Meet Eddie & Shannon | Learn their story about teaching in South Korea

Hi, Shannon & Eddie, Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you? How old are you? Where are you from?

Shannon: Hi everyone, my name is Shannon. I’m 29 and I come from Southern California in the United States. I have been travelling practically non-stop since I was 18, when I went on a trip around Europe with my best friend from High School. I was bitten by the travel bug then, and have since been all over the world, including living in New Zealand, Australia, Germany and Ireland, before moving to South Korea. I still aim to visit as many places as I possibly can.

Eddie: Hi all, my name is Eddie. I’m 30 and I come from Kilbeggan in Co. Westmeath.  I have always loved to travel and explore new places both at home in Ireland and abroad. As a teacher, I have been fortunate to have the time and opportunity to see and experience many different places, but unlike  Shannon, even though I have travelled a fair bit, I haven’t lived anywhere else except for Ireland. The South Korea internship will be my first time to live abroad. Like Shannon, I hope to travel to as many different countries as possible, ideally teaching as I travel.

south korea

What is it that drew you to teaching English abroad?

Eddie: I had already been teaching at primary level in Ireland for just over six years and it is a career that I have enjoyed immensely. I felt that I could transfer the skills that I have learned to teaching English as a foreign language. Shannon and I both love to travel and we both knew that we wanted to go abroad and travel for a year or more at some point. We both felt that teaching would be a magnificent way to enable us to travel and experience new cultures, and for me personally I would get an insight into how schools and education systems work in other countries. After being stuck in the house during the Covid-19 pandemic, the travel itch just became too difficult to ignore, so we decided that as soon as we could go, we would.

Shannon: I haven’t been a teacher before in the same way that Eddie has, but I knew that teaching English would be a great way to see the world while contributing my skills in return. I also knew that there are many people who undertake a TEFL course that have never set foot in a classroom as a teacher beforehand. English is such a global language and there is currently a great demand for English teachers, and I felt that it would be a worthwhile skill to be able to teach the language while seeing the world.

Which TEFL course did you complete?

Shannon: Eddie and I both completed the 180 Level 5 OFQUAL approved TEFL Course with The TEFL Institute. This is an officially recognised qualification that we knew would be trusted and accepted by potential employers around the world. While the 120 hour course appears to be the minimum expected by employers right now, we wanted to ensure that we had gained a qualification that was lifelong. The lockdown period meant that we had some time to study and complete the course, and the best thing was that it was all at our own pace and we had academic tutors to help and support us whenever we needed. All we had to do was drop them an email or attend one of their weekly zoom sessions. I would highly recommend the course to anyone who is considering doing a TEFL, whether they want to travel and teach, or even if they just want to add to their skillset.

Why did you choose your teaching internship in South Korea?

Eddie: We actually had intended to go to Vietnam originally and South Korea wasn’t really on our radar, apart from maybe visiting as tourists on our travels when it was safe to do so. However, we randomly signed up for an informational webinar about the teaching internship in South Korea, just out of sheer curiosity. At this stage we were still in lockdown and the wanderlust was very strong. When we actually logged on to the webinar with Kate from The TEFL Institute, we were very pleasantly surprised by all that this incredible country had to offer. Everything about Korea – the monthly allowance, the accommodation and the length of the internship – perfectly aligned with what we wanted to do. We had a quick chat between ourselves, rang our families and got on the phone to Kate at The TEFL Institute as soon as possible (like that evening!) to register our interest. We signed up the next day and the rest is history.

Where are you teaching? How are you finding the experience?

Eddie: We’re currently in Bucheon, which is just on the outskirts of Seoul. Think of it like Maynooth compared to Dublin in terms of distance. It is so easy to get around because we have the Seoul Metro on our doorstep and an excellent bus service, too. Our school provided us with a wonderful studio apartment which is literally an 8 minute walk across a park from our school. We teach in a Hagwon, which is basically a private academy school. These are very popular here in Korea and are everywhere! I teach seven-year-olds during our kindergarten classes and I teach second, third and sixth graders during the afternoon elementary classes. The days can be long, as we start at 9.30am and finish at 6.40pm, but we do get time to prepare, have lunch and we don’t have any lesson planning to do, so there are trade-offs.

Shannon: I teach the five-year olds for kindergarten and the first, third and sixth graders for elementary classes in the afternoons. It is a really enjoyable experience and for us personally, the kids are great to work with. The foreign and Korean teachers that we work with are also super. Our school has been very supportive and helpful to us since we arrived here. From our arrival, our quarantine, support at school and just assistance with day-to-day life here, we always appreciate their help. Also knowing that The TEFL Institute and their partners here in South Korea are also on hand gives us another layer of comfort and support.

What’s your favourite thing about living in South Korea?

Shannon: Simple answer to this for me… the food! I have fallen in love with Korean food. From barbecue to bibimbap, the Korean cuisine is so unique, tasty and nutritious. Korean pop culture is very trendy these days with the popularity of BTS and Squid Game and we have definitely become au fait with both since we moved here! Dog cafés are also really popular here which I love. You pay for a drink, and you get to play with dogs for as long as you want… heaven!

Eddie: I am a bit of a history buff and for me the sheer amount of it around Seoul and Korea generally is mind blowing. Everywhere you look nearly you’ll find a former royal palace, or a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or an ancient temple. Aside from history, as a sports fan I have a football team, Bucheon 1995 FC, and a baseball team, the Kiwoom Heroes, just a short hop on the subway to support. The KTX bullet train also makes it so convenient to get anywhere in less than 3 hours. We can be in the middle of  Seoul one day, the next you could be on the beach in Busan, or skiing in Pyeongchang, where the 2018 Winter Olympics were held. There is also a GAA club in Seoul for anyone who wants to play Gaelic football or hurling while they are in South Korea.

What has been the biggest cultural change?

Shannon: The language barrier is always going to be a big factor here, especially if you are placed outside of the bigger cities, where you tend to find districts full of English speaking expats and Koreans with some knowledge of English. We are literally on the edge of the Seoul city limits and English is noticeably harder to find, which is understandable as it is South Korea after all and we do try to make an effort to respect their language. We are getting better at speaking Korean at the local shop and at restaurants. I must say that the Korean people are extremely friendly. From our experience to date, anyone we have met has always tried their very best to help us out, even if there was a difficulty in understanding each other and even if they were going out of their way to do so. What has been the best part travelling as a couple?

Eddie: Well, I would have to state the obvious, in saying that we’re lucky to be able to share this amazing experience and we’ve already created memories that we’ll have for a lifetime. We’ve travelled a fair bit already around the country and had the most incredible experiences. It also means that when we’re having more challenging days, we can help each other through it (thankfully those are few and far between). We actually got married in 2020 amid all of the pandemic madness, which meant that when we applied to the internship, we were allowed to live in the same accommodation. This is only permitted if you are a married couple, and that would be something to bear in mind if you are thinking of coming here as a couple. We are lucky that we both share a love of travel and after visiting several places as solo travellers before we met, it’s good to have a travel buddy, especially when that person is your wife!

Are there any challenges you’ve faced? How did you overcome them?

Eddie: We have obviously faced challenges that others would not have in previous years due to Covid-19, but that comes with the territory of moving to a new place during a global pandemic. It is important to stay updated with new requirements as the situation moves so fast these days. Covid aside, the biggest challenge that I faced here in South Korea was when I started teaching for the first couple of weeks. People here can be quite direct and will let you know if you have made a mistake in your teaching. However, it is important to remember that they are not trying to pick on you, that is just how they do things here. I overcame this by showing my Korean co-teachers how hard I was willing to work and that I wanted to do my best for their class. I now have an excellent working relationship with them and we get along quite well!

Shannon: I think that culture shock was the biggest thing for me. South Korea is very different from Ireland and the USA. The customs and etiquette are different in terms of how you interact with people. There is also a hefty language barrier. At the end of the day, we are in South Korea. We could not and should not expect everyone to speak English. To overcome this, I have been learning Korean with an online tutor once a week. I am getting more and more confident in speaking and reading Korean and the local convenience store worker and I have great chats in Korean each morning! If the people see that you want to make an effort to engage with their tradition and language, they are extremely warm and hospitable people.Eddie and Shannon South Korea

What advice would you give someone wanting to start out teaching English abroad?

Eddie: As we mentioned, we are teaching in a private academy (hagwon). You can also apply to teach in a public school, but it is important to be aware that there are pros and cons to both options. Shannon and I obviously wanted to live together in the same city and if possible, work in the same school. We also wanted to live as close as possible to Seoul or any of the big cities. Choosing a private school gave us more options on both fronts. In any case though, flexibility is key. If you are flexible, it will be a lot easier for recruiters to find you a placement and a location that will help you make the most of your time teaching English, whether that is here in South Korea or anywhere else for that matter.

Shannon: I would say that even though you will see and hear testimonials – both good and bad – about people’s experiences teaching English, take everything you read in online forums, particularly, with a big pinch of salt. Our experience has genuinely been quite positive overall and we enjoy our working environment as well as the obvious benefit of getting to live in and explore this amazing part of Asia. We still pinch ourselves every so often just to check that we are actually living the dream and working in South Korea. Also, make sure to get started on collecting your documents right away. It can take months to get everything together, and the sooner you are ready, the more job opportunities that match your preferences are available. Above all, enjoy the experience from start to finish, because it flies by. A year seems like a long time but we are almost halfway through ours already!

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