9 steps to getting a job teaching english in South Korea

The flag of South Korea

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Whether you are bored, unemployed, hating your desk job, or just in need of a something new; you are no more than a few months away from arriving in Korea to work as an english teacher.    You only need to meet a few basic requirements:

  1. You have a four-year degree (or are expecting one soon)
  2. You have a clear criminal background check.  For contracts starting January 2011, this needs to be done with the FBI (I’m not going to write about what you need to do if you are a native english speaker from somewhere other than the U.S.)
  3. You are a native english speaker

If you meet all of these requirements and are in possession of a passport, you aren’t far from arriving in Korea.  I’ll reiterate the steps that I took and attempt to lay out the mistakes that I made along the way, in hopes of helping guide you as you proceed.

Step the first:

Post your résumé on a job board.  I started with http://www.daveseslcafe.com, per my friends recommendation.  When he first told me about it, he warned that the response would be overwhelming.  I doubted that, or just figured that his résumé was impressive or something.  So, some time in early august I posted my résumé with the subject line indicating that I was interested in a job in China, Japan, Korea or Vietnam (for various reasons).  I posted it at around 8:00 that evening.  The following morning, my inbox was full of messages.  This was just the first wave, they kept on trickling for weeks after.

Step the second:

So, here you are, with a ton of emails from Korea and China, and, depending on your experience, maybe Japan.  Oh, and let’s not forget the Vietnamese business man who wants you to come live in his basement and teach him and his wife english for a year.  What do you do with all of this?  The most important rule to follow (and this rule will remain important up until you sign an contract): do not let your excitement about living and working abroad cloud your judgment.  You can begin to narrow the pile down.  First: throw out the emails with crappy formatting, and from individuals (like the Vietnamese guy).  Remember, though, there is almost always a language barrier here, so even some legitimate recruiters will come off as being a bit less than professional.  If it is hard to tell, but maybe they are offering something valuable, just make note of your initial apprehension and see what plays out.  Just remember the rule, don’t commit to anything out of excitement.  Once you have narrowed it down, start replying.  Write professional, brief responses.  They will usually ask for basic information.  Come up with a stock explanation about why you want to get a job teaching english in X country.  Tell them briefly about your academic or professional experience.  Attach a résumé that is crafted to make you look appealing as a teacher.

Step the third:

This will happen right along side the progression of step the second.  This is the document preparation step.  You will need several documents:

  1. An apostilled and notarized copy of your degree.  Notarize it with an attorney or notary then bring it to your state’s office of the secretary of state to be apostilled.
  2. Order a few sealed copies of your college transcript.  At the least, order three.  You will need at least 2 for one job, but if you want to keep your options open or have backup plans in case a job doesn’t work out, order more.
  3. An apostilled and notarized copy of your Criminal Background Check (CBC).  This needs to be done through the FBI, as I mentioned before.  In order to do so, you need to go to here.  It will take a few weeks.  If you already have your passport, this will be the document that takes the longest to get.  Again, in order to apostille the document, you need to take it to your state’s office of the Secretary of State.
  4. Passport

Once you have all of these documents, you are set for the next step.

Step the fourth:

Start having some interviews.  Hopefully, by now, you will have had a few correspondences with some recruiters, or in some cases directly with schools.  This is a good start.  Hopefully, this will give you an idea of who you are dealing with.  When I did it, I narrowed my original 40-something emails down to 5.  Narrow these down based on whatever criteria fit you: location, working hours, pay, your experience with the recruiter or anything else.  I started narrowing by location; removing my China recruiters from the list, leaving me with just 3.  After the interviews, each of these recruiters provided me with excellent opportunities.  Each offered me a contract.  If you are remotely qualified, you should expect the same.  To recap the #1 rule, do not make a decision in haste, especially at this point.  By the time I had narrowed my contract offers down to one, I was relieved that I didn’t just jump in on the one that came in second place.  The one that I passed up was a wordy contract that included way too many provisions for the reasons that they can fire me and much too strict of a dress code.  Which is where the next step comes in.

Note: from here on, all of my advice is specific to Korea.  If you narrow your options down to China, start reading something else.

Step the fifth:

Sign a contract and send it to them.  The school I picked had an excellent interviewer.  I spoke with a British guy named Adam (soon to be my co-worker).  It had a lax dress code, good working hours and generous compensation.  The job I turned down was exactly the opposite.  The deal breakers for that job were; the working hours, the dress code and the fact that they wanted to take 800,000 Won from my first paycheck for a housing deposit.  So, I narrowed it to the one school and the one recruiter.  All in all, by the time I am about to depart, I have had about 50 emails exchanged between myself and the recruiter.  It is quite the process.  They will ask you to mail all of your documents as well as a signed copy of the contract.

Step the sixth:

Wait.  Once you have sent your documents, you will need to wait for them to give you a visa issuance number.  They told me that this would take 10 days.  It actually took 20 days.  This was the reason that my interview at the consulate ended up being so close to my departure date.  Once you get your visa issuance number, you have the next step.

Step the seventh:

Send more documents!  This time you are sending them to your local Korean Consulate, do a little research to find out which one is closest (mine was Chicago, chances are that there is nothing ‘local’ about your local consulate).  Go online, get the Visa Application form.  Fill it out.  Mail your passport, the visa application, and a cover letter detailing your departure date and visa issuance number.  If you aren’t going to be able to go directly to the consulate 3 days after the interview (step the eighth) you will include a prepaid return envelope that they will return your visa’d passport in.  Mail that shit, then wait.

Step the eighth:

The consulate will call you and schedule an appointment for an interview.  Do not be afraid or nervous about this interview at all.  It is less of a job interview and more of a way for them to ensure that you are a legitimate human being.  My ‘interview’ turned into a discussion about how fascinating American Military Generals are (McArthur, Eisenhower and Patton, specifically).  If you come off as a relatively smart human being capable of communicating cross-culturally, you will be fine.  What to wear: I over did it.  I sported the full suit.  Go business casual, they care more about your presence than your appearance.

Step the ninth:

Go to Korea.  If you chose the correct contract (oh, shit, I forgot to write about what to expect in a contract – post pending), the school should purchase your flight to Korea for you.  They buy this for you when step 8 is done.  From here, just pack what you need and prepare for a big change.

The New Indentured Servitude

It’s the first of the month, that means I pay a lot of bills.  I hate paying bills.  Money in and money out, all the time.  I don’t need a lecture reminding me that that is in fact how the world works; I know this.  I have accepted this.  I just aggressively and stubbornly reserve my right to complain.

I find student loans to be one of the most tragic and significant problems of our era.  I have recently been exposed to the idea that student loans are the new indentured servitude.  Dissent Magazine published an article titled “Student Debt and The Spirit of Indenture” by Jeffrey J. Williams in their fall 2008 volume.  In the article, Williams presents a persuasive arrangement of arguments that tie the experience of those currently bound to student loan debt to the historically significant experience of the indentured servant.

I’ll briefly recap the history of indentured servitude. As I recall, immigrants from Europe who could not afford the cost of the voyage to America would contract their labor for 3 to 7 years in exchange for the costs of the voyage. The logic is simple; the opportunity of what is to come after 7 years is calculated to be worth the sacrificed time and freedom. Doesn’t sound so bad?

“This is not to soft-peddle indentured servitude. Indentured servitude was a violent contract, with physical torture used to coerce labor. As economist DW Galenson noted, “The Company clearly felt that [beaten workers running away] threatened the continued survival of their enterprise, for they reacted forcefully to this crime. In 1612, the colony’s governor dealt firmly with some recaptured laborers: ‘Some he apointed to be hanged. Some burned. Some to be broken upon wheles, others to be staked and some to be shott to death.’” (The Atlantic)

Ok, so it’s not like it was in 1612…But with student loans–the only means of financing college for those of us whose parents are either not wealthy enough or willing enough to fund it for us–the contract is for much longer. Even with a debt of only $30,000 (I’m saddened that I can put the word only before that), it is a binding 15 year contract that dictates many of your life decisions. The sacrifice here is for labor; the reward is increased life-long pay (or in the way that I am justifying it- enlightenment, or a very expensive form of intellectual exploration). Surely, the loan recipient is likely to take up a lifetime of labor no matter what, and that is good; we all should work. But the immense amount of debt that some students take on deprives them of the freedom to work a job that might be fulfilling but pay less, requiring them to take on a job that is unfulfilling but pays enough to get by. It also severely limits an individual’s economic freedom and mobility. Most entry-level jobs don’t pay more than $3,000 a month.  There are obvious exceptions to this, and I am only basing my observation my personal experience and the experience of my many entry-level peers.  The bottom line is, we were told that our education would land us a job that would make repayment of this debt easy.  The legend of the university education is, however, far from the reality.

If a person financed a four-year private education, they will have roughly $600-700 monthly payments. Rent in Minneapolis, for example, is probably $500 to $900 for the most basic of living situations. Taxes take at least $400/month. A decent diet, means of transportation, and having a little extra for yourself can range from $200 to $500 a month.  Health insurance can be $100 to $300/month.   Here we have an estimated $1,700 to $2,550 range for monthly costs.  If your entry-level job pays only $2,000 a month (which is the case for me), that means living paycheck to paycheck. If you adjust the monthly income to account for the loan payments, the $2,000/month hypothetical is actually only making $1,400 a month, or 8.75/hour.  After years of education, I expect more than that, especially considering that my first job at the age of 16 back in 2003 paid $8 assembling bicycles.

Back to the thesis: quite simply, it’s indentured servitude because it is a loan secured not by property but by personhood, with an incredibly long term and little legal escape.   What’s worse is that they allow you to begin signing yourself over at a vulnerable age of 18, after telling you for years that if you don’t go to college, you won’t amount to much.  For most of your young adult life, your decisions will be overshadowed by the presence of an overwhelmingly heavy debt.  If you miss some payments at a young age you will be paying higher interest rates on every form of debt you take on in the future.

Then there is the uncertainty of labor. The Atlantic makes another astute observation comparing student loans to the older form of indentured servitude:

“people under indentured servitude had the job waiting for them. The clock was ticking for the firms who had set up the contract, and they needed to get their value. With student loans, they can sit there for decades, never dischargeable, always getting paid regardless of recession or job market.”

As this excerpt explains, there is another element beyond uncertainty that I mentioned before- lack of legal recourse. Unlike other debts, the consumer cannot resort to bankruptcy. Regardless of the economic conditions or the particulars of a situation- we are nearly unconditionally bound to out educational debt.

The solution offered is quite brilliant. The “FreeHigherEd” solution proposes that the federal government pay for higher education.  This would cost 50 billion a year and “could be paid simply by repealing a portion of the Bush tax cuts or shifting a small portion of the military budget.”  This is incredible.  If anything deserves to be the populist movement of the middle class, this is it.  Education financing has become the means of, not providing opportunity for advancement despite your family and class status and history, but of denying that opportunity and magnifying the stratification of class.

Another solution is income adjusted payments.  This would cap your monthly payments to no more than 8% of your gross income.  For me, this would be a nice improvement as I am currently paying about 27% of my gross monthly income.  Basically, none of this is fair for anybody who is a recent graduate.

I don’t regret getting a BA, I am better off for it. I could have chosen a more affordable school, it’s true, but I didn’t. I take full responsibility for my current situation; holding nearly $100,000 in debt with interest rates ranging from 3% to 6%; I am living paycheck to paycheck.