!
Discount/Service: Most people are really friendly and it’s not uncommon to get a discount or something for free at the markets, shops and restaurants.
Cafes: Koreans love coffee and there are so many great coffee shops. Of course they have the big chains like Starbucks but I recommend checking out the smaller independent ones. Great atmosphere, quirky, toasty in the winter and cool in the summer and all have Wifi. And of course, great coffee!
Convenience: Every area of every city here is like a small town so everything you need is close by, supermarkets, dry cleaners, shoe repair, markets – you name it, it will be there. There is also a huge amount of 24 hour convenience stores so no matter what time it is; a 7/11 is usually no more than a 10 minute walk.
Location: Seoul is 3½ hours away on the slow train and about an hour and a half on the KTX (bullet train). Busan is 2 hours away, again quicker with the KTX.
Geumosan Mountain, which overlooks Gumi and also has a temple at the top.
What are some of the downsides?
So, of course there are always a few downsides, it wouldn’t be normal if there weren’t. It’s a different culture so things are going to be different and some things that aren’t acceptable at home are acceptable here.
- My number one hate is men spitting on the street. Big loud guttural spitting, it happens so frequently and it’s not a nice sound. Actually, my Korean co-workers (female) hate it too!
- Not something I dislike but you do need to be more aware crossing the roads at pedestrian crossings and walking on the pavement. In Gumi drivers take no notice of red lights and it’s usual to encounter cars and motorbikes on the pavement travelling at speed! The silver lining is you develop pretty good reflexes!
- Work wise, there are some downsides to working in a private language academy in Korea. There is very little time off, especially when you compare it to teachers working in public schools. The up side of working in an academy is that you start work late in the day so if you like going out late or being up late it can be a benefit!
- One thing that has annoyed me at work is change of plans at the last minute, being told with no notice that I will be teaching an extra class or a different class. Now, I just accept it is the way it is, breathe, and have a bank of stuff ready for last minute scenarios!
- This wasn’t a downside for me but it might be for some people. If you’re into clubbing and dancing, there isn’t so much in Gumi but people tend to go to Daegu and get early morning trains back to Gumi!
- The air – sometimes it can be quite bad because of pollution, but not always.
Cycling by the Nakdong River which flows through Gumi is very picturesque.
Any insider tips for future teachers who might decide to teach in Gumi or elsewhere in South Korea?
- I would say that if you plan to come and teach in Gumi or anywhere in Korea for a private academy, do your research. Most bosses are great but there are a few who are not. Definitely ask to speak to or email the foreign teacher you will be taking over from and if they don’t allow that – stay away!
- If you plan to teach in a hagwon in Korea, expect to have and be prepared for tired and sometimes uninterested kids that you need to motivate. The education system here is really intense and chances are that the kids you will be teaching will have left school, gone to a Taekwondo academy and/or a math academy and then arrive in your English class – so they are not always up for English lessons. Make it as much fun as you possibly can for them – they need it.
- If you come to Gumi there is plenty to do. If you have a hobby without a doubt you will be able to continue doing it and I fully recommend that you do – you will meet locals and enjoy Gumi even more. Koreans are really active and when they have a hobby or an interest they do it really well and often – like 4 times a week or more! So whether you’re into yoga, frisbee, paintballing, painting or pottery there will be a club. Or take up a new hobby! Get a black belt in Taekwondo! Koreans will go out of their way to help you even if there is a language barrier. I have climbed with Koreans since I got here. My local climbing gym was very welcoming; although we have a language barrier between my Korean, which is still basic and their collective English skills we get along really well and have a lot of fun!
- There is a sizeable expat community in Gumi and there are always people willing to help newcomers. There are a few bars in the downtown area that are regular hangouts – Corona being the main one. But I would suggest that you don’t limit yourself to regular expat hangouts. Every area has great local bars/hofs – get to know the ones in your area, the owners will welcome you and treat you very well!
- As regards things to see and do; hike Geumosan , if you’re not a hiker take the cable car up as far as the waterfall, the cave and the temple half way up, – it’s a beautiful part of the mountain. Dori-sa Temple is one of the oldest in Korea and just outside Gumi. Daegu is 35 minutes on the train and there is always plenty going on there.
- Learn how to read Hangul (The Korean Alphabet) and speak some of the language, it will help a lot and enrich your experience. Hangul is easy to learn to read; check out memrise.com. Gumi lacks structured Korean classes for foreigners that are compatible with Hagwon teaching times. I studied with the Korean Digital Academy and it was brilliant, all online. It works around your timetable and I can highly recommend it. It’s very well organised and getting the basics in these classes made a huge difference to my Korean speaking ability. Get in touch with Rob at www.koreandigitalacademy.com, he is super helpful. The program is very well designed and you study through video classes but if you have a question he will answer it promptly via email. You also have a tutorial once a week with a Korean teacher which is great for speaking practice. And you get homework! It also helped with my English teaching. It made me understand more about why the kids make some of the mistakes they make, when they speak English. There are always Koreans keen to do language exchanges locally and this is great once you have the basics and understand how Korean works.
- So thank you for reading, I hope it’s been helpful and good luck to anyone embarking on a teaching journey in Korea – embrace the differences and enjoy it!
It’s a really beautiful hike to the top of Geumosan Mountain – I recommend it and the views are great.
Super stuff Karen! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience and advice about teaching in Gumi (and South Korea in general) – we hope you continue to enjoy your experience teaching English abroad!
If you are interested in teaching overseas, check out TeacherPort for a range of international teaching jobs for qualified teachers and new university graduates!