If you’re planning to work abroad, specifically teaching English abroad, the importance of hunting down a good employer cannot be stressed enough.
There are really great places to work out there, especially in South Korea. There are also some really awful places to work, and some kinda-sorta not-that-great places to work. Your overall experience abroad will be mimicked by these same adjectives. A good employer can teach you all about the wonders of the host country’s culture and people. A bad employer can hold you by the balls (regardless of whether you have them or not), yank you around, and hang you over the fire to dry (and, in extreme cases, burn). Oh, and they might forget to pay you.
Here’s a few ideological rules to help you in your hunt:
1. Do your research
If you’re being offered a job somewhere, Google the name of the company you’ll be working with. Even if they are small, just Google them. See what there is (or isn’t) to see. Go to Facebook and find the local expat page for your location, if such a thing exists. Ask to speak with other employees. Research the area you’ll be living and working in. You’d be surprised how easy it is to skip this step unknowingly. Taking a friend’s half-hearted suggestion may have you thinking you’ve got all your business figured out. But your friend may have different objectives and needs than you. Which is why you should listen to #2.
2. Be honest with yourself
Take an honest look at yourself and your expectations. Don’t feel the need to skimp too much- you can find a place that fits you and with the world at your feet, there’s no reason to settle for an environment you can’t thrive in. Even in the best of situations, there will be inconveniences and you will need to be flexible. So there’s no sense in adding to the stress by putting yourself in an environment you don’t want to be in.
Repeat after me: I do have expectations.
I do have needs.
I do have goals.
Now, find out what those needs and goals and expectations are. Do you need to be paid on time? Do you expect to be paid the same amount every single month, regardless of whether or not your hours are cut? Do you expect to be able to walk to work? Do you expect to be paid extra if you work overtime? Are you doing this because you want to gain valuable teaching experience and a reputable reference? Are you doing this to donate time and effort to a cause you believe in? Are you doing this strictly to make money? Do you expect the people you work with to speak English fluently? Do you expect to have a flat iron in your apartment? A fridge? A co-teacher who speaks English? Other foreign coworkers you can socialize with in your native language? These are all important things to consider and you’ll definitely want to do your best to find out ahead of time if they are things your employer/host country can or cannot offer you.
3. Ask questions!
You’ll want to be in direct contact with someone from your school before you sign the contract, and this means more than the five-second Skype interview you had at 5 a.m. If the person you’re in contact with is the owner of the company, chances are good that you won’t be interacting with him/her on a daily basis, so make sure you have the chance to speak with someone you will see regularly (like your co-teacher or manager or coworkers). This will give you a feel for how communication will be for the remainder of your year. Pay attention to your instincts. Does this person sound helpful and warm? Does this person sound distracted and uncomfortable? Bottom line: does this person sound like someone you want to hang out with all day?
4. Get educated.
Before you head overseas to try a new job (say, for example, teaching) it’s best to learn as much of the local language as you can. I know, I know. Everyone told you that everyone in Korea speaks perfect English but a) This isn’t true for many cities outside of Seoul and b) You’re in Korea. They speak Korean here.
5. Ask yourself: small school or corporate meat grinder?
If you have experience and/or education in teaching EFL, you’re probably equipped enough to brave a job at a smaller school or hagwon (Korean private academy). But if you’re completely new to teaching, you might be better off at one of many larger schools or corporate hagwons.
This is because smaller schools tend to be less organized and rely on the foreign teacher to take on more than is outlined in the contract. A teacher in this position should feel comfortable designing a curriculum, all their lesson plans, materials for other teachers, and acquiring their own materials, resolving complicated behavioral issues with lower level students, and learning the native language without any assistance from a co-teacher or bilingual liaison.
Larger corporations usually have a strict formula and library of level-tested books and coordinating materials. For someone who is hoping to spread their wings and get creative, this is unappealing. But if you’re new to the game, you might be better off following down one of these pre-paved paths. Prep time for these jobs is usually very minimal, if it is needed at all. It’s a good place to set a foundation and get an idea of how lesson plans and curricula are built and how a class should flow. If you’re experienced, you might feel stifled by the lack of flexibility in the lesson plans.
6. Don’t sign until it’s solid
Going back and forth with your employer about contract negotiations and details can get complicated, but make sure that every and all final adjustments have actually been added to the copy of the contract that you have signed. DO NOT let your employer say “Oh, we’ll fix that after you get here.” Everything needs to be changed in the text of the contract that you sign. It sounds ridiculously obvious, but many simple details such as this can be easily overlooked during the initial chaos of getting your papers in order to go abroad.
7. Language is the great divide
While recruiters use it as a selling point that many employers don’t require expat teachers to have any working knowledge of the native language, it’s important to consider the level of your students. If your students are mixed levels, you’re going to have language issues. These miscommunications can make a classroom hectic and unproductive, and can go so far as to ruin an otherwise health student and teacher relationship. While many schools forbid teachers from speaking anything but English in the classroom, problems will arise that require the use of the student’s native tongue. At the very least, you will need someone who is capable of translating for you if you don’t already speak the language. Of course, the best way to earn your students respect and make everything easier is to learn as much of the language as possible. This doesn’t mean you should use it in class, but it will certainly help to be able to understand what the students are saying.
A few last words to the wise: if you’re the first foreigner your school has hosted, beware! Hosting a foreign teacher is more hands-on and complicated than many beginner employers would like to imagine. It’s hands-down easier to work for a school that has experience working with expats, as they are usually much more culturally sensitive, helpful, and fun. If you must pioneer a school’s foreign teacher department, make sure whoever you are working for understands their responsibilities and expectations, and that you are clear on your own. Proceed with the utmost and endless love and patience. You will need more than you ever thought you had in you.
If you work overseas as a teacher and have additional tips for securing a great work environment, please please please share your ideas!