Teaching in Korea: 4 Things to Understand About Public School

Teaching English in Korea is an experience unlike any other. If you’re planning on teaching in Korea, then here are four things you need to understand about Korean public schools.

Anthony Weineck - Profile Anthony has taught in three different Korean public schools over three years. They were all the same – in that they were all different. Here he shares what few insights he has gleaned over those three years, in the hope that they will be of some use to someone else. 

A lot of the people that make the leap from their home country to teaching English in South Korea do so with very little knowledge of what to expect. Unless you have a friend whose opinion you trust who can inform you, you’re left relying on a mixed bag of advice from recruiters (with an agenda), message boards (AKA angry people on the Internet), and the personal blogs of strangers (which take time to sift for relevance).

And so, to make your leap more of a hop, and to help you transition into a new job, new country, new world, here are the four most important things you need to know about teaching English at a public school in Korea.

Number 1: You are one of many…

though it may not feel like it at first.

Ha! Fooled you! There aren't any, because they're all in the bar.

A typical street in Seoul, the most cosmopolitan city in Korea. Can you spot the foreigner?

In a city the size of, let’s say, Daegu (~2 million people), those 50 people you met at orientation disappear pretty quickly. Plus some of them were weird, others couples, and then that one guy was just a little too into Edgar Alan Poe for your liking – so you take a walk down the street, thinking you might meet someone you could relate to. But no, Koreans everywhere, and not a foreigner in sight.

Well, the good news is they are there, and there’s enough strokes for all kinds of folks, but in such a large population it can take a while to find your community. The foreign community is large and diverse, made up not only of the public school teachers (at least one to every elementary school), but masses on masses of private school (hagwon) teachers, university lecturers, international students, and members of the military.

Teaching in Korea is nowhere near as lonely as you might think.

Cartoon courtesy of MyKoreanHusband.com

Finding them: 

Make use of the technology at your fingertips: call up those guys from orientation, they’re as eager to make new friends as you are; pop onto Facebook and find the expat community for your area (I promise you, it is there); and check out whether any of the meetup groups in your area run activities you’re interested in.


Number 2: Your skills are highly valued…

though you may not even consider them skills.

Your new job in Korea pays you handsomely, gives you free lodging and great medical insurance, and provides a return ticket home. It does that because the Korean appetite for English-language education is so insatiable that the government spends billions of dollars every year to equip every school in the country with its own Native English-Speaking Teacher (NEST).

If you're teaching in Korea, you should at least know what you're talking about.

Don’t let your students catch you out on a grammar error: that’s embarassing! Image courtesy of The Perry Bible Fellowship.

The Grammar Bible is a good option for brushing up on your grammar.

The Grammar Bible is a good option for brushing up on your grammar.

Your ability to simply speak your mother language is highly prized – but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an ability to confer it. To many native speakers, English is something one has, not something one does, and it is only when they arrive and are put in front of a classroom that they realize they don’t understand why it’s whom instead of who, or what an adverb actually does.

Some NESTs find themselves quickly sidelined after they arrive, and then complain about being used as a parrot or walking dictionary by their coteachers. Nine times out of ten, this happens because the Korean coteachers, though they may have a poor level of conversational English, actually have higher technical proficiency than the NESTs who are supposed to be the experts.

Make your skills work for you:

Learn some basic grammar. If you’re the kind of person who uses “good” as an adverb, as in “he did good”, then just grab a high school grammar textbook and read through it on the flight over.


Number 3: Your environment will vary…

and you’ll just have to roll with it.

Every Korean school is different. Different environment, different ethos, different characters ordering the soju at staff parties… OK, so they all have that in common. Everything else, though, will depend heavily on three sets of people:

  • Your principal/vice-prinicpal
  • Your co-teachers/liaison
  • Your students
Seriously, this is about as principally as someone can look. I sure hope he's not one of those Japanese politicians who keep saying stupid things about Korea... that would be embarassing.

This is the second google image result for “Korean principal”. I think he’s a Japanese politician, but he sure does look the part.


Are like demigods within the school boundaries, but they run the gamut from benevolent overseers, letting the teachers get away with what ever they will, to micro-managing taskmasters, applying pressure on the staff and student body alike.

The only thing that every principal has in common is his/her draconian control over the school’s AC/heating system.


Fortunately, unless you have a principal who thinks they can speak English, you’ll only feel their influence as it is reflected down through your coteachers and liaison (an English-speaking teacher assigned to help you out).

Most of your interactions (besides actual classes) will be with your coteachers, with whom you will plan and conduct those classes. These are by far the most important relationships you will have at work, and can make or break your Korean experience.


As for your students, they come in as many varieties as there are types of kimchi. Perhaps the best students I ever had was at an elite all-girls middle school, far from Seoul. They were alert, attentive, smart, and motivated.

The second school I taught at was in a low-income area in Seoul. Behaviour-wise and ability-wise, they were far worse than my girls, but there was also very little pressure from parents or superiors – I was free to design my own curriculum and run my own classes however I liked with minimal oversight.


Number 4: You will (have to) learn quickly…

but it’s not that hard.

This job is going to be very different from any other you’ve had before, even if you are an experienced teacher. If you have no teaching experience, then the little demo class you do in orientation really isn’t going to prepare you for 30 excitable pre-teens looking up at you, expecting you to entertain them.

Teaching in Korea

There’s a pretty broad line between entertaining and creepy, but some people still manage to straddle it…

And entertaining you are going to have to be if you want to hold their attention. Really, making lesson plans, designing activities, preparing a classroom: those things are easy, what with the massive catalog of lesson plans available online, already tailored to the textbook you’ll barely deviate from anyway. 

Really, though, they're not that hard to entertain. Image courtesy of Nomadic Samuel.

Really, though, they’re not that hard to entertain. Image courtesy of Nomadic Samuel.

But you’ll have to adapt quickly. The day after I first arrived in Korea I was in a classroom for the first time, with nothing planned, under instructions to spend 45 minutes “free-talking”.

Make the best of it:

Prepare a presentation on yourself and your country for your first day. Listen in orientation when they tell you how to prepare a class, and do a bit of browsing through online materials. Most of all, just let things happen, don’t stress out, and don’t worry if you feel overloaded for the first few weeks – you will scramble out, and once you do it’s easy to stay on top.


Thinking about applying to the EPIK program to teach in Korean public schools? Have an enlightening public school experience to share? Leave us a comment or question below to tell us all about it.